Owen Jones: Cruel? Certainly. Unforgivable? Beyond doubt. But the Tories aren't actually evil

It would be easy to imagine a cabal of upper-class sadomasochists, plotting ever more devious ways to hunt children on council estates like foxes. But it misses the point

Are the Tories evil? It is a debate that has provoked a ruckus on social media this week. Sunny Hundal – editor of left-of-centre blog Liberal Conspiracy – declared yes, emphatically, they are. If someone of “considerable responsibility or power deliberately ignores or cheers on policies that lead to multiple deaths,” he writes, “they are ‘evil’.” As evidence, he cites global warming and the celebration of mass murdering dictators such as Augusto Pinochet. Tom Chivers, the Daily Telegraph’s in-house token liberal struck back: he was baffled that refuting the “evil” of the right should be anything but an “entirely uncontroversial” statement.

For some of those who suffer or who have suffered pain at the hands of Tory policies, there will be an almost instinctive agreement with Hundal. My credentials for even wading into this argument could justifiably be questioned. I write about the misery caused by this wretched Government; I don’t experience it. But, in my view, it is not only wrong to label the political right as “evil”: it is potentially dangerous.

To be clear, I inherited an unapologetic contempt for Toryism that spans generations, ever since my great-granddad had his wages docked after taking part in the 1926 General Strike under the Conservative government. My parents watched large swathes of Sheffield being dismantled in the 1980s, as unemployment quadrupled and industries were liquidated. The miners were smashed, leading to untold anguish, even suicides; entire communities were left bereft of secure jobs or hope, and in too many cases it was heroin that filled the vacuum.

And here they are again, wreaking a social destruction that most of the media elite are too insulated from to feel much outrage about. It is projected that over a million children will be driven into poverty by this Government’s policies. Half a million people, unable to properly feed themselves in one of the most prosperous countries, have been driven to food banks, particularly because of cuts to benefits or delays in payments. Sick and disabled people are being stripped of support. The bedroom tax is punishing hundreds of thousands for the failure of successive governments to build council housing. Cuts to in-work and out-of-work benefits have been imposed as a cynical ploy, to paint Labour as the party of welfarism: the cost of such political manoeuvring with more people having to choose between heating and food.

Cruel? Certainly. Unforgivable? Beyond doubt. Evil? No. “Evil” is a comforting, but worrying concept. Its connotations are so extreme that, by applying it to someone, you at a stroke strip them of their humanity; you cease in any way to be able to imagine their rationales or thought processes; they simply become a cartoon villain, for whom the ultimate thrill is the inflicting of misery. As soon as you fail to understand your enemy, they have already defeated you. It would be easy to imagine the Tories as a cabal of upper-class sadomasochists, spending their evenings plotting ever more devious ways to hunt children on council estates like rural foxes. But it misses the point.

The political right is the inevitable, rational product of an unequal society. At its inception, the modern Conservative Party was the political wing of the landed, aristocratic elite, determined to block demands for social change from below. When a modest extension of male suffrage was presented to Parliament in the 1830s, the hysterical Tory response included denouncing it as “a revolution that will overturn all the natural influences of rank and property”. With the advent of universal suffrage, it became impossible for the Tories to overtly present themselves as a political gravy train for the rich. To defend the interests of the established order, it was necessary to develop a wider popular appeal: whether by promising there was room at the top for the able and willing; through manipulating fears over, say, immigration or crime; by exploiting existing divisions in working-class communities.

The human ability to rationalise is powerful indeed. Most of us like to believe we’re “doing the right thing”: a politician introducing a policy that any independent observer will find drives people into poverty will privately justify it to themselves as necessary or unavoidable or for the long-term good of those affected. It allows people – on the right as well as left – to stubbornly believe things in spite of all the facts. Take Iain Duncan Smith, who has a track record of misusing statistics to favour his attack on the welfare state. A former ministerial colleague of his was adamant that Duncan Smith believed in his own righteousness – but, crucially, was capable of holding two contradictory ideas in his head at the same time.

All of our personalities are the complex products of our upbringings; of our interactions with parents, relatives, friends, strangers, those we dislike; of experiences, whether they be traumatic, frightening, exciting, pleasurable. We tend to see things through a prism: we judge the world through our accumulated prejudices and suppositions. That’s why two different people can look at one given episode and draw divergent, even opposition conclusions. New experiences can be used to reinforce our own world view; we can end up discarding those that contradict them.

As is well known, the Tory front-bench is drawn from the most privileged sections of society. Such a background can – though not inevitably – lead to a failure to understand why people may struggle to get by. It means mixing with other prosperous people, who they may see as the real drivers of prosperity who just need to be left to their own devices, freed from meddling governments and unions. It is a background that may produce a belief that all who work hard can prosper, because it causes too much insecurity to acknowledge the odds stacked in their favour from birth. No wonder, then, so many of them end up worshipping “self-reliance”: the idea that all should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the implication being that those who fail to do so are personally to blame. Easy, then, to justify policies that benefit the rich (who you see as noble wealth-creators) and punish the poor (who you see as those too feckless to climb the social ladder without prodding).

The right is not evil. Neither is it simply “misguided” or “wrong”. It is a symptom, or a reflection, of how our society is structured. Talk of “evil” is best left to theologians. Demonising the right may make us feel good; but it won’t help defeat them.

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