When forming initial impressions, Dominic Grieve QC does not outwardly present as a rebel. Yet, Grieve, former Attorney General and former Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, finds himself in a tricky position. Having lost the Conservative Party Whip he is now campaigning as an independent to overturn his own previous Conservative majority in Beaconsfield.
Invited to speak at the Oxford PPE Society, Dominic Grieve arrives in a tweed suit, with slightly muddy shoes after a day of campaigning in Marlow. He sits down, red socks visible, which fall loosely in line with his ginger tie and poppy pin. Perhaps the colour choice is a reflection of his break from his erstwhile blueness.
He freely admits that he finds himself in a strange situation. Having won a 24,000 majority over Labour in the last General Election, he is now working to overturn that as an independent candidate. He explains that whilst he will be standing as an independent candidate, he does not lose his Conservative party membership until he nominates. Still a Conservative party member, Dominic Grieve laments the exodus of moderate, one-nation Tories from Parliament. Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, is standing down, without having the whip restored. So is Kenneth Clarke, grandfather of the House of Commons. Amber Rudd, a lead- ing voice for one-nation Tory-ism, finds no place for herself in the current Parliament. He seems to be under no illusion, that as an independent MP, his ability to affect changes through Parliament will be much reduced. Dominic Grieve fully ap- preciates the power of the pack in politics.
Yet, Dominic is fighting to stay on.
He concedes that he is not the most natural candidate for a rebel. Before Brexit, ‘establishment’ was more readily associated with him. Indeed, Grieve was educated at Westminster School and then Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was even President of Oxford University Conservative Association. Dominic went on to become a barrister at the Middle Temple; he couldn’t be much more conventional if he tried. He cut his political teeth as a councillor in London before being elected to the safe Tory seat of Beaconsfield.
Throughout his political career, he has been a passionate, small ‘c’ conservative, as much as one can be passionate as a small ‘c’ conservative. A self-described ‘liberal conservative’ with both a small ‘l’ and a small ‘c’, Dominic Grieve believes his views are very much within the conservative tradition, stating “I don’t think I can possibly market myself as anything different.”
He explains, “conservatism tends to centre around the belief that you’ve got an acquired series of benefits that you have inherited from your forebearers that you need to look after and develop, but not churn up unless there is absolutely an over- whelming reason for doing it. Which is why I would say Brexit is such an un-conservative act, because it is a total upheaval.”
I ask how much Grieve’s strand of conservatism as a concept is appreciated by today’s body of public opinion, and whether party politics takes precedence over conceptual considerations in the minds of voters.
Grieve maintains that “people do appreciate conservatism with a small “c”. And [he] thinks historically, one of the reasons for which the Conservative party has been so successful is actually in marketing conservatism with a small “c” to the public and it’s tended to have a very powerful resonance. The sense of security and well-being it gives to people has been one of the greatest selling points of the Conservative party.”
He concedes “it is true that in the 2016 referendum, a large number of people decided to support Brexit, interestingly, in many cases, in the name of “restoring conservatism”, going back to something which existed previously which they felt they’d lost.”
The slogan ‘Take Back Control’ for the Leave campaign immediately springs to mind for both of us. Dominic explains his disagreement, “yet, I don’t think that we’ve ever lost control or any more had control than we had in the EU.
“Truth is, if you’re not an economically powerful country, you will be bullied by other economically more powerful countries. And the history of Britain in the 60s and 70s was that we were being pushed around, so our sovereignty was purely nominal. And I think there is an absolute failure to explain this in the referendum campaign. The referendum campaign was, in my mind, pursued by a series of promises which were unfulfillable but clearly had resonance with the public; hence my comments that the political class had failed to explain what the EU was about and its advantages to us. We simply seem to have been incapable of doing it. And to that extent, that is a collective failure by the political class in that the political class itself couldn’t understand those benefits and seemed to have been unable to, and actually, even try to, persuade people of the advantages it was giving us.”
I draw his attention to the incompatibility between small ‘c’ conservatism and populism, which is riding high around the world at the moment. He concurs. “It’s undoubtedly that populism will destroy conservatism in the long run. There’s always been a bit of Conservative Party populism, but I think it’s not readily compatible.
“My view is that Boris may want to reset the politics of the country – let’s get Brexit done and then we can return to more tra- ditional forms of conservatism, claiming to be an ‘one-nation exponent’. But I think in practice, he is going to have great dif- ficulty doing it. I can’t say it’s impossible; as a very skilled politician, perhaps he will find a way in which he can deliver that. But I’m not persuaded that he will find it easy because it’s like if you go into the china shop and you smash up the china, and then you superglue it all back together, but it never looks quite the same as it did before.
“What does worry me is that the logic of Brexit is if Brexit is made to work, the economic model under which the United Kingdom operates thereafter probably needs to be totally changed.
“That’s one of the difficulties that Boris Johnson is going to have to grap- ple with at the end of this process – that if he tries to take his project forward post-Brexit, he’s going to find that the public don’t want what he’s offering and what he needs to try and do meets with very strong level of opposition.”
“What attracts Boris Johnson is I think the idea that we can be a small, buccaneering country delivering huge amounts of wealth creation. But to do that you’ve got to dismantle the existing economic structure of the UK. This is more revolution and all revolutions have their victims. You can’t make the omelette without breaking the eggs.”
The palpable pessimism is penetrating. I ask if he thinks that we will be in great political turmoil for the foreseeable future.
He argues, “if we don’t rescind or stop Brexit, then yes, I cannot see how we are not going to avoid another 4-5 years of very difficult public spending decisions. Politicians try to avoid making predictions, but actually our whole business is about predicting the future and trying to adjust to it as best as we can. “Something says to me that we’re going to have a tumultuous time re-adjusting, through a new series of partnerships, is going to be a painful process. I wish we weren’t doing it. “The tragedy is that I don’t think the public, outside a tiny minority, really want it. They wanted continuity and ‘taking back control’.”
“All other policy-making agendas have been subordinated by legislations to get Brexit through. It’s almost inevitable that most of them are about expenditure and money, how we best structure our society and provide public services. We ought to be having a lively debate about that and try to make some progress for some reform changes; which is just not happening. I do regret that very much. The longer it goes on, the longer the sense of frustration the public will have. Because even though, to be fair, the government does try to pay some attention to this, it gets absolutely no resonance or publicity whatsoever.”
I ask Dominic Grieve about the domestic issues he wishes to draw attention to.
“There are a number of key domestic is- sues that we need to address. We realise that there is a youth crime problem. I know its gone in cyclical patterns but it’s curious that 10 years ago, there was a sense that people were dealing with it adequately. But why it is that now people are dealing with it in a way, particularly with knife crime, which is highly localised, but which is something that is causing particular disquiet. That might be to do with the state of society but more work ought to be done on that.
“I think our education system is not actually bad. It’s in a much better condition than it was thirty years ago. But there is still an awful lot of work to be done. And schools may vary and I think this is very much about leadership, more than money. And therefore still, I believe this is a great challenge.
“Our health service provision is more strained. I am not sure of simply pumping money into the NHS is the solution; but equally, the attempt to restructure and reform it to free up 20bn pounds in 2010-13 was not a great success. It was not intentional, but we need to do more work on that.
“And finally I happen to think that National Defence is grossly underfunded.”
I direct his attention to a recent opinion piece by Lord Waldegrave for The Sunday Times, in which he asserts that Britain has a national identity crisis. The rhetoric of winning WWII or having a Commonwealth or a special relationship with the EU seems to be no longer adequate.
He concurs that that these are indeed difficult times but insists on being an optimist. “Ultimately, the UK is a very resilient country and this is a long established tradition. There are many aspects of our national life that are hugely positive. Our capacity to get out of these problems is quite good as well.’
“The narrative at the moment is jiggering. There is a general malaise of the Western world. A loss of a sense of identity, of security, a loss of a sense of generational interaction and anxiety about the future. One of Britain’s greatest advantages is that as a country, we have been a historic entity for a long time, and has grown organically, except in the Irish context, without violence, in terms of the unity coming together.
“It’s been able to deliver a profound narrative of inclusion, tolerance, fairness; the underpinnings of the ways in which society operates. People have lost consonance, and that worries me much more. They’re looking for alternative solutions such as narrow nationalism.
“I was shocked to hear that a Tory candidate selected in North Midlands recently said that as far as they were concerned, Northern Ireland and Scotland can just take a running jar, what mattered to this person was just Brexit. We’re still the Conservative and Unionist Party!”
Dominic Grieve is rushed to go to a dinner, so we part ways. Whatever one may think of Brexit or the roles indi- vidual politicians play in its deliverance, one leaves with a sense that Dominic Grieve is a small ‘c’ conservative states- man fashioning himself after Burke, and toil he will for his lifelong beliefs.