My Grandad was a Conservative, not a party member but a loyal voter and a kind of philosophical sympathiser, to a degree at least. But he wouldn’t for a minute have stomached the current regime.
He was a proud and decent man, warm, funny, and passionate, if a little short-tempered. I admired him a great deal, though I disliked his politics. I came to understand that his conservatism had moral roots, grounded in his belief in self-reliance and his dislike of state intrusion of any sort. He despised charity and mistrusted its motives and eschewed anything he thought of as a handout. The terraced house he shared with my Nan and their young son, my Mum’s older brother, in Seaforth, adjacent to Liverpool’s docks, was destroyed by bombing during the Blitz. The government offered compensation to affected families, but he turned the cash down. How could he accept money for bricks and mortar when other people had lost their lives?
He lived his life with a kind of absolute moral certainty that attracted others. He knew what was right and he lived his life accordingly. He expected others to behave morally too and was scornful of those who failed to meet these standards, though he could be indulgent to his friends. A marine engineer, he believed in hard work. Work was in some ways the main focus of his life. He was at home there, much more so, I suspect, than in his actual home. He was well respected there. People called him ‘Boss’. I remember when my brother and I were young, he took us to the docks and into the engine of a ship, a huge, cavernous, sweaty and dirty place, teaming with people from different corners of the world, or at least it seemed so to me at the time. It was noisy. It seemed as though everyone was talking at the same time in their own language. I still recall the feeling of unease this experience gave me (as well as my sense of his disappointment at this). I had never met anyone who wasn’t from the northwest of England before. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t white or who spoke a language other than English. It was a glimpse into another world, and of a different man I realised I did not really, or fully, know.
As a merchant seaman, he had travelled the world and seen a great deal, though he never spoke of it, at least not with his family. During the war, he took part in the Dunkirk evacuation. He served with the British Merchant Navy, charged with supplying the raw materials, arms, ammunition, fuel, food and other necessities the country needed to survive the war. He caught Malaria while in Africa. His crew mates sailed without him, only for their ship to be torpedoed on the journey home. The Merchant Navy suffered a casualty rate much higher than any other armed service. All hands were lost. Malaria had, in a sense, saved him, though its complications troubled him throughout his life. Typically, he wouldn’t complain but he never talked about it either, or indeed about much of anything else concerning the war, nothing personal at any rate. Some decades on from his death, I wish I had talked to him more. His reticence was forbidding, unchallengeable. Despite his wartime experiences, I had the impression he rather admired the Germans. He judged Britain’s allies more harshly. Most of his ire was reserved for American soldiers whom he considered to have behaved selfishly in combat, putting others at risk to save themselves. A lot of his attitudes were shaped by this experience of war, the harshness of which we could only guess at.
For all of this, he wasn’t a textbook conservative by any means. He disdained any kind of unearned privilege, reserving the best part of his scorn for the Church and ‘holy rollers’ of all stripes. He was no fan of the aristocracy or the royals either. Yet his scepticism about authority and pretty much all uses of power was tempered by his belief in ordinary people and his faith in his community. He would do anything for anyone. I remember him, by then in his seventies, climbing onto the roof of a neighbour’s house to rescue their escaped cockatoo. He was fond of children and took their welfare to heart. Communities had to look after their own. He was heartbroken and uncomprehending when 2-year-old James Bulger was murdered by two older children not far from his home. It was as though a light had gone out. He couldn’t make sense of it. He was on his own by then, my Nan having died a few years before. He wasn’t himself after that. Their relationship was tempestuous, and after a while resentful. As the community they had grown old in, now in steep economic decline, crumbled around them, she had wanted to move. They could easily afford it. There was a house in Crosby. But in the end, he refused. He couldn’t leave. She was hurt by that, and things were never the same.
I was thinking about him this week as I watched the Conservative Party conference unfold in desultory fashion in Manchester. What would he have made of this latest iteration of the party he voted for, I wondered. The answer, I suspect, is not much. I think he would have been shocked by the indifference to human suffering on display in Manchester, the cultivated divisiveness and, perhaps above all, the absolute lack of moral seriousness, the utter emptiness of a party that appears, now, to believe in nothing (or, at least, nothing it would be prepared publicly to admit to).
The party of self-reliance and hard work has become the party of self-delusion and ruthless wealth and opportunity-hoarding. The party of aspiration is now the party of self-absolution, absolving itself from blame for any of the problems it caused and now pledges to fix, serving up tired old promises tied up with a brand-new ribbon. Unable to offer anything meaningful to its working-class supporters, it relies on fabricated claims and imaginary enemies, culture wars and Hitlerian hate-mongering about the threat posed by economic migrants (a profound irony in a country that built an empire on global economic opportunism, usually conducted at the end of a gun). Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s speech wouldn’t have sounded out of place at a brown-shirt rally in Munich in the 1930s. The suspects were the usual ones: human rights lawyers, ‘woke’ teachers and academics, ‘lazy’ benefits scroungers, ‘lefty’ civil servants and, most significantly for a party now indistinguishable from the fascistic splinter group that captured much of its vote and forced the Brexit referendum, refugees.
The Tories some time ago stopped being a party concerned with lifting people up, despite all the bad-faith nonsense about levelling up, and have become instead a party of fear and regression. It is hard to discern among the deliberately orchestrated noise and disinformation any serious policy intent or plan for the country. Policies are cooked up, reheated or thrown out at an electoral whim. It is hard to believe that for some the Conservatives still represent a safe pair of hands at the tiller of the economy. The truth, inadvertently let out of the bag by Boris Johnson in his notorious ‘fuck business’ remark, is that the Tories no longer care about the health of the economy or the wellbeing of the country. They are the party of property owners and private wealth. They are the party of low tax, low wages and skyrocketing shareholder dividends. They are the party of vested interests and climate denial. They are the enemies of the future.
What made my Grandad different to these modern Conservatives was that he cared about community and about people’s wellbeing. He thought that self-reliance and moral discipline were the best ways of vouchsafing this. He would have been shocked by the corruption in today’s party, its willingness to trade honours for donations, the mass redistribution of public money to private donors and friends of the party under the guise of pandemic procurement, and the utter contempt shown for the rules they devised and strictly enforced during lockdown. The cheap kneejerk resort to fearmongering and divisiveness, a staple of news appearances by Tory politicians, would, I feel, have disgusted him. Most of all, he would have been appalled by the moral vacuum at the heart of the party. The Conservatives are a party that asks nothing of itself. There are no rules they feel they need to respect, no codes they should observe, nothing that can’t be jettisoned should it become for a moment inconvenient or electorally disadvantageous. It started at the top but has poisoned every level of the party and those associated with it, including, troublingly, the police, increasingly a biddable tool of power.
My Grandad died some decades ago. His time is past. The world has changed. I feel the same way about the Conservative Party, though I feel no affection for its passing. The Tories are a party of the past and have nothing to say about the future, beyond a vague feeling that they would rather it didn’t happen. They are the party of fear and hopelessness, of concealment and coercion. Rishi Sunak talks of renewing long-termism in politics, but his party daily stokes hate and division for short-term political gain. They are not honest. They dodge and dissemble at a moment when we desperately need to talk frankly and openly about the country’s future. We deserve better. Our communities deserve better. It’s time to move on. The party of the past belongs there.