It is sometimes through small windows that we can see a big picture. So it is with the Times’ recent attempt to compare how other songwriters match up to Bob Dylan as a poet. The thing here is that if I were looking for rivals to Dylan on this point, I’d not look to David Bowie or Joni Mitchell, much as I love them, but to Dar Williams, Jolie Holland, John Prine, Josh Ritter or the incomparable Townes Van Zandt. That the Times didn’t do so, preferring more famous names, is an insight into a bigger feature of the latter-day right – that it has a very narrow cultural and intellectual palette. I don’t mean by this that they are uncultured and ill-read: many are far from it - although Nigel Farage has boasted of not listening to music or reading books. Culture, however, is not merely a
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It is sometimes through small windows that we can see a big picture. So it is with the Times’ recent attempt to compare how other songwriters match up to Bob Dylan as a poet.
The thing here is that if I were looking for rivals to Dylan on this point, I’d not look to David Bowie or Joni Mitchell, much as I love them, but to Dar Williams, Jolie Holland, John Prine, Josh Ritter or the incomparable Townes Van Zandt.
That the Times didn’t do so, preferring more famous names, is an insight into a bigger feature of the latter-day right – that it has a very narrow cultural and intellectual palette.
I don’t mean by this that they are uncultured and ill-read: many are far from it - although Nigel Farage has boasted of not listening to music or reading books. Culture, however, is not merely a consumer good. It is something that creates us. Even a big diet of political biography or second-rate literary fiction need not create very much.
What I do mean, though, is that there seems to have been a decline on the right in its intellectual referents.
Thatcher, for example, would often pepper her speeches with talk of Hayek, Popper or Friedman. And that wasn’t mere showboating: such men formed her worldview. It is not at all clear that Johnson has any equivalents (at least not since Juvenal) or even that he and his colleagues are interested in acquiring any*.
We see this too in the right’s attitude to Marxism. It uses this merely as a boo-word, oblivious to Marxism’s intellectual content. Contrast that to my formative years, when the right could call upon thinkers who had seriously engaged with Marx such as Kolakowski, Berlin or Hollander**.
A lack of interest in Marx is part of the right’s indifference to economics generally. As Stian Westlake has said, “Tories, both in government and more generally, seem to have stopped talking and thinking about economics.” That’s an astounding change since my formative years when think-tanks like the IEA or Adam Smith Institute provided at least intellectual energy***.
Which is part of a wider philistinism: yes, dear reader, economics, done properly, is a cultured science. One example of this was the government’s advice that ballet dancers take up careers “in cyber.” I suspect very few government ministers know how to code, but they know that it is Not Art and therefore a Good Thing. The crassness of that advert was not, however, the nadir: new depths have been reached by the “strong Britain, great nation” song and the ahistorical motive behind it.
And it’s evident in the attempt to suppress academic freedom. Thatcher disliked universities because they were part of the public sector. This government dislikes them because of the sneaking feeling that they might contain intellectuals.
Which is one reason, I suspect, why it is so keen on culture wars. The problem with debates about economics, welfare policy, foreign affair and so on is that you need some knowledge to participate in them. Culture wars, however, have no such barriers to entry. Hence the endless parade of gobshites on LBC, TalkRadio and GB News: yes, the latter has had an expert guest, but this greeted on Twitter in the same way that people share videos of a dog doing a cute trick.
Now, you might object here that I’m being unfair in singling out the Tories. To some extent, I am. The intellectual decline of the Tory party is part of a general decay of intellectual standards in public life. Where, for example, is the Labour equivalent of Tony Crosland today?
What’s notable, however, is that the Tories’ philistinism is electorally successful. Their appeal now is largely confined to the uneducated. YouGov estimate that in the 2019 General Election voters with degrees or higher qualifications split 43-29 per cent in favour of Labour over the Tories, whereas among those with GCSEs or less, the Tories led Labour 58-25 per cent. And today, satisfaction with Johnson’s performance as PM is far higher among the uneducated than among graduates. Dominic Grieve has a point when he says that “sophisticated” voters can see that Johnson is a charlatan.
Of course, this difference is partly a function of the fact that the Tories appeal is to the old who tend to have fewer qualifications. But the scale of this age difference is also a new phenomenon. In the 1987 general election, for example, The Tory lead among over-65s, at 14 percentage points, was only a little above its six-point lead among 25-34 year-olds. And of course back then, the Tories had big support among graduates, not least because having a degree was associated with higher income.
The issue here is not that John Stuart Mill was right to claim that “stupid people are generally Conservative.” Intellectual ability is an over-rated virtue in politics. If we listen to them properly – that is, not through phone-ins or focus groups - lay people have important and useful things to say. And of course, being educated in one field is no protection against being an idiot in others.
Instead, the point is that the Tories’ appeal to the uneducated whilst alienating graduates puts them on the wrong side of history, given the trend towards increase educational qualifications. A party which, in Will Davies words, “refuses to see any value in the next generation of employees and citizens” doesn’t deserve a future, and it might not have one.
* I exempt Jesse Norman from this charge, although the link between his intellectual work and his political career is not wholly obvious.
** Although when I read The Open Society and its Enemies, I was actually struck by how little animosity Popper displayed towards Marx.
*** Though not perhaps from the days of Alec Douglas Home.