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Paul Dacre: Picked the right time to retire (©  Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Conservative intellectuals once prized themselves on their scepticism. Despite all we have been through, they are still the first to tell you to live in “the real world” rather than the world as you would like it to be. They still claim to be heirs to a tradition that, from Burke to Oakeshott, damned grand projects that would tear up the present for the sake of an idealised version of the future. However far from his thought they might be, Kant’s “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” is a conservative maxim. Or was.

The conservative mentality now flourishes everywhere except among conservatives. Take their assertion that they are sceptical realists, even if they do say so themselves. Sceptic is an honourable title, which can only be bestowed on you by others. When men and women claim to be sceptics, as when they claim to be brave or honest, you should ask who they are fooling. More often than not, they are fooling themselves before they try to fool you. True sceptics examine their own prejudices and biases. They are aware of the dangers of groupthink — if they lose friends by contradicting the views of their party or circle, they reason, those friends weren’t worth having in the first place. They also have some understanding of the perennial human tendency to seek information that confirms their beliefs. In the words of the economist Chris Dillow, sceptics seek facts that make them uncomfortable the better to challenge their easy assumptions.

It is a sign of the propaganda success and intellectual failure of modern conservatism that British nationalists got away with calling themselves “Eurosceptics”. If they had been sceptical, Britain would not now be a laughing stock. The conservative press and think tanks would have had debates about the world as it is, not as conservatives would like it to be. They would have acknowledged that Britain was a part of an integrated European economy and leaving the single market with its web of rules and standards would inevitably have traumatic consequences. Instead, they failed to admit that the anti-European movement was based on a paradox: the EU was simultaneously a vast bureaucracy that had spread its influence into every corner of national life and an institution it would be remarkably easy to leave. Britain would be in a less dismal state if it had a conservative press and conservative intellectuals, who might have told their leaders that both these statements could not be true.

Sceptical conservatives would have recognised too that the neo-liberal world of the 1990s was dissolving. The World Trade Organisation is weak and directionless. First China and now Trump’s America are becoming ever more mercantilist. The only way to maintain our trade after Brexit with the one bloc we are part of would be to accept EU standards and laws without having a say in them.

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