Searching for the missing conservative soul in a Berkshire field
Various people have been raving about an event which took place last week in Twyford, Berkshire, where Conservative MP George Freeman set up a few yurts in a field and held an impromptu late-summer symposium on how to renew British conservatism.
The Big Tent Ideas Festival is a laudable ongoing effort to refresh and reset British conservatism while the Tory party is still in government, as opposed to waiting until they languish in opposition. This is easier said than done – as anybody can plainly see, Theresa May’s listless and fratricidal government has run out of what little ideological steam it inherited from David Cameron’s equally muddled tenure. Now they sit, idling in neutral, on the cusp of making an almighty mess of Brexit and being kicked out of office without a single lasting achievement to their name.
Mark Wallace of Conservative Home was in attendance, and describes the extent of the challenge:
The Right’s challenge is that time in government saps the energy, and increases the centralisation, of any movement. The never-ending trials of running the country drag in, and burn through, many of the policies and people. Indeed, we produce our best ideas and develop our greatest new talents when the variety of interests that exist across the centre right movement have room to breathe and freedom to operate. Often that happens in Opposition – the Party’s apparatus, authority and powers of patronage are more limited, and there’s a clear objective to pursue.
That’s as true for Labour as it is for the Conservatives – consider the contrast in energy between the respective camps of Major and Blair, or Brown and Cameron. The task for our movement today is to break that cycle: to renew and innovate now, while the Conservative Party is still in power. To do so requires us to recapture that freedom and urgency enjoyed in the years between 2004 and 2010, which saw such fertile growth of new thinking and campaigning organisations, the development of new outlets to communicate our ideas (not least ConservativeHome), the development of a raft of strong, new policies and the emergence of a generation of talented campaigners, thinkers and communicators.
The Big Tent is currently focusing on three main strands of renewal: Social Renewal, Political Renewal and Economic Renewal. Fair enough – these designations seem to make sense. And some of the questions being debated across all three areas resonate very strongly with topics that this blog cares deeply about, namely:
- What are the causes of the deepening crisis of disconnection between government and the citizens it is supposed to serve?
- How do we define a meaningful notion of citizenship with reciprocal responsibilities with the state, which works for us all?
- How do we better support our third sector and encourage volunteering?
- How do we reform our benefits system?
- How do we build lifelong learning, from antenatal, through the early years, school and adulthood, and incorporating resilience, emotional and social learning, as well as key skills? How do we get parents and communities to support this in the poorest areas?
- Is the rise of extremism – to left and right – a function of failure in the mainstream centre or simple liberation of the radical fringes?
- Given the public’s rejection of mass low wage migration, how can we achieve the transformational skills and training revolution of the UK workforce which has defied policymakers for 150 years?
- How do we embed lifelong learning to increase workforce resilience for the coming tech change tsunami so we do not make the same terrible mistakes as happened in 1980s mining areas (and from which we have still not recovered)?
Remarkably, though, the housing crisis was not called out as a separate issue for discussion, even though it is the pre-eminent challenge driving a wedge between the Tory party and otherwise potentially sympathetic voters. This is a very curious feat of omission, to the extent one wonders whether it can have been accidental. As with Conservative policy since 2010 there seems to be a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the need to do anything which might annoy the current rural, home-owning, NIMBYish Tory base by threatening the continual upward trajectory in the value of their houses.
This is short-sighted, and needs to be addressed urgently. Housing should be one of the absolute key issues being debated by the Big Tent, not something whispered about on the margins or tangentially as part of another discussion. In the 2017 general election, the Tories did not win a majority of any demographic until the average age ticked over fifty. Fifty! Conservatives no longer merely have a problem with youth voters, though we are certainly more radioactive than ever among this crowd. We are now almost equally unpopular among young professionals and people in early middle age.
At least the Tories of Margaret Thatcher’s day had some slick city Yuppies with stripy shirts and enormous cellphones in their corner. I have lived and worked in a professional capacity in London for a decade now, and can count the number of fellow “out of the closet” conservatives in my social circle on two hands, with fingers to spare. That CCHQ does not presently view this deficit among young, educated voters as an existential crisis speaks volumes about their complacency and sheer incompetence.
This is a demographic time bomb waiting to explode in the Conservative Party’s face. The metaphorical conveyor belt carrying young idealists from left-wingery to conservatism as they age cannot be taken for granted – it has only worked in recent decades because as people get older, government policy has allowed them to acquire a greater stake in society, primarily through home and equity ownership. People do not just magically start voting Conservative when they get their first grey hair, and people who have been consistently screwed over by selfish, short-termist policies which pander to the Tory base at the expense of the wider national interest will develop a lasting antipathy to the Conservative Party and to conservatism in general.
Dodging the housing issue is not an option. It must be tackled head-on, and (unlike Theresa May’s “dementia tax” debacle) it must be done with care and sensitivity. So long as Jeremy Corbyn or somebody like him leads the Labour Party, the Tories will have a bit of political cover to do something radical on housing – even if it enrages a section of their base, few of these people will defect to a Labour Party eager to tax them to death. Failing to act before Labour falls back into centrist hands means that the Conservatives’ scope for manoeuvre will be greatly reduced.
Additionally, while the tripartite focus on social issues is laudable at first glance, this area should not be allowed to dominate the discussion as it dominated much of Cameronism and now Theresa May and Nick Timothy’s very statist, paternalistic brand of conservatism.
Yet Toby Guise at The American Conservative reports that the “society” tent was by far the most popular:
The mainly young delegates heard speakers in tents marked “politics,” “economics,” and “society.” Tellingly, the last of these was the largest—with a program that opened with pitches from the founders of two significant charities focused on social exclusion. This theme reflected the fact that accusations of a compassion-deficit are at the heart of Labour’s attack on the Conservatives.
This reflects the current priorities and incentives for success in conservative Westminster politics. Being seen as a beardy Nick Timothy acolyte seeking to extend government influence into every home and mind is viewed as trendy and forward-thinking, while sitting at a desk thinking about how to encourage entrepreneurship and decrease reliance on the state is seen as excessively “ideological”.
It may sound harsh, but conservative renewal will not come about by focusing relentlessly on social issues, as though the state can and should provide an answer to every single social ill in Britain. It is tempting to believe that government must fill this expansive role these days, especially since the Tories are pounded day after day by Labour’s wobbly-lipped moralisers about how they are supposedly so callous and unfeeling. It is only natural in these circumstances to want to begin offering scattergun policy prescriptions to address every last issue which happens to excite the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Indeed, the phrase “compassionate conservatism” only plays into the Left’s hands by wrongly conceding that ordinary vanilla conservatism is somehow cruel and uncompassionate, and that we can only redeem ourselves by accepting statist, left-wing talking points and policies. This is a dangerous nonsense.
People say that they are interested in social justice and equality, particularly at dinner parties, when talking to pollsters or otherwise needing to make themselves look good. But when they are in the privacy of the voting booth they actually care about the economy and the general direction of the country. That means that to make a measurable difference in the fortunes of the Conservative Party, the Big Tent should focus primarily on the Economic and Political renewal branches, trusting that improving the overall health of the nation and spurring the reinvigoration of civil society will improve conditions for all. Rather than more government intervention, we need to create the conditions for a rapid growth of charitable (real charities, not 90% government-funded money laundering outfits) and private solutions to entrenched social problems rather than the clunky, failed attempts at social engineering preferred by New Labour and their successor Tory governments.
The good news is that there is precedent for all of this. In 1977, the “Stepping Stones” report was published by the late John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, two businessmen (at IBM and Unilever respectively) who took it upon themselves to diagnose the “British disease” which threatened to doom us to long-term national decline, and propose radical solutions. Crucially, the treatment prescribed by Stepping Stones was not a mixed basket of scattergun solutions to individual problems, but rather a coherent package of reforms which sought to simultaneously treat all of the symptoms of the British disease while also identifying and destroying the root cause (the grip of statist socialism and the unions).
The Britain of the 1970s, wallowing deep in the failing post-war consensus, can hardly be described as being highly receptive to radical right-wing thinking at the time Stepping Stones was published. But that didn’t matter – Hoskyns and Strauss managed to get the ear of aides to Margaret Thatcher back when she was still Leader of the Opposition, and when she walked into Downing Street in 1979 she did so with Stepping Stones in her handbag and on her mind. Then, as now, the important thing to begin with was not that the country understands the entire plan or knows that the Tories view the current status quo as a disease to be cured, but just that the government seems to have energy and purpose again. The plan will reveal itself in good time, just as Stepping Stones did.
That doesn’t mean that the Tories can avoid coming up with a better narrative than “Strong and Stable” or “Brexit means Brexit”. These were appalling battle cries with which to fight the 2017 general election, and deserved to be mercilessly picked apart and ridiculed by the media and a newly-confident Labour Party. A new narrative is certainly needed, but this must be both authentically conservative and it must avoid clashing with policies that the government intends to adopt. For instance, it is no good for the Tories to publicly wring their hands about such-and-such social issue when they have little intention of directly tackling it through the levers of government. That’s why I am hesitant to support the Big Tent’s heavy focus on social renewal – it opens up endless opportunities for the sanctimonious parties of the Left to attack us for weasel words or hypocrisy, while at the very best all we can hope to do is fight the socialists to a draw.
But of course, back in 1977-79 all of this ideological and rhetorical renewal was done from the relative comfort and obscurity of opposition. Now, an intellectually exhausted Tory Party must effectively perform the same feat while in government and seeing their worldview held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong up and down the land. This is a much harder task, bordering on the impossible.
Yet that is exactly what we need. We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, recognising that the challenges we face today – globalisation, automation, mass migration, Islamist terror and Brexit – are very different to those faced by the incoming Thatcher government in 1979, but that these contemporary problems must be tackled with exactly the same spirit and according to the same conservative values.
Hopefully the Big Tent can play an important role in this process. If nothing else, it is hugely encouraging to see somebody, anybody else finally acknowledge that the Conservative Party does actually need to renew itself and come up with a compelling conservative vision for Britain rather than arrogantly waiting for Jeremy Corbyn to fail. This blog has been something of a voice in the wilderness on this topic since mid way through the coalition government – hammering home the point here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here – but it is good to be belatedly joined by a chorus of establishment journalists and conservative commentators who have finally woken up to the fact that the Tories need an explicitly ideological answer to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s resurgent socialism.
Toby Guise is broadly hopeful that the Big Tent has potential:
Disheartened conservatives should remember that cultural Marxism was born out of weakness not strength—specifically, the failure of Western proletariats to obey Marxist doctrine by revolting during World War One. Since the fall of Communism, the strategy has been pursued with ever-greater vigour as a displacement activity from discussing discredited economic ideas. When British Labour politicians are put on the spot about policy, they often flounder spectacularly. Yet the overall direction of travel in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today at the Labour national convention was clear: towards a Venezuelan-style command economy based on nationalization and authoritarianism. Equipped with this tried-and-failed policy program, it’s no surprise that the party machine diverts as much attention away from economics and onto kulturkampf. By refusing to engage this strategy—and instead directing attention firmly onto clear-minded political solutions that make markets work for all—the Big Tent Ideas Festival is precisely the right type of response.
Mark Wallace was also pleasantly surprised:
I’m pretty sure I saw some Hunter wellies, and some conversations did occasionally threaten to induce a minor wince. But, if we’re honest, there was probably less of each of those phenomena to be seen in the beautiful Berkshire sun than there will be in Manchester next week.
Crucially, they did not outweigh the value of the event, which grew on me as the day went on. Here were Conservatives, entrepreneurs, inventors, charity founders, policy experts, young people, older people and a mix of journalists and politicians talking about ideas for a whole day. That shouldn’t be unusual, but it is. The election, and the problems suffered by the Conservative Party among certain key demographics, was the inevitable backdrop to the discussion, but the Big Tent encouraged people to exchange views openly, to hear experiences alien to their own, and to consider how their principles might be applied to real world issues.
With about 220 people in attendance, it wasn’t a lobbying-fest, or a jockeying arena for glad-handing and card-swapping. It felt more like what I’d imagine to be Steve Hilton’s ideal wedding reception (except with more shoes): tents and bunting, a good buffet, and a bar of sustainably-produced beverages, along with speeches about the environment, prison reform and the impact of technology on democratic culture.
This wasn’t a representative sample of the Conservative Party, still less of the electorate, either socially or ideologically, but I found it refreshing to see people applying their minds and experiences to pressing problems.
I have also now volunteered my time and effort to the cause. And in a way, I will regard whether my offer of help is taken up as a sign of whether the Big Tent has the potential to be a useful vehicle for conservative renewal. Not because I am so amazing, talented and inspired that I can single-handedly save British conservatism, but because if they start listening to independent bloggers and other voices (besides the usual MPs, journalists, Westminster types, charity representatives and community organisers) then it will be a clear sign that British conservatism is willing to entertain ideas from outside the bubble. That having hit intellectual rock bottom they are finally willing to take a dispassionate look at their failings and make some vital changes.
Stepping Stones, which literally formed the blueprint for saving Britain from 1970s-style national decline, was not borne of a cosy conversation between people inside the Westminster political elite. It took outsiders – from the world of business, in this instance – to hold a mirror up to the country and to the establishment, showing them that the old path was unsustainable and that new ideas, previously dismissed as unworkable or politically unpalatable, were required to get Britain back on track.
We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, and a Conservative Party with the ambition, courage and clarity of thinking to get on and carry out its recommendations, effectively executing a dramatic mid-term course change rather than waiting fearfully for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to cast them back into opposition.
God speed to the Big Tent and the work they are doing; Lord knows that it is desperately needed.
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