As high-minded as people who write about politics imagine themselves to be, we all love a good slapfight. The word ‘debate’ might have lofty intellectual connotations but the most prominent war of words in recent history culminated with William F. Buckley calling Gore Vidal a ‘queer’.
It would be fun, then, to write something very mean about the newly launched Turning Point UK, but I don’t have the heart. Everyone involved seems frighteningly young, and constructive criticism might achieve more than mockery. The sparse ‘blog’ section of their website also turns up one rather moving article by Dominique Samuels, which details her upbringing with a devoted single mother, and if there are talented, sincere people involved, who am I to trash them?
Still, there is a great deal to dislike about the project, and this is an aversion that deserves to be expressed. Conservatives are desperate to attract young people and would hurl funding at anyone below the age of 40. It is important that the right does not pin all their hopes on the first group of people who think socialism is bad and use the word ‘meme’.
‘Turning Point’ is an American import, of unreliable origins. Turning Point USA is a peculiar organization, which purports to inspire right-leaning college students and has been involved in stunts like dressing its members in diapers to ‘own’ SJWs and trying to make a conservative out of Kanye West. Its founder, Charlie Kirk, sprays libertarian platitudes across social media to impress his aging donors, and recently published a book of which Grant Addison memorably wrote, ‘It would be kinder to assume the editing process was skipped entirely rather than that someone at Post Hill Press actually reviewed the manuscript.’ Highlights included Mr Kirk not only misquoting George Orwell but attributing the quote to his Twitter profile.
The ‘About’ section of Turning Point UK’s website, in which curious readers are introduced to its staff, reflects this fundamental unseriousness. We are introduced, for example, to TPUK’s chairman, George Farmer, who describes himself as a ‘much maligned “Bullingdon Boy”’. Apparently the Daily Mail reported that Mr Farmer’s dad had paid for his son to join the Bullingdon Club, which is not a mark of shame that should haunt you for your whole life, of course, but nor should it be a source of pride. Mr Farmer also mentions, in his professionals bio, that he is engaged to Turning Point USA’s industrious spokeswoman Candace Owens. I wish the pair lifelong happiness but what this says about his credentials is beyond me.
Turning Point UK’s introductory video is filled with baffling soundbites. One man appears to inform us that the left ‘hates everything good’, and then Charlie Kirk pops up to say, ‘The left hates the idea that there are other ideas.’ Ah, those narrow-minded leftists, who hate everything good! ‘We shouldn’t be judging ideas by their intentions,’ says the ubiquitous young pundit Tom Harwood, who, for some reason, is on the verge of tears, ‘We should be judging them by their outcomes.’ Does the left hate everything good or does it have good intentions? And what is something concrete that TPUK supports?
We are Turning Point UK and this is what we believe. WATCH! pic.twitter.com/9ZYkrbn4IW
— Turning Point UK (@TPointUK) February 3, 2019
The TPUK platform is ‘free markets, limited government & personal responsibility.’ That short statement illuminates a deep problem with the Americanization of the British right. American conservatism has a long if by no means comprehensive tradition of ‘fusionism’, which entails a political commitment to small-state governance and a personal commitment to traditional morality (the latter of which has generally been ignored.) This tradition is unstable enough in the US, where Donald Trump’s platform of nationalism and protectionism has found more articulate proponents in pundits such as Tucker Carlson and outlets such as American Affairs.
This tradition has barely existed in the UK. Margaret Thatcher supported free markets, of course, but even she was forced to shelve ideas to break up the NHS and the welfare state because they would be so politically unpopular. British conservatives like Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton have always emphasized that unrestrained capitalism subordinates morality, community and aesthetics to the profit motive, and have urged their readers not to deify the market. You can disagree with them, of course, but you will find yourself alienated from the British public and the British conservative tradition.
Turning Point USA’s eccentric racial politics have also been imported. TPUSA have made a big deal out of insisting that the Democrats have used a combination of bribes and fearmongering to keep African Americans on their side. ‘The left has weaponized racism and used it to control the black community for years,’ Dominique Samuels claims, in a similar vein, ‘Now is the time to demand the freedom to think with our minds, not with our race.’ You can disagree, as I do, with the British left and its perspectives on black British people, but those perspectives have been informed by black British people like Stuart Hall, Darcus Howe and Diane Abbott. We should criticize their influence, of course, but repurposing Candace Owens’s sleazy, ineffective memes about ‘escaping the Democrat plantation’ would be a gigantic mistake.
If TPUK has one obvious principle it is opposition to campus censorship. Their initial video is full of dire warnings about a ‘left wing hate mob’ that wants to ‘silence your voice’. This apparent endorsement of freedom of speech raises questions of consistency. Does TPUK want Islamic societies to have free rein in choosing theocratic and jihadist speakers? Maybe. Maybe not. I agree that traditional conservatism is different from totalist Islam – indeed, very different – but whining about free speech evades this question.
The more important problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact that young people are not, in general, leaning left because they fear criticism and censorship but because they think the left is right. Our task is to convince them that they are wrong.
It is easy for pundits, like me, to criticize other people’s actions. It is more difficult to propose alternative ideas. I have no intention of being an ankle-biter so I will attempt the latter. First, conservatives should be attractive. No one is drawn towards a cause by mere whining. It looks weak. Progressives never just displayed their victimhood, even when they could be plausibly described as victims, but were witty, imaginative and original. Second, conservatives should be focused on the concrete problems with our society: fatherlessness, housing prices, an education bubble, violent crime and the abuse of the old and young. It takes a rare bird to be drawn towards a weltanschauung by vague abstractions like ‘limited government’. Third, conservatives have to form their own identity, rejecting international cast-offs as well as the worn hand-me-downs of previous generations. Otherwise we will be good for nothing except memes.