In our language, there are two ways in which one can, legitimately, use the word ‘Tory’.
The first is to describe someone who is literally a member of the Conservative party, an anti-worker hate group founded in the distant past by evil lizards from beyond the moon who somehow manage, despite all the manifest evidence of their awfulness, to continue to get elected to govern the UK.
The second is to describe someone who is, even if not literally a member of this party, somehow complicit in the bad things that they do.
In the first usage, the word Tory is an empirical concept. In the second, it is an evaluative one. So saying, e.g. ‘Liz Kendall is a Tory’ is a way of drawing out how Liz Kendall, even if not literally a member of the Tory party, nevertheless says or does things, at least sometimes, which indicate that she might as well be.
One recent trend in media coverage critical of the Corbyn surge and his supporters is a skeptical or mocking attitude towards their use of the word ‘Tory’ to label apparently all of their opponents, even or especially ones who are not Tories in the empirical sense. Particularly clear examples can be found in the pieces here and here. This, then, must indicate that the Corbyn critics are mired in a conceptual confusion, which I have now cleared up for them above.
But of course, I don’t for a minute think that any basically intelligent human being could have possibly needed this confusion to have been cleared up: it’s pretty evident that sometimes we can use a term to indicate what something literally is, and then in other cases we can use the same term to evaluate something as exemplifying certain qualities that indicate it is like this sort of thing. If I say “her red hair was all fire,” I don’t mean you need to chuck a bucket of water over her head; and nor would I ever consider it to be a possibility you might, unless I knew you to be wilfully obtuse. So why can’t the Corbyn critics see that people might be (when talking about a Labour politician, for instance) using ‘Tory’ in an evaluative sense?
Two possibilities: one, they really are as stupid as they are acting. Certainly, it seems like this might be what is going on with at least some of the prominent critics of Jeremy Corbyn. Dan Hodges, for instance, has time and again proven himself to be a complete moron; his column is increasingly just a Liz Jones-style invite-one’s-own-social-media-bullying shitshow. And there are a good few people at the Guardian and the New Statesman who I wouldn’t trust to use the stove for themselves either. But equally, it would be flattening to assume that everyone in the media who doesn’t support Corbyn is thick as shit. Tempting as it is to think that the dunces are in confederacy against you, we have to dig deeper.
The second possibility, then, is that these people have some nefarious reason for conflating empirical with evaluative uses of the word ‘Tory’. And indeed I think this might make sense. It is, at least under present conditions, exceptionally useful for leftists to be able to evaluate things that are not literally Tories, as exemplifying Toryism. Indeed in a certain sense, given that it exists as part of and is thus necessarily somehow complicit in the capitalist system, everything right now is Tories; including this blog post, this sentence, this word, t h e s e l e t t e r s , and me. Being able to say, of a thing that is not a member of a Conservative party, ‘this is a Tory’ is a good way of indicating that it might be an evil space lizard, that it might hate the poor, and that it might have a vested interest in keeping things as they currently, wretchedly are. And indeed this is a critique that often works, for instance against Kendall, who has become (thankfully) mired against the rocks of her own evident-but-not-literal Toryness.
A skeptical or mocking attitude towards the evaluative usage of the word ‘Tory’, then, might have the effect of taking it away from people, of blunting it as a tool. This should be resisted. In a context where Toryism is, in short, what must most urgently resisted, being able to label all manner of things Tories can empower us against them.