Five minutes with… Tim Stanley: On Boris, Brexit, and the BBC
Tim Stanley is a broadcaster, historian and Telegraph Leader Writer.
Hi, Tim. So – be honest: was there ever a moment when you thought the Tories would lose this election?
I never thought they would lose but right up election day I was worried we’d get a hung Parliament. On election day itself, I woke up and thought: “Pull the other one, Corbyn can’t win.” I told everyone in the office it would be a Tory majority of around 40 and was happily vindicated. Someone asked me what I was basing it on and I said: “I just assume everyone thinks like me.”
Both of us have written about this election result being not just a political but a cultural revolution. What do you think the Conservatives can do to respond to this in an effective way?
First, it’s a question of what they WON’T do. The state doesn’t necessary shape culture but it can endorse it, which is what the Tories have done for a long time. Now, if they want to, they can withdraw the state sponsorship of the liberal agenda, which would make a big difference. End political correctness in policing, for instance. We all know that time spent tweeting about transphobic penguins is time spent not investigating a burglary.
Second, conservatives with a small c – like me – have to engage more with the cultural sphere. It’s not about making political art – propaganda is almost always tasteless and worthless – but just providing that which modern liberal culture won’t produce: a good tune, a belly-laugh, poetry with capital letters.
…And how do you think our cultural institutions, for example the BBC and Universities, should respond?
The BBC needs a massive re-evaluation. We were promised one after the EU referendum, but we didn’t get it. Again, it’s not about churning out Right-wing agitprop (I don’t want to see Songs of Praise with Katie Hopkins), but getting back to good drama, good comedy, stuff that seeks to reflect all of life in modern Britain. I want to see the BBC bring back its play strands: Play for Today, Ghost Story at Christmas etc. I don’t care about the politics, I just think they’ve got to search for talent and give it a platform, to take risks.
As for universities, I’d never tell academics what to teach or research, it’s not about that. It’s about administrations having the courage to say “no” to unreasonable student demands. That entire sector needs to be shaken up. Academic morale is the lowest I’ve ever seen it, and it’s due to commercialisation, overwork and nasty internal politics.
What is your view on decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee?
Go for it. If the BBC were ballet, Shakespeare, Robin Day and Are You Being Served, I’d gladly pay for it. But so much of its output is just rubbish and it couldn’t compete in the marketplace. Are you really going to arrest someone over EastEnders?
You’ve been on a big political journey – I think you were a full on Socialist, correct? What changed? How would you describe yourself now?
The story is too long to tell here: suffice to say that I changed, the Left changed and the experience of being a Catholic changed everything. I’m not so much against socialism as I’m against the idea that politics is redemptive. I believe it’s up to me to change things, not the state. Now I’m a political trifle, a mess of different ideas, but I’m at home within the conservative family. They are a lot more fun than the Left. They drink and smoke, for a start.
You are sometimes criticised – which, of course, is absurd in a free society – for your devout Roman Catholicism. How much does your religion inform your politics? Do you think there is still room for religion in politics? Isn’t “our NHS” the national religion now?
I am simply a Catholic: if anyone wants to understand what motivates me, that’s it. It’s all that matters. It’s my alpha and omega, my raison d’etre.
There’s a lot of religion in politics: many MPs are religious and there’s a strain of Christian thinking in both parties. Parliament is probably more religious than the rest of the country. But there’s been a decline in religious confidence, a waning of faith and an erosion of theological literacy. This country is returning slowly to its pagan roots and, yes, the NHS provides a focal point for community identity that the church has abandoned (voluntarily in most cases).
It’s said that the UK is two years or so behind America politically – what do you think this result suggests about Trump’s re-election bid? Do you subscribe to the theory that Boris is Britain’s Trump?
I now think Trump can win. Brexit and Trump dance a pirouette: Brexit’s victory made Trump’s win seem possible, and now Boris’ win makes Trump’s re-election seem likely. In both cases, the liberal establishment has tried to overturn a democratic win via legal and parliamentary tactics, which has been a massive mistake.
All that said, Brexit is far more popular than Trump and Boris more intellectual and liberal. Boris is a centre-Right Tony Blair. Until Labour realises they are up against a charming moderate, they’ll never beat him.
As we’re a Conservative site, we always ask this question. Which Tory politician – or figure – do you most admire, and why?
I think BoJo is the most interesting PM since Wilson and we’re lucky to have his like. If I had to spend a weekend in Prestatyn with anyone though, it would be Harold Macmillan. I’m attracted to his ambiguity, which I recognise in myself.
Thanks for talking to us – and have a great Christmas.