At last Friday’s debate for the Union society, the motion “This House believes borders should be a thing of the past” was defeated by just a single vote. Speaking for the opposition and winning side, Ben Harris-Quinney, a regular guest of the Union Society, took up the “small-c” conservative position in defence of the nation state and the practical benefits of borders. The following day I caught up with Mr. Harris-Quinney to discuss the debate and other, wider, political issues which we discussed at some length, the highlights of which I’ll try to marshal in this article. Ben is Chairman of the Bow Group, Britain’s oldest and most influential conservative think-tank.
Picking up on the debate the previous night, Ben gratefully remarked, perhaps in comparison to other institutions, that “Durham is a university that allows freedom of speech and that conservatives can come to Durham and win; its not easy, but we can win if we put the effort in.” On why the nation state matters, he looked back to the history of Europe before the nation state, “a long period of feudal and internecine warfare, what Thomas Hobbes described as “a war of all against all””. Following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Ben described how the nation-state emerged as “a model born of peace” from the chaos which went before it. The nation-state was, and is, a “Goldilocks zone, if you like, between the remote governance of institutions like the European Union but also beyond the warring fiefdoms of a thousand constellations of tiny little blocks.” Though he concedes there is “no perfect model” of governance, culture, identity, accountability and the accompanying democracy are best served through the nation-state.
Pressing him on the artificial borders and nations which European civilizations exported to places like Africa and the Middle East with less favourable results, Ben conceded there are “good borders and bad borders”. The key, however, is the organic, self-determined development of nationhood. He explained that many ill-functioning nation-states around the world are products of imposed governance and borders. I asked why it is, then, that it is in precisely those countries where the nation-state was born, and self-determined, that disillusionment with the concept is so prevalent, turning instead to the multi-state European Union. “First of all, I’m not sure the broad brush that you use on it is right”; the Brexit vote, economic problems with some of the Mediterranean countries, and particularly the Eastern European nations, who “didn’t want to exchange one form of top-down imposed tyranny for another with perhaps a nicer television set and more options for coffee” contradict my original question. In fact, he thinks “the European Union is a great example of the failure of imposed borders and a form of government that has formed not by the people, but by the elite who wanted to tell the people what was best for them.”
Mr Harris-Quinney is, however, concerned about the majority of young people, particularly in Western Europe. He describes his favourite painting, A Dance to the Music of Time, a 17th century French piece showing four figures dancing in a circle representing, in order, Poverty, Labour, Wealth and Decadence. The point he draws is that Decadence leads to Poverty and he feels a sense of foreboding for the upcoming generation that “does not have, in most cases, a strong understanding of history and a strong understanding of where many of the benefits they largely take for granted stem from.” He believes a major factor in this is the success of the left in their “long march through the institutions”, particularly in the media and academia.
Moving on to his home ground of conservatism, I mentioned the recent visit of the Conservative MP Chris Green who spoke to the Durham University Conservative Association Friday afternoon. The MP for Bolton West regretted the lack of values or vision expounded by the Conservative Party. Ben echoed Mr Green’s concern, “what’s frustrating for me is for the last ten years in British politics, and certainly the last five years in the Bow Group, we’ve been making that very case and the Conservative Party have attempted to destroy us and wipe us out.” He points to the current, and false, perception amongst many MPs that conservatism doesn’t have a philosophy. Quite optimistically, though, he predicts “we are transitioning away from the era of third-way politics, of consensus politics, back to the desire, not just of the management of buses running on time, but leadership, vision and inspiration.”
I pointed out that the enthusiasm for both Ruth Davidson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, though coming from different sides of the party, brought in the crowds at the last Conservative Party Conference and asked Mr Quinney-Harris in which direction the Party should head. “There is no conservative philosophy that I’m aware of that you could call Ruth Davidson a conservative”, in fact “the Conservative Party very often isn’t small-c conservative.” More to the point, however, is that whatever it stands for, “it needs to present clarity of vision…You basically know where Jeremy Corbyn stands whereas Theresa May…who is Theresa May? What does she stand for?” Having “lost their connection to a philosophical and ideological undercurrent”, Mr Harris-Quinney was not surprised at how bad the last Conservative manifesto was, nor how the Party failed to inspire the average citizen.
We discussed the bizarre situation in which those capturing the youth of today are on the edge, or very traditional side, of their parties. Corbyn and Mogg are examples, he claims, of a wider truth, of the Hegelian “Great Man Theory” that people are inspired by ideology and individuals with strong views, not by business-as-usual politics. The result of a polarized, two party system is, however, not desirable for the Chairman of the Bow Group who thinks this allows the two parties to get “lazy”, whereas more parties forces constant reappraisal of policy and people.
I turned his attention back towards the European Union and Brexit, as I wanted to know his long-term predictions for the EU as a project. “I think it will shrink in size, I think Britain won’t be the last nation to leave the European Union – it might not be the first if we don’t hurry up – and I think the Eurozone holds some real structural faults” which might, he ponders, result in economically ditching some of the Mediterranean countries, and fully leaving behind those Visegrad nations who do not share the EU’s political ambitions.
But what about our deal? Is there a deal May could come back with which Labour would vote for? Mr Harris-Quinney was pessimistic to say the least, “Theresa May is in an incredibly difficult position” with Labour and the Conservative Brexit rebels on the one hand, and the quite large group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs on the other. He doesn’t see the Prime Minister marshalling a deal between those factions, forecasting a potential drop down to WTO rules which might actually give us a strong hand in future negotiations. He claims that, having spoken to veteran Eurosceptics, “they are willing to trigger a leadership election to stop a soft Brexit”. He hints that this might be the right course of action, “I do think a Brexit result needs a Brexit government”, not least to be held accountable for pledges made during the campaign, but having a majority Remain government “massively weakens our negotiating position because we have people in Theresa May and Phillip Hammond and many members of the Cabinet that basically agree with the opposition we are negotiating with.”
Over our long interview it became clear Mr Harris-Quinney is not signed up to the centralising attempts of the Conservative Party under Cameron, nor is he any great fan of the Remain MPs, reserving his support instead for the Eurosceptic and traditional conservatives within the Party. That the Chairman of the prestigious Bow Group is taking this position, and given the popularity of MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg amongst card carrying conservatives, change within the Conservative Party seems inevitable and the direction of this change, whether in this or the more liberal trajectory, will likely manifest in the next leadership election.