Elements of this thinking are clearly informing the “levelling-up” agenda that the Johnson government has sworn to deliver for the less affluent parts of Britain. How that will be changed – for changed it surely will be – by the coronavirus crisis we cannot yet be fully sure. This is an interesting book with stimulating arguments, but it is currently the fate of anyone writing about politics to know that their thoughts will be less influential in shaping society than a microbe.
Timothy’s central thesis is that something he calls ‘ultra-liberalism’ is responsible for the economic and cultural crisis in Western societies. The ultra-liberals, in his view, are ‘citizens of nowhere’, wealthy globetrotters with no allegiance to the states and communities in which they were born. They are contemptuous of society’s ‘stragglers’, who have been marginalised by the global economy. For Timothy, the ultra-liberals believe in the sanctity of the market, the value of multiculturalism and the importance of supranational bodies like the EU; they also hold that all immigration is ultimately a good thing.
In the wake of Covid-19, that now seems wishful thinking. The best we can hope for in the medium term is to keep the economy, or what remains of it, afloat. But Brexit has shown that the state is powerful enough to challenge conventional economic wisdom, and that Toryism is not reducible to the views of a self-interested coven of market-led property-owners and capitalists. Conservatism in the UK never evolved overtly into the Christian Democracy found in other parts of Western Europe, but it has always carried a tinge – sometimes more than a tinge – of its origins as an ecclesiastical party that defended the Church of England against Dissenters and those Erastians who wished to subordinate the independent spiritual authority of the Church to the temporal power of the state. Theresa May, the churchgoing vicar’s daughter, was – in a long line of Whiggish aristocrats, secular Conservatives and Liberals – probably the most authentic Tory ever seen in Downing Street.
As the Tories fight for ownership of their tradition, it would nevertheless be wrong to exclude from contention Timothy’s popular-communitarian hybrid. Something hard to understand is in the air. Similar fights divide the right in the US and the rest of Europe. Nobody knows how the coronavirus pandemic will change politics. Remaking One Nation is timely in ways that Timothy himself cannot have expected.
But this is an important book that describes the worldview that, for now, is running the country. What is missing is the more political drama of how Tories like Timothy came to take over the party and what the balance of forces between the different factions looks like. But as Timothy evidently still has another chapter of his own political career ahead of him that will have to wait for his memoirs.
Most of this book must have been written before the 2019 election, when conservatism indeed looked in crisis. Although Timothy is fated for ever to be linked with May, his arguments have been either pinched or pre-empted by Boris Johnson. May’s and Johnson’s messages — “a Britain for everyone” and “levelling-up” — were almost identical, but it was Boris’s brio that made the difference. Political ideas are important, but so is bombast.