Douglas Murray is already seated at the restaurant table at the National Portrait Gallery when I arrive. A neat, unassuming figure – with even a certain fastidious melancholy – you wouldn’t necessarily pick him out of the crowded room (pre-Covid restrictions) as the person with 280,000 Twitter followers.
Murray’s importance as a public intellectual is not in doubt. Since the publication of his first book Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas (2000), he has attained an enviable readership. The 41-year-old has made a habit of gravitating towards subjects most writers would strain to avoid. His concerns about aspects of the Islamic faith, and his bemused irritation at the perceived hegemony of “wokeness”, culminated in two non-fiction books of striking cultural significance: The Strange Death of Europe (2017) and The Madness of Crowds (2019).
These books have earned him an audience, although not always the one he might have liked: the polemical tenor of his work – and the perennial humourlessness of his targets – have seen many death threats come his way.
Death in another guise hovers over our conversation without our knowing it: as we speak, we have no inkling that the experience of lunching will soon be banned, as a result of certain goings-on in Wuhan. Even so, what he says will maintain its relevance long after the epidemiologist ceases to be the hero of the hour. This is especially the case since in the months since the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota on 25 May, the notion of wokeness – the phrase used to describe being alert to social injustice, notably racism – has become a more acute societal question even than it was at the beginning of the year.
As a culture, we don’t change as much, or as quickly, as we think we do. Boris Johnson’s centrality is as clear in British politics today as when I met with Murray. I ask whether the existence of a Boris Johnson administration represents a significant blow against his bête-noire.
“I don’t think it does,” says Murray. “The point about woke ideology is that it never has been a majority thing. It’s a school-bullying vociferous minority who have the capability, thanks to social media primarily – and due to very weak hierarchies in this country – to enforce its ideology.”
What is entertaining about Murray is partly his Christopher Hitchens-esque fearlessness – Murray and Hitchens were friends – but also his willingness to keep tabs on what he sees as a hydra-headed wokeness. In this, he resembles an oncologist professionally focused on a cancer’s unlovely metastasis.
Murray is a natural ally of Johnson – and not just because the two share a connection with The Spectator. “The play against Boris Johnson has always been that they have tried to dredge up the wrongs of the past – and it didn’t work. I’ve always said that the thing about Boris which always stood out for me is that he was the only politician who, when you mention his name, people smile. They feel better. To be a person who makes the general public in any way feel happy is a cultural phenomenon.”
Even so, Murray is amusing about the way in which we talk about political charisma – Johnson’s and everybody else’s. “Simply having bodyguards around you whenever you walk into a room or staffers around – I mean, everybody looks charismatic when they walk into a room surrounded by 20 people. Even John Bercow would look charismatic in this situation.”
The position is different, he says, in the US. “There, it’s now clear you have to be famous to become president.” Murray is a generous conversationalist, who enjoys offering agreeably catty asides. He offers one now: “By the way, a lot of people who are not attractive are thought to be attractive once they’ve been on television.”
When he is delivering the punchline of a joke he enunciates more carefully, as a kind of pointer – a vocal pattern he shares with another famous friend, Tom Stoppard.
I mention how much more enjoyable it is to hear Johnson speak than his predecessor. He agrees, but then goes onto a pointed description of the public discourse in this country which will be worth the attention of the new director general of the BBC Tim Davie: “Whether we’re politicians, writers or thinkers, when we appear on a panel in public, what are we really doing? Are we actually attempting to get to a truth? Are we actually attempting to solve any problems at all? No. Almost the sole aim is to plausibly or otherwise, find a way of accusing somebody else, sitting with you, of one of the crimes of the era.”
These crimes are mockingly enumerated in The Madness of Crowds, and Murray repeats some of them now: “Your hope is that somebody else will say something which you can pretend is homophobic, or racist or sexist, or misogynistic, or whatever. When was the last time you turned on the television in the UK and actually saw a discussion that was seeking to get to something?”
It’s into this foray that Murray doesn’t mind wading, and it has brought him followers and powerful friends, including Stoppard, and the late Sir Roger Scruton. In fact, Murray first caught my attention defending Scruton in an incident brought about by George Eaton, the then-deputy editor of the New Statesman. In his April 2019 interview with Scruton, and in Tweets promoting the piece’s publication, Eaton took certain remarks of the philosopher out of context which led to Scruton’s firing from his position on James Brokenshire’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
Treating the pages of The Spectator as a forum for swashbuckling gallantry, Murray leaped into action, refusing to let the matter go until he had obtained a copy of the recording. This eventually proved that Scruton had said nothing racist, and that Eaton had conducted, as Murray said, a “hit job” on Scruton.
For Murray, the matter was straightforward: “Why would you not stand up for a friend when you know they’ve been lied about? I knew, even before I got the transcript, that it was a lie: Roger wouldn’t just come out with those sorts of horrible racist comments about Chinese people, or anyone else. It doesn’t cost that much to stand up for mates when you know they’re being lied about. So why do so few people do it?”
In this, Murray resembles Hitchens again. As Hitchens did during the Lewinsky saga (“It is the height of bad manners to sleep with a woman once”), Murray appears here as the defender of traditional values that should never have been permitted to be forgotten.
This stand seems especially important when there’s no longer a coherent establishment: Murray’s morality can sometimes feel like a last stand – a sort of Band-Aid applied to a wounded polity. For him, part of the folly of wokeness, as he sees it, is that it is to do with battling a state of affairs that doesn’t exist – it is an attempt to defang those who have lost their bite, and pull one back against a set of power structures which long ago lapsed.
“What we have are sets of different establishment-like groups,” he explains, eating a disappointing potted crab (I should know, I ordered the same). “I wouldn’t say that Davos man is the establishment: even if he was, the December 2019 parliament shows that he’s just lost. There’s not only one establishment anymore. Some remain deeply in opposition to the establishment that they believe still exists as it did in the 1960s. If they’re railing against that, then they’re wildly out of date. It’s like when you hear people railing about press barons. Really?”
Of course, Westminster itself has changed hugely these last years. Murray, whose father was a civil servant, explains that the rise of the special advisor, as exemplified by Dominic Cummings’ mea culpa press conference held with magnificent arrogance in the rose garden at Downing Street, is really all to do with mistrust at the ability of the civil service: “People don’t trust the institutions. I mean, if you had trust in the civil service, then special advisers wouldn’t be necessary.” He draws a wider conclusion: “Every institution in our lifetime has been levelled – and to an extent we haven’t yet comprehended, whether it’s the BBC, or the civil service. Aside from Her Majesty the Queen, it’s impossible to think of an institution in Britain which is now regarded with the kind of veneration it was even 25 years ago.”
This is partly, Murray says, because “social media has done things that we simply don’t understand”. Can he give an example? He makes a humorous face as if to communicate the sheer grimness of the problem: “It has made it exceptionally difficult to assert truths in public and sustain them.”
He continues: “It’s easy to be ‘for’ more empathy – to stand up and say, like Jess Phillips, ‘If everyone was more like me, everything would be better.’ But decisions require something hard. We’re very good at talking the language of inclusion, but the language of inclusion necessitates the language of exclusion. Try doing exclusion language in public. You can’t.”
Murray’s example is immigration. “A border is a solid thing,” he explains, and he obviously deems borders – as most do – as crucial to the perpetuation of the nation state. Their very existence will mean, almost of necessity, that people will fall foul of them. But he points out that we’re now presented too readily with the consequences of the law – in the shape of someone with an unhappy story to tell. The result, Murray says, is that “people have bit by bit, been giving up on the idea of defending anything hard”.
Talking of borders, what are his expectations for the November US election? “It’s extremely hard to say things reasonable about it because absolutely everything about the Trump presidency can be seen by everyone. One of my rules is never to write about Donald Trump because you can’t persuade anyone about anything to do with him. Everyone’s made up their mind, as with Brexit”. He adds: “There is a clear virtue to having somebody who presents himself as a madman in the Oval Office in the Middle East. It’s extremely useful to have somebody who the Iranians think might be mad. Does that mean that the American public should vote for him? We’re just going to weigh that one up.”
The question about Murray seems to me to be: what is the society he wants? It is clear what he doesn’t want: wokeness, cancel culture and Islamic extremism. But he is one of those thinkers who has defined himself primarily by what he opposes, and one might sometimes wish him to sketch out a positive programme.
So what would a society that properly heeded Douglas Murray look like? It would be more forgiving; its inhabitants would be well-read and polite. Until recently, these are not controversial propositions – and for most they still aren’t. In fact, Murray is a moralist without a religion. Just as with every Tom Stoppard play that ends on a mystical note, one half-expects the playwright to convert to some form of Christianity, Murray is the sort of lapsed Anglican who one keeps expecting to return to the church.
Murray admits the problem: “We are in this difficult position that occurred in antiquity as well, where we live among the temples and don’t know what to do with them. That’s one of the reasons why this is such an interesting moment, because there’s a whole set of directions in which we could go and there are major, major, major decisions.”
But if Murray’s work opens up onto the need for a forgiveness that also precludes Christianity, then as vague as that might seem, it is still an advance on the Twitter mob. One might add that it is a mighty task, and one that he performs brilliantly, as only he and one or two others – one thinks of Andrew Sullivan – can.
2020 has, if anything, seen a rise in wokeness, as Murray sees it. If we inhabited an unforgiving culture pre-Covid, then it is not a notably less forgiving one now. In his recent writings, Murray expresses more alarm than ever about how the murder of George Floyd has accelerated the power of the Twitter mob. In a recent article in the Daily Mail, he writes that he had imagined the virus might prove a “welcome pause”, but now argues that “the threats facing us are more dangerous than even I’d anticipated”.
This is a major statement from someone who has made it his principal business to anticipate them. It also makes me think back to our parting at the National Portrait Gallery, when Murray said in relation to the Johnson government: “My view is that this is a golden opportunity, and over the next six months they must act fast, or they will never do it.”
Those six months are now up, and the virus has to a large extent upended whatever the administration might have done. In that time, Johnson himself – who features as such a beacon of cheerful hope in our conversation – had fallen dangerously ill, and those in power are beginning to wonder if he isn’t now a step too slow for the job.
But as fast as the world can seem to change, the importance of Murray’s message remains. We need the likes of him to police our mob tendencies. Wherever there is a protest happening, there is merit in having someone standing to the side, asking whether anger is really the right response. Very often, it won’t be, and the advancement of civilisation is far more often the story of elegant writers like Murray than it is the story of the people trolling him.