Should the Tories gag their inglourious basterds?

August 15, 2009

However good they are at wonking, David Cameron’s progressive Tories are continually belaboured by own goals from their own side.

Just as the inhabitants of duck island were gingerly winding down the drawbridge on the moat, Alan Duncan upset the golf cart. The Shadow Leader of the Commons and representative on the Estimates Committee, set up to reform MPs’ expenses, who had repaid £4000.00 claimed for gardening expenses including – the horror! – a posh lawnmower, was filmed complaining that the new regime obliged MPs to live ‘on rations.’ Duncan had invited Haydon Prowse, who runs a Brighton-based hipster web magazine called Don’t Panic (great graphics, light on content) to the House of Commons for ‘drinks’ after Prowse had carved a £ sign on the Rutland MP’s lawn. Mr Prowse covertly filmed Duncan’s conversation. Who’d have thought he’d do that?

Most reports didn’t add that Alan Duncan, MP for Rutland Melton (literally Middle England) is a leading right-wing libertarian, openly gay and the driving force behind Conservative Way Forward, a very powerful Tory think tank which keeps a low profile. Libertarians vigorously defend the right to express an opinion, abhor excessive bureaucracy and hate surveillance. They also defend the right to earn lots of money on the assumption that the individual doing so will do the right thing and support society without the heavy hand of the state telling him how to do so.

Duncan’s remarks were neither intended for public consumption, nor were they particularly heinous, but the soundbite was catastrophic. He was clumsily attempting to point out that the danger of petty scrutiny of every aspect of MPs’ behaviour, a by-product of the expenses scandal, may deter free thinkers, reformers and especially rich libertarians from entering the House. There is merit in this argument, but Duncan was stupid to lower his guard and to damage his party in doing so. He has apologised, been castigated by Cameron and has possibly debarred himself from high office as a result.

This would be a shame. Conservative Way Forward, which Cameron not only supports but which describes (for better or worse) the real face of Progressive Conservatism, represents a robust, principled alternative to New Labour. I’m NOT saying that because I agree with them – it’s naive, for example, to assume that rich bastards will voluntarily do the right thing freed from the constraints of the state – as the private equity and banking scandals of late have so amply shown – but it’s interesting that one of CWF’s leading lights can command an unassailable majority in the heart of middle England despite being openly gay and holding libertarian views. Middle England is home to the ‘leave us alone party,’ natural tories who, paradoxically, don’t mind other people getting rich, being gay, black or brown (Leicester is almost 50% black and Asian) but object to being snooped on, preached at, pushed around by the coppers and being told what to do in general. Cameron should note this well, if he hasn’t already, and stand by his man.

12 years of New Labour thought crime has scared the bejasus out of politicians and the media alike and stifled individualism. But spin won’t win this time. Cameron needs a few inglourious basterds to fight against his and his own party’s tendencies to lurch towards a disastrous copycat New Labour fudge and to combat the shrill reactionary voices which have always kept the Tories in the stupid category. He should take this rap on the knuckles seriously, curb his tendencies toward vanity, but not his instincts and carry on arguing for a smaller, less interventionist state. Alan Duncan is one of the better ones. Like John Redwood and David Davies, he is important because he can think, is not afraid to say what he thinks, and represents the views of a seething but hitherto silent majority – who can think too, even though they don’t live in Islington or Notting Hill. He should buy his own lawnmower, though, and stop trying to chat up pranksters.