With Theresa May and the Tories technically in office but barely in power, it is more important than ever for conservatives to have a no-holds-barred debate about what they really stand for and what vision for Britain they want the Conservative Party to advance. In addition to my own past and future ruminations on this subject, Semi-Partisan Politics will seek to include the best thinking and writing on the subject from elsewhere, beginning with this incisive contribution from blogger The Sparrow.
The Daily Mail reports that judges may prevent Britain deporting immigrants sleeping rough on the streets of London. A legal challenge is being brought against a Home Office policy which deports immigrants sleeping rough, on the basis that by failing to support themselves after moving to the UK their rights under freedom of movement are forfeit.
Leaving aside the merits of either side of that argument, the story is emblematic of a schism within conservatism. On one side sit social conservatives, who believe that tradition, established cultural norms and a sense of continuity with the past are of value. On the other, free marketeers believe that the greatest good can be achieved by permitting the market to develop solutions to people’s needs, with minimal government interference.
To illustrate, consider a social conservative and a free market conservative take on this story. The free marketeer might say: let them sleep rough – winter will drive them into rentals, the market will find a solution at a suitable price point for them, and in the meantime who am I to criticise someone seeking to reduce his overheads while getting started in a new country?
The social conservative, though, might say: no, that’s not how we do things in this country. It’s not the done thing to save money on housing by creating a tent city in Central London. Mass rough sleeping is squalid, threatening, unhealthy and potentially dangerous. If they cannot live as we live, then they should not be permitted to stay here fouling up the city for people who are doing the right thing.
The social conservative is willing to use the power of social and moral pressure, and if necessary the state, to enforce social norms some of which may run counter to the needs or pressures of the market. From the free-market conservative point of view, the social conservative risks impeding the fluidity of the market, restraining its marvellous problem-solving powers, and does so in the name of social values that may be arbitrary, often seem to have little basis in reason, and yet are clung to with a devotion quite at odds with the free market view of man as a rational actor.
Conversely, the free-market conservative may consider disrupting established social norms or ways of life to be a price worth paying for allowing market forces to flow and find equilibrium. From the social conservative point of view, this might be viewed as a kind of crass vandalism, that reduces all of life to its commercial or economic value and remains wilfully blind to those aspects of life that cannot readily be assigned a number.
For the most part, in party political terms, the natural home of both social conservatives and free marketeers has for some time been the Conservative Party. But these two types of conservative are at odds with one another, or at least not obviously in alignment, on most of the hot-button issues currently in play: from globalisation, immigration, multiculturalism and housebuilding to social questions such as gender issues and the rise of Islam. I am not seeing any sort of intra-conservative debate that recognises the existence of such an ideological fault line. (If I just need a better reading list, I would be grateful to anyone who can improve mine.)
For a number of years, these two kinds of conservatives have maintained a truce and semblance of unity based on the fact that both sides can agree – for different and sometimes contradictory reasons – that state spending should be restrained and ideally reduced. The remainder of Tory policies have been hashed out between the two sides as various kinds of compromise – or, as in the case of Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP versus George Osborne at the Treasury, an increasingly bitter turf war. But trying to sweep it under the carpet is not good enough any more. When one of the few clear positive points of agreement is ‘government should spend less on stuff’ is it any wonder the Conservatives are so easily caricatured by the Left as heartless stealers of the meagre crumbs from the tables of the poor?
Besides, if Osborne vs Duncan Smith was a minor skirmish in the ongoing tussle between social and free market conservatism, the Brexit vote has triggered conservative ideological Armageddon. Conservatives from both sides of the schism wanted to leave the European Union for profoundly different reasons, and in the narratives of – say – Daniel Hannan and Andrea Leadsom you can see the two sides, both passionate and both in search of entirely different and in many ways mutually contradictory outcomes.
Enough of this fudge. The Conservatives need to have it out. One might ask the free market conservatives: how much social and cultural disruption is acceptable in the name of opening up markets? If (say) robotisation decimates employment across entire sectors, are we cool with that? And if so, and you still call yourself a conservative, what precisely do you consider yourself to be conserving?
To the social conservatives, one might ask: to what extent is it important and necessary to restrain markets in order to preserve social goods? Is it worth – for example – deploying protectionist measures to shore up industries that are part of the fabric of the country and culture, even if in doing so we actually damp down innovation and growth overall? Or: you may talk about clamping down on immigration, out of a concern that the native culture is at risk of being overwhelmed. But the Tories have always been for pragmatism over woolly idealism; how then can you call yourself a Tory when you are pushing for a poorer and less dynamic country, all in the name of something nebulous called ‘a way of life’?
What is worth conserving? Do we care about traditions? Does that extend to traditional social or moral views? How much social disruption is acceptable in the name of the markets? When it happens, who bears it, and is that distribution of social cost politically sustainable? Conservatives need to be having these arguments out in the open. And don’t give me that guff about preserving unity while in government. Backstabbing one another over Brexit and cribbing policy from Ed Miliband is not preserving unity.
Social and free market conservatives have rubbed along well enough for some time, mostly by horse-trading or ignoring one another. But Brexit has ended that: there’s suddenly just too much at stake. The ideological fudge has become a bitter paralysis, and it is actively harming the national interest.
So for the Tories the choice is stark. Carry on treating our departure from the EU as party political psychodrama or, y’know, actually debate the principles informing your vision. Air the differences that have been swept under the rug for so long. A good healthy argument might even result in some fresh ideas, and God knows the Tories could do with a few of those.
The Sparrow is a former left-winger who let the side down badly by voting for David Cameron and Brexit and is now politically on the lam. She blogs about identity politics and the crisis in contemporary political culture at sparrowsandnightingales.wordpress.com.
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