Why even left wingers need conservatism

The undoing of the Telegraph mirrors a broader crisis in conservatism, which could leave a gap for Ukip to fill


To echo Professor Jay Rosen at New York University, the resignation of Peter Oborne from The Telegraph is ‘one of the most important things a journalist has written about journalism lately’.

The fact that the paper, or so Oborne accuses, could no longer decouple its advertising arm with its news content wing is itself huge news – something that should make us worry about journalistic standards more broadly.

The clickbait culture of such stories like the women with three breasts, which lo and behold was not true, along with the absence of big stories like Tesco false accounting, and even bigger ones on HSBC that Oborne himself worked on and was forced to send his research elsewhere, together spelled doom for the kind of independence that The Telegraph was typically noted for.

It would be too easy to say that The Telegraph is just a hymn sheet for whatever the Conservative party says at any given time (hence being dubbed the Torygraph).

After all it has given its support to the party through thick and thin, in times when the party has managed to capture the nation’s heart (somehow), and even when support slumped and other newspapers and their owners were throwing their weight behind Tony Blair.

But the paper was a lot more than that. It challenged the Conservative party from a small ‘c’ conservative position wherever it could. The Telegraph has never been afraid to attack David Cameron from the right, for example, and it’s no surprise that Cameron in his early days as leader of opposition, and then PM, that he looked for allies in liberal Guardian-reading Tories, rather than the high Tories and villa Tories among the Telegraph’s readership.

Though it doesn’t directly affect me, for example, a left winger and Labour supporter, I have always worried about what would happen in the absence of conservativism on two fronts: the drift of working class conservatism into other political expressions, namely with Ukip; and the further empowerment of neoliberalism.

As Phil Burton-Cartledge said in a blog post last night, the undoings of the Telegraph, with its high profile resignations and messy affairs with editors (with a lot of sub-editors cleared out of the newspaper’s towers), sort of resembles a crisis in conservatism more broadly. But with the view now, certified by Oborne in his resignation letter, that the Telegraph has lost its way – maybe indefinitely – another intellectual crisis of conservatism is forthcoming.

After all, where now will independent-minded conservatives, who don’t simply regurgitate the party line at CCHQ, look to for their daily news feed? Sure ConservativeHome is very good, but it doesn’t have the reach. Tim Montgomerie speaks his mind, but perhaps he is still too much like ‘think-tank’ material. Philip Blond? Well, the same problem again.

The next election, whether we like it or not, will rest a great deal on arguments around what it means to be centre-right and fiscally responsible, particularly in regards to carving out a dividing line between the Conservatives and Ukip.

Depending where in the country you are, Ukip will try to be the political chameleon, changing its colours where it suits them. But the real battleground is capturing real right-wing politics from that shadly liberal David Cameron.

But while you’ll find no love of Cameron from me, Ukip represents a very dangerous set of politics, quite distinct from conservativism proper, and more aligned to dog-whistle politics of the far right, or libertarianism where the crassness of money and power matter more than shared values and the retention of traditional institutions.

Say what you will about the Telegraph, but it was never given to the vice of market liberalism, or the city slickers and their contempt for ‘family, faith, and flag’, to borrow a phrase. That was, perhaps it could be argued, until the Barclay brothers took over, with whom according to Oborne a lot of the problems at the paper become most apparent.

Which leads me to my other worry about the absence of conservatism and the stranglehold of neoliberalism. But rather than explain what this means in detail, I’ll simply quote Oborne himself:

“The coverage of HSBC in Britain’s Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.”

I think the Oborne resignation letter was important because it told some very stark truths: primarily that the Telegraph was not truly independent. Rather than making me jump for joy, this potential black hole for small ‘c’ conservativism worries me. Perhaps there is life left in Blue Labour? But we shall see.

Carl Packman is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and the author of Loansharks: The rise and rise of payday lending

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