Who's 'The Stupid Party' Now?
Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson: The Sancho Panza to Jeremy Corbyn's Don Quixote? (photo: RonF/TheWeeklyBull CC BY-SA 2.0)
It is a truism that intellectuals lean to the Left and sneer at the Right. Indeed, Conservatives have been branded as uneducated and anti-intellectual at least since John Stuart Mill dubbed them “the stupid party”. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was the target of something like mass hysteria on the part of the British intelligentsia — a witch’s brew of snobbery and misogyny vividly evoked by Paul Johnson in his review of the latest volume of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography. Whenever the conservative side of the spectrum is under scrutiny, a note of condescension may still be detected in the output of the BBC, academia and the liberal establishment. As Laetitia Strauch-Bonart’s review essay on Roger Scruton makes clear, there has been and still is a stark contrast in the treatment of intellectuals of Left and Right: the former are depicted as mainstream, the latter as marginal. Scruton says he was driven close to suicide by the Left’s sabotage of his career.
Yet what is the justification for the left-wing intelligentsia’s sense of entitlement? Do they in fact still monopolise the marketplace of ideas? Jeremy Corbyn’s election is said to show that the pendulum has swung back towards socialism. But this is misleading. Among serious thinkers on the Left, the mood is rather one of despair.
Last month an unusual encounter took place between two public intellectuals before an equally distinguished audience at the Royal Institution. It was unusual, not so much because the two speakers were Conservatives, but because their usual roles were reversed: it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, interviewing Charles Moore, the columnist and biographer of Mrs Thatcher, under the auspices of the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange. So much did the Chancellor relish the chance to turn the tables that afterwards we joked that on the strength of his performance he might once have earned a job from the former Editor of the Daily Telegraph. “Actually, he did give me my first job,” Osborne replied. Indeed, their conversation sparkled with enough self-deprecating wit and lightly-worn learning to impress even eminent representatives of the Left, from Lord Mandelson to the Editor of the New Statesman. Also present were some of those who had played a part in the events they were discussing, from Lords [Robin] Butler and [Charles] Powell to Dame Colette Bowe, so the Chancellor knew he was on his mettle. To have come unprepared before such grandees would have been fatal. Not only did Osborne rise to the occasion, he surpassed himself, revealing a warm, lively and likeable side to his personality at odds with his cool, even arrogant media image. If the Chancellor is to consolidate his status as David Cameron’s heir apparent, he needs to plant the seed of an idea: that George Osborne might actually be just as good company over dinner as Boris Johnson.