Is It Time For Conservatives To Get Over Thatcher?

Theresa May - Conservative Party Tories General Election 2017 Manifesto Launch - Halifax

Theresa May is proving to be more Ed Miliband than Margaret Thatcher

Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman thinks that we should all flop around on the ground and praise Theresa May for tearing up tried-and-tested small-government conservative ideology in favour of an interventionist, paternalistic, stubbornly large state. Apparently at this challenging point in our history, when decisive leadership and a clear direction of travel is needed more than ever, we should swallow our reservations and lustily cheer on a pragmatist, paternalistic prime minister who still has not even properly articulated her vision for Britain.

On the day of the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election manifesto launch, Paul Goodman tells us that it is time for us to “get over Thatcher” and “get on with May”, because apparently a New Labour government with a blueish tint is the best that conservatives can now hope for.

Softening the ground in advance of what will surely prove to be a frustratingly unambitious general election manifesto launch – particularly given the paucity of opposition faced by the Tories and the near certainty that they will be returned to government with an increased majority – Goodman simpers:

Theresa May does not support a big state: in her very first major policy speech outside her ministerial responsibilities, she said that it should be “small, strong [and] strategic”.

Oh, well that’s fine then. She said it, so it must be true.

Nor, for that matter, is her so-called Red Toryism as crimson as is sometimes claimed.  Many of the headlines generated during the last few weeks will look less alarming to liberals if they peer at the small print.  May wants more council houses, but it isn’t clear where the land to build them on will be found.  She supports more rights for workers, but it isn’t evident whether taking leave to care for a family member, for example, will be paid – and nor is she planning to scrap the employment tribunal fees that David Cameron introduced.  She has resuscitated a requirement to put employees on boards, but it looks as though companies will choose them.  The red spray is mixed with blue paint.

So now we are to celebrate that Theresa May apparently wants to build more council houses? What about houses for upwardly mobile young people to buy – people who now find it exponentially harder to get on the property ladder than Theresa May’s generation? Where does Theresa May think that the next generation of conservative voters will come from when it is so difficult for so many to take the stake in society that comes from property ownership? And are we to rejoice that an unfunded pledge to allow workers to take family care leave could hurt small businesses and make companies quicker to fire in a downturn and slower to hire in an economic recovery?

She doesn’t want to state to get bigger, but she does want it to intervene more.  The industrial strategy won’t seek to pick winning companies, but it will search for winning sectors.  There will be an energy price cap – not the relative one floated by John Penrose and others, but an absolute one.

I’m sorry, but what is the functional difference between a bigger state and one which simply “intervene[s] more”? Most people judge the size and bearing of the state on the number and nature of interactions they must have with it over the course of their daily lives – everything from speeding tickets to planning permission to small business red tape to the amount of tax taken from their pay cheque every week or month. Even if Theresa May was technically shrinking the percentage of Britain’s GDP accounted for by government spending – and there is no indication that this key indicator is even on her main dashboard of concerns – her record as Home Secretary and subsequently as prime minister suggests that her “intervening” state will only seek to take on an even larger role in our lives.

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But while we agitate about the detail, the Prime Minister sees the big picture – and has assimilated its scale and size more clearly than her Thatcherite critics.  The Conservative Party travels through the landscape of its times.  These are not the same as they were in the era of Thatcher’s first landslide, over a quarter of a century ago, any more than they were a quarter of a century or so before that, when Harold Macmillan won his own overwhelming victory in 1959.  The world has globalised.  Family structure has been transformed.  The western world has low birthrates and high immigration.   Britain is a multi-racial country.  The Soviet Union has collapsed and Islamist terror has risen.  The crash happened and recession followed.

Free market absolutists will claim that the former took place because there is too much crony capitalism, and too little of the real thing.  They have a good point.  But the argument only draws one deeper into probing whether the system works as well for the working man and woman as it did in Thatcher’s day.  There are three big reasons why it does not.  First, relations between capitalism and nationalism are strained now in a way that they weren’t then.  Many of those who do well out of it feel they have more in common with their counterparts abroad than their fellow citizens at home.  If you doubt it, ponder the politics of immigration – and look, to pluck just one example out of the air, at how George Osborne at the Evening Standard now beats a pro-migration drum.

Second, the changes in the way we live now have created winners and losers.  The latter are simply out-wrestled by Iain Duncan Smith’s five giants – failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency.  For those who can’t read or are mired in debt or trapped in substance abuse, the traditional free market nostrums of lower taxes, a smaller state and less red tape are not so much wrong as irrelevant: if a man isn’t working because he can’t count, cutting taxes won’t help him.  Finally, capitalism in the western world is simply not creating well-paid white and blue collar jobs on the same scale as it was in the immediate post-war period.  Welcome to the gig economy.

Nobody seriously disputes any of this, but Theresa May’s prescriptions are all wrong. Globalisation does present real social challenges in terms of ensuring that people are no longer left behind as they have been by many callous elites who otherwise consider themselves enlightened and compassionate. And of course Britain’s industrial makeup and labour market are very different today than in the 1980s, but this doesn’t mean that a heavily interventionist state is the answer.

This blog has often noted that the challenge falls hardest upon conservatives to come up with answers to the problems of globalisation – to find ways to retool and retrain a population so that they can participate in the industries of tomorrow rather than clinging to the dying industries of the past. This was clearly one test that the Thatcher government failed, and the legacy of broken communities left behind as side effects of the Thatcherite medicine is why there are still many people who would shoot themselves before voting Tory, and why the Labour Party’s electoral floor remains so stubbornly high.

But the answer to this challenge is not to steal wholesale from the left-wing playbook and seek to make the government the energetic auxiliary parent to millions of grown adults, people who should be expected to find their own way in life. The answer is to find the least invasive way possible of incentivising people to retrain and gain skills that make them competitive in the labour market – perhaps the kind of vocational adult education common in America’s community colleges, but either tied to the welfare system (so benefits become contingent on learning), made tax-deductible or a requirement for larger companies seeking to make redundancies. As this blog has previously noted, Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for a National Education Service connecting adults with further education is not actually a bad one – it is just the left-wing execution (funnelling everybody off to university, free of charge) which is wrong.

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We will have seen more of the Conservative Manifesto by the end of the day.  But what we know already is that May, if she can win her own landslide, wants to correct the liberal excesses of the Thatcher era by making peace with the state – of seeing it, as this site puts it, not as Big Brother, but Little Brother.  This ground has the merit of being where most voters stand: very, very few speak the Westminster Village language of making it bigger or smaller.  And the Prime Minister seems set to use her mandate to do much of what this site has been pressing it to do – such as dropping the tax pledge and ending the pensions triple lock, thereby setting the scene for more flexibility in deficit reduction and more fairness between the generations.

It doesn’t matter whether people speak the Westminster Village language or not. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, most people had not read the “Stepping Stones” report – that influential document which diagnosed all of Britain’s economic and social ails, and prescribed a comprehensive cure. But the man in the street didn’t need to have read the report, or necessarily have a firm sense of the ideology behind it. What was important was the fact that Margaret Thatcher came to office with a pre-formed ideology already in her mind, while her government’s policies generally flowed from that same consistent approach.

Theresa May is the precise oppose of this – the anti-Thatcher, if you will. Theresa May ascended to 10 Downing Street as the ultimate pragmatist – somebody who kept her head firmly under the parapet while Home Secretary, almost never stirring the waters or causing controversy by ramming through serious reforms in her department and being notable only for her willingness to take advantage of terror attacks in Western countries to vest ever more powers in the security services and clamp down on civil liberties.

There is no Theresa May governing philosophy. While Margaret Thatcher somewhat vaguely quoted St Francis of Assisi as she entered 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, Theresa May spoke quite specifically about helping the JAMs (people who are Just About Managing). But Thatcher’s vagueness concealed a deadly seriousness of intent, while May’s specificity seems only to hint that she will steal shamelessly from the Labour playbook in order to steal their voters.

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Thatcherism was right for its times, and has lessons for today.  But the world has moved on, and the Conservatives must move with it.  This is a Party, not a mausoleum.  None the less, the Prime Minister’s plan contains a stinging irony.  May, the former Remainer – as Thatcher also was – has not only embraced Brexit but grasped, perhaps more fully than any other British politician, what it means, what the British people wanted in backing it, and where it is leading.

It is Brexit that is empowering May within her own Party, because the free marketeers are so often Brexiteers too.  Since she has won their trust over the EU, they will forgive her views on the market – for the moment, anyway.

That’s not how it works! Even if one agreed with Theresa May’s ill-considered Brexit approach, merely agreeing to carry out Brexit in accordance with the referendum result does not and should not automatically build up reserves of goodwill ready for the moment that the prime minister chooses to chuck conservative economic policy overboard.

Brexit is incredibly important, but so is the day-to-day government of the country. And rejecting the lighter touch, non-interventionist policies which have benefited this country so much should not be done lightly, as Allister Heath warns in the Telegraph:

This jobs explosion [from 1975 onwards] is an extraordinary achievement, and one which, tragically, the Tories now take for granted. Their policies are no longer geared towards job creation – yesterday’s issue, they clearly think – but towards “improving” the labour market and making it “work” for more people.

[..] The answers from Mayonomics are much more simplistic. There is a demand for lower energy prices, so she will simply deliver them by fiat. The jobs market will be fine regardless of how much more red tape is thrown at it, the new doctrine asserts – after all, the minimum wage keeps going up and the roof hasn’t fallen in. The existence of invisible side-effects, or the fact that we may well be nearing a tipping point, doesn’t enter the calculation. Mayonomics advocates blaming business for “not doing enough for their workers”, but hitting them with yet more non-wage costs will merely put further downwards pressure on wages, in a dangerous vicious circle.

Heath concludes:

To make the most of Brexit, the UK needs to embrace free markets, not retreat to the quiet economic certainties of the Sixties. The Tories will eventually come to realise this, of course, but not before they squander an immense opportunity to retool this country into a 21st century trading superpower.

As I write, Theresa May is on her feet in Halifax, Yorkshire, launching the Conservative Party manifesto. People are standing and cheering. It is an election manifesto which will almost certainly receive the endorsement of the electorate on June 8. But contrary to the hysterical shrieks of the British Left, it will not be a Thatcherite manifesto. In some cases, it will barely be recognisable as a small-C conservative manifesto.

And small government conservatives should not take this lying down.

 

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