Toby Young: Why I am a Conservative

Journalist Toby Young explains the evolution of his political philosophy, from rebellious teenage anarchist, to a Classical Liberal and Conservative

I often wonder what my 14-year-old self would make of the man I’ve become. No doubt he’d be horrified by the terrible toll that 51 years on this earth have taken on my physical appearance. The extent of my hair loss would depress him, particularly when I told him it started when I was 22. On the other hand, I expect he’d be secretly impressed by my wife and four children. Those fears about never being able to pull anyone were clearly misplaced.

But what about my politics? My adolescence coincided with the birth of punk rock – and what a stroke of luck that was! In the entire history of popular culture, has there ever been a musical phenomenon that so perfectly expresses the feelings of a teenage boy in the throes of an adolescent crisis? I doubt it. Every rush of blood to the head was accompanied by the release of a new album giving voice to my hormonal rage.

I remember buying ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ the day it came out, a week after my 14th birthday. I swaggered down the King’s Road clutching my copy, a miniature dagger poking through my ear and a green streak running through my hair. I glared at the teddy boys on the other side of the road – still the mortal enemies of punks in those days – but they didn’t dare cross, probably because I was surrounded by about 30 other teenage boys in bondage trousers.

I thought of myself as an Anarchist and spray-painted a giant ‘A’ on my bedroom wall. I used to stand in front of the mirror singing ‘Anarchy in the UK’, strumming along on an acoustic guitar – not hard considering there were only three chords. My political philosophy could be summed up by the words of Aleister Crowley: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Fast forward 37 years and my politics are somewhat different. I’m now a cheerleader for the Tory Party. I “came out” as a conservative during the 2010 general election campaign, but I felt a bit like one of those gay men who emerges from the closet only to discover that his friends have known about his “secret” for years. My enthusiasm for David Cameron surprised no one. I now regularly appear on television and radio to defend the Government and was one of the few commentators to predict the Tories would win an overall majority in 2015.

So my 14-year-old self would be appalled, right? From the point of view of that green-haired punk, it would be like coming face to face with the local Conservative MP. The thought that this is what he’d become in 37 years time would surely horrify him.

Well, yes, up to a point. I’m certainly not as angry as I was back then. I was angry with the previous generation of rock ’n’ roll stars for “selling out”, angry with a political class that had presided over a period of unparalleled national decline, angry with my parents’ generation for wallowing in nostalgia instead of building a better future. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee? I thought it epitomized everything that was wrong with Britain.

Clearly, there’s a huge gulf between that hot-tempered punk and the person I am now. For one thing, I’m a staunch Royalist. Back then, I felt like an outsider, an alienated youth, whereas today I’m a fully-paid up member of the petit bourgeoisie. If my neighbours play their music too loud I knock on their door and tell them to turn it down and if I see anyone dropping litter on my street, look out! I’ve become the sort of curtain-twitching busy-body I used to hate.

But, fundamentally, my political views haven’t changed. As a 14-year-old anarchist, I felt the same implicit mistrust of the state as I do now. The reason I support the cuts is because I think the state has become too big. Between 1998/99 and 2008/09, public expenditure increased by more than 50%, leaving Britain with a national debt of over a trillion pounds. We’ve borrowed so much that it cost the British taxpayer £43 billion last year just to pay the interest. That’s £120 million a day.

I think the top rate of tax is too high. Why should a top rate taxpayer be forced to hand over half their income to the government on pain of imprisonment? What right does the state have to such a high percentage of their earnings? The fact that the government is going to use some of that money to pay for public services is no defence. The best way to increase tax receipts is to cut the highest tax rate. People work harder and the government ends up raking in more money. Ronald Reagan cut the highest rate of tax from 70% to 31% and tax revenues went up.

My political philosophy can be summed up in the words of Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform. “I don’t want to abolish government,” he said. “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it in to the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

That’s what I believed when I was a punk and that’s what I believe now.

What would have genuinely appalled my 14-year-old self, I think, is the political allegiance of present-day anarchists like the Black Bloc anti-cuts protestors. How can anyone who defends Big Government call themselves an anarchist? Most of them actually want to increase the top rate of tax even further as an alternative to cutting spending. That’s not anarchism. That’s state-ism. For an anarchist to be in favour of higher taxes is like a vegetarian wanting to build a bigger slaughterhouse.

The standard response to this is to point out that there are two different strains of anarchism. Yes, there’s an individualist strain which supports private property and free markets – that’s what I mean by “anarchism”. But there’s also a collectivist strain with its roots in utopian socialism – anarcho-syndicalism. (I used to call myself an “anarcho-cynicalist”.)

While protesting against the cuts is incompatible with my version, it’s not incompatible with the other, more student-y variety. The Black Bloc anarchists believe that capitalism is the root of all evil and once you’ve built a socialist Jerusalem there will be no need for laws and police officers and nasty things like that. In their view, the state just exists to protect the interests of the top hat-wearing ruling class – Lord Snooty and his Pals. Once they’ve been put up against the wall and shot – or, at the very least, denuded of their property – the state will no longer be necessary.

Members of each group claim to be the only “true” anarchists, but it’s a rich and varied political tradition. As a label, it’s sufficiently vague to encompass both factions – the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front.

I wouldn’t argue with that. What I would dispute is that it’s possible to have a truly socialist society without a heavy dose of state control. If history teaches us anything it’s that high-minded, left-wing political experiments quickly degenerate into tyrannical despotism. Shortly after the October Revolution in 1917, Lenin could rightfully claim that Russia was the free-est society in the world. Forty years later, at the time of Stalin’s death, there were two-and-a-half million political prisoners locked up in the Gulag.

Is it unfair to point to the French Revolution, the Soviet Union and Paul Pot’s Cambodia as “proof” that the kind of radical equality espoused by Black Bloc anarchists inevitably leads to state terror? Left-wing romantics often cite Spain during the period of the Civil War (1936-39) as an example of anarcho-socialism in action and it’s worth pausing to look at that short-lived political experiment in more detail. Does it provide any evidence that socialism and anarchism can be successfully combined?

In the Spanish cities, unionized workers seized control of capitalist businesses, but ran them on much the same lines as before, with different pay scales for different workers depending on the rarity of their skills. Where the business were profitable, the “worker-managers” soon started awarding themselves the same perks the owners had enjoyed, including fat bonuses. Capitalism hadn’t been overthrown, as the leaders of the anarcho-socialist movement claimed. On the contrary, all the hallmarks of the old system remained. The only thing that changed were the men in top hats.

The anarchists who took over the land in rural areas were more circumspect about not allowing the experiment to be derailed by narrow self-interest. All farmers and smallholders were forced to turn over their livestock and supplies to “the pile” and anyone who refused had to answer to the anarchists’ military wing. These were the Spanish equivalent of Stalin’s “collective farms”, only instead of being run by Communist Party apparatchiks they were overseen by “the committee”. This body styled itself a workers’ council and told the newly-impoverished labourers that they shouldn’t grumble – they all had an equal stake in the enterprise. But from their point of view, it was no different to being bossed around by the state.

According to Bryan Caplan, an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University, these two different outcomes are a perfect illustration of why anarcho-socialism can never work:

If the workers seize control of their plants and run them as they wish, capitalism remains. The only way to suppress what socialists most despise about capitalism – greed, inequality and competition – is to force the worker-owners to do something they are unlikely to do voluntarily. To do so requires a state, an organization with sufficient firepower to impose unselfishness, equality, and coordination upon recalcitrant workers. One can call the state a council, a committee, a union, or by any other euphemism, but the simple truth remains: socialism requires a state.

This points to a larger truth about the shortcomings of all left-wing idealists, namely, that they fundamentally misunderstand human nature. They fondly imagine that, untainted by capitalism, mankind is essentially good. A modicum of state control may be necessary in the early years of the revolution, when men are still in the grip of greed and selfishness, but this is just a “transitional phase”. Once a fully-fledged socialist society has sprung into being, people will cast off their wicked habits and the state can wither away.

In reality, of course, the “transitional phase” never ends. Mankind is incapable of shedding those bad habits for the simple reason that they’re hard-wired into our DNA. Self-interest will always trump altruism. Family ties will always have a stronger claim on our loyalties than some abstract ideal. We will always struggle to gain a competitive advantage over our neighbours. Far from withering away, the socialist state becomes ever more powerful in a vain attempt to suppress these instincts.

Human beings simply aren’t designed to sit around campfires singing Kumbaya. As Sigmund Freud said, men are not gentle creatures who just want to be loved. On the contrary, they are fundamentally territorial and aggressive:

As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?

It’s a cliché that anyone who isn’t a liberal when they’re young has no heart and anyone who isn’t a conservative when they’re old has no brain, but it’s true. And the reason we become increasingly skeptical of high-minded political ideals as we get older is because our experience teaches us that mankind is essentially a fallen creature. The prelapsarian innocence of Eden can never be recovered. Contrary to the romantic notions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not even savages are noble. As the playwright David Mamet wrote in an essay explaining why he’d abandoned the left-wing dreams of his youth: “A free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have no more time for right-wing ideals than I do for left-wing ones. Any political philosophy that legitimizes an escalation in state power, whether Communism or National Socialism, is to be resisted. My own experience tells me that the abuses men inflict on each other under free market capitalism will always pale into insignificance next to the abuses of the state. From Berlin to Cuba, a utopian vision always ends with a boot stamping on a human face. Politicians can never be trusted. The Times journalist Louis Heron had it right: “When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself – Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”

Have I become more cynical as I’ve got older? Yes, undoubtedly. I no longer believe, as I did aged 14, that men can co-exist peacefully without the rule of law. I’ve come to accept Hobbes’s view that in the absence of a state life would be nasty, brutish and short. I believe we have a right to life, liberty and property and without a government to guarantee those rights we wouldn’t be able to exercise them. Like Locke, I believe we enter into a compact with the state whereby we give up a degree of autonomy in order to better protect our rights. But our political masters should never forget that their authority is wholly dependent on our consent. Every erosion of our liberty needs to be justified and the burden of proof rests with the state. Power flows from the bottom up, not the top down.

Another name for this political philosophy is “classical liberalism” and as a 14-year-old I would have rejected it as pathetically un-ambitious. It’s based on a bourgeois conception of man as a creature defined by his material interests ­– comfortable self-preservation is the aim of life, not the creation of a glittering city on a hill. I didn’t believe the state could foster a brilliant society, but I still thought that was a worthwhile goal. In my fevered imagination, the anarchist utopia I longed for would be something like the Athens of Ancient Greece – sexually licentious, artistically vibrant and alive with the spirit of intellectual inquiry.

My lodestar was not Spain during the Civil War, but the makeshift city-state that had sprung up in present-day Copenhagen. Like all good punks, I thought hippies were the scum of the earth, but my political philosophy was shot through with a streak of Sixties idealism. I still believed in human flourishing, I just didn’t think it was possible in a society hidebound by rules and regulations. I valued freedom not as an end in itself but as a necessary condition of mankind realizing its true potential.

That’s gone now, obviously. To paraphrase Freud, who in the face of all his experience of life and history could still believe in the perfectibility of man? The notion that he is a work in progress who can somehow be improved now strikes me as laughably naïve. The name of the game is to prevent him from getting any worse. The purpose of society should not be to transform men into something better, but to stop them cutting each other’s throats. Callow youths can scoff all they like at the impoverished conception of man that underpins classical liberalism. They’ll soon discover that anything more lofty has a tendency to end in genocide. As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government there is – apart from all the others.

Has that been a difficult learning curve? I suppose it has. The gaining of wisdom is always a bittersweet experience because it involves the loss of innocence. I look back on that 14-year-old, passionately denouncing anyone who dared question his anarchist vision, with a certain wry affection. But I also think of him as a holy fool. I’m certainly glad he never got an opportunity to put his ideas to the test. In a genuinely anarchic society I doubt he would have lived to the age of 51.

Nevertheless, I like to think I’m keeping faith with the spirit of 1977. The punk movement was a burst of rebellious energy, a nebula of rage. It was a sharp reminder to the powers that be that they owe their exalted status to us, we don’t owe anything to them. I may have gone bald and I may have swapped my Destroy T-shirt for a Jermyn Street shirt, but I have far more in common with the original punks than the anti-cuts protestors. I’m still a 14-year-old anarchist at heart whereas they’re just defenders of the tax-and-spend status quo.

Toby Young is a British journalist and educationalist. He is currently an associate editor and columnist for The Spectator and the editor of Spectator Life. He is the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, The Sound of No Hands Clapping, How to Set up a Free School and What Every Parent Needs to Know: How to Help Your Child Get the Most Out of Primary School. He blogs at No Sacred Cows

This article is part of our ongoing ‘Why I am a Conservative’ series, in which supporters of CfL talk about their beliefs and values. If you would like to take part please email

Follow Conservatives for Liberty on Twitter