A 'Red Tory' on Britain
An interview with M.P. Danny Kruger of Wiltshire.
Last year, I introduced readers of this column to Maurice Glasman, the Labour peer in the House of Lords who a decade ago launched “Blue Labour.” The movement aims to counter the individualist, market-fundamentalist, and essentially neoliberal tendency that has dominated Britain’s Labour party since the Tony Blair era. Glasman instead promotes a left that actually honors working-class people and their yearning for greater material stability and cultural cohesion in the face of the dislocations brought about by free trade and de-industrialization.
Glasman isn’t without friends on the left, but these days he often receives his most sympathetic hearing among a subset of Conservatives who call themselves “Red Tories” (paradoxically and provocatively appending Labour’s traditional color to the party of the right). Just as, on the left, Glasman wants to combat his party’s catastrophic drift toward progressive neoliberalism, so these Tories seek to articulate a more solidaristic, pro-worker, and pro-family conservatism, ditching some Thatcherite orthodoxies in the bargain.
Danny Kruger, a member of Parliament from Wiltshire, is a leader of this tendency. I’ve dined with him in London twice in recent months, but the interview that follows was conducted via Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.
Sohrab Ahmari: I want to begin with a concrete problem across the English Channel, in the hope that it will open up the deeper philosophical issues for us: namely, the ferocious protests in France against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age to sixty-four, from sixty-two currently. The proposal on its face doesn’t strike me as crazy, but it is being rammed through by undemocratic means. As a Red Tory, where do you situate yourself in response to something like that?
Danny Kruger: Well you have in France a very robust tradition of protest, of resistance to anything that appears to be Anglo-Saxon neoliberal economics. And whenever President Macron tries to modernize their economy and get people working in a productive way, we get this. In a sense, from a British perspective, I think, “Well, the French need to get with the program like the rest of us.” But I also respect and honor the sense that they resist a top-down, pretty-undemocratic approach to change. Although Macron is trying to bring France to the Atlantic model, there are some honorable traditions in France which resist it.
Beyond that, it isn’t really for me to be lecturing the French. But the crisis is part of a broader conversation that we are all having about what the world looks like, or should like, and what our responsibilities are to people as they age. What we are losing in our country, Britain, and across the West, is the tradition of a volunteer workforce: of people whose non-remunerative activities later in life were supported by other members of their family, their adult children or their spouses, and were therefore able to contribute significantly in the neighborhood. What we’re seeing now, across all ages, is a real emphasis on remunerated employment, at the expense of all other family or civic obligations. Related phenomena include later retirement, as well as people returning to work soon after having children. All of this is hollowing out the volunteer workforce and the neighborhood. And it’s turning the daytime, week-time suburban street or market-town main street into a desert.
S.A.: Policy-wise, what would you do to renew the tradition of non-remunerated, civic work that people could do at the twilight of their lives, rather than hustling for the market into their seventies?
D.K.: In terms of supporting people, particularly older people, into [volunteer, non-remunerative] work, we need family wages! We need an economy in which one full-time or two part-time adults work, and that suffices to support the kids and keep elderly parents either in their own homes or nearby.
Moreover, we have a chronic problem of the fragmented family, where people live quite a few miles apart from their parents. I think we need to think quite deliberately about a housing policy and a tax-and-benefits regime that supports the wider family network, as well as the nuclear family. But it does ultimately come down to the need to sustain couples, which are the foundation of supporting children and elderly parents. A couple supported by grandparents and taking care of children is such a strong base for family flourishing generally. A lot of fiscal reforms are needed for this.
One problem we have in the U.K., uniquely in the developed world, is that we have a very individualistic taxation model, and this is a legacy of Margaret Thatcher, who ended the old model of the wife’s income being taxed as part of the husband’s income. That was quite natural and right, but she didn’t replace it with anything that would recognize the obligations that couples have to their dependents, whether their children or their adult parents. Most countries have a recognition of the household, of family dependence, in the tax system. We treat the individual as an individual, and if they happen to have dependents, well, that’s their cost. Society doesn’t recognize them. So we penalize family formation and family stability through our tax system. And that seems to me the deepest problem we need to fix.
S.A.: Tell me about your political and intellectual development.
D.K.: So I began as a young Hayekian. My conservatism started in the 1980s as a schoolboy, inspired by the Thatcherite creed of individual liberty and self-reliance. I even read Ayn Rand enthusiastically as a kid. But then in university I discovered Edmund Burke, actually through reading Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish writer, who has a great biography of Burke actually from the left. [He treats] Burke as a counter-blast to rationalism and liberal individualism and to the hubris of the moment, of this generation. It struck me very forcibly. So in my twenties, I adapted my conservatism and recognized the far richer resource that conservatism is than just a doctrine of personal freedom, and how much conservatism actually mitigates the excesses of individualism. And that tracks the wider journey that the conservative movement has been on in the post-Thatcher era in the U.K. I worked for a series of Tory leaders in opposition, Iain Duncan Smith and then David Cameron, both of whom were trying to adapt to the consequences of de-industrialization; to the familial and social breakdown that was pretty endemic in the 1990s and 2000s, and which is still with us; and to the changing economy of the West with the rise of China and so on.
So my development reflects that, but I also have become increasingly at odds with the liberal social vision and with the whole idea that we’re on some progressive path to a secular utopia, if only we can rid ourselves of all prejudices and inherited institutions that oppress the authentic self. Even though it’s essentially a liberal and left-wing philosophy, it still corrupts some conservative thought, as well.
[Through it all,] I worked in and around Conservative politics, for the party and for the Telegraph newspaper, and I wrote speeches for David Cameron when he was in opposition. But then I left all that to work full-time in a charity I set up with my wife, working in prisons for ten years in London. Also in my twenties, I became a Christian, having grown up an atheist. I was a cultural and social conservative before I was a Christian. But they chimed, didn’t they? I found myself increasingly convinced that just talking about social responsibility...was a bit inadequate if I wasn’t actively doing something myself. I struggle to attribute anything I do to my faith, because we’re all inspired by our beliefs. I can’t say whether I would’ve done the charity without being a Christian, it’s certainly not a Christian charity. But I suppose I feel called to that work.
The charity supports prisoners and ex-offenders, mainly with male prisoners. We support prisoners as they prepare to leave prison.
S.A.: Re-entry, as we call it in the States.
D.K.: Yes, and I was actually pretty inspired by a BBC Radio 4 program about a prison-reform movement in the United States. It was the Right on Crime movement, if that rings a bell. And we went to visit jails in Texas, and these very conservative Republican governors and senators were realizing that just sending people to prison for minor crimes was just filling up prison populations without tackling crime. So they realized they needed to focus on rehabilitation, on stopping re-offending. What inspired me about these conservative Republicans is that they had a very uncomplicated attitude to the crime: You committed the crime, you go to prison and serve a significant sentence, don’t tell me about how your mother neglected you or how you were a victim of structural inequality—you did it. But on the other side, once you’ve been convicted and punished, we as a society will be there for you, and we’ll pick you up, and we’ll put you back on your feet.
There’s this very rich tradition and infrastructure of support for former prisoners in Texas. I was really impressed by it. Whereas in the U.K., we do it the other way around. We make lots of excuses for criminals, blaming social factors and all the rest of it. So we don’t punish people robustly. But then, when we do punish them, they’re on their own. They don’t have any meaningful system of support coming out of prison. So it’s the wrong way around. I think we should be clear about criminality and personal responsibility, but we also need to then socially care for the re-entering prisoner, and that’s my philosophy on crime and what we try to do with our charity.
S.A.: So what made you want to return to politics?
D.K.: Well, I got back involved after Brexit. I was a strong supporter of Brexit. I was very inspired by that result and felt that something positive was happening in the culture: a restoration of the nation to itself, a rejection not just of the European Union, but of the wider forces of estrangement and alienation and centralization of power away from the community. The public rejected that. So I got involved, eventually advising the government [post-Brexit] on community policy. And when Boris became prime minister in 2019, I was appointed his political secretary in 10 Downing Street. So I worked with him through those incredibly fraught and difficult months when we were still a minority party (we were just the biggest party).... Boris wanted to get Brexit through a Parliament that didn’t want it. And again, I was very inspired by his leadership and courage through that period. And eventually, because Parliament simply wouldn’t allow Britain to get out of the European Union, notwithstanding the referendum result, he called an election, and at that point, I was selected as a candidate and became an M.P. in late 2019. My first vote as an M.P. was to vote for the Withdrawal Act, which suddenly had a great public mandate.
S.A.: What was the message of Brexit in 2016? What was its true message? And did the Tories really appreciate that message? Was it truly understood?
D.K.: I think people decided to interpret Brexit as something different from what it really was. The reason the Leave campaign won was because they successfully mobilized people who hadn’t voted before, people who were disenchanted by politics and didn’t see a difference between Labour and Conservatives, people who felt disenfranchised by the ruling class in my country. And what they were voting for, in the brilliant slogan of the Leave campaign, was to “take back control.” So it wasn’t about leaving Europe, detaching from our inheritance as a European country. It was, in fact, about restoring that identity by restoring our identity as a nation. But [the problem was that] the existing ruling class was charged with implementing Brexit and, as a result, did it in a way that wouldn’t have worked. Thanks to a small group of brave Conservative M.P.s—this was in the Parliament in 2017-19, one I wasn’t a member of—who became known as “the Spartans,” an arrangement that would have been the worst of both worlds was forestalled. That was the proposal that the E.U. was offering us at the time. They held out against the form of Brexit which was being proposed.
Even among those who campaigned for it, there was a distinction between those who saw it as a way for Britain to become even more entrenched in the globalized economy and pick up trading opportunities in the Far East; and those who wanted to establish or re-establish self-sufficiency in the U.K. And both are necessary. We are never going to become either a purely self-sufficient, protectionist nation; nor are we going to ever, I hope, become exclusively reliant on imports. But we are on the horns of that dilemma at the moment. And there’s no doubt in my mind that what the British public wants, and what is the better approach, is a more economically nationalist vision that recognizes that in the 21st century you can’t rely on precarious global supply chains or the goodwill of allies. And it’s not the right thing socially or economically to be so weak domestically in terms of our production: Food, energy, technology—we’ve become very good at importing and serving as a sort of butler to the global financial system, rather than growing our own industries. The lesson of Brexit, in short, was to strengthen the U.K., rather than just have a lot of trade deals with the Far East, and it certainly wasn’t about increasing immigration, which is what we’re currently doing. Our own growth forecasts are dependent upon the net import of 250,000 people a year, which, for a country with only 65 million in it, is quite significant. People voted to take back sovereignty and for that exercise of sovereignty to include reducing immigration.
S.A.: One issue you’ve taken leadership on is the battle against legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide. It’s a dystopian policy born of the worst of the individualist-progressive left and the market-fundamentalist right, with market-ist pressures bearing down on the most vulnerable. Why is it so important to resist this trend?
D.K.: Besides individualism and market forces, assisted suicide also combines a third element: namely, a kind of collectivism—bizarrely, evilly, the cult of individual autonomy draws strength from the [collectivist] idea that you shouldn’t be a burden, and we’ve decided that it’s immoral to be a burden on others, when in fact that’s the essential human condition. When are we not a burden? There are moments in our lives when we are especially a burden—in infancy, in our final years—but all of us are always to some degree a burden. That is the human condition, it’s not something we should try to obviate in a total way.
The drift toward assisted suicide is in some ways an understandable response to an aging population and medicine’s new prowess to keep people in a state that we might not regard as having “quality of life.” So how we die is a subject of legitimate discussion in the age of enormous medical advances. But I don’t think the answer is to lean more into liberalism and extend to individuals this terrible new right. Because what you’re actually doing is extending to other people—doctors, judges, administrators in the system—the terrible, great power to decide if somebody’s life is worth terminating. This isn’t really about human freedom. It would lead to terrible abuse. And of course, the main concern is the most vulnerable, those who live at the mercy of health system.
S.A.: Let’s talk about current electoral prospects. If the polls maintain their trajectory, Labour could win the next election, and I know you’re worried about some Tories seeking to restore the party’s pre-Brexit neoliberal consensus, just as some of us in the United States worry about the GOP reverting to its pre-Trump neoliberal mix.
D.K.: So in the U.K., we are well-behind in the polls, but we are well-behind only among people who’ve made up their minds, and there are still lots of undecideds, who are waiting to see if we are going to deliver on the mandate we were given in 2019. We’ve had all these changes—three premiers, Covid, and so on—but we haven’t yet convinced the public that we are doing what we were elected to do. I think we’ve still got time to do that, and I think Rishi Sunak realizes it. But whether we succeed or not, we’ll have to find out.
If we lose, my concern is that the party will conclude that the experiment with populism was a mistake, and that we need to revert to a David Cameron-era centrism.... It would be seen as a rejection of realignment politics, or whatever we want to call it. Actually, the realignment is still vital, and it’s just a question of which party or politician is going to harness it. I don’t want for that to happen, because the Conservative Party is such a stabilizing force for our country, precisely because it manages to maintain establishment qualities like expertise and the affiliation of people in positions of authority—while also representing the values and interests of the public. But as every Conservative since Disraeli has recognized, in the case of a conflict between the establishment and the public, you’ve got to side with the people and the establishment has got to get with the program. So…we have to deliver for those voters. They’re unfashionable, and they have views that the liberal elite in London doesn’t approve of. And they are right in their desire for a politics that recognizes their aspirations and attitudes. That’s what we have to deliver.
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S.A.: What, concretely, would it mean for the Tories to fulfill their 2019 mandate?
D.K.: Fulfilling the mandate, to me, would mean doing two things the public voted for us to do. One is, “Get Brexit done,” which in a sense we have achieved. But to make that real, we have to take back control of our borders and to reduce or get on a path of reducing immigration. And there’s a massive problem with immigration. That has to stop, and the government is very committed to doing that. So immigration reduction is the first thing.
The second thing is more long-term, and it’s related to immigration: namely, reversing de-industrialization and shoring up manufacturing, especially in the north. De-industrialization was a disaster for communities across the north. What should’ve happened was re-industrialization: We couldn’t have carried on digging coal out of the ground very expensively, but we should have transformed the economies of those places, and that is our mission now. To restore dignity to working men and women by providing well-paying, dignified jobs, and that means out of the southeast [London], and not in the service sector.