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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Is There Hope For Conservatism In Generation Z?

Generation Z conservatism

Generation Z does not automatically share the same predilection for leftist identity politics as the Millennial generation which precedes them. But can conservatives do enough to appeal to this newest group of emerging voters?

Many conservatives, myself included, have been worrying a lot about how we can better resist the relentless encroachment of leftist identity politics and the regressive, illiberal social justice warriors at the movement’s vanguard. But what if we have now reached Peak SJW? What if the spell is wearing off and a new generation is emerging with less time for the pervasive victimhood culture spawned by the 1960s radicals and their fragile children? And if so, how can the Right appeal to this generation (or at least cease driving them toward the parties of the Left)?

These are the questions explored by Sam White over at Country Squire magazine, in a thought-provoking piece which explores how conservatives might find favour with (at least some) young people again.

Sam writes:

Corbynism has been painted as rebellious and anti-establishment, but underneath the endorsement from Stormzy and the party leader’s appearance at Glastonbury (not that Glastonbury is pushing any boundaries) it’s nothing of the sort. If the current Labour leadership’s schemes were ushered in, they’d lead to constraint and conformity. And the new establishment would be authoritarian to a degree that its youthful supporters had not felt before.

There wouldn’t be much of a celebratory mood in the air then, as it slowly became clear that all that rebelliousness was nothing more than a carefully-managed means to an end.

Conservatives should be highlighting all this, and at the same time pushing the message that a free market model provides the best possible mechanism by which for changes to occur organically. Crucially, that model is how we safeguard the capacity to change, but it isn’t a change in itself.

If the Conservative Party were to realign around its libertarian element, then it might achieve resonance among younger voters, particularly those who come after the Millennial Red Army. Generation Z are shaping up to be open to a conservative message, and will surely react against the postmodern nonsense bought into by Millennials. Conservatives must be ready to meet them.

And the message should be simple: that the right-wing will safeguard classical liberal values and ditch victimhood-fetishizing identity politics. And it ought also to be made clear that socialism represents the polar opposite of all this: it’s a half-fossilized ideology that would usher in micro-management, politically correct hectoring, and state imposition.

The idea of the Conservative Party realigning around its libertarian element seems ludicrous at first glance, considering how few genuinely small-government, pro-liberty MPs exist within the party (and the even smaller subset of those whose views are vaguely coherent and pragmatic rather than ideological fantasy).

But then one remembers how Jeremy Corbyn first captured his party and then vast swathes of the country with a hard left message that his opponents and nearly all the commentariat dismissed as being terminally unpopular, and suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so unrealistic. One also thinks of how devotees of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were able to establish a beachhead within a Conservative Party which still fully bought into the statist post-war consensus. And suddenly the idea of a radical shift in the Conservative Party seems feasible, if still unlikely.

Of course, such a shift would require somebody with vision and political courage – a conservative version of Jeremy Corbyn. And necessarily somebody without very much to lose, given the high probability of failure. Like him or not, Jeremy Corbyn possesses this conviction in spades, and even many people who are none too keen on 1970s socialism respond warmly to his candidness and the fact that he is unwilling to apologise for his beliefs. It is hard to see anybody within the current Conservative Cabinet playing a similar role on the Right. Indeed, all of the candidates most hotly tipped to succeed Theresa May are either grasping opportunists (Boris Johnson) or bland nonentities with no clearly articulable political philosophy of their own (Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd).

But even if the Tories were to search deep within their party and find a leader with moral and ideological backbone, could they make political traction with any group of voters by standing up to the identity politics Left? Sam White argues yes:

Conservatives needn’t pay regard to the social justice diktats which have taken over left-liberal discourse and muffled people’s rational capabilities. Simply by speaking directly and honestly, the politically correct narrative can be disrupted. And if that ruffles some left-wing feathers then all the better, let’s refuse to apologise and then offend them some more.

[..] The Conservative Party ought to be rejecting SJW new-leftism unequivocally. Why not just state it clearly? If you value the sovereignty of the individual, if you want the freedom to say what you like, create what you want, and make of yourself what you will, then steer well clear of collectivist movements.

A serious party would throw out badly defined hate crime regulations, reject the CPS’s garbage about policing what people say online, and get a grip on the police force so they stop tweeting photos of their trans-friendly, rainbow coloured cars.

There’s a gap in the market right now as common sense, libertarian ideals go under-represented, and there’s a Conservative Party that needs revitalising.

I don’t disagree with Sam in principle, but I do believe that the approach he advocates would require a degree of political courage and holding one’s nerve that I have not yet seen in any potential future leader, with the partial exception of Jacob Rees-Mogg (who disqualifies himself from serious consideration in several other ways and is therefore irrelevant).

We have seen time and again the ability of the social justice, identity politics Left to summon national outrage, to raise a mob, to hound people from their jobs and careers and even to incite violence when they sense a threat to their illiberal worldview. Even when it transpires that the target of their fury is innocent of the charges levelled against them, the damage is often done and no retraction or apology is forthcoming – see the inquisition against decent people like scientists Dr. Matt Taylor and Sir Tim Hunt.

We have seen, too, the unwillingness of senior politicians to take even the mildest stand against a leftist orthodoxy which demands 100 percent compliance on pain of excommunication from polite society. Even on his way out as Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron equivocated and resigned rather than stick to his guns and defend what were presumably his true, religiously-motivated feelings about gay marriage. And regardless of one’s feelings about gay marriage (this blog is supportive), how many conservatives will have watched these various witch hunts play out in the news and concluded that to speak out on other issues like climate change, the gender pay gap, affirmative action or radical gender theory means career suicide and likely social ostracisation as a bonus?

In short, it would take almost superhuman bravery to stand in the face of this potential hurricane. Even Jeremy Corbyn didn’t have to fear such public opprobrium for stating his political beliefs. When running for the Labour leadership, despite being on record as supportive of dictatorial leftist regimes and terrorist groups from the IRA to Hamas, Corbyn was still very welcome in polite society, and regarded at worst by most his critics as a harmless curiosity from the past. By contrast, if a conservative politician were to publicly question or doubt the “institutional racism” of swathes of British society, denounce affirmative action or even state that there are just two sexes and genders, the dinner party invitations and television interview requests would dry up instantaneously. To even state political opinions held by a plurality of people effectively makes one persona non grata in Westminster and other elite circles.

Therefore, given the hostile environment and lack of courage seen in our politics, we will likely have to look for salvation from outside, in the form of Generation Z. As Sam White correctly points out, this emerging generation – unscarred by the great recession, less coddled (so far) by helicopter parenting, more individualistic and sceptical of identity politics narratives preaching collective racial guilt – may yet react against the politics of their older siblings and illiberal, leftist parents.

And this is why it is more vital than ever that the Conservative Party stop bickering over which of three or four identikit centrists replace Theresa May, and instead articulate a positive conservative vision with concrete policies that actually inspire young people rather than continue to screw them over. In short, they need to do precisely the opposite of what they accomplished during their car crash of a party conference in Manchester.

The newly-minted young adults of today are still politically up for grabs. There is nothing written in stone which decrees that they must become the perpetual property of a moralising left-wing movement which combines 1970s statism with 21st century, self-obsessed identity politics. Many of these new voters can still be called to a higher, better and more conservative purpose if only somebody was there to show them that there is more to conservatism than droning on about the deficit, apologising for their principles, chasing after Labour and messing up Brexit.

Tick tock, fellow conservatives.

 

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Chasing Liberty

David Green, author of the upcoming “Inclusive Capitalism: He we can make independence work for everyone“, has a good piece in the Spectator about the extent to which the modern Conservative Party has abandoned the goal of maximising liberty. Bonus points to Green for quoting Michael Oakeshott, with whose work I gained a very passing familiarity and appreciation thanks to reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog back in the day.

Green writes:

There is also much to be learnt from the great philosopher of freedom, Michael Oakeshott, who tried to put his finger on the fundamental truths that are worthy of defence. Our freedom, he said, rests on mutually supporting liberties none of which stands alone:

‘It springs neither from the separation of church and state, nor from the rule of law, nor from private property, nor from parliamentary government, nor from the writ of habeas corpus, nor from the independence of the judiciary … but from what each signifies and represents, namely the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power.’

In short, he says, we consider ourselves to be free because: ‘no one in our society is allowed unlimited power – no leader, faction, party or “class”, no majority, no government, church, corporation, trade or professional association or trade union.’

Precisely. Yet tell anyone today that there are no “overwhelming concentrations of power” in our society and they will laugh in your face, quite rightly. At least in the 1970s the enormous power of the trades union (bad though it was) balanced out the power of the state and ensured that there were at least two competing interest groups. Now there is no such balance. The unions were de-fanged, which was right and necessary. But the decline of religion, waning influence of the church and the gradual capture of arts, culture and academia by metro-leftist ideas mean there has been no real opposition to prevailing policies inside or outside Parliament.

Today, recent anti-establishment backlashes including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – while dissimilar in every other way – are united by the popular belief that recent government policy had served the interests of only one interest group, the university-educated metropolitan elite, with no countervailing force able to successfully represent other interests. Certainly the Labour Party gave up any pretence of supporting or representing their working class constituents well over a decade ago.

Green goes on to argue that one reason the pro-liberty wing of the Tory party have lost so much ground to the inept clan of statists and authoritarians like Theresa May is that their definition of liberty has become too narrow, and their view of how to achieve it too simplistic.

It is not enough to argue that capitalism is great and to shout hysterical warnings about Venezuela and North Korea in the expectation that this will convince an increasingly sceptical population to embrace a status quo which is evidently failing so many of them. And the more one lays into Jeremy Corbyn and his merry band of socialists without revising and promoting one’s own definition of freedom, the more one appears to be an apologist for the crony corporatism that the Left now falsely claim represents the entirety of capitalism.

Money quote:

But apologists for capitalism in its current form are undermining what is mutually beneficial about a market economy. If we want to continue adding to our prosperity we must accept that it depends on constant adaptation to fluctuating demand for goods and services through the system of voluntary exchange at freely adjusting prices. We must enjoy the personal freedom to react to incessant alteration of the conditions affecting the occupations available to us and the products we are able to buy. The mistake of free-market fundamentalists is to assume that this freedom to adapt implies minimal government. But freedom does not depend on the absence of government. We must learn to choose between government actions that are compatible with a free economy and those that are not. Compatible actions included contract law, measures to prevent the abuse of private power through cartels and monopolies, and laws regulating corporations, including limited liability.

And this is just one of many things that this year’s Conservative Party Conference and Theresa May’s meltdown of a speech failed to accomplish. The prime minister made a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge the crisis of faith in capitalism in her speech, but when she later called out the dysfunctional energy market, her solution of national price caps was straight from the leftist, Ed Miliband playbook. The remedy proposed did not seek to enhance the liberty of either the producer or consumer – perhaps by finding ways to promote competition, break cartels, lower barriers to entry or increase transparency and information for consumers – but merely sought to impose the imposition of a state-mandated settlement on both parties.

Like the entirety of the Left, today’s Conservative Party seeks to regulate outcomes rather than provide a level playing field and equal opportunities. We see exactly this explicitly stated in Theresa May’s audit of racial disparities, which blindly looks for inequities of outcome and attributes them to racism rather than looking at underlying demographic, social or systemic issues.

So fearful has the Right become of the Left, so desperate are they to shed their image of being the “nasty party”, so totally have they absorbed the Left’s narrative about 21st century Britain being some terribly racist dystopia that policy is now made according to the headlines the Tories hope to generate rather than the results they want to see. No wonder they also lack the courage to stand up to leftist smearing of capitalism and make the positive case for free markets.

David Green is quite right to remind us that promoting maximum freedom does not mean a complete government withdrawal from regulation and oversight. But Theresa May’s government (as with David Cameron’s before) goes too far, abusing this principle by trying to regulate both inputs and outcomes, and prioritising the latter over any commitment to defending liberty.

 

Theresa May - Building a country that works for everyone

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