First published at Conservatives for Liberty
I came from a single parent family and a working class background, got into Oxbridge, worked hard and made something of myself – no thanks to the modern Labour Party or the nurturing support of Big Government
I first realised I was a conservative the day after I heard George Galloway speak at the Cambridge Union Society in 2002. Galloway has a certain way with words when he turns on the charm, and perhaps like many other people that evening I left the debating chamber thinking that maybe there was something to this socialism business after all.
It was only after letting the ideas percolate in my head overnight, trying and failing to match the socialist rhetoric against my own life experience, that I realised that everything George Galloway said that evening was complete hogwash – and that conservatism remains our last, best and only hope for building the just and prosperous society.
If this is all starting to sound a bit Brideshead Revisited – privileged young man goes to Oxbridge, dons a tuxedo and gets in with the Young Conservative set – perhaps I had better start over. I came from a poor, single parent family in Essex. I grew up on benefits, not that it is tremendously relevant. The point is that everything I achieved since that time has been the result of a nurturing family environment and my own hard work. Despite coming of age at the peak of New Labour’s power and popularity, our supposedly benevolent welfare state was at best an irrelevance and at worst was an an outright hindrance to my progress.
Since graduating university I have had the privilege of briefly living in the United States as well as Britain, but have always been frustrated by the extreme aspects of the Republican Party in America and the dispiriting centrism which has too often been the hallmark of British conservatism. I never had time for the “patriots” who descended upon Capitol Hill in period costume to scream that universal insurance-provided healthcare would lead to the creation of “death panels”, but neither was I much enthused about a British Conservative Party that seemed to apologise for its small government beliefs and refuse to make the case for an independent Britain outside the European Union.
I have since come to realise that I am what the journalist Charles Cooke calls a “conservatarian” – someone with strong pro-market, small government tendencies, but equally liberal when it comes to social issues. Authoritarianism, whether it be in the economic or the personal realm, has never held any appeal. I suppose that makes me the embodiment of a Conservative for Liberty.
In the United States, being a conservatarian essentially makes one politically homeless – the Republican Party relies on social conservatives and neo-conservative imperialists for their support base, and is all but guaranteed to be on the wrong side of any social issue. And in Britain, it is a daily struggle to look past travesties like the undermining of civil liberties, the EU ‘renegotiation’ and the gutting of our national defence in favour of international aid, to see and acknowledge the real good that the Cameron government is doing for the country in spite of these failings.
I became a conservative because while I succeeded through my own hard work and while I recognised that others might legitimately need help to do the same, I also knew that the cold, dead hand of the state was never going to pull most of these people up. Looking back on my formative years in Essex, I realised that the British welfare system – the pride of the Labour Party – does little more than keep people in permanent subsistence, with just enough provision to stay alive, but not enough to live a real twenty-first century life.
Thanks to the cumulative failure of all political parties, the British welfare state frequently sits back with arms folded whilst whole lives are frittered away on government dependency and benefits, huge amounts of human potential criminally wasted because we continually fail to encourage a culture of personal freedom and self reliance.
That’s why I became a conservative. But I have remained a conservative through having that belief repeatedly tested in the fire of life experience. As happens to many Britons, after enjoying great success I went through a period of poor health and unemployment. And what does our non-contributory welfare system do for those who have worked hard and contributed the most – for those who may have been top rate taxpayers but temporarily fallen on hard times? It does exactly the same as it would for the eighteen year old layabout who can’t quite be bothered to look for work (I knew many) or the recent immigrant who has paid little in to the system: it doles out £73 a week in JSA or ESA, and moves on to the next customer.
The British welfare state – of which the Labour Party is so proud – doles out deadly doses of ‘compassion’ every week, £73 at a time, to millions of people up and down the country, regardless of personal circumstance, all in the name of ‘fairness’ and equality. This is a safety net tight enough to trap some people for years against their will, while it allows others to go flying straight through, smacking into the concrete floor beneath. And this is ‘compassion’?
Now, the Conservative Party do not have all of the answers when it comes to fixing Britain’s broken welfare system. But at least they admit that there is a problem to be tackled in the first place, and at least Iain Duncan Smith’s brave reforms are attempting to end the tragedy of countless lives wasted on welfare and permanent dependency on the state.
So yes, I am a small-C conservative and a “conservatarian”. But I am loyal to my ideas first and foremost, not to any one political party. In 2010 I proudly campaigned for Robert Halfon MP in my hometown of Harlow, and was delighted to see him elected and go on to great things. But in 2015, when the Hampstead and Kilburn Conservative Association put forward a candidate who was passionately pro-European, denounced the ‘bedroom tax’ and wanted to scrap our Trident nuclear deterrent, I flatly refused to give him my vote, and I make no apology for doing so – core conservative principle should never be an “optional extra”.
But putting individual candidates and personalities aside, on balance I do believe that the Conservative Party remains indispensable as we seek to strengthen the nation state, meet the challenges of globalisation without retreating into protectionism, and finish the work that Thatcher started by building a society where the state serves the people, not the other way around.
And if at times this seems like an uphill struggle, the existence of Conservatives for Liberty gives us all hope for the work ahead.