Conservative Renewal: A Glimmer Of Light In The Darkness At CPS

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Faint signs of optimism for the future of British conservatism, and an opportunity to pitch Stepping Stones 2022

The other day, after hitting “publish” on another one of my increasingly repetitive blog posts pressing the case for positive renewal within the British conservative movement, a friend had this to say about me:

Billions of years from now, when the last proton decays and the wailing of AC Grayling can no longer be heard, the final sound in the Universe will be Sam saying he can still save the Tories.

A fair point, amusingly made. Quite possibly through sheer ignorance of political machinations combined with my lonely position on the outer, outer, outer periphery of Westminster life, I am imbued with a natural optimism which tells me that however far the Conservative Party may stray from the path of visionary, principled government, there is always a way back.

An annoying voice in the back of my head keeps insisting that just as with the “twitch upon the thread” in Brideshead Revisited, the Conservative Party can wander to the edge of the world under the non-leadership of Theresa May and yet still eventually be brought back to the faith – though I’m not delusional, and also accept the possibility that eventual outcome may be rather less optimistic:

 

Others in my circle have understandably given up hope and effectively adopted a “let it burn” stance with regard to the entire British political system, but to me this seems like an indulgence. I am about as idealistic as they come, but still I acknowledge that politicians must to a large extent operate within the ballpark of existing public opinion, even when that public opinion is the reason for our current strategic impasse on nearly every important decision.

I have attended a number of events on the subject of conservative renewal over the past couple of years, and read and written countless words on the subject, but nearly every event thus far has left me rather underwhelmed. Either the basic optics were all wrong (like inviting Home Secretary Amber Rudd of all people to talk about encouraging visionary new policies) or the words were right but lacked any sense of plausibility.

And perhaps it is precisely because the most recent event I attended – Wednesday evening’s Centre for Policy Studies conversation with Chris Skidmore MP on the topic of Conservative renewal in government – did not promise the moon on a stick or suggest easy answers that I ended up coming away feeling more buoyed and encouraged by what I witnessed than has been the case in over six years.

Part of the reason was undoubtedly due to having attended the event with Chloe Schendel-Wilson, an optimistic young voice within British conservatism, something of a rising star and about as welcomely different from the stereotypical Young Conservative activist as one can imagine. Prior to the CPS event we had the opportunity to talk about what it might actually take to bring about meaningful conservative outreach to younger voters who have no time for Corbynism but currently see nothing positive in the Conservative Party, which has given me much food for thought.

But Chris Skidmore himself, in his role as vice chairman for policy, also talked a lot of sense, beginning with his acknowledgement that “there is a battle for the soul of the country, not only the size and shape of the state but also the future of markets”. Skidmore spoke about a return to “an age of extremes”, but to my mind there is presently just one extreme in British politics – that offered by Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour Party captured more than ever by the toxic Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. In the face of this danger, the Tories by contrast are not merely not extreme but positively wishy-washy, scampering to the Left on everything from market regulation, big government paternalism and disregard for the national defence. Would that the Tories actually offered a meaningful counterweight to Corbynism rather than the thirteen shades of beige painted by Theresa May.

Not everything that was discussed was on point. Much time was given by Chris Skidmore to talking about the need to create and promote “vertical narratives”, the kind of jargon I thought I had escaped when I left management consulting, which apparently involve telling marvellous and compelling tales about how children born in 2010 have flourished growing up under Conservative rule. I and several audience members thought that this was a bit of a stretch, that making the story about What Government Has/Can Do For Us will only draw us into an unwinnable war of promises with Labour, but perhaps there is something we’re missing.

Other points were much more welcome to hear, particularly when Chris Skidmore chastised the party for having failed to make any mention of the deficit in the 2017 manifesto, a striking feat of amnesia given the previous emphasis by David Cameron and George Osborne  (in rhetoric if not in deed). But best of all was Skidmore’s mention of the need for a timetable – a clear set of goals and ambitions for what the Conservative Party wants to achieve in government in 1, 5 and 10 years, something more tangible than clinging to power and surviving the daily news cycle.

Throughout the evening a lot of the right things were said – from the need for a strategic direction flowing down to granular policy goals on the one hand, to the need for “signpost moments” on the other – legislative or public relations events such as Iain Duncan Smith’s speech at the Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow. This blog has always maintained that an “all of the above” solution to the current Tory malaise is required, that there is no single policy or personnel change which alone can staunch the bleeding (though of course signpost moments are pointless until there is a clear direction for them to point towards).

But as always, the proof is in the pudding – deeds, not words. And despite more of the right things being said at this CPS event than at previous gatherings on the future of conservatism, the same niggling doubts remained. My misgivings about the Centre for Policy Studies’ New Generation project is that it is so MP-centric.

The CPS’s greatest victories, particularly looking back to the 1980s, occurred because the think tank sought ideas from outside the Westminster political bubble and fed them into Downing Street rather than relying on those within the bubble and inevitably wedded to certain ways of doing things to then come up with disruptively innovative new policies. Yet at one point Chris Skidmore said, with specific reference to the 2015 and 2017 intakes of Tory MPs “we’re here now, we have something to say”. Fantastic. Are the rest of us allowed to make some suggestions at any point, or is this to be an entirely Westminster-centric talking shop? And if the latter, why would we expect the results to be any less dismal than the last few years of Tory policymaking?

And so when it came time for Q&As, I seized the floor to repeat my pitch for a new Stepping Stones report to identify and analyse the challenges and opportunities facing Britain as we approach the 2020s, understand how those issues are interlinked, chart a path for national recovery and then generate a coherent suite of mutually-supporting, politically feasible policies to deliver on that strategy. I emphasised the point that attempting to individually tackle the various “crises” afflicting Britain without understanding how they are linked together and solving them together rather than in silos.

I further emphasised that generating policy to tackle symptoms rather than root causes is time and effort thrown away, that Britain has entered an unstable new period of political discontinuity not seen since the late 1970s when the prevailing political consensus and its associated policy solutions no longer work nor command majority public support, and warned that the future belongs to the political party which acknowledges this fact and comes to the electorate with an entirely different pitch.

As should be evident to anyone with a brain and a pulse, Labour is currently streets ahead of the Tories in this regard, with the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn itself evidence that the Labour Party has rejected the previous centrist consensus in favour of something different (much as a bulk of the parliamentary party may grumble about it). Fortunately their new offering is not particularly compelling, and indeed is actively repulsive to many swing voters – but at least the faction currently leading the Labour Party is trying something new. At present, the Conservative Party under Theresa May can be easily portrayed as grey, worn-out guardians of a despised status quo – not a good foundation for future electoral success.

Will anything positive come out of all these meetings? Who knows. More and more, the right things are being said, and glaring failures and weaknesses finally acknowledged. But the epiphany is happening far too slowly, and as was pointed out during the event, any future strategic planning will be for nought if the Tories cannot rack up some positive accomplishments between now and the next general election. A few people approached me after the Q&A was over and expressed support for what I had said, which I take as an encouraging sign, but ultimately I don’t see any real Conservative renaissance taking place unless the party and its orbiting system of think tanks and advocacy groups cast off their insularity and start welcoming input from outside.

Seeking and accepting help from outside takes humility – the kind of humility often only borne out of prolonged, crushing failure. That’s what it took for the Tories to reconsider their slavish devotion to the failing post-war consensus policies of the 1970s, and that’s probably what it will take today.

The only question is how bad will things have to get before the conservative minds holed up in Parliament and Tufton Street recognise that they don’t have all the answers?

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Discontinuity, Leadership And Britain’s Place In The World

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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 for the glories of decades past.

The event itself was both heartening and discouraging – heartening because many of the right words were said and sentiments expressed, discouraging because we have heard the same protestations that the Tories will open up their policymaking process on numerous other occasions in the past. The guest of honour that evening 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 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 occur. 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.

 

Oliver Letwin - Margaret Thatcher - Conservative Party

Oliver Letwin - Hearts and Minds

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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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