“Why do liberal lefties cling to these unlikely heroes such as Bercow?” spluttered Rod Liddle in a recent article for The Spectator, incredulous that thousands of his fellow Labourites were finding solace in the actions of “pathetic, bourgeois, right wing, half-wits.” The Speaker of House, one-time petulant member of the anti-immigration Monday Club, had taken the centrist liberalism of his maturity to a new level through a very public defenestration of the suggestion that Donald Trump might address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall on his impending state visit. Hence the ire of Liddle, an infamous conservative blowhard. Liddle may have enjoyed concluding that the only reason for this cross-spectrum phenomenon was because “liberal lefties” have “nothing left to cling to” aside from centre-right “elites” such as Bercow. It certainly plays into his vision peddled on the BBC’s Newsnight of an incoming era that will rescind all the social and economic liberalisation of the past fifty years and revert us back to a pre-1968 state (a vision that has striking similarities to Steve Bannon’s 2010 “documentary” Generation Zero). However, in doing so, Liddle has missed a rather problematic point of information: opposing Trump is not, and should not, be a solely left-wing affair. The “liberal lefties” of Liddle’s vitriol are simply big enough to embrace a putative political opponent such as Tory Bercow for the sake of a higher, more existential cause.
Modern British conservatism carries two strains of thought that place it in opposition to the doctrines of the forty-fifth US president. The first is that there is an ideological disconnect between many British Tories, especially those who inhabit the Ken Clarke wing of internationalist, free-market social liberals, and Donald Trump. In his now-notorious declaration, Bercow exemplified what I am sure is a common sentiment amongst thousands in the Conservative Party. I do not feel the necessity to labour this glaringly obvious point any further.
The second strain concerns the historic constitutional conservatism of the Conservative Party as a whole. Mainstream British conservatism is born out of the political philosophy of Edmund Burke and his theory of the “intergenerational contract” between the dead, living and yet-to-be-born. Therefore, it bears the brunt of the responsibility for defending the constitutional integrity of the nation state – the political corollary of any “inter-generational contract” — as crucial to the optimal functionality thereof and as a bulwark against demagoguery and unchecked direct democracy.
Donald Trump, who issued a “travel ban” that was deemed unconstitutional by a rapid slew of federal judges, who took to Twitter to insult and undermine at least one of those federal judges, who still faces charges of flouting the Article 1, Section 9 (the “Foreign Emoluments Clause”) in the Constitution, is showing scant regard for the constitutional framework of the United States. Even if a hypothetical British Conservative were to agree with the political direction of the current US administration (which is by no means inconceivable), he or she ought to be alarmed by the President’s neglect of the very underpinning of the body politic of Tory philosophy.
As a much more personal reflection, there is one more noteworthy discrepancy in the radio silence from especially the right of the British Conservative Party and its supporters. The referendum on European Union membership and its aftermath has been couched in the language and imagery of the Second World War. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were quick to respectively compare the project of the EU and pro-Remain economists to the apparatus of Nazi Germany. More recently, David Davis proclaimed in the Daily Mail that Britain’s preparedness to meet the challenges of the upcoming withdrawal negotiations was assured because we had been able to “cope with World War Two.” For the Brexiteers, it would appear, the high watermark, the unassailable zenith, of the British nation state was its valiant stand against fascism three-quarters of a century ago. Yet now, the same purported freedom-lovers lie spread-eagle in prostate, reverent submission to a flagrant suppressor of the free press who fulsomely praises autocratic leaders such as Putin.
These are not just my own observations: one bemused Conservative participant in the St Andrews protest a few weeks ago tweeted that evening “I can’t for the life of me understand Conservatives who are pro-Trump.” Nevertheless, the anti-Trump events I have read about and attended have been almost devoid of centrist Tory liberals, conservatives who believe in the unassailable quality of a nation’s constitution, and Brexiteers, who so enthusiastically cashed in on the culture inheritance of our defiant “Finest Hour” against the sort of authoritarianism towards which Trump has exhibited tendencies.
So, where are all the Tory Trump protesters? It cannot just be Bercow and the one aforementioned St Andrean, surely? Why have the Conservatives left the opposition against such an urgent political development that grates against their alleged principles to so-called “liberal snowflakes,” “loony lefties,” and “smug virtue-signallers” in short, people like me? I am aware that Conservatives are not instinctive protesters, and do not have the same tradition of and infrastructure for marching as those on the left do. One only needs to have observed that bizarre and befuddling parade of support for Andrea Leadsom last summer to recognise how unnatural trampling the streets is for the average Tory. These are unnatural times, however, and there’s a first time for everything.
Undoubtedly, one root of this reticence is the opinion that it hardly seems right to criticise the policies and methods of a foreign leader elected legitimately by the democratic mechanism of his or her country, and that it is far better for the UK to work with the Trump administration than to fulminate from a safe distance. However, all bilateral foreign policy is simultaneously domestic and global now. It is domestic because it is a reflection of what the national government of the day believes is a sufficient enough reflection of public will to ensure re-election (or at least prevent scandal). It is global because as images and ideas are exhibited and exchanged more rapidly and internationally than ever before, our response to the actions of other governments — especially if that government represents a top ally and the “Leader of the Free World” — illustrates to the world our values and our commitment to them. On both these levels, as much vociferous, tireless and unified opposition as possible is required. On the former level, protest is even more potent if comes from supporters of the current party in office.
That said, it would be remiss to absolve the current protests and their organisers of all blame. Even in respect to a cause with as wide an appeal as opposing Trump, protests can be Tory-unfriendly zones. In actual fact, come to think of it, they can be unfriendly to all but the most ardent of left-wingers. Cast your minds back to the generally very encouraging demonstration here in St Andrews, arranged by the Socialist Society. Who on Earth felt that the appropriate accoutrement for a march defending freedom of religion was the flag of the USSR? Who in the Socialist Society thought it wise, the day after organising an event attended by a broad church of socialists, social democrats, liberals and least one Conservative, to post an article on their Facebook page thundering “F**k Liberals” and calling for “No Unity With Liberals?” The Scottish Socialist Party released a video after a “Scotland Against Trump” march in Edinburgh, at which I had been present. They were highly (and disproportionately) visible, explaining that they were protesting “about the emergence and the domination of our lives by neoliberal politics” before even mentioning Trump.
If I were being charitable, I would propose that these incidents were examples of a failure to consider optics, which has been a chronic stumbling-block for the British left in recent decades. If I were being a little more honest, I would suggest that, for some socialists, the cause of anti-Trumpism has already been cynically manipulated into just another convenient strand of the noose with which to lynch capitalism. As sympathetic as I may, in theory, be towards such a project, right now what matters is volume and numbers – a show of collective strength and camaraderie. For all the official speak of inclusivity and solidarity at these protests, anyone to the right of a Milibandite like me (Ed, since you ask) is bound to begin to feel somewhat cold-shouldered and unwelcome.
Trump is big, but we can be bigger if we stand up to him with an indefatigable resilience and unity. For Tories, that means some serious intellectual reflection on what it means to be a British Conservative, and no excuses if that reflection leads to the conclusion that Trump ought to be resisted. However, for everyone on the left, especially the more openly militant and vocal ones, the task is no less onerous. We must stay on message, relevant and accommodating, ready to actually build some bridges with traditional foes and to help to form a broad but formidable coalition. Then, the likes of Rod Liddle will take note, realising that the reason why “leftie liberals” cling to unlikely heroes such as John Bercow is because he is incontrovertibly one of our allies, marching alongside the rest of us.