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Review

Putting Lipstick on a Bigotry

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May’s top advisor wants to remake conservatism. Instead he’s written a rousing defense of Little England xenophobia.

Nick Timothy (L), waits at haulage and logistics company Davies Transport during British Prime Minister Theresa May's visit on May 12, 2017 in Darlington, United Kingdom.
Nick Timothy (L), waits at haulage and logistics company Davies Transport during British Prime Minister Theresa May's visit on May 12, 2017 in Darlington, United Kingdom. Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Power-hungry advisors are a stock character in British government, from Thomas Cromwell (who served Henry VIII) to Alastair Campbell (who served Prime Minister Tony Blair) and Dominic Cummings (whose will current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rubber-stamped by installing a slavish cabinet).

They take kings’ and prime ministers’ reflected power as their own, overrule dukes and cabinet ministers, reward friends, and punish an ever-growing list of foes. Their fatal flaw is always the same: to ignore the folk wisdom that dictates “take care of people on the way up, and they’ll take care of you on the way down.” Nick Timothy, who advised former Prime Minister Theresa May, was no exception. Ruthless in his pomp, he was just as ruthlessly thrown overboard after May lost her parliamentary majority in the 2017 election.

Remaking One Nation: Conservatism in an Age of Crisis, Nick Timothy, Polity, 224 pp., , May 2020

Remaking One Nation: Conservatism in an Age of Crisis, Nick Timothy, Polity, 224 pp., £20, March 2020 ($25, May 2020 in United States)

Now, Timothy has published his manifesto: a book titled Remaking One Nation: Conservatism in the Age of Crisis, released this month in the United Kingdom. Timothy opens by name-dropping the globally famous political consultants Jim Messina and Lynton Crosby, as well as the prime minister he served—whom he always calls “Theresa” and frequently depicts as “crying” and “terrified.” Timothy blames everyone but himself for the Conservative Party’s 2017 defeat in that disastrous election of choice that he had persuaded his boss to call.

He is not unduly taxed by the requirements of consistency. “The logic of populism,” he writes, “means the checks and balances required by liberal democracy—independent courts, a free media, parliamentary scrutiny, a strong civil society, rights and protections for minorities—come under attack,” only to later demand that “the Human Rights Act should be scrapped.

The process of judicial review—used to challenge government decisions over and again and at great cost—should be reformed and restricted.” Despite this, Timothy, who wrote Theresa May’s infamous “citizens of nowhere” speech and condemns “elite liberals” throughout this book for despising the white working class, insists he’s against populism.

Timothy blames everyone but himself for the Conservative Party’s 2017 defeat in that disastrous election of choice that he had persuaded his boss to call.

Had these contradictions been ironed out by a tough editor, Remaking One Nation would be an unusually frank and perceptive defense of the return of nationalism to Western democracies. Unlike others who have written on the topic such as David Goodhart (schooled at Britain’s elite Eton College) or Eric Kaufmann (an immigrant from Canada), Timothy is a native son of Britain’s white working class who fought his way up to the highest levels of national politics. This book is his tribute to a culture he loves and whose eclipse he fears.

At his most perceptive moment, Timothy turns to a relatively obscure part of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty. Berlin observes that when people demand freedom, what they sometimes “seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or patronized or despised, or being taken too much for granted.”

But whereas Berlin warned that “confounding liberty with her sisters, equality and fraternity, leads to similarly illiberal conclusions,” Timothy ignores the philosopher’s red flag and embraces the primacy of fraternity, fixing the nation on top as the “apex” of identity. This sense of ethnic solidarity has, according to Timothy, been taken away from the white working class by economics-obsessed “elite liberals” and postmodernist left-wing “ultra-liberals,” who deny the white working class the collective identity they enthusiastically grant to ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.

Timothy is clearly worked up about “white decline” and explicitly sees the matter in ethnic if not racial terms. He’s right to note working-class whites’ loss of position, wealth, and influence in society. The world in which they were once the center of the country’s economic might and technical prowess, proudly organized in large workplaces that gave them a sense of community is gone.

Industrial jobs are now found at the bottom of the pecking order. Pay is low and the future uncertain after years of retrenchment and restructuring. Far higher living standards including foreign vacations in the sun, central heating, and widespread car ownership don’t make up for the loss of importance—something felt particularly by working-class men whose fathers provided for a family but who themselves earn less than their wives, if they’re lucky enough to have one.

This condition is partly the result of feminism—working class women are in a far better social position than their mothers—a tectonic social shift that Timothy doesn’t address except to call for more state-funded child care. It is also, perhaps paradoxically, the effect of that prosperity. Decades of economic growth have raised labor costs to a level that makes unskilled manufacturing unprofitable.

Labor-intensive industry can’t generate the output needed to sustain a comfortable Western lifestyle. Stable industrial jobs for uneducated people to make things don’t exist anymore, because Britain has become too rich. The manufacturing that survives in the U.K. has become a high-tech employer of qualified engineers. It is only profitable to employ the unskilled in poorer countries like China or Morocco. Timothy is simply wrong when he attributes job losses to immigration.

The working class is also older—and as ever more young people go to university and take graduate jobs in professional sectors, it has become smaller. Moreover, the fact that the average age among working-class Britons is 66 means that more than half of its members don’t actually work anymore.

The fact that the average age among working-class Britons is 66 means that more than half of its members don’t actually work anymore.

This has powerful political consequences. Working-class British retirees tend to vote in large numbers, but they are insulated from current economic realities by generous state pensions. They consume but don’t take part in the production of culture. They feel at sea in a society moving forward without them.

This, writes Timothy, allows “elite liberals and left-liberals [to] routinely castigate them, in politics, the media and the arts and entertainment. Their patriotism is seen as racist, their Euroscepticism as xenophobic.” He goes on to argue that these retirees’ “concerns about job security and the decline of their communities is hopelessly parochial to ultra-liberals excited about globalization, disruptive technologies and militant identity politics.”

In his zeal for denouncing his political opponents, Timothy fails to see this decline as a product of social changes similar to those that marginalized agriculture in the early 20th century. Just as hardly anyone lives off the land anymore, fewer and fewer people will live from unskilled factory work. Instead, he sees the disappearance of manufacturing jobs as an injustice carried out by perpetrators. It is the “liberals,” whom he condemns for imagining “citizens as autonomous individuals who should throw off prejudice and superstition,” who are to blame.

Timothy wants nonetheless—if we are to take him at face value—to defend what he calls “essential liberalism” where “Governments are elected, and power is transferred peacefully from one party to another. But there are also important checks and balances to protect minority interests.” Writing, at this point in the book, as though he is against populism, Timothy goes on to specify: “These include the separation of powers between government, parliament and the courts, a bicameral legislature, an independent judiciary, a neutral civil service, civilian control of the military, a free press, and laws and norms that guarantee individual rights.”

The trust generated by a strong community that underlies this political arrangement has partly, he thinks, been destroyed by identity politics-obsessed “ultra-liberals,” but it is the “elite liberals” who are the main focus of his scorn. These people, he said, were who he had in mind when he wrote those notorious lines in Theresa May’s 2016 speech:

“too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

They are guilty of “excessive individualism” and an obsession with economic outcomes, Timothy argues.

Timothy’s attack on elite liberalism echoes remarks by Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.

He holds them responsible for a situation in which “a clear majority of British people … consistently say they expect to be worse off than their parents’ generation,” because the “elite liberals” are “incapable of responding to this changing world”; “They refuse to question free trade”; “They mix in privileged and gilded circles, remote from the reality of ordinary, everyday life, and blame everybody but themselves for the rise of populism.”

Here, his attack on elite liberalism echoes remarks by Hungarian leader Viktor Orban. Timothy writes that liberals “cling to their belief in open borders,” even though the governments that had been run by such elite liberals as Tony Blair and David Cameron in the U.K. and Nicolas Sarkozy in France in fact pursued expensive and restrictive immigration policies. He relies on the discredited “elephant chart” (whose data showing declining living standards for a proportion of the world’s population was too simplistically held to blame immigration for economic hardship in the Western white working class) for its economic claims. These errors weaken what is otherwise a strong critique of a soulless optimizing consensus that dominated social policy in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

Timothy is at his best when tearing down the self-deception of a governing class that thought it knew best but had forgotten how to persuade people of its ideas, or that it even needed to do so. This period under New Labour and David Cameron was the heyday of the Behavioral Insights Team, known as the “nudge unit,” which sought to abuse behavioral science, now under fire for slowing Britain’s response to the coronavirus epidemic, to manipulate the choices people made, instead of discussing and addressing the problems they experienced.

In fact, Timothy fuses a classical communitarian critique of liberalism—that individuals are not merely billiard balls that bounce off each other without needing to belong to a larger society; we are part of a continuous chain of the dead, the living, and those yet to be born; that business has a responsibility beyond the narrow pursuit of profit; and so on—with authentically populist anger at the governing elite. Their agency having been “nudged” out of them, the white working class became Isaiah Berlin’s “ignored, or patronized, or despised.”

An episode during the 2010 British election campaign highlighted this perfectly. Prime Minister Gordon Brown found himself accosted by a voter, Gillian Duffy, complaining about immigration. Instead of trying to persuade her or argue with her—as U.S. Sen. John McCain or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did in similar situations—Brown pretended to agree, only to be caught later on a microphone muttering about “that bigoted woman.”

It is immigration that Timothy, who was in charge of immigration policy when he served Theresa May at the Home Office from 2010 to 2015 and oversaw the so-called hostile environment policy, puts at the center of his fusion of communitarian and populism. Seeking a parallel to the transition from ethnic to civic nationalism, Timothy attempts a move from ethnic to civic xenophobia.

Civic xenophobia is a favorite of Tory home secretaries descended from immigrants. Current Home Secretary Priti Patel recently struggled to justify immigration rules she had just introduced that could have excluded her own parents, who came to Britain from Uganda in the 1960s. Michael Howard, a Tory home secretary in the 1990s, ran into the same problem with the story of his own father, who had to be smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Timothy, however, is the first to intellectualize this position.

Toward British citizens of all backgrounds he sometimes adopts a technocratic and egalitarian stance: To help more people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds into the workplace, for example, there should be a multi-agency programme to work with younger people, especially women and girls, to help them to get the right qualifications, apply for jobs and travel back and forth to work.

Yet despite his well-meaning support for job training and commuter subsidies, he can’t avoid the gravitational pull of ethnic hierarchy. “Britain’s immigration rules” he writes “should reflect the quite understandable desire of the majority group to slow the pace of change and protect and preserve their cultural identity.” Of course we’ll treat you equally, this says to Britain’s ethnic minorities, we just don’t want people who look like you to come here in the first place.

If this makes sense to Timothy, it’s because he rejects as an affectation of “ultra-liberalism” the idea that has been the basis of Western politics since the American and French revolutions, namely that “there are timeless, universal and indivisible human rights.” He prefers what he calls “ordered pluralism” grounded on the principle that “for a society to function it must, to some degree, be exclusive” and that there’s “nothing inherently dangerous … in allowing the majority group to express and enjoy their ethnic and cultural identities in a peaceful and positive manner.”

Anyone with a knowledge of 20th-century European history will raise an eyebrow at the phrase “nothing inherently dangerous,” but Timothy doesn’t stop at the assertion of ethnic privilege. He denies that outsiders are racially or culturally inferior; they are simply from somewhere else. He justifies his ethnic exclusion based on his concept of society, which needs in principle to “grant rights, privileges and protections to their members, and refuse them to non-members.”

It is “axiomatic,” he argues, that a society that doesn’t do so would “cease to function.” Those who are denied rights aren’t inferior. They’re not to be blamed, either. Their exclusion is incidental to any feature they have; it’s merely necessary to give us a functioning society.

Timothy’s axiom is simply false. Ethnic diversity has not torn Canada, Australia, or New Zealand apart. And in the United States and Europe, it is primarily people arguing against diversity and equality who are the main source of interethnic tensions and societal dysfunction. A grim reminder reminder came in February when a middle-aged German man murdered several people of Middle Eastern descent in Hanau, near Frankfurt.

Timothy has taken himself on a dark journey, familiar to observers of other societies who feel under siege—from a valid concern for the white working class, ignored and patronized by the political elite, to criticizing liberals for opposing superstition and prejudice, to attacking the concept of universal human rights, to supporting ethnic cultural privilege and arriving at the position that others must be excluded—not for anything they are, or have done, or might do, but simply in order to sustain his own society.

His England is one that can only survive by making scapegoats of the world. A nation remade in that image doesn’t deserve to.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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