Sunday 17 October 2010

Political Influences: Conservatism

Some time ago, I was tagged by Bob's political influences meme and now, finally, I've got the time to do it. While it's tempting to list super serious canonical figures from the world of activism and theory to boost one's credentials as an erudite thinker, I'm going to plump for a mix of the personal and political. Copying Bob's format of a series of posts, I begin with my introduction to politics.

Josephine Barbara Carver, or, as she was known to my family, Nana Barbara, is probably more responsible for my developing an interest in politics than anyone else. My Nana spent most of her life in Normanton, an inner city working class district in Derby. She worked as a housewife and later in the canteen at the local nick.

She was also a life-long Tory.

During a mock election at school run to coincide with the 1987 general election, Nana gave me my basic course in politics. She admired Thatcher and fully subscribed to the view that Thatcher's policies would ultimately benefit everyone, despite the short term pain. Labour on the other hand wanted to get in everyone's way, and had "made a mess" last time they were in government. Thatcher was a woman of action who had sorted out the unions and empowered council tenants by giving them the right to buy their own homes. In short, my Nana was like millions of other working class Tory supporters. They aspired to better things for themselves and their families and it was Thatcher who was clearing the way for them. The state, the unions, Labour: they were the real conservatives holding Britain and British people back.

Nana's conservatism was firmly in the bootstraps mould. It was not about doffing your cap or being latter day ragged trousered philanthropists. It was about accepting the way of the world and getting on with things. But also it was a conservatism that had little time for bigotry. As far as she was concerned what you did was always more important than your background. When I dilly-dallied with racism in my early teens she helped talk me out of it. When I brought my school yard homophobia home with me she always challenged it (she was much more critical years later after I returned from nine months at university with anarch-ish views and a copy each of Lenin's Selected Works and Marx's Capital in tow).

Nevertheless despite her influence I could see what was going on around me. After Major's election victory in 1992 I quickly became very disillusioned. By the time I'd left school I no longer saw myself as a Tory but as a socialist (whatever one of them was). This was defined by an inchoate sense of being against certain things but being unsure what I was for. Because the Tories were against socialism, it seemed convenient to rebadge myself as such.

Where that went next I'll leave for another post, but what has proved to be an abiding influence is the bootstraps aspects of my Nana's conservatism. This doesn't mean I'm for chopping up the welfare state and public services, or the removal of the many things performed under the aegis of the state that makes life, as well as British capitalism, tick. But I am sceptical of overly statist conceptions of socialism (whether reformist or revolutionary) and believe we should celebrate the self activity of our class. From voluntary work to community activism, from everyday trade unionism to political work, our class and our movement has been doing the Big Society from year dot. We don't need lectures from Dave or cadres of semi-detached BigSoc consultants. Socialism is, among other things, the unleashing and harnessing of the collective ingenuity each of us carry a particle of. This is our political DNA, and we should not allow the Tories to hijack it.

(As this is a meme I hereby tag a few regulars: Splinty, Dave and Paul, Stroppy, Dave O, Madam Miaow, and Andy.)


Lawrence Shaw said...

Really interesting and quite brave of you Phil. For some idiots on the left, an admission of some kind of Tory heritage is tantamount to treason - too many so-called egalitarians think that you have to have been born into the struggle to be a genuine class warrior...a bit like a sort of "reverse monarchy", prolier-than-thou etc...

My nan was also a fully paid up Tory until her death. Again, on reflection I know most of the belief was tied up in a notion of aspiration rather than any kind of notion of wanting to keep the working class down or destroy communities.

Aspiration - be it for material wealth or quality of life or whatever - was definitely the main explanation for Tory support in the 80s and even 90s, even if the reality was that Thatcherism made everything worse.

I don't, however, think the same can be said now. The Tory message is simply on cutting back and painful measures and really very little is there except for the ultra-rich, and then we're only talking a few per cent of the country. I have problems seeing where their broad support is going to come from once the cuts take hold.

Bob from Brockley said...

This is a wonderful post Phil (even if it ignores the criteria of the meme completely! but rules are meant to be broken)

My nan and granddad were also working class Tories. I think the point about aspiration is right, and a bit deeper than Lawrence allows in his thoughtful comment above. It's not just aspiration towards material wealth or even quality of life, but also aspiration towards respectability, independence, decency and dignity. In this sense, there is a tension between working class self-help as fundamentally mutual, and a working class self-help philosophy of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, a contradiction which BigSoc inherits.

For my granddad, the empire and the Commonwealth was also important to his Toryism. As someone that saw the world in his years in uniform, he genuinely believed all the stuff about India and Nigeria and so on being part of some kind of close family, and couldn't understand when they rejected that, and when Britain turned instead to Europe and the USA.

Anyway, a moving and thought-provoking post. Thank you.

Madam Miaow said...

Just seen this. Cheers, Phil. Will tackle in next day or so.