A pointer towards the future of British Conservatism?

In the middle of an election campaign, Liberal Democrats don’t have time to read books. But keep an eye out for reviews, and extracts, of The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, by Douglas Murray, which was published on May 4th by Bloomsbury. The Sunday Times gave us a full-page extract last weekend, indicating the Murdoch press’s approval of its author and his arguments. His opening sentence states that ‘Europe is committing suicide’: from loss of will, decline of Christian values (he calls it ‘existential civilizational tiredness’), lost commitment to reproduce enough children, and above all from the mass immigration of Muslims who reject European civilization.

When you are debating with intelligent Brexiteers, it’s useful to understand where their ideas and assumptions come from. Murray is one of their leading thinkers and controversialists: a self-declared neo-conservative (author of Neo-Conservatism: why we need it, 2005), a scholarship boy at Eton 25 years ago who started to write for publication while still an Oxford student, founder of the Centre for Social Cohesion (briefly cut off from links with the Conservative Party leadership for its anti-Muslim stance), associate director of the Henry Jackson Society (an organization with close links to right-wing Washington think-tanks), and associate editor of The Spectator. He ranks with Daniel Hannan, whose How we invented Freedom and why it matters has been a bible for Brexiteers, in his influence on thinking Eurosceptic Conservatives.

Murray is perhaps the most complex of the Europhobe intellectuals: a gay who justifiably attacks Islamic homophobia (and worked with Pim Fortyn), an avowed atheist who decries the replacement of ‘Christian values’ by ‘human rights’ in European culture, who writes about ‘European’ rather than ‘Anglo-Saxon’ values but disputes Samuel Huntington’s thesis that there is a fundamental clash between Western civilization and its rivals, on the grounds that the only alternative to Western civilization is barbarism. Like a younger Christopher Hitchens, he argues passionately for whatever line he supports, without too detailed attention to historical evidence. He sees the nation state as the bedrock of civilized society, and asserts that it has been the foundation for Europe’s ‘constitutional order and liberal rights’ since 1648 (tell that to the Poles, Czechs, Greeks – or Irish). He sees Islam as a fundamental threat to a coherent Christian culture, ignoring the bitterness of the Protestant-Catholic conflicts over several centuries. He sees European values as fixed, and threatened by mass immigration, when a brief examination of the Europe of 50-80 years ago shows how liberal values have gained – rather than lost – ground.

The underlying image that most Eurosceptic Conservatives will retain from his arguments , ignoring the details, is that Europe is in decline, in contrast to the vigorous Anglo-Saxon and English-speaking world. There are, of course, difficulties with this assertion. It’s certainly the case that Europe’s share of world population is falling; but that’s the result of the population explosion in Africa and Asia, not of European hopelessness. It’s also the case that Europe’s share of the global economy is shrinking – but that’s the result of the growth of Asian economies, not of any absolute European decline. And there’s a fundamental contradiction between the argument that Europe has ‘passed its own death sentence’ through opening its frontiers to Muslim immigrants (Murray quotes Stefan Sweig on this, although he was writing in the 1930s) and that Britain needs to escape from the bullying grip of the German-dominated continent.

There is, of course, an underlying resentment of Germany in the Eurosceptic narrative. Murray sees Germany as spineless in accepting Muslim refugees. The Telegraph, Boris Johnson, and other contributors to The Spectator, see Germany as a country that Britain defeated in two world wars but which has usurped the economic and political leadership of the continent. ‘The Germans think that Brexit Britain owes the EU, but the IOU is all theirs’, the Telegraph asserted this week, channelling Margaret Thatcher’s view that they owe us for liberating them from Nazism and teaching them democracy.

When Mrs. Merkel suggests that British ministers live on a different galaxy from their continental counterparts, she is right. The narrative of history, identity and values promulgated by right-wing thinkers and think-tanks, and shared (though often not fully understood) by Conservative Eurosceptics is a long way from how Liberal Democrats see the world, European and wider values. Their adulation of the USA as freer than European democratic states, without their constrictions of higher taxation, welfare, health provision and market regulation, is a caricature. Bear this in mind when you find yourself debating Conservative opponents on panels over the next few weeks. You will need to challenge not only their assertions about current choices, but also their underlying assumptions.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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24 Comments

  • Britain actually had a great chance to lead European Cooperation. France before going to Germany actually asked for cooperation with Britain following Suez crisis, but it was Tory PM Eden blew off the chance.

  • Richard Underhill 6th May '17 - 12:15pm

    We should also remember that Angela Merkel is an Ossie. In the former East Germany she belonged to a party which was allowed to exist by the Communist leadership and 400,000 Soviet troops until it was allowed to merge with the West German Christian Democrats. Having lived under communism she has an understanding of freedom based on experience. When the Iron Curtain was breached and the Berlin Wall was demolished there was real freedom of movement for East Germans, via Hungary and Austria and directly into West Germany, in large numbers. In Romania the communist regime under the Caesescus had turned the entire country into a prison camp, so that Romanians could not even go to other communist countries for fear of being shot at by Romanian border guards. After the Caesescus were executed ethnic Germans fled to West Germany, which gave them citizenship, despite a separation of several hundred years. (Hungary did not do the same for ethnic Hungarians from Romania). British conservatives should be careful not to appear to preach. A previous generation of British conservatives disliked a financial restraint on travel of £50 per person of foreign exchange money, which they proudly abolished when Geoffrey Howe was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

  • Richard Underhill 6th May '17 - 12:25pm

    Early in the coalition some Tories visited our conference, and spoke at fringe meetings about their values, sometimes in a rather patronising way. At one such meeting a Lib Dem councillor from Wiltshire in the audience spoke passionately about what it is like to be a councillor and was applauded enthusiastically by the audience, who then walked out of the meeting while the platform stared in surprise. Douglas Murray may remember the experience, if only because he had arrived late.

  • Because something is in book form does not make it true. I am sure there are books on the EU with much greater insight.

  • Christopher Haigh 6th May '17 - 7:13pm

    This is a very interesting read Lord Wallace. My impression is that as party we identify with mainstream continental liberalism whilst our Tory party cannot identify with anything but itself.

  • Geoffrey Payne 6th May '17 - 9:01pm

    My instincts are very much to support the EU but even we as Liberals should be alarmed at what is going on.
    We – and myself included – could all breathe a sigh of relief when the right wing liberals VVD won the Dutch elections recently. But even they resorted to an Islamophic campaign to win the elections there. And although Le Pen is heading to defeat in the French general election she is set to win more the 35% of the vote. That ought to be very alarming to Liberals.
    The problem is that although the far right are not winning that should not allow us to be complacent. Over the past 10 years their vote has either gone up or their outlook has been partially copied by their opponents. To me Brexit does not look like a uniquely British quirk or a one off. There are lots of economic problems left in the EU, notably in the PIIGS countries. The EU looks very unstable to me and even Macron has had to distance himself from it recently in his campaign to be French president. We do not have to agree with Islamophobic right wingers to see that even from a liberal point of view the EU is in trouble.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th May '17 - 11:19pm

    Geoffrey

    Yes, very important points , I have been saying it a while. The EU is a fine project that has gone very badly wrong, for reasons easily solvable , but not by present leaders.

    My criticism this week of Tim, Caron, others seeming to mock and vehemently go for May, but not the wretched Juncker, was one building from a place of fairness , taken advantage of by those in the EU leadership.

    We who voted Remain but who from a Liberal perspective are longstanding in our concern that this project has hit the rock bottom, should have been many more in number and heard.

    Liberalism, unlike socialism and conservatism, is all about a flexible attitude and a case by case judgement passed with deliberation. And on some few important matters to , it as passionate regardless.

    Big government led by bloated placemen or politicians not popular in their own countries, is reason for our deliberation and a passionate response.

    It is not a reason to only show the flaws , and they are there, in our leader of Brexit, the PM.

    Juncker is an ex-pm of Luxembourg,a conservative, probably less our cup of tea than May !

  • Gordon Lishman 7th May '17 - 9:04am

    How refreshing to see that someone has read a book in the knowledge that they wouldn’t agree with it and has then commented intelligently. A major problem of political debate, including amongst liberals,is that people spend too much reading time bolstering their prejudices. On the last comment: EU government isn’t “big” compared with a nation state. It’s led by currently elected government ministers, held to account by a directly elected Parliament with a civil service that does what it’s told. As often the case, the giveaway word is the unnecessary and insulting adjective: in this case “bloated”. What exactly does it describe, with what evidence and to what point?

  • The thing that’s driving the Right in Europe is terrorism. Plus you have the contradictory pronouncements of various governments who on the one hand want populations to stay calm and keep things in perspective, but are issuing colour coded warnings every five minutes, increasing surveillance powers and bombing various bits of the ME because the threat is said to be so “serious”. Why would you expect the general public to be more temperate, less fearful and less suspicious than the official voices of governance? It’s a ludicrous situation and not one invented from thin air by Douglas Murray, even if his conclusions are absurd.

  • Actually the issue that’s looming on the horizon is the potential islamisation of culture that could undermine the very rights and cultural change that have been so hard fought for over the past decades. It’s almost as if the Left want to have to refight these fights as a need for drama due to their inability to create a cohesive economic/migration policy of their own.

  • “Juncker is an ex-pm of Luxembourg,a conservative, probably less our cup of tea than May !”

    I very much doubt that this assessment will survive even one year of the post-election May disaster, but you should know that English conservatism is essentially a vector for the introduction of far right American ideas into Britain – usually just as their full stupidity and brutality has become apparent. It has very little in common with European conservatism and should not be lumped in with it because they share a name. Yes, Juncker is a pragmatist who will defend the EU with an efficiency that is going to produce howls of rage from the Tories plus a complete inability to match his performance, but he has done nothing remotely comparable to the sanctimonious moral squalor which Theresa May brings to everything she touches. If you think Theresa May might be more your cup of tea than Juncker, you either don’t know what Theresa May believes and is willing to do in order to cling to power, or you are in the wrong party and haven’t yet realized it. I hope that the former is the case.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th May '17 - 12:40pm

    NickT

    I every time , saying something nuanced, that is not to the delight of those who only want to read what they want to in it, get one person criticise in a way that is insulting . It really irritates me !

    I was in Labour throughout my youth and need no lectures on where I belong as I first joined the Liberal Democrats in the aftermath of the Iraq war .

    I criticise Juncker for his boorish manner, his ego and , worse , his record in Luxembourg. Read about his turning the tiny state into an attractive tax haven, with an exchequer , turning away and effectively allowing 1% tax rates for the richest ! He has been criticised in reports on more than a couple of occasions.

    I do not like bloated leadership . The EU under people like Prodi was my cup of tea. It could be in future with people like Macron involved.

    I am saying that those on here being silent when leaders who if they were ours , they’d be scathing about, instead only criticise May.

    I have criticised her on many a post here too. But when I do , it does not mean I cannot very definitely do so of the EU as well !

  • Gordon Lishman 8th May '17 - 1:14pm

    What is “bloated leadership”?

  • It’s something nuanced and circumlocutory all at the same time , Gordon………… I think ?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th May '17 - 2:06pm

    Gordon Lishman

    I do not think to say as a broad point , that as a Liberal ,and a Democrat, big government for the sake of it, or as a form of organisation or hierarchy is a particularly wonderful thing, when a streamlined or more obviously transparent system might work.

    Example, why have three positions all called president, confusing , unnecessary.

    Example, why have different institutions in different countries, revenue waste bad for budgets, and air miles bad for the environment.

    I am not someone critical of the institutions per se, merely wanting them better run, and understood.

    My field is culture, there is little shared culture, in the EU,there could be more, a culture that begins with a more shared political culture, and a realisation as to who the players are on the political stage, could improve the accessibility and thus add to the popularity of the whole project.

    On bloated, well, think about it, look at the record of Juncker in Luxembourg , turning it into a tiny tin pot tax haven, criticised in reports there, and compare him to the sort of leaders we could have faith in.

    Is it a mysterious word?

    David Raw seems to have the usual clever and thoughtful, I think not, response !

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 8th May '17 - 2:53pm

    Lorenzo, you are absolutely right to say that Juncker is “probably less our cup of tea than Theresa May”. It is depressing to see so many on this site rushing to defend Juncker, always making the best possible interpretation of his actions, while automatically attributing the worst possible motives to Theresa May.
    Juncker belongs to a party, the European People’s Party, that has called for an EU wide burqa ban – a horrifyingly illiberal policy. But Theresa May, when asked for her views on a possible burqa ban, said that she opposed it, as every woman has the right to dress however she likes. Juncker and his party make Theresa May look like a liberal.

  • Arnold Kiel 8th May '17 - 4:05pm

    Catherine, I have some questions:
    1. Can you specify good things Ms. May has done for Britain?
    2. Do you believe Ms. May is approaching the EU-negotiations intelligently?
    3. Do you believe that all muslim women like(!) to wear the burqua?
    4. Do you find it legitimate that the EU 27 have a united negotiation stance?
    5. Do you believe that Mr. Juncker is determining EPP policy?

  • Laurence Cox 8th May '17 - 4:24pm

    We need to remember that Juncker was elected President by the votes of just over 12% of the European electorate and only because the EPP and S&D parties in the EU Parliament had agreed to stitch up the outcome before the election so that the group with more MEPs would get the President of the Commission and the other group the President of the European Parliament. Anyone who does not recognise the democratic deficit in the EU needs to take their rose-tinted spectacles off.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 8th May '17 - 4:32pm

    Arnold Kiel, No, of course I’m not suggesting “that most Muslim women like to wear the burqa”, as only a small minority of Muslim women wear it. Of those who do, it may be that some are coerced into wearing it, but it is clear that many do chose to wear it, completely of their own free will. Surely it is their right to wear it if they wish to, and surely liberals should defend their right to do so. This is about freedom of religion – an important liberal principle.
    I didn’t say that Theresa May had done good things for Britain. I only said that in some ways Junker made her look, in comparison, like a liberal.
    No, I’m not saying that Juncker “is determining EPP policy” But he does belong to the party, and as far as I know there is no evidence that he disagrees with his party’s policy of calling for an EU wide burqa ban.

  • All this talk about Juncker is playing into the hands of the Conservatives who want to make the negotiations about May vs Juncker rather than have to answer tough questions about tangible components of any deal.

  • Arnold Kiel 8th May '17 - 8:17pm

    Catherine,
    “but it is clear that many do chose to wear it, completely of their own free will.”
    How comes that is clear? Do you know of any muslim group, society, or country, where the burqua is optional? Is remaining a muslim in any burqua-wearing group optional? I have heard and read about many muslim women having been killed by their fathers and brothers, never about one surviving taking off the burqua.

    Juncker has made May look as what she is: unreasonable, incompetent, and in total disregard of your country’s national interests.

    He, btw, has advanced EU-democracy by pushing through the concept of a leading candidate of the EPP with a claim to the commission presidency based on votes cast. It was the British PM, Cameron, who, unsuccessfully and at his peril, wanted to overturn this quite democratic concept out of personal dislike.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Dec '18 - 12:58pm

    In the early days of the coalition he addressed a fringe meeting at liberal democrat federal conference. From the audience a Wiltshire Lib Dem councillor explained what he does. There was then widespread applause, followed by an almost total walkout.

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