If you think the left has too much power in education, blame Nadhim Zahawi. He could have become a teacher or lecturer instead of a businessman so successful as to incur a tax bill in the millions. If you deplore the preachiness of the modern museum, blame Boris Johnson. He could have tried to run one after he left 10 Downing Street instead of talking up blockchain for a fee. Each man’s choice was understandable. But each also meant one less conservative in a left-liberal domain.
The controversies of the day expose a problem with the right and it isn’t corruption. It isn’t “sleaze”. It is the impossibility of chasing money and fighting the culture wars. Zahawi is one person, but stands for millions of a conservative temper in each generation. They are entitled to choose lucrative work over a life in the institutions that set the cultural weather. They are entitled to deplore the success of the left in bending those institutions to their dogma. What is neither honest nor becoming is to do both: to forfeit terrain and then seethe at its capture by hostile elements.
There is an axiom that is often attributed, probably wrongly, to the historian Robert Conquest. Any organisation that is not explicitly rightwing will sooner or later become leftwing. The genius of the insight is that it avoids paranoia. It doesn’t pretend that there is a plot afoot. It doesn’t imagine some Gramscian scheme to train up leftist cadres and send them on a long march through the institutions. It just recognises a general gravitation of left-leaning people to careers where the profit motive isn’t paramount. It is harder than you think for media outlets of even conservative outlook to hire and retain people who aren’t given to a sort of too-easy liberalism. Imagine how much harder it is for institutions that aren’t making a conscious effort.
To put it another way, while the culture war will modulate in intensity, the basic shape of it will never change. Barring the introduction of universal conscription into arts organisations, academic faculties, publishing houses, official bureaucracies, quangos and public broadcasters, these entities will more often than not tilt left. Such is the aggregation of individual choices like Zahawi’s. Or, indeed, Rishi Sunak’s to go into finance. Or Jeremy Hunt’s to set up a business after graduating. If I were being cheeky, I’d call it the invisible hand of the market.
Yes, business does “woke” too, but only after the institutions above had created the ambient moral pressure. And look at the bit of corporate life that is most often accused of being the conduit for those ideas. Human Resources. One of the less well-paid departments within the typical corporation. It is crassly Marxist to say so, I know, but at every turn there really is a material explanation for cultural outcomes.
Imagine, if you can bear it, the life of the average stand-up comedian. You traipse from pub to club for a small fee and expenses. “Success” is the occasional slot on a television panel show. You start a deeply unremunerative podcast. You self-publish a novel and lose money on it.
No one who is financially motivated would enter this world. Those who prioritise other things, such as creative expression or public exposure, might. And that — not the innate unfunniness of conservatives, not a liberal plot against them — is why comedy is a near-monopoly of the left. The right is usually the first to say that a state of affairs can be “unequal” without being “unfair”. It struggles to do so in this instance.
Conservatism is to a large extent self-eroding. A philosophy that (rightly) salutes enterprise will not attract enough people who want to serve in the culture-shaping institutions. Sure enough, the culture becomes less and less conservative. This problem is all the more acute in the US, where conservatism so exalts the profit motive that it is itself an industry. Burning away in the Republican gut is a historic grievance. Even as the “movement” achieved electoral success over half a century, the texture of life in the country went the other way. The school curricula. The policing of language. The positive discrimination. Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes didn’t win for this.
Some conservatives have rationalised this discrepancy between electoral triumph and cultural retreat as a kind of leftwing swindle. Or, worse, as proof of democracy’s futility. Their own complicity is lost on them. There are Republicans who can’t believe how leftwing universities are and also can’t believe that anyone would ever choose the unlucrative life of an academic. At some point, you’d hope, the irony will dawn on them.