Conservatives Are Conceding The Battle Of Ideas Without A Fight

Jeremy Corbyn thumbs up

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is hard at work promoting their beguiling new left-wing vision for Britain while the Tories offer nothing but drudgery and incompetence

Every day now brings more ominous warning signs for the squabbling, directionless Tory government that the only people in Britain offering a clear, articulable vision for the country are those on the Corbynite hard-left wing of the Labour Party.

Four months after the general election, and all of the political energy and momentum is still on the Left. Jeremy Corbyn is more wily than he was in 2015, less prone to gaffes or accidentally handing his enemies the initiative. His centrist rivals have fallen into line, discredited and with no strong candidate to unite behind. Moreover, while most conservatives spent the summer licking their wounds far from the ideological field of battle, Momentum continued to organise and prepare for what they believe is one final push required topple the Tories and seize power.

And this newfound confidence is starting to creep into the rhetoric used by Labour politicians. Jon Trickett, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, writes this week in LabourList:

There was a time after the second world war when government saw its central role as creating a socially just Britain where full employment, adequate housing for all and free education was the right of the many.

In that time, there was always more to achieve but the national sense of purpose was clear.

It was a time when jobs were secure and for the long term. Policy was designed to make communities feel secure, when the past was a bad place of mass unemployment, slum housing and no hope. But the future was full of promise, where strangers were welcomed into communities because no one felt their jobs were under threat.

And in the time, it was not acceptable that the growing wealth of the country was only distributed to the wealthiest.

A coherent set of progressive values aimed at building a social contract in which we had a sense of duty to the community, and the country agreed to stand behind those who could not care for themselves.

Note what Trickett is doing here. He is building a narrative, talking about the kind of country we once were and citing the great endeavours from our past in order to build a link with the present and generate enthusiasm for future Labour policies.

President Lyndon B. Johnson did something very similar (albeit at a much more sophisticated level) when introducing the Great Society initiative in 1964, not merely proposing a raft of random new socialist programmes but making them collectively seem almost inevitable by deliberately linking them with the American founding, history and national destiny:

The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

In fact, this is a simple device which even mediocre politicians and rhetoricians were once capable of using before technocratic centrism sucked the soul and energy out of politics. It is the exact opposite of anything written or spoken by a Conservative minister in Theresa May’s administration, because great political rhetoric can only exist when there are great ideas to be expressed or arguments to be won.

Trickett goes on to give a perfunctory but devastating indictment of the state of Britain under the Conservatives:

But now you would struggle to discover a shared sense of national purpose. You could describe a sense of anomie in Britain where a sense of common values, duty to others and co-operation for shared ends are, to one extent or another, lacking.

Too often: post-industrial communities have been abandoned; young people have less hope than ever before of acquiring a home at reasonable cost; education has become a commodity rather than a public good; where that which was common is frequently private or suffering from severe spending cuts; and, where the wealth of the most privileged is growing exponentially at the expense of the rest.

How do we explain this shift in the national culture?  Or rather, how do we account its disintegration and fracturing? Is this a uniquely British problem? And can we begin to rebuild a renewed socialist project based on 21st century.

At this point a five-alarm fire warning should be sounding in CCHQ and inside the head of every single Tory or small-C conservative in Britain, because Jon Trickett has just eloquently and concisely diagnosed the ailments of modern Britain – the fact that we are effectively drifting as a nation with no core unifying purpose or attachment to one another and a diminishing sense of obligation to our fellow citizens. In other words, Trickett has created an itch, a burning discomfort with the status quo, and now stands ready to offer voters the calamine lotion of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist policies.

One does not have to agree that building “a renewed socialist project” is the answer. The point is that Trickett has clearly defined a problem and proposed a solution, all in the space of three short paragraphs. The Tories, meanwhile, are stuck defending a mediocre record with the huge distraction of Brexit, and seem to be loudly insisting that everything is great despite mounting evidence to the contrary (see Universal Credit). They have chosen to be cheerleaders for the status quo rather than agitators for change, even though the Conservative leadership election-that-wasn’t last year presented the perfect opportunity for unflinching self-assessment followed by an ideological reset.

That opportunity was squandered. And it has really come to something quite appalling when a Labour politician is responding to the priorities of this blog before the Tories pay proper attention. Jon Trickett is hardly known as Labour’s greatest thinker, but at least he understands that mandate-bestowing electoral victories are won on the back of selling the electorate an inspiring vision for the future.

Having a narrative is important. Good leaders and successful political movements understand this. The Attlee government alluded to by Jon Trickett certainly had a clear vision of the New Jerusalem they wanted to build out of the rubble of war. Margaret Thatcher had her urgent mission to save Britain from a failing post-war consensus and terminal national decline. Even David Cameron had his “Big Society”, an idea which might have been genuinely transformative if only it was bolstered with more thought and political courage.

In America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his “New Deal”. LBJ championed the “Great Society”. Ronald Reagan beguiled the nation with his promise of “Morning in America” after years of perceived stagnation under presidents Ford and Carter. And while President Obama’s soaring rhetoric often exceeded his relatively pedestrian governing agenda, his 2008 message of “hope and change” also strongly resonated with many Americans (including millions who deserted the Democrats to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 after no positive change appeared in their lives).

British politics has been stuck in such a dismal slump because for two decades an incredibly narrow, self-serving consensus was allowed to crowd out all other perspectives. And while this consensus served many people fairly well, its policy outcomes focused almost exclusively on funnelling material benefits (either wealth and career opportunities or literal welfare benefits) to certain specified groups of people rather than calling all of us together as a society united by a common bond, culture and purpose.

That approach has been found wanting. When the bipartisan political consensus (favouring EU membership, social liberalisation, globalism and corporatism) goes unchallenged it feels no need to respond to the concerns of those who do not benefit from existing policy. That is why for all the material progress seen in Britain we are still blighted by low productivity, family breakdown, divisions over immigration and a lack of any meaningful government response to the negative side-effects of automation, outsourcing and globalisation.

By electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, some within the Labour Party recognised that continuing to stand up for a failing political consensus was no way to address these problems or win a decisive mandate for left-wing government. As incumbents, the Tories were left as the only major party championing the status quo, and rather than develop a radical, inspirational right-wing message of their own they continued to double down on bland, uninspiring centrism under Theresa May.

What makes it especially galling that the Left rather than the Right have recognised the need for a positive, bold new narrative is that it is the Left who are most in thrall to the Cult of Identity Politics which does so much to atomise society and make people see themselves as members of persecuted identity groups first and foremost rather than fellow citizens of a united country. Somehow, despite this increasingly prevalent mindset within their ranks, some on the Left still managed to recognise the need for a coherent, inspiring national message, a message with the potential to unite a broad swathe of society behind it (though whether it succeeds is another matter).

As John Prescott boasted earlier this year:

Finally, we’re talking about ideas and policies – not splits and personalities. Twenty years ago next month, Labour won an ­election landslide because we were united, trusted and had policies people could understand. When we lost in 2010, I felt we lost our way. We didn’t want to defend our record in government and by 2015 we accepted Tory austerity.

At least Labour is now ­developing clear red water between us and May. Not with soundbites and brickbats, but with popular policies.

Ideas and policies over splits and personalities.

Meanwhile, what do the Tories offer? False promises of being “strong and stable”, a moronic slogan which described an unattainable state of being rather than a clear direction for the country. More dull, technocratic drudgery in which eliminating the budget deficit (painstakingly slowly) is considered an aspiration worth putting in neon lights and making the focus of their government. Division and incompetence on Brexit, with the only optimistic Tory voices now belonging to free trade fantasists who want Britain to unilaterally lower barriers to trade and who think that crashing out of the EU and defaulting to WTO trade terms is a smart decision. Barely concealed leadership rivalries between a cast of identikit Cabinet ministers who seem to be competing with one another based on personality rather than different visions for the country.

Yet even now, the Conservative Party has no idea of the terminal danger it is in. Despite a few plucky efforts to re-inject some proper thinking and ideas into the party, the prime minister and her Cabinet offer no real ideological leadership whatsoever. Consumed by Brexit (and doing a pretty poor job at that) they seem to have abdicated any responsibility for using government to lead the country to a better place. Everything they do is reactive and cynical, like Theresa May’s university tuition fee freeze and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s age-based tax proposals, transparently cynical attempts to court the youth vote which are laughable in their inadequacy.

A couple of days ago I mused about whether the Conservatives can renew themselves ideologically and spiritually while still in office. This already slim prospect looks less and less likely by the day, both because senior people within the Tory Party seem to be too busy lurching from crisis to crisis to see the bigger picture and because all of the ideological energy and political momentum is on the Left right now.

And where there is new conservative thinking, it tends to counsel more, not less, accommodation with the Left. Some MPs, like Sam Gyimah, talk the right language of purpose and ambition but then disappointingly default to predictable, Left-leaning “compassionate conservative” solutions. And even these efforts at conservative renewal tend to focus more on what the government could and should do for us rather than what we collectively might accomplish together as a people. Time and again, the present Conservative Party capitulates to the Left and apologises for its own principles.

This is frustrating because conservatives should be able to come up with a far more inspirational, compelling message than the one they have been peddling. The Left’s entire focus is fixed firmly on inequality. Yet even die-hard Social Justice warriors would surely admit that equality is a hygiene factor, the absolute baseline for which society should aim (though they might then go on to disagree about whether equality or opportunity or outcome should be the goal).

Therefore, as eloquent as Jon Trickett’s words are – and as much as they should scare conservatives who are yet to join the ideological battle – equality remains insufficient as an organising principle for society or a shared national ambition. We need more concrete goals toward which we can all strive and move together, while in the background we are working hard to achieve a just society (however we choose to define it).

And luckily for conservatives, this is what the Left still does not get. Though they have woken up to the need to talk in terms of vision and ambition while the Tories are still lost at sea, the Left still sees achieving equality as the ultimate goal. One gets the distinct impression that many on the hard Left would not much care if we never really accomplished anything great as a country and even regressed somewhat in terms of material comfort and economic development, so long as society was flattened and the gap between rich and poor reduced. To listen to many a Labour speech, one almost pictures a country with a state-of-the-art NHS hospital on every street corner but a population so busy marvelling at their wonderful state of equality that they forget to go out and change the world.

So there remains an opportunity for conservatives to sneak in with an improved narrative and national ambition, one which aspires to something more than mere equality. Something which actually seeks to organise and harness the best of our energies and skills as we strive to make our country and the world better, not just more equal. Such a vision, carefully crafted and persuasively argued, would beat the Left’s narrow-minded focus on equality any day of the week.

So who will step up to the challenge and help develop a worthy conservative response to the re-energised Left? Because right now they are the ones fizzing with energy and ideas, while conservatism seems content to trudge wearily to its grave, quite possibly dragging the country along with it.

 

UPDATE – 17 October

Evgeny Pudovkin makes some good points over at Comment Central, specifically around how the Tories can potentially keep Theresa May in place as a “bad bank” repository for public dissatisfaction with the status quo while developing new ideas and new talent in parallel:

Some argue for replacing May with a fresh candidate who could offer the Tories a new vision. Yet May is still at Number 10 due to the very reason of her being a fulfiller and not a prophet. Her main role entails overseeing already introduced reforms – Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, the house building programme and, indeed, Brexit. That doesn’t leave much time for blue-sky thinking, at least not until future relations with the EU are at least broadly defined. Just what exactly will toppling May achieve, apart from spawning new rivalries?

Any vision for post-Brexit Britain must be cultivated in parallel with May’s premiership. First of all, prospective candidates should establish a stronger presence on social media. The time when David Cameron could simply dismiss digital communication with his “Britain is not Twitter” jibe is over. As historian Niall Ferguson explained (here and here), the successes of both Donald Trump and the Leave campaign can be explained at least partially by their presence on social media. Secondly, the next leadership candidate might want to spend more time with the grassroots. Finally, a prospective challenger could create a new platform for developing policy. The Centre for Policy Studies served an important vehicle for Thatcher’s revolution, while Policy Exchange helped to inject a more coherent vision into Cameron’s project.

The dichotomy between May’s stable rule and the need to reinvigorate the Tory party is false. You can do both at the same time.

I agree in principle. Of course, this approach depends entirely on the public retaining patience with the Tories long enough for them to come through the other side of Brexit with an attractive new philosophy of government ready to go and an equally attractive leadership candidate to pick up the torch.

Right now, I struggle to see where the seeds of a new 21st century conservatism are germinating. Certainly the think tanks are nothing like the humming centres of creative energy that they were back when they propelled Margaret Thatcher to power with a copy of the Stepping Stones report in her pocket.

On paper, what Evgeny Pudovkin proposes makes perfect sense. In practice, I don’t see where the new ideas or the leadership talent are going to come from. I sincerely hope that this is due to my political myopia rather than a genuine dearth of new ideas within the British conservative movement, but I do not think it likely.

 

British Ambition - underground tube sign

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In My Version Of The British Dream, Leaders Acted With Integrity

BRITAIN-POLITICS-EU-BREXIT

The World, Transformed

I saw this:

A traumatised and bedraggled family, still wearing the pyjamas in which they fled their smoke-filled flat in Grenfell Tower, were huddled together when the prime ministerial motorcade swept up outside the impromptu crisis centre and Theresa May strode through the open door accompanied by a single aide and minimal security, having dismissed police advice to maintain close-quarter protection at all times.

There were jeers, boos and some pointed profanity shouted in her direction as her entourage passed the crowd gathered outside, but the prime minister walked on unfazed and immediately approached the family, pointedly spurning the reception line of Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council officials assembled to greet her. The husband looked brittle, angry and ready to snap while his wife, in shock, stared blankly ahead.

But before either of them could speak, Theresa May knelt down and spoke to their two small young children. It was as awkward for those watching the scenes on television as it was to be there at the scene – the prime minister was not a natural empath at the best of times and as uncomfortable around children as she was in any other unscripted setting. But still she spoke quietly and reassuringly to the children while the cameras flashed, and produced some little toys from her bag before standing up to speak with the parents.

Again, it was awkward. The parents, still in shock, were monosyllabic and uncertain of what to say, but already some left-wing agitators gathered outside had decided that the inferno was the fault of the Conservatives and were chanting about the Evil Tories having blood on their hands. Over the muffled chants, however, the prime minister could be heard promising the family that they would be spending the next night together in a local hotel, and she would personally ensure that the Office of the Prime Minister, not anybody else, would secure them alternate local accommodation as soon as possible. As she went off to speak to other survivors, her aide followed behind, taking the details of each family and repeating the same assurances. Firefighters were still pumping jets of water onto the smouldering tower as the sun rose in the sky; the Mayor of London and Leader of the Opposition would not arrive for several hours yet.

As it became clear that Britain’s disaster preparedness and response plans were woefully outdated and inadequate, with poor coordination between the local council, emergency services and the Red Cross, Theresa May became a frequent fixture in the shadow of Grenfell Tower over the coming days. The hostility of the crowds became worse, if anything, and some of the survivors were understandably very angry, providing newspaper editors with choice quotes of criticism and TV news editors with more than one video of the prime minister being angrily dressed down by survivors.

But undeterred, the prime minister kept coming back. Though her security detail now maintained a more high-profile presence, the prime minister was frequently onsite, being briefed by response leaders and answering questions while her husband helped to coordinate donations and supplies. Once the immediate crisis was over, May gave a speech admitting that Britain’s disaster response plans were not fit for purpose, and pledging to create a new unified agency to take charge of Britain’s resilience against disasters both natural and man-made. Even many of her political enemies had to grudgingly admit that she had displayed real leadership in difficult circumstances.

This all happened shortly after the prime minister had finally imposed some order and discipline on her fractious Cabinet, pointing out to the Brexit Ultras that getting 100 percent of what they wanted on the back of 52 percent of the vote and an EU referendum question and campaign which deliberately avoided specifics was not reasonable.  Boris Johnson and several others had made their displeasure known and even sought to destabilise her position as leader, with Boris effectively drafting his own personal Brexit manifesto in the Telegraph. Theresa May’s response was swift and unforgiving, warning Boris Johnson and other rebels to fall in line or be sacked and personally denounced from the podium at 10 Downing Street. The next day Boris gave a contrite press conference in which he acknowledged May’s leadership and admitted that he was in fact not the sole custodian of Brexit, before being sent by the prime minister on a long diplomatic tour of South America.

There was still loud discontent in Parliament about the government’s Brexit stance, not helped by mischief-making and uncertainty from the Labour Party. But Theresa May made it clear in all of her speeches, press releases and PMQs appearances that Brexit is a process, not an event, and that the best way to abide by the verdict of the 52 percent while acknowledging the 48 percent was to seek continued participation in the single market in the short term by applying to rejoin EFTA and trading with EU countries through the EFTA-EEA agreement in the short to medium term. She acknowledged that this interim step out of the orbit of the EU would offer only limited and largely untested tools to manage the free movement of people, a sticking point for so many, but pointed out that through this mode of Brexit, any retaliatory measures taken by the EU in the face of democratically determined UK immigration restrictions would at least not then automatically impact the entirety of our trade with the EU.

But still there was discontent and rumours of plots. So Theresa May issued a public challenge from the garden of Downing Street, daring Labour to call a vote of no confidence in her government and plunge the country back into chaos, and to her disloyal Cabinet members to fall in line or prepare to hand their ministries over to Jeremy Corbyn’s government-in-waiting. This bold, conciliatory stance on Brexit paid off. The grumbling died down, and Theresa May went into the Tory Party conference in Manchester strengthened and respected, if still widely disliked by many.

And what a conference it was. Nobody had any great expectations for the Conservatives, particularly given the distrustful atmosphere in Cabinet and after Jeremy Corbyn cemented his iron rule of the Labour Party by delivering a triumphalist, ambitious left-wing credo. But for once in her political life, Theresa May surprised everyone. Freed from the pernicious influence of her old Red Tory brain trust, May showed a new willingness to listen to the Right of the party, on the condition that they applied their small government values to coming up with new solutions rather than simply reheating the old Thatcherite medicine of the 1980s.

Her conference speech, though marred by a prolonged coughing fit, a juvenile protester and the gradual collapse of part of the stage, was the complete opposite of her first outing in 2016. It was an acceptance that the dour, paternalistic, technocratic approach to government she had championed in her first year had inspired zero enthusiasm in the public, and that the Conservatives could not expect to win based on scaremongering about Venezuelan socialism or overwrought insults to Jeremy Corbyn.

The prime minister took responsibility for the awful 2017 general election campaign, pledging that henceforth the Conservatives would be a party of ideas, that the status quo was something unacceptable, not something to be preserved, and that only the Tories could be relied upon to preserve the best of tradition while orienting Britain to meet the challenges of this century. And the British media, showing a renewed dedication to serving the public interest by reporting seriously on policy over spectacle, gave the speech the hearing it deserved. Within two days, nobody remembered the prankster or the coughing fit.

But having set out these goals in her speech, Theresa May also made clear that she would not fight the next general election, but rather would step down at some point after the formal EU secession was complete to make way for new leadership. She did this knowing that it would ignite speculation about her likely successor, but maintained that neither the Conservative Party nor the country would benefit from a hasty leadership election – that potential Tory leaders needed time to think about their ambitions Britain as well as their career ambitions. By announcing this long-term intent, May enabled the Conservatives to finally begin a meaningful debate about what conservative government should look like in the 21st century. Ideas were debated, not policies floated, dissected, discarded or refined.

After a long period of questionable value added to British politics, the right-wing think tanks took on a new lease of life, finally becoming incubators of radical, civic-minded policy rather than mere enablers and cheerleaders for a very narrow agenda. The IEA, Centre for Policy Studies and Adam Smith Institute became among the most exciting places to work in Westminster, the mediocre-but-well-connected hires having been pushed out to make room for thinkers of real vision and expertise.

Because of this ideological renewal, when potential future Tory leaders did eventually start to manoeuvre for position they were forced to appeal to would-be supporters by convincing other MPs (and the general public) that they had the best ideas, as well as the courage and leadership skill to enact their agenda. No longer was it enough to appeal to the vanity or career aspirations of junior MPs with offers of advancement, or woo them over sushi and sandwiches.

And when Theresa May eventually stepped down as promised, one year before the next general election, her strategy paid off handsomely. In hindsight, her successor was a natural choice – someone with solid small government credentials but not an ideologue imprisoned by 30-year-old dogma. Someone able to talk up rather than down to the nation, unafraid to show a bit of poetry in their rhetoric but equally comfortable talking with voters at the local pub.

Theresa May’s successor came from a humble background and a history of community and philanthropic involvement, a walking refutation of leftist charges that conservatives are selfish, callous and born to privilege. But more than all that, the new prime minister was someone with a burning mission to improve Britain and a desire to help their fellow citizens help themselves. Someone who promised to inject some ambition and a sense of direction back into Britain. Someone whose conception of the journey ahead extended beyond the moment they stepped across the threshold of 10 Downing Street.

The 2022 general election would be a close-fought race, but at least the Tories now respected the threat posed by Corbynite Labour and stepped up their own efforts in response. The Conservatives had pulled off that most difficult of manoeuvres – a major ideological course correction whilst in government – but Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party were still riding high, level in the polls. For the new prime minister to truly cement their authority, a convincing general election result was needed to usher in an intake of new Tory MPs fully committed to the new project – and to sweep out a lot of dead wood from previous administrations (though Theresa May had graciously agreed to remain in Cabinet as Minister for Citizenship).

And there were some encouraging signs. While Jeremy Corbyn continued to attract support by offering free things to millennials, it appeared that Generation Z which followed them were more independent and receptive to a conservative message now that it was being delivered boldly and unapologetically. A nascent conservative youth movement was reborn. Campaign events were held in real public squares encouraging real public interaction rather than being clinical press photo opportunities with distant party activists brought in by bus. These campaign stops were used to discuss ideas, not transmit soundbites, and when the inevitable public heckles and hostile media questions occurred, the prime minister was fond of quoting John F. Kennedy, calling for people to ask not what their government can do for them, but what they can do for their country, and for their fellow citizens.

There was even a positive public and media response to the Conservatives’ new slogan and title of their 2022 election manifesto, which rejected the usual pandering platitudes and simply read: Dare Mighty Things.

It made me feel as though there is hope for our political class, for conservatism and for our country.

That is what I saw this week.

I should note – this part is true – that I saw much of this while slumped over, asleep at my desk after a long and tiring week. For an hour afterward, even knowing it was either a fantasy or a dream, I felt so . . . hopeful. Cheerful. Proud. I give it to you.

 

This article is inspired by the great Peggy Noonan, an homage to her recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed re-imagining the Trump presidency in an alternate America where civic virtue is still valued. If I manage to become one tenth of the writer that Noonan is, all these years of blogging will not have been in vain.

Dare Mighty Things

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Can The Conservative Party Change Course While Staying In Power?

Margaret Thatcher election - 10 Downing Street - 1979

If the Conservative Party has a saviour-in-waiting, they are doing a great job of staying hidden from view

Blogger Effie Deans has some good thoughts here on how to revitalise the Conservative Party and give it the kind of purpose and sense of mission that might actually inspire people to vote Tory out of enthusiasm rather than fear of the alternative.

I don’t agree with every last letter of what she says, but we should all be able to stand behind the conclusion:

What we don’t need is someone who thinks the task is to limit the damage from Brexit. We need someone who realises that leaving the EU is a turning point that can improve life in Britain. We therefore above all else need a Brexiteer to lead the Conservative Party. We need someone who actually believes in free markets, lower taxes and smaller government rather than someone who thinks that price controls are a sensible idea because Ed Miliband gained a few percentage points when he suggested them. Don’t let’s try to steal Labour ideas, let’s come up with new Conservative ideas.

We don’t need a new leader yet, but start preparing for the time when we will need one. Find the brightest minds in the Conservative Party, give them the task of coming up with the new ideas that will break us free from the cosy establishment consensus. These must actually address the genuine worries that ordinary British people have about our country. Let no idea be forbidden. But above all else make sure we develop Conservative ideas for a new Conservative Party. When that is done find the best communicator, perhaps someone we’ve never heard of, to present these ideas. Then believing in what we stand for,  with ideas that we believe to be true and important let us take on Labour and win. That just might just give us a new turning point.

This chimes with everything I have been writing about the Conservative Party since 2013. Appeasement of the Left has gotten us absolutely nowhere. By cowering in the face of leftist moralising and making concession after concession to statist thinking, all that David Cameron and Theresa May have succeeded in doing is expanding the Overton Window of British politics further to the left.

The one area where I potentially disagree with Deans is that she believes that a conservative course correction is possible while the Tories are still in government, while I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about the prospect. Mid-term course corrections are hard enough to pull off at the best of times. Doing so in the midst of Brexit (and remember, Brexit is a process, not an event, even if we do formally leave the EU on schedule) and with no standout candidates is inviting failure.

And that’s why a fresh face for conservatism is so important, which Deans also acknowledges, to her credit:

When considering who should be the next Conservative leader it is crucial to think about ideas rather than people. Few people had heard of Tony Blair much before he was elected leader, the same was the case for David Cameron. What matters is not so much the person as what the person believes.

The major problem that the Conservative Party has faced since the election of David Cameron is that it has not had a leader who really believes in anything. Cameron was concerned mostly in how to get the Conservatives into power. He therefore did all he could to occupy the centre ground. He wanted in essence to become Tony Blair. The difference between these two is essentially trivial. Both are in reality social democrats. They believe in capitalism, but they think that its purpose is essentially to fund state spending. Neither views the goal of government is to become smaller and neither wish to lower the amount that the state spends.

Theresa May takes a similar view. Worse still despite the occasional stern face she completely lacks conviction. She just wants to manage Britain as well as possible while spending as much as possible on nice things. She didn’t even really have an opinion on the EU. She campaigned half-heartedly for Remain and then became a Brexiteer. It is because she doesn’t really believe in Conservatism that she comes up with mush and incoherence and thinks the solution to all problems is to drift to the Left and end up in the centre ground.

Yes, a thousand times yes. Nobody currently touted as a plausible immediate successor to Theresa May sets the heart racing with excitement or optimism for the future. Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson & co all suffer from exactly the same lack of conviction as Theresa May and David Cameron. Boris Johnson has slightly more charisma than the others (though this is more than outweighed by his other flaws), but none of them have shown any ability to make a clear, bold and positive case for conservatism. Moreover, they are all equally implicated in the unambitious centrism of the present government.

New blood is absolutely required, whether that is from the backbenches or junior ministerial ranks (Priti Patel? Kwasi Kwarteng? James Cleverly? Tom Tugendhat?) or form somebody not yet even in the parliamentary party. The latter is likely possible only if the Tories find themselves in opposition, though – a neophyte as Leader of the Opposition is just about tolerable; an inexperienced prime minister in challenging times is an immediate non-starter.

Despite the bitter complaining of the centrists, there is in fact nothing wrong with the entirely human desire for politicians and leaders to stand for more than the technocratic, managed decline. The challenge for the Conservative Party is to find a new message – and a messenger – to resonate with people who yearn to be inspired and called to a higher purpose than claiming entitlements form the government. And that messenger aspire to be something more than a dreary administrator of austerity, a British Comptroller of Public services.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s transformative premiership (cited approvingly by Effie Deans), however, an new incoming Conservative prime minister will have had no time to develop a new philosophy of government away from the heat of battle before assuming office. They will be plunged straight into the thick of things, and almost inevitably become a reactive rather than proactive leader through no fault of their own.

Margaret Thatcher had four years as Leader of the Opposition to think about her approach to government, and eventually entered Downing Street with a blueprint for national renewal in the form of the famous Stepping Stones report. Unless somebody has been doing some equally radical thinking away from the spotlight in our present decade, it is hard to see a new conservative leader coming to power with anything like as transformative an agenda ready to go – particularly as the challenges we face today, while very different to those of 1979, are every bit as serious.

Can this ideological and national renewal be attempted while the Tories are still in government, without giving Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party at least a brief (and potentially disastrous) spell in power? I fervently hope so.

But for the life of me, I don’t see how.

 

Theresa May

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An NHS For Housing And Food – What Fresh Hell Is This?

Free school meals

With all the political momentum behind them and the Conservative government in chaos, even more moderate leftists are now pushing for a radical expansion of the size and role of the state

Fresh from advocating for a 100 percent inheritance tax, Guardian columnist Abi Wilkinson takes her desire for all of us to be vassals of the state to the next level by calling for a National Housing Service and National Food Service to rival the wonder that is the NHS. No, seriously.

Wilkinson is responding to a new report published by UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity, which calls for an ever-expanding range of “universal basic services” to be provided free of charge to all British citizens.

From the report’s summary:

The UK should provide citizens with free housing, food, transport and IT to counter the threat  of worsening inequality and job insecurity posed by technological advances, a report launched by the Insitute for Global Prosperity recommends.

The proposal for ‘Universal Basic Services’ represents an affordable alternative to a so-called ‘citizens’ income’ advocated by some economists, according to the expert authors working for UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity.

Building on the ethos that saw the establishment of the NHS and public education – that essential services should be free at the point of need – the plan would “raise the floor” of basic services all citizens can expect, providing better protection for workers in the face of rapid advances in technology and automation.

As always, the report’s sponsors and cheerleaders make heavy use of emotional manipulation to press policy solutions which make people feel good and altruistic at the time, but which ultimately do more harm than good as they act as a dead weight on the economy. Andrew Percy, “citizen sponsor” for the report, predictably puts a rather more positive and moral spin on it:

It cannot be sufficient to excuse hungry school children or an uncared-for elderly population with a notion of ‘unaffordability’ in a society that is as rich as any that has ever existed.

Because let’s not blame irresponsible parents for having children they can’t afford or selfish adults for having no interest in caring for their elderly relatives, both groups not just being willing to palm these responsibilities off on the state but expectant of doing so. Let’s not assume that any of these problems require even the slightest change in the way that we ourselves behave. No, let’s just scream about human suffering and point angrily toward the government, demanding a solution.

Cynically using the Grenfell Tower tragedy as a convenient emotional launchpad to push her leftist Utopian vision, Wilkinson picks up the banner and writes:

The horror of Grenfell Tower has also given impetus to those who wish to see a more communal politics. Though a public inquiry into the tragedy is in progress, leftwingers have long argued that programmes for poor people are poor programmes. That is to say, when fewer people are dependent on a service – and when they’re among the most marginalised, disempowered and ignored members of society – there’s a higher chance that standards will fall.

If a larger proportion of people lived in social housing, this sort of treatment would be impossible. Politicians can only neglect a certain percentage of the population without facing consequences: mess with too many of us, and we’ll vote you out. In essence, this is the basic argument for universality. It’s one that even many left-of-centre politicians seem to have forgotten in recent decades. The higher the number of people who have a stake, the better resourced, monitored and defended a public service will be.

Interesting. Abi Wilkinson seems to have forgotten the more important and proven lesson from history – that when everybody is dependent on a service (as in every Communist state yet attempted) standards do not just fall, they crash through the floor, except for those well-connected apparatchiks who are given unofficial permission to bypass state provision and get what they want or need on the black market.

At first glance, Wilkinson’s argument may make sense to many people – because  many of us do not have an immediate, direct stake in social housing or welfare payments, we are naturally less concerned with the service offered to those who are. But even this is not entirely accurate, since the majority of Brits are now net beneficiaries from the state rather than contributors to it. And this is reflected in the dismal Politics of Me Me Me which has utterly taken over, our selfish badgering at every general election not about what we can do for the country, but what the country can do for us.

In other words, half of the population effectively consider themselves (or are considered by government agencies) to be among “the most marginalised, disempowered and ignored members of society”, or at least among the most entitled members of society, and still this has not generated sufficient political pressure to force the socialist gold-plating of these services. But then clearly this is why Abi Wilkinson is pushing for more. Her New Jerusalem can only be achieved when literally everybody relies on the state for housing, food, healthcare, transport, education and probably cultural and leisure services too, for good measure.

And this is precisely what she then calls for:

As the neoliberal order of the past several decades enters its death throes, we should take the opportunity to reconsider our conception of universal rights. Healthcare and under-18 education we already agree on. In a changing economy with a growing need for highly skilled workers, why not university education as well? What about state-provided universal basic services, which is what leading economists and social scientists at UCL propose as a practical, affordable and morally justified response to growing poverty and inequality?

The left has spent years focusing primarily on opposition: resistance to spending cuts, punitive welfare changes and the erosion of employment rights. Now, with Labour tantalisingly close to power, we have, at last, a chance to imagine something better.

Except it’s not better at all. What she proposes has been tried, tested and failed every single time it was implemented. There is already a steady ratchet towards greater state provision underway, both fuelled by and fuelling public clamour for the same. People now expect to be able to procreate and have the state cover the cost of raising their children, and to even question this absurdity is to find oneself excommunicated from polite society. People expect schools to feed their children, and act as though schools expecting parents to provide meals for their own kids is somehow a mark of barbarity.

After a brief retrenchment, more and more people once again are clamouring for the state to be landlord to everybody, and the weak, pathetic incumbent Conservative government is actively cooking up plans to build more council homes while doing almost nothing to increase private provision. At every turn, people look first to the government to solve their problems, and with some justification – they have been falsely led to believe that this is normal and moral their entire adult lives.

Leaving aside universal basic income (for which there may arguably one day be a case if current trends toward automation continue on their present trajectory) the idea of universal state provision of individual services like housing, food, endless tertiary education and more besides is corrosive to the human spirit, as is the idea that it should automatically be the compelled responsibility of productive individuals to pay for the bad choices of another person. A basic welfare safety net is absolutely required, particularly at the present time, when civic society is so eroded after years living under a system where government comes to be seen as an auxiliary parent. But we must recognise the ratchet effect for what it is – increasing state provision leads to decreased personal initiative and increased demand in an endless, self-fulfilling cycle.

And where would it end? Today, food, housing and internet access are seen as essentials for which no human being or head of household should have any responsibility for providing for themselves. Presumably, then, every new invention from here onwards will quickly be decreed by the Left to be so vital to wellbeing and participation in society that it requires nationalisation and state provision to an ever-expanding pool of “vulnerable” people. Where does it end? And what happens when the innovators and high-income people who fund the wretched Ponzi scheme leave Britain in disgust?

The irony of such wicked proposals emanating from an organisation calling itself the Institute for Global Prosperity is almost too much to bear. How does the IGP think that prosperity is generated in the first place? Which is the economic system which has lifted more people out of poverty and want than any other, and which is the system which always begins in a blaze of idealistic optimism and ends with round-the-block queues for government bread?

But this is why it is essential that conservatives wake up, stop their petty infighting over personalities and develop an alternative policy programme to address the issues tackled in the IGP report. At present, the socialists are the only one with ideas and the political courage to speak them out loud. And at a time when dissatisfaction with the status quo is high and populist policies quickly gain traction, these ideas could end up being implemented by a Corbyn government sooner than many people think possible.

Carefully cultivating their reputation as the wooden, uncharismatic, technocratic comptrollers of public services, as the Tories seem determined to cast themselves (witness Theresa May’s most recent awful performance at Prime Minister’s Questions this week), is now a recipe for political suicide. Indeed at this point, given the uselessness of the present Tory party, it may already be inevitable that the political pendulum swings toward the Corbynite Left no matter what is done now. But thinking conservatives of vision and courage need to be ready to step in with an alternative as soon as the opportunity presents itself, whether it be a successful U-turn while still in government or a quick bounce back from Opposition.

And unlike the Left’s beguiling promises of an easy life stripped of any personal responsibility, this new conservative vision must inspire humans at our hardworking, civic-minded best rather than pandering to us at our grasping, self-entitled worst.

 

UCL - Institute for Global Prosperity - Universal Basic Services report

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The Centrist Persecution Complex

Tony Blair

Discredited centrists, locked out of power and influence for the first time in decades, mount a crisis PR campaign to salvage their reputation

It reached a peak immediately after the surprise victory for Team Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, with weepy centrists tearfully quoting W. B. Yeats to each other (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world“) and huddling in fear of the oncoming fascist terror, as though Britain had been suddenly stripped of all decency and reason overnight.

But truthfully, the Lamentation of the Centrists began the moment that Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely bid for the Labour Party leadership started picking up steam in the summer of 2015. It began when a cohort of bland, unremarkable political nothings (to call them technocrats would bestow an undeserved suggestion of expertise and competence) suddenly realised that the comfortable, predictable career progression and access to power they took for granted was in jeopardy, and all because some obscure, dusty old backbencher with these strange things called “principles” and “political convictions” was generating widespread grassroots enthusiasm.

Since these events, any suggestion or development which threatens to marginally expand the narrow Overton Window of British politics has been greeted by the centrists of both parties as a disaster waiting to happen. Back when Ed Miliband proposed energy price to limit consumer utility bill increases, the Tories treated it like a 1970s-style demand for socialist renationalisation of industry, which was made all the more ironic since Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party then actually proposed the renationalisation of industry in their 2017 manifesto while Theresa May’s Tories now think that price controls are a wonderful idea.

The window of political possibilities has thus been expanding, but primarily in a leftward direction, since the present-day Conservative Party lacks anybody willing or able to make a robust, inspiring and unapologetic argument for right-wing policies. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has single-handedly proved to a sceptical political and media establishment that having a coherent political ideology and policies which naturally flow from it can still be attractive to voters, particularly when communicated clearly and unapologetically.

And this has the centrists scared. What once looked like a temporary, aberrant blip on the horizon and was later nervously dismissed as a brief interruption to their natural right to rule is now starting to look like a permanent, existential threat. And predictably enough, something of a desperate fightback is now underway.

Of course, being centrists, they cannot help but belittle and condescend to the millions of people who grew tired of their self-serving shtick and started looking elsewhere for political inspiration, even as they seek to win back their favour. Thus we are told over and over again that the centrists are the wise adults in the room, the mature grownups who see the world as it is rather than as they wish it were and choose their dismal policies accordingly, while we partisan hotheads on the left and right are being immature and unrealistic by daring to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not”.

The centrists sometimes go on to argue that theirs is also a coherent political ideology, and that their political “beliefs” should not be dismissed simply because they do not hew towards one extreme or another. This is most often brought up in response to my remarking that a leftist sees a river and demands that a bridge be built across it at any cost, the conservative sees the same river and says that a new bridge would be expensive and unnecessary, but a centrist compromises and builds half a bridge halfway across the river and congratulates himself on his pragmatism.

Their defence against this charge is false – true centrism is absolutely not an ideology or worldview of its own, since in a strict sense it merely defines the midpoint between two more polarised political worldviews. When one side manages to push the centre of political gravity left or right, the centre will move with it, maintaining an equidistant position. This is the definition of reactionary opportunism, not principle.

But in another sense, the whining “centrists” are absolutely right. They do indeed have a unique and defined worldview, it just happens to be more of an establishment worldview than a truly centrist one. For a long time, the two terms were interchangeable since Labour and the Conservatives had staked out very predictable and largely static positions since the dawn of the New Labour government. Today’s so-called “centrist” politicians therefore tend to be those people who personally benefit (and/or advocate for those who benefit) from the current status quo, the pathetic tug of war between a not-very-conservative Tory Party and what was until recently a Blairite “sons of Thatcher” Labour Party.

And nobody can say that the United Kingdom as a whole has not prospered, materially at least, under the aegis of the centrists, particularly to look at London or the regeneration of other major British cities. But at the same time, other places have been hollowed out. Regional cities, market towns and suburban commuterville have often become scruffy, more deprived and less pleasant, characterised by vacated high street shop units rather than vegan hipster taco bars.

My own hometown of Harlow, Essex has been very hard hit in recent years, with nearly all the large employers either moving out or significantly downscaling, and the opening of a new retail area only causing businesses to migrate from the other end of the town centre, leaving it a wasteland of charity shops, second hand stores and a few Eastern European mini-marts. Meanwhile, firms which once offered entry-level office work and the possibility of advancement have been replaced by vast distribution centres which offer minimum wage warehouse work and no career progression.

If the centrists even noticed the hollowing out of large parts of the country on their watch, they had over a decade to show that they cared by coming up with new policy prescriptions to make Britain better equipped to face the challenges of globalisation, automation, outsourcing and localised mass immigration. But no sympathy was forthcoming, let alone concrete solutions. And now, with Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the establishment is being forced to pay in a lump for pretending to care about the entire country while looking out only for very specific segments of society.

Naturally, the centrists do not see it this way. In their alternative narrative, they are the victims. The likes of Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Sir Nicholas Soames and Anna Soubry probably imagine themselves as Cicero banished from Rome, stellar public servants unfairly cast from favour by an unreasonable mob whose passions will eventually cool and allow them to resume their rightful position in charge of the nation’s affairs.

A new piece by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman perfectly encapsulates this sense of self-entitled grievance, beginning with the headline “Are you now, or have you ever been, a centrist?”, actually likening their plight to the victims of the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s (modesty and a sense of perspective are not the centrist’s forte).

Lewis writes:

Yes, we’ve been here before. The word “neoliberal” migrated from describing a particular kind of political ideology to a catch-all for anything vaguely capitalist the speaker didn’t like.

[..] “Centrist” is now doing a similar job. In the way it is used by the Labour left, the world is divided into three categories: them, Actual Nazis, and everyone else, who is a centrist.

Boo hoo. How sad that the denizens of centristland, who for years maintained their vice-like grip on power by smearing everybody else as a dangerous extremist, now find themselves being criticised, sometimes unfairly. I can’t possibly imagine what that must feel like.

None of this is to say that there is not a time for more centrist, technocratic leadership. There undoubtedly is. When times are good, threats are few and both society and the economy are in a reasonably satisfactory steady-state then choosing politicians and leaders without much of an ideological compass but the pragmatic ability to get things done can be absolutely the right choice. The problem only comes when the centrists and technocrats outstay their welcome, lingering on with their cautious and unambitious  approach in the face of impending danger or disruption.

One could certainly argue that early New Labour acquitted this “steady state” management job fairly well, inheriting the Thatcher economic transformation and reaping its benefits through studious inaction rather than torpedoing Britain with an immediate return to 90 percent top tax rates. But it is also clear that Blairite and Brownite Labour then went wrong by maintaining their cautious, plodding approach in the face of globalisation, spiking immigration from the new accession EU countries and the 2008 crash and recession.

It should now be clear to all that this is no longer a time for centrist, technocratic leadership. The challenges we face on the domestic, foreign and national security fronts – reviving the economy and ensuring that more Brits are equipped to prosper in it, asserting British influence on the world stage and tackling the evil ideology of Islamist terror – will not be solved by tweaking the dials or turning the tiller half a degree in a particular direction. Far more radical and ambitious government is required to meet these challenges.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not have a ready-made answer for what this new governing agenda should be. Conservatives in particular have a real challenge to come up with a policy mix which does not simply ape Labour’s go-to solution of waving a magic wand and creating a new government programme to deal with every single social or economic ill. But just as the need for the Thatcher government’s monetarism and supply-side policies was realised by only a few people in the 1960s and 70s, so the answer to our present difficulties may presently be seen as equally marginal and controversial. As Lincoln once said, the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.

I am often gently mocked or criticised by friends and readers for being too negative about contemporary politicians, as though by objecting to the various shades of beige offered by Labour and the Conservatives I am somehow setting my standards unreasonably high. I strenuously disagree. Would somebody in the early 1970s have been unreasonable to be disillusioned with both Labour and the Conservatives? Hardly. The Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments were all wedded to the same failing post-war consensus which was slowly dragging Britain toward terminal national decline. Rejecting the statist politics of the 1970s was absolutely the right thing to do – the dogmas of the immediate post-war years were inadequate to the stormy seventies. And so it is now, when the dogmas which served some people so well in the nineties and early 21st century are being rejected by a majority of the country.

And this is what the centrists just don’t get. They seem to think that everything was ticking along just fine until this awful populist revolution came and ruined their perfect existence. They hold this belief because from their perspective everything was fine – a continual upward trajectory in terms of wealth, living standards, career and leisure opportunities. Though they furiously deny the charge, many centrists possess the ability to simply forget about the parts of the country and all the people who have been hurting, stagnating and not seeing their concerns reflected in our electoral politics, and having thus exempted themselves from the need to show empathy they view both Corbynism and Brexit as movements based on pure irrationality.

One might have hoped that a brief period in the political wilderness – two years in the case of the Labour centrists and now just over one year in terms of the pro-EU establishment – might have taught the centrists some humility or instilled a modicum of respect for those people who are now finally beginning to make their voices heard. But of course we have seen the exact opposite – disbelief that these people dare to seek to influence the politics of their own country followed by a dismissal of their ideas and often a seething hatred of what they stand for. And still the centrists might have gotten away with this elitism, were it not for the fact that they are incapable of keeping their contempt for the people to themselves. On the contrary, they feel compelled to continually remind the rest of the country just how backward, stupid, communist, racist or evil they consider us to be.

The centrists may win some victories yet. The almighty mess being made of the Brexit negotiations by the UK government may, if things go badly, allow the centrists to prance around screeching “I told you so!” as though flawed execution and lack of planning somehow discredit Brexit as an idea. And Jeremy Corbyn may yet be turfed out of the Labour leadership if the centrists get their act together and rally around a single candidate, particularly if they can find a Emmanuel Macron-type character, an empty suit who can stalk around on stage roaring empty platitudes to get people fired up.

But the centrists have now been exposed. Rather than the wise, measured and pragmatic types who chart an intellectual course between two political extremes that they pretend to be, they have been revealed as unimaginative and thoroughly self-interested defenders of the status quo.

And all their overwrought and exaggerated complaints about evil populists, “things falling apart”, having their opportunity to “live, work and love in Europe” cruelly ripped away or being the supposed victims of a McCarthyite purge will not save them from the judgment of the people.

 

Tony Blair - Open Britain - centrism

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