Discontinuity, Leadership And Britain’s Place In The World

Stepping Stones Report - Discontinuity and Leadership - Sam Hooper.jpg

We don’t face a Brexit crisis, a migration crisis, a housing crisis, an NHS crisis, a social care crisis, an energy crisis, a productivity crisis, a deficit crisis or an education crisis — there is one universal and interconnected crisis of British politics and government

Yesterday I attended an event held by the Centre for Policy Studies, to launch a new initiative for the renewal of British conservatism. The event promised to elevate the voices of the 2015 and 2017 intakes of Tory MPs and certain “other voices”, though it was never made clear who these other voices would be, and no mention of them was made during the event itself.

The CPS is known as Margaret Thatcher’s think tank – it was founded by Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph in 1977 to promote the cause of economic liberalism and a turn away from the statist post-war consensus. And so far as I could tell, its composition has not changed greatly in that times. Their hair may have greyed and receded, but as I waited for the event to start I saw many of the same figures standing around guzzling wine and congratulating themselves on the glories of past decades.

As I expected, the event itself was largely a waste of time. The guest of honour was Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is hardly the fresh face of bold conservative renewal, and her speech was bland, utterly forgettable and targeted exclusively at the Tory MPs present rather than the wider conservative movement. Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, spoke after Rudd, cementing this occasion as more of a Tory Party pilgrimage to Soho rather than an insurgent attempt to change the course of an ideologically lost political party.

It was sad to see that the Centre for Policy Studies has become in many ways part of the fossilised establishment which they did so much to uproot in the 1970s. When Maurice Saatchi opened proceedings by bragging that Henry Kissinger had given the initiative his personal seal of approval, I abandoned any hope of conservative revival even before the first speaker took the floor.

This is a great pity, because from the CPS came the influential and ultimately transformative Stepping Stones Report, an incredible document which summarised a body of work which sought to classify and diagnose all of Britain’s economic ailments of the 1970s and propose a comprehensive solution and communication strategy which Margaret Thatcher then effectively took with her into 10 Downing Street and started implementing in 1979.

I know I keep banging on about this report, but I can’t encourage people enough to go and read it – the thing is sixty short pages of condensed insight and wisdom. Britain in the 1970s was in a very perilous economic and social position, facing challenges which are entirely different to those we face today, but of similar pressing urgency. The central premise of Stepping Stones was that Britain could not be saved through haphazard and piecemeal efforts to tackle each various problem individually – rather, a coordinated approach would be required.

Back before Thatcher

Back in the 1970s, Britain suffered from a budget deficit problem (called the PSBR back then), high inflationary pressures, uncompetitive nationalised industries, bad management, appalling industrial relations and low productivity. In 2017, some of these problems have been quelled while others remain and have been augmented by the challenges of globalisation, automation, global migration, an acute housing crisis and a terminally broken healthcare model in the sanctified NHS.

Just as it was in the 1970s, the problems of the early 21st century can not be solved in isolation from one another or as a series of individual “damage control” measures by a worn-out and rudderless government desperate to stay in power but totally unsure what to do with it. Today in 2017, we need to bring to bear the same comprehensive (one might even say “intersectional”) style of analysis pioneered in the Stepping Stones Report to arrive at a new, mutually supporting suite of policies which are both politically feasible and equal to the task at hand.

As the preamble to the report plainly states:

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

One of the key concepts discussed in the Stepping Stones Report is that of “discontinuity”, which is described thus:

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

Reading or watching the news today, one observes endless argument over what policies or decisions may be politically feasible (be it in British domestic politics or the EU secession negotiations with Brussels), but scant discussion as to whether those policies actually rise to the challenge of our times – whether they actually solve the very specific and intractable problems at hand. Both sides of the equation must be addressed if good policies and decisions are to be reached, but in nearly all cases our shrunken horizon considers only what is possible, not what is actually needed.

1977 all over again?

Who can argue that Britain in 2017 is not experiencing another such period of discontinuity? The symptoms are everywhere and have been visible for some time, notably in the defection of Tory MPs to UKIP in 2014, Jeremy Corbyn’s humbling of the Labour centrists in the 2015 leadership election (and again in 2016), and Britain’s seminal vote to leave the European Union.

The latter in particular was fuelled by public disgust with a political class who contented themselves to operate within the narrow tramlines of EU rules and social policy without any regard for those voters whose values and priorities fell outside the narrow Overton Window prescribed by Brussels.

But that’s just the start. Automation, outsourcing and globalisation have incrementally, relentlessly eaten away at the idea of a steady, 9-5 factory or retail job being sufficient to raise a family or buy a house. Millions of people who in decades past went through an education system which prepared them for little else now find themselves having to learn new computer or service-based skills from scratch, with almost no support or coordination from local or national government.

Even university graduates find that their degrees are of increasingly dubious value, and are obliged to virtually fight to the death for a coveted place on a corporate graduate scheme. The losers go back to live with their parents or work in minimum wage drudgery, wondering why their BA in critical gender theory hasn’t proven to be the passport to the slick professional city life they crave. Call centres and giant Amazon distribution centres have become the new dark satanic mills of modern Britain. Our present education policy should be focused entirely on this looming precipice, yet we distract ourselves by arguments over grammar schools or whether boys should be allowed to wear tiaras and tutus in class.

Meanwhile, there is a huge global human migration underway, prompted by the fact that countless millions more people are connected to the world through the internet and have the means to move from struggling countries to new lands of perceived opportunity – sometimes legally, usually illegally. Political leaders have openly or tacitly welcomed and even fuelled this flow, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the required housing, infrastructure and services do not smoothly and automatically increase in direct proportion to a rising population. And then they dare to act startled and affronted when the resident population complains about the impact.

At the same time, elites have preached a gospel of absolute tolerance and multiculturalism while refusing to promote British or Western values, or encourage new immigrants to assimilate, and then cry “racism!” when inevitable tensions occurs. They have created a country where some British-born people feel more affinity and allegiance to a barbaric Islamist death cult than the country which gave them life and liberty – and then prove it by stealing away to join ISIS or launching terror attacks which kill and maim their fellow citizens.

And then, of course, there is our national religion, the National Health Service. As surgeons once operated under the dictum cor non tangeredon’t touch the heart – today’s politicians abide by the even stricter rule NHS non tangere, terrified to acknowledge that a nationalised, centralised health system built from the rubble of 1940s war might no longer be the optimal way to deliver healthcare to an advanced, ageing country of 65 million people. And so the fifth largest employer in the world (right behind McDonald’s) is not some world-beating British retail giant or consumer goods company, but a creaking nationalised bureaucracy in perpetual crisis.

A failed centrist consensus

Each one of these issues forms part of a crumbling edifice representing the failed, discredited and obsolete centrist political consensus. Tinkering with the EU – to the limited extent that Britain could ever effect meaningful directional change in Brussels – was never going to happen, despite the constant disgruntled, exculpatory outbursts from Remainers that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!”.

An open migration policy may well be best in raw economic terms, but it should be for the British people to democratically decide whether they want to take the economic pain of slowing immigration, not for politicians who “know better” to overrule them.

Globalisation delivers tangible benefits to many of us and previously unimaginable opportunities to a smaller, highly educated elite, but those at the bottom are tired of being thrown into the furnace to keep the engine running for everyone else.

The NHS model has not been copied anywhere else in the world for a reason, and while it does urgent care fairly well, when overall medical outcomes (notably cancer survival rates) are increasingly falling behind other countries then it should not be off limits to ask whether a nationalised, centralised system is the best way to deliver routine or preventative care to the whole population.

In other words, this is a time of extreme discontinuity in British politics and society. But people do not necessarily recognise discontinuity when it happens, at least not all at the same time. The Stepping Stones Report notes in section 6.1 (addressing the situation in 1977):

Discontinuity may not yet have been recognised by the electorate. In fact, with skilful propaganda and suitably ‘pragmatic’ – not to be cynical – government policies, it need not be recognised until the exhaustion of North Sea oil, by which time our last chance will have gone. Once it is recognised, however, the electorate is unlikely to give a mandate to a political party which has not itself changed sufficiently to match the changed prospects. On the other hand, a party which changes itself, because it fully understands how the rules of the game are changing, is more likely to awaken an electorate to a belated recognition of discontinuity and thus win its confidence.

Here, the situation we face in modern Britain actually differs from that facing the authors of Stepping Stones, because the electorate is increasingly aware that we are in a period of discontinuity. Dissatisfaction with the state of modern Britain is quite widespread, and the people are crying out for change. Rather, today it is centrist politicians (and much of the media) who fail to recognise the discontinuity around them, and often openly yearn to cling on to the failing but familiar consensus.

Opportunity knocks – but it needs leadership

Yet Stepping Stones is clear about the need for political parties to acknowledge discontinuity and to realign their policies and messaging in response to it. As leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has done this incredibly well. One may disagree vehemently with everything Corbyn stands for – this blog certainly does – but his election as leader and conduct since that time reflect a realisation among (at least parts of) the Labour Party that standing for the same old failing political consensus was not just wrong, but bad politics too.

No such reckoning has taken place within the Conservative Party, and despite the emergence of a few green shoots of recovery/new thinking, there are precious few grounds for hope that a sufficient reckoning is imminent. The Tories don’t even have a Jeremy Corbyn of their own. Amber Rudd being invited to speak as guest of honour at an event about conservative renewal is hard evidence that the sense of urgency and horizon of thinking is still not nearly equal to the task at hand.

This is why good, decisive leadership is so incredibly important at a time when Britain is not running in “steady state” but rather entering a period of sharp discontinuity. The report makes this crucial observation:

For at a time of discontinuity, leadership is at a premium. When the future is simply an extrapolation of the past, so that we are all tramping over familiar ground, the choice of someone to lead the procession may not be critical. But if we are setting out on unfamiliar terrain, we look for leaders who, at the very least, appear to have imagined what that terrain would be like in fact.

In discontinuity, conventional wisdom cannot get us out of the problems. Indeed, innovation is almost certainly the best way through discontinuity. Almost any vision, any programme, is better than confusion and uncertainty, for it can at least be modified in the light of experience, once it has broken the paralysing spell of past failure and present pessimism.

It scarcely needs to be said that the Conservative Party is not currently offering the country the kind of ambitious, proactive and visionary leadership which is required in this time of discontinuity. Theresa May was an awful choice for prime minister from Day One, seeing the future of conservatism as occupying traditional Labour territory on state intervention in the economy. Now, in addition to having all the wrong instincts, she is also a political lame duck, shorn of her intellectual brain trust (Nick Timothy) and waking up every day reacting to a new crisis rather than boldly setting the national agenda. Much of this is not her fault, yet it is undeniably true.

Pete North is one of few other thinkers and writers I know who regularly explores the systemic nature of Britain’s problems rather than churning out compartmentalised pieces about the housing crisis, the social care crisis, the obesity epidemic etc. And he is correct when he identifies Brexit as the catalyst which will force all of these other problems out into the open:

I take the view that nothing short of a radical shock to the system will drag our politicians out of their self-indulgent navel gazing. Even now as we coast toward a cliff edge Brexit they are still trapped in the pre-referendum paradigm unable to usefully influence the proceedings and easily distracted by trivia.

[..] In this, the Remainers can’t see the woods for the trees. They point to the dysfunction “unleashed” by Brexit as evidence that Brexit of itself is bad. But this is the dysfunction that has been festering for two decades under a well crafted and stage-managed veneer of competence.

If you are not familiar with Pete’s work then at first it can seem unduly alarmist and pessimistic, but Pete gets the systemic, interconnected nature of these issues and understands that Brexit and the political unpreparedness/incompetence it has exposed are just part of this general discontinuity, all of which must be addressed – including our politics, something the original Stepping Stones report did not have to deeply consider.

A new Stepping Stones Report for post-Brexit Britain

And this leads to my conclusion: we need a new Stepping Stones Report for our times. We need a comprehensive and dispassionate analysis of the problems we face as a country, and understand where and how they are linked together. Having diagnosed these problems (which in the case of many politicians many involve some painful introspection) we must decide where we want to go as a country – what we realistically want Brexit Britain to look like in 2020, 2025, 2030 and beyond – and then devise a programme of mutually supporting, politically feasible policies to get us there, and a way of framing and communicating this programme that can unite a sufficient amount of our fractured country to earn an electoral mandate.

It may be noted that many of the issues we face today – globalisation, automation, migration, terrorism – span national borders and can not be solved by any one country alone. This is not a concession to angry Remainers who naively view the European Union as the ultimate platform for all international cooperation, but it is a statement of fact. This means that for the first time in decades – since the Second World War, really – Britain must lift its eyes above our own domestic concerns and seek to use our position on the world stage to promote and coordinate the adoption of the new solutions we devise. Having voted for Brexit and upended our politics, embracing the discontinuity which most other countries still ignore, we are the canaries in the coal mine and other nations will look to us to see how they might navigate the same issues. For once, rather than lowering our national ambitions and ducking a challenge we must rise to the occasion.

This job is too big for any one person, any one group, and probably any one think tank or political party. It will require people on all sides to let go of long-held articles of political faith and ideological crutches. It will require discipline and commitment, but above all it will require strong leadership to get us there.

I don’t know how we go about doing this, whether it should be an open competition, a more academic exercise, a think tank project, a Parliamentary initiative or a citizen-led effort. But the work needs to be done, and soon, if Britain is to emerge from this period of uncertain discontinuity in an advantageous state.

Of course there is no convenient time for strategic thinking, especially when a party is in government and fending off daily crises. But realistically, if the Conservative Party does not do this then it will be left to Jeremy Corbyn to determine what kind of country emerges from the present discontinuity. Labour’s statist, socialist policies may then quickly become ossified as the new British political consensus, though the rest of the world certainly will not be following us if this transpires.

It has been decades since Britain truly took the lead in influencing world affairs. But having voted for Brexit and thrown into the open many pressing debates which other countries remain desperate to defer or ignore, we can now be both a laboratory and a beacon for the world.

And if we do so, whatever the outcome, when we are called to account for our life’s work at least we can say that we tried to accomplish something more significant, more impactful on the world, than hiring a few extra nurses for the NHS or making the trains run on time.

 

UPDATE – 16 November

It appears that people have been discussing my article and the concept of discontinuity in British politics over on another forum. One user made the comment:

That Hooper bloke makes a lot of sense, in my opinion. Where do I sign, to join his social movement? Oh, I’m instead encouraged to make a Comment or leave a Donation.

Well first of all, thank you for the compliment – nice to know that this Hooper bloke can occasionally still talk sense! And in fact I am actually trying to do something to turn this idea from more than a mere blog post to an actual project or initiative in the real world. We clearly can’t leave it to the usual inhabitants of Westminster to do this on their own – new ideas and fresh faces will be needed, just as they were in 1977.

If anybody else who reads this article feels called to action, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at semipartisansam@gmail.com

Thanks.

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The Battle For British Conservatism: Seeking The New Generation At CPS

Centre for Policy Studies - CPS - New Generation project launch event

When it comes to breathing new life into the intellectually moribund Conservative Party, virtually any contribution is to be welcomed. But in this case, choosing Amber Rudd as the figurehead for the Centre for Policy Studies ‘New Generation’ project does not inspire great hope

Ever since George Freeman MP pitched a few tents in a Berkshire field and invited a select band of people to gather and plan the salvation of the Tory Party, there has been a steady trickle of other initiatives and articles musing on the same problem. Most of these people are catastrophically late to the party, having conspicuously failed to raise any red flags during the Cameron years (unlike this blog) or even during the beginning of Theresa May’s administration, but better late than never.

And while it may now be too late to save this government and prevent at least a short-term spell in Opposition, at least a few more people are finally starting to ask themselves what it actually means to call oneself a conservative in the year 2017, and what the modern Conservative Party should consequently look like and stand for.

Latest to climb aboard the bandwagon is the Centre for Policy studies, who a few weeks ago hosted the launch of Sir Oliver Letwin MP’s book musing on the same topic. Now, the CPS (founded by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher) is launching an initiative of their own, entitled “New Generation”.

From the press release:

If we are to save Britain from a Corbyn government, the case for the market needs to be made once again. Not with empty slogans, but by developing concrete, practical, aspirational policies that make voters’ lives better.

Our flagship “New Generation” project will give a platform to the 2015 and 2017 cohorts of MPs, and other fresh voices, to make that case: to set out the policies that can make Britain a nation of opportunity and enterprise.

One gets the strong sense that this new project will stand or fall depending on how many (if any) additional “fresh voices” are actually invited to participate, and who those people are.

Inviting the most recent two intakes of Tory MPs to help shape the argument is not an altogether bad idea – these groups have tended to be slightly more libertarian-ish than the statist interventionists of yore, though even these new MPs tended to favour remaining in the EU. But given the inescapable reality that political advancement for backbench MPs depends to a significant extent on being seen to support and defend current government policy it is asking too much to lay all the responsibility at the feet of relatively new, junior MPs.

As this blog has repeatedly argued, real change must come from outside the Parliamentary Conservative Party. We all know how CCHQ love to centralise absolutely everything so as to ensure the consistency of the uninspiring, unambitious brand of Toryism for which they are famous, but this time an exception must be made and outside counsel sought. And if the party will not engage with other small-C conservatives through choice then the party must be hijacked and dragged kicking and screaming in a new, better direction, just as Margaret Thatcher and her intellectual blood bank did for the Tories in the late 1970s.

In short, any project serious about conservative revival in Britain needs to have at least a reasonably healthy disdain for those people currently piloting the country through its centrist malaise. And who better to emphasise the need for fresh, radical and unapologetically conservative thinking than…Amber Rudd?

If you are scratching your head wondering why Amber Rudd of all people has been given the honour of inaugurating this new CPS project, you are not alone. As Home Secretary, Rudd seems to be quietly competent in the same manner as her predecessor, the prime minister – that is, she largely manages to avoid dropping the ball, causing scandal or attracting any real scrutiny of her authoritarian instincts. But she most certainly does not have any kind of reputation as an original thinker or bringer of disruptive innovation.

And why would she? Amber Rudd, after all, is on record as having gone into politics more out of boredom and desire to add another accomplishment to her CV than through any burning desire to change Britain. She is the ultimate May-ite Cabinet member – a technocratic administrator, not a visionary. And while Rudd should be rightly commended for representing the Conservative Party in this year’s general election television debate while Theresa May lacked the courage to do so, her vision of conservatism was very much a defensive one, suggesting that right-wing policies are more unfortunate necessities than a positive choice for voters.

Now it is entirely possible that Amber Rudd will admit to some of these failings and exhort the CPS’s New Generation project to learn from the mistakes and missed opportunities of the government in which she serves. But it seems highly unlikely – Rudd’s own leadership aspirations are well known (being prime minister is, after all, the ultimate boasting point for one’s LinkedIn profile) and she is raising money in donations hand over fist. It hardly then seems likely that the Home Secretary will inaugurate this new initiative to save the Tory Party from itself by admitting that she is squarely part of the problem.

But you never know – perhaps there will be a sliver of introspection. For my sins, I will be attending the launch event on Monday 13 November and will raise some of these points if and when the opportunity allows.

 

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The Battle For British Conservatism: Oliver Letwin, Hearts And Minds

Oliver Letwin acknowledges the fundamental challenge facing the Conservative Party, but in this case the devil lies not in the details but rather in the still-elusive big picture

Well, here it is – the first crack in the dam, the first “what’s gone wrong with the Conservative Party and what can we do to fix it?” book to hit the shelves has just been  published by Sir Oliver Letwin MP. Entitled “Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present“, Letwin offers what will presumably be an insider’s take on when, where and how the Tories managed to lose their way.

(I have requested but not yet received a review copy – below are my reflections based on the book launch video recently uploaded to YouTube).

You can watch Letwin speak at the book launch, hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies, in the video above – and judge for yourself whether you think that Letwin is warm or cold when it comes to identifying the key issues and proposing a plausible way back for British conservatism.

I watched the video with fairly low expectations. Letwin is one of those Conservative politicians who traded for a long time on euroscepticism only to swing his support behind remaining in the EU for reasons which amount (as far as I can tell) to a failure of courage. He was devastated at the EU referendum result and tried to persuade David Cameron to remain in office in the immediate aftermath. And given that Cameron had glowing things to say about the book in his enthusiastic review, any account of past Conservative failures which pleases David Cameron (who presided over so many of them) must, to my mind, be pulling a fair few punches.

But I did not get that sense from Letwin’s speech. Admittedly Letwin kept it very high-level and deliberately eschewed talking about much of the content of the book. But he did echo themes which this blog has been shouting about for years when he said:

Between now and the middle of 2021 or so I think we have time on our hands, which we mustn’t misuse. And that actually means recapturing the intellectual initiative and not getting mired in administrative detail but going back to these fundamental principles and trying to show how they apply to the great issues of our age, in a modern medium and a way that feels relevant so that whoever is the leader as we go into that election – long after Theresa has taken us through Brexit – actually has something much better and bigger than just a set of policies dreamed up at the last moment for a manifesto. In the end, principles and ideas have to precede the practical policies and the selling of a message.

I agree with everything aside from the Tories having “time on [their] hands”. There is precious little time for a leisurely period of introspection on the part of people who generally speaking still will not admit to having done anything wrong (or at least admit only to tactical rather than ideological errors). The only thing which will likely save the Conservative Party in time for 2022 (barring another round of fratricidal blood-letting within the Labour Party) is if the Tories are taken over by a new force which is already at work re-establishing conservative principles and building policies from them while the dying husk of this present administration focuses on Brexit and tries not to drop the ball elsewhere.

Just as the Thatcherite insurgents took over the Conservative Party in the late 1970s, the Cameron clique captured the party in the mid 2000s and Jeremy Corbyn’s crew seized the Labour Party back from the centrists in 2015, any immediate Tory revival will only come about if a new group can get organised and push the old guard out of the way when Theresa May steps down or is deposed.

Letwin pretty much goes on to admit this, undermining his own initial optimism, when he says:

Of course I didn’t design things so I wouldn’t be in government now, I found myself rudely ejected from government, as I describe in the book. But actually, had I thought about these things more clearly I would have ejected myself because actually those poor people – my former colleagues, many of them great friends of mine – now find themselves imprisoned in the ghastly operation of trying to manage this country through Brexit, keep its finances in order, carry through all sorts of administrative actions which are very necessary but totally dull and fend off thousands of marauders and put out hundreds of forest fires, and therefore haven’t the remotest amount of time to think about these basic principles. That falls to the rest of us who are outside that machine and can actually do this thinking now, and that is our sort of duty.

The dreary job of managing the technocracy and steering the ship of state while being assailed from all sides is not conducive to bold, inspired policymaking, as Letwin acknowledges. That’s why radical, purposeful governments which command the kind of mandate required to push through their agenda rarely conjure themselves into existence while the party is still in power. This kind of introspection is usually prompted only by being in opposition with no expectation of returning to power unless something significant changes.

But on the positive side, because Theresa May is so singularly useless at picking out talent and surrounding herself with the brightest and best, several key conservative assets are currently languishing on the backbenches with nothing but time on their hands to work the issue – to commit to a real debate about what it means to be a conservative in 2017, and how to apply conservative solutions to 21st century challenges.

The likes of Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly and George Freeman spring to mind, though there are doubtless some others. One does not necessarily have to agree with their every last public utterance or voting record, but these people at least look as though they may have some original ideas to contribute as well as personal career aspirations to advance. If Priti Patel could just get herself fired as International Development Secretary (a role in which her talents are wasted) then a potentially promising senior Tory would be freed up to join the revolution, too.

I shall read Letwin’s book with interest. The sense one got from the CPS book launch was of a group of rather self-satisfied veterans from Thatcher’s day, still dining out on the victories of an earlier era, who have not really had to formulate a new worldview or policy platform since the 1970s and are still unconvinced as to why they should do so now. Like ageing rock stars they go around belting out the old favourites to a dwindling band of nostalgic devotees while the rest of the world slowly moves on without them.

The accomplishments from the Thatcher years should be recognised and never diminished, but it is hard to imagine this Dad’s Army think tank saving the day for a second time, forty years later, without a significant injection of new blood (I don’t know enough about their newly appointed acting director Robert Colvile to know whether or not such a transfusion is likely).

And likewise, while Oliver Letwin’s book may well offer some diplomatically worded assessments of past Tory shortcomings, if he really does have the ideas needed to reinvigorate the Conservative Party one wonders why they were not flagged to Theresa May and Lynton Crosby before they ran one of the dreariest, most uninspiring general election campaigns in living memory.

Ever the optimist, though, I hope to be pleasantly surprised by what he has to say.

 

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We Need A British CPAC

CPAC merchandise

 

As UKIP’s spring conference gets underway, The Spectator makes lighthearted fun of the patriotic, themed merchandise available for delegates to purchase. And fair enough – some of it is quite kitschy. In fact, some of the trinkets remind one of the gaudy offerings you might find displayed for sale at the annual CPAC conference, currently underway in the United States.

Bloomberg reports:

The CPAC exhibition floor is about marketing, and advertising to conservatives is the same as marketing to anyone else: everything has to be unique, free, or superhero-themed. 

On the free stuff front, there are dozens of buttons, posters (including one celebrating the day President Obama leaves office), pens, steel water bottles, and other knick knacks people want more than need. The libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty gave out free “Stand with Rand” t-shirts to anyone who filled out a political philosophy form, with questions like “There should be no restrictions against law-abiding citizens owning firearms.” Each response (agree, maybe, and disagree) comes with a score, and the higher the score, the closer the attendee’s political philosophy is to Ronald Reagan.

All of which leads to some pressing questions: Why is there no equivalent of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee, in Britain? And are not British conservatives and big government sceptics greatly in need of one?

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Going Back To Battle For Thatcherism, 40 Years On

nights watch 1

 

In this week’s thrilling Game of Thrones season finale, there was a moment when the great wall separating the barbarian wastelands from the civilised world seemed sure to be breached. Disheartened and battle weary, the leader of the wall’s depleted guard crossed enemy lines to negotiate the terms of their surrender to the wildling force besieging them. There was no other way out – when suddenly a saviour rode into view, a king from the south with thousands of armed men galloping behind him.

Trade the fictional land of Westeros for the realpolitik of Westminster, and David Cameron’s Conservative Party are not in quite as bad a shape as the ragtag Night’s Watch army on the wall, holding back the tide of socialism but leaderless and in desperate need of rescue by stronger and more organised forces – at least not yet. But this is largely thanks to the Liberal Democrat implosion and Ed Miliband’s pioneering work in the field of political self-immolation.

Were it not for this hugely favourable climate, the Tories would certainly be on the ropes with less than a year to go until election day. That the conservatives are under siege is evidenced by the fact that they have all the unpopularity of a losing team despite having successfully achieved almost none of their policy goals such as eliminating the budget deficit, rolling back the state or pushing back against antidemocratic EU interference from Brussels.

For British conservatives, libertarians and classical liberals, the heroes riding to the rescue were decked out in workaday business attire rather than the resplendent suits of armour seen in Game of Thrones, but they were no less welcome a sight for that when they arrived at London’s Guildhall to participate in the first annual Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, organised by the think tank Thatcher founded with Sir Keith Joseph 40 years ago.

British advocates of individual liberty and a small state have endured long years in the wilderness – the fading days of the Major government, thirteen years of gradual state encroachment under the benevolent grin of Tony Blair (then the angry fist of Gordon Brown), and four years of conservative-in-name-only meandering under David Cameron’s coalition with Nick Clegg. Aside from the misty-eyed retrospectives following Margaret Thatcher’s death, talk of personal freedom, liberty and unapologetic pride and optimism in Britain have been missing in action from mainstream political discourse, presumed dead.

Before you cry ‘hyperbole!’, think on it for a moment: The main political mantras of the period 2010 to 2014 have been “The Big Society”, “We’re all in this together” and “Paying their fair share” (fairness, of course, remaining conveniently and forever undefined). All are collectivist tropes designed to soothe and placate natural Labour voters, not the principled words of liberty befitting the heirs to Thatcher.

The Big Society was meant to serve as rear-guard cover as the Conservative-led coalition sought to stem the rise in government spending and enlist volunteer groups to pick up the slack, but its architects forgot that a sudden burst of civic-mindedness and philanthropy was unlikely to come to pass if the government did not reduce its ominous presence in everything else that we do.

“We’re all in this together” was always a phrase better left to the teenage cast of Disney’s “High School Musical”, because it sounds both patronising and wooden coming from the mouths of politicians like David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne & co. are quite clearly not suffering the effects of austerity in the same ruinous way as families who have been deliberately led down the road to government dependence through Labour tax credits and allowances, and stranded there to suffer in the great recession. Suggesting that we are all suffering equally has opened the door to ridicule and Labour’s inevitable counterattack of ‘class warfare!’ as they seek to distract attention from their awful record in office.

And the less said about “paying your fair share” the better; suffice it to note that we now live in a country where any reduction in benefits granted to an individual by the state is not only indignantly referred to by opponents as a ‘tax increase’, phrases such as ‘the bedroom tax’ are unquestioningly adopted by the media without the slightest hint of irony.

As this blog noted yesterday, these are not auspicious times for those Britons who believe in a smaller government and more power for the individual.

But this only made the words spoken and the ideas expressed at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty all the more heartening for those beleaguered souls who think Thatcher was right, and that we need to embrace rather than repudiate her vision of a modern, capitalist Britain.

From start to finish there were powerful speeches on important topics such as re-emphasising national sovereignty, promoting free markets, tax reform, foreign policy, immigration and defence. Sometimes the ideas discussed were almost startling because they clashed so violently with the centrist orthodoxy that now predominates.

Take the panels on economics and fiscal policy. With Art Laffer in attendance there was no pulling of punches as he restated his timeless keys to success for any national economy: “A low-rate, broad-based flat tax, spending restraint, sound money, free trade and sane, limited regulation”. It cannot go unnoticed that the Conservatives have ceded some of this ground to UKIP in the past few years, but while policies such as a flat tax may be something of a pipe dream, Laffer’s contribution to the debate could be what is needed to help the Tories rediscover their footing on tax policy.

Also looming large in the discussion was growing cosiness between big business and big government, be it through lobbying at the national and EU level (more than 15,000 lobbyists and counting, noted Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan) or direct collusion on matters such as government surveillance. Perhaps surprisingly, given the circumstances, the delegates still considered big government a bigger threat than big business by a margin of 79% to 21%. Art Laffer summed up this sentiment, saying “big or small business is irrelevant – what matters is efficiency and competency”.

The discussions on national sovereignty and the need to stand firm in support of the nation state as the best guarantor of individual liberty were particularly refreshing, as they stood in such stark contrast to the pessimism and declinism which inevitably colour the attitudes of the pro-Europeans and those who have lost the ability to distinguish between patriotism and nationalist xenophobia.

Daniel Hannan argued that the EU should become “a free trade area in the model of NAFTA”, a nice idea, but given the fact that the European project has taken on a life of its own with the EU’s own interests now superseding those of its member states, there was too little discussion of how best to effect a British exit. Indeed, when the time came to vote on whether the EU can realistically be reformed, attendees voted 43% yes (wishful thinking) but a solid 57% no.

One of the most concrete areas of policy development was on tax, with the launch at the conference of the very SEO-friendly #ThePolicy. This proposed tax reform calls for the total abolition of capital gains and corporation tax for small businesses, giving them a shot in the arm to expand and create more jobs. The negative impact on the Treasury would be offset by the falling welfare bill, together with increases in PAYE and National Insurance contributions from the newly employed. While the policy needs further analysis and costing, it seems a lot more solid than Labour’s various hare-brained schemes to achieve full employment by levying yet another one-time tax on ‘the bankers’.

Underpinning all of these conversations on the economy was the imperative to rescue the reputation of capitalism, which has been tarnished partly through its own fault but mostly by left wing saboteurs, crony capitalism and poor government regulation. Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, posed the question: “How can capitalism work for people who don’t have capital?”. It is certainly the prevailing view, and has too often been the case, that capitalism has not worked well for too many people as implemented by their governments. Changing this negative impression of capitalism, and the element of truth behind it, will be key if the Conservatives are to rebuild the winning coalition of working and middle classes that Thatcher forged in 1979.

This discussion naturally led to the importance of preventing distortions in the market, and the observation that “gifts through the tax code and obscure regulatory benefits” are no less than corporate welfare, and should be discouraged in order to salvage capitalism’s reputation. And in another nod to the importance of semantics, it was reinforced that “libertarians, Thatcherites and other pro-capitalism sympathisers need to speak of being ‘pro-market’, not ‘pro-business’ in order to avoid being associated with harmful crony capitalism.”

There were several interesting debates on the media, with Guido Fawkes blogger Paul Staines and the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg hosting an interesting Google Hangout on the future of news media, the opportunities presented by online journalism and the disruptive impact on existing revenue models – a topic which could have been a day conference in itself. And it was perhaps unsurprising that 70% of delegates were against continued full state subsidisation of the BBC.

On national identity and culture (or what has become known here as the #BritishValues debate), former Australian prime minister John Howard attempted to reframe the argument, describing himself as a “multiracialist, not a multiculturalist”. In doing so, Howard explained that conservatives should be welcoming to immigrants regardless of their race and ethnicity, but hold everyone to the same standards of behaviour and observance of the law – a call to assimilate which many on the left are too timid to echo.

John Howard also had timely words of warning on winning elections, a topic where David Cameron could use advice from a someone with a track record. Howard warned: “The worst way to try to win office is to pretend you’re not too different from your opponents”.

Cameron is limited in what he can do in government by his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, but when the starting gun is fired on the 2015 general election campaign, this will no longer be the case. The Conservative Party – if they are willing and courageous enough to do so – will be able to clearly articulate their policies and present a radically different blueprint for Britain than that offered by Ed Miliband’s dystopian “One Nation” vision.

The centrist status quo was challenged on almost every issue, even if some topics (such as immigration, where delegates from North America and Europe found themselves talking at cross purposes for much of the time because of their differing experiences) were not convincingly resolved.

The only question remaining now the conference is over: Is today’s Conservative Party still receptive to what the small government free-marketeers have to say? Will the Tories reach out and take the help and advice being offered?

In Game of Thrones, those who guard the wall are a motley crew of misfits, idealists and outcasts. Anyone who has ever made the mistake of expressing support for conservatism or (heresy of heresies) admiration for Lady Thatcher at a Hampstead dinner party or northern England working men’s club could immediately identify with their plight.

But despite the prevailing atmosphere of scepticism, the happy warriors at the 2014 Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty did something important in defence of the realm the likes of which we have not seen on such a scale since their not-so-ancient order was founded by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974 – they came together and boldly, unapologetically proclaimed the principles of small government and individual empowerment that saved Britain once and can do so again.

By contrast, Ed Miliband addresses crowds of the Labour faithful (nobody else listens to him now) and – with a straight face – proclaims that his disproven, tired old formula of tax hikes and renationalisation represents “the new politics” that Britain so desperately needs, if only we realised.

Consequently, the 2015 general election could end up being a battle between two recycled political ideologies. And we will have a choice to make: Shall we choose the one that inevitably leads to the four-day working week, rolling blackouts, industrial unrest, punitive taxation, the brain drain, the politics of envy and ‘managed decline’, or the one that puts its trust in the people, liberating them to make Britain great again through their own efforts?

With the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, Thatcher’s peers, friends and successors made a surprisingly forceful show of strength on the side of freedom.