The Battle For British Conservatism: Should The Tories Be Ideological?

Tories vision is not optimistic about the future but small mean and nasty - Jon Ashworth MP - Conservatives

Some say that it is not the job of conservatives to think big or be ideological – but in a period of discontinuity such as this, being ideological and ambitious is exactly what conservatives must do

My interest was piqued recently by a Philip Collins column in the Times, in which Collins argues for pragmatic conservatism over idealistic conservatism, and chastises Brexit-supporting conservatives in particular for supposedly putting adventurism and ideology over the cautious stability which ought to flow from the conservative worldview.

Collins makes some interesting points, beginning with his conception of the differing roles of Britain’s two main political parties:

The electorate selects a Labour government to push the nation down the road of progress. That effort inevitably leads to an excess of public spending and too great a faith in the capacity of the state to improve the lot of the people. Much good gets done along the way but the temperature gauge of the British people is so attuned that, once spending starts to spiral, they call on the Conservative Party to tidy up. The whole point of the Conservatives, the absolute raison d’être of Tory government, is to provide sound money and solid competence, unburdened by too much radical belief.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this. Over the course of both short and medium-term timeframes one can witness this phenomenon in action, from the pivot away from New Labour in 2010 as a short-term correction by an electorate in search of economic competence, and on a longer-term macro level the big swings from pre-war government to Attlee’s post-war socialism followed by a Thatcherite rollback of the post-war consensus.

(Of course, one can also argue the opposite – that the 1979 and 1983 Conservative governments were a deeply ideological monetarist reaction against the managed decline wrought by Keynesian economics and the socialist mixed economy. But while I fully agree that these were very ideological movements on the inside, I must also concede that they came to power not because the British people suddenly bought into a particularly individualistic mindset but rather because the people knew that the Tories were delivering strong, necessary dose of needed medicine).

But it is when Collins applies this same thinking to the European Union and the question of Brexit, though, where I really take issue with his argument:

But the issue of Europe, alas, pricks Conservatives into believing things. Suddenly, all the errors of the left, which the right exists to correct, are being committed by the Conservative Party. The usual conservative view is risk-averse and frightened of grands projets by their sheer complexity and by the low capacity of the state to administer them. The true conservative, who is not a reactionary in thrall to the past, is also not a radical excited by a better tomorrow. He or she instead makes a fetish of the present. Better not to risk change for fear it will be worse than what we have. The caution and the complacency can be infuriating but it is a fool who sees no wisdom in the position.

Where are these conservatives today? Can you name a single one? Who is the person who holds the quintessentially conservative view, which is that the EU is a bit of a mess for which no affection can really be mustered but who thinks that leaving is really not worth the candle? The process of leaving, thinks the historical conservative, is just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother. To attempt the most complex administrative task that the British state has undertaken since the conduct of the Second World War is just a profoundly unconservative thing to do.

This, to me, seems a rather glib analysis. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union for slightly more than four decades. This is but a blip in the very long history of our country, and certainly an aberration in comparison to the independent course we charted before joining the EEC in 1973. To say that remaining in the European Union is the conservative option is to apply an exceedingly narrow temporal window in determining whether the “natural” state of being to which conservatives should naturally gravitate should be the status quo, or what existed for centuries up until forty years ago.

Collins would be aided in his argument that the EU represents the “new normal” if there were any other examples elsewhere in the world of nations voluntarily creating supranational governments to sit above their own courts and legislatures, cheered on at every stage by their citizens. But of course there are no such examples. The people of Canada, Mexico and the United States do not clamour to form an ever-closer union of their own, let alone one which includes central America (the equivalent of the European Union’s continual eastward expansion). Nor would the citizens of, say, Canada, tolerate the idea of a supranational court and legislature in Mexico City setting an ever-wider range of social, trade and foreign policy.

In other words, it seems clear that the European Union is the historical aberration, not Brexit. The EU is an anachronistic relic borne of a time when the world was divided into a few major international blocs. It is a solution to a problem which no longer exists, and while international cooperation is more important than ever, EU-based cooperation has conspicuously failed to live up to the challenges of our time, from the self-inflicted euro crisis to the great migration crisis. And given that EU membership represents such a narrow slice of our history, it seems clear to me that the conservative position is one which advocates a calm, orderly and pragmatic Brexit (probably of the kind which I and other members of the Leave Alliance campaigned, namely a phased exit from the EU via EFTA/EEA in order to avoid undue disruption to trade and economic links).

Also concerning is Collins’ assertion that Brexit is “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. He seems to wilfully ignore the fact that the Conservatives are also traditionally the party of patriotism and the robust, self-confident defence of national integrity (the clue is in the name Conservative and Unionist Party). While conservatism may often mean cautious pragmatism in terms of domestic policy (which admittedly has sometimes needed to be disrupted by Labour’s progressivism to advance the social good) it has never meant timidity or a lack of faith in Britain’s ability to act and defend our interests on the world stage. Collins seems to equate natural conservative caution with a necessary lack of ambition, but I do not consider these one and the same thing at all.

And then Collins really loses me with this:

Britain feels very different from the glorious summer of 2012 when Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the Olympics was a paean to British culture that had spanned the world and to British institutions that had stood the toughest test of all, the test of time. In the distant past five years ago, it was an easy nation to be proud of. Boyle’s was a conservative vision of Britain, which the Tory party has thrown by the wayside.

I’m sorry, but this is balderdash. Prior to his career in journalism Philip Collins was speechwriter to Tony Blair, so his proclivities are very much of the centre-left. And while parts of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics might be said to be rooted loosely in conservatism, the part which most people remember is the bizarre open-air Mass in praise of the NHS and socialised healthcare.

(It is telling, too, how many of those on the left and centre-left almost seemed to discover patriotism for the first time back in 2012 while watching hundreds of actors in nurse costumes prance around a huge stadium pushing hospital beds and wheelchairs).

An all-singing, all-dancing Rite of Spring in worship of the National Health Service is not conservative in nature. In fact, its emphasis on uniformity, collective endeavour, equality of outcome and dependency on government is about the most un-conservative spectacle one can think of. The fact that it took a rather gaudy homage to that most socialist of socialist institutions to evoke feelings of patriotism in some on the Left shows that this was very much a leftist moment, not a conservative one – and in my opinion also shows that the same argument that EU membership is too new to fall under the protective umbrella of conservatism also applies to the NHS.

So should conservatives believe in anything, or should they be the timid, pragmatic and unambitious party of technocrats and fixers who are called in once in awhile to clear up the mess caused by an over-zealous Labour Party? I think this is where we need to be very clear about our meanings. It may absolutely be the case that most of the British public never see the conservative worldview and resulting policies in terms of an inspiring, coherent story. We may always be seen as the fixers. But that does not mean that we can get away without having a story to motivate and guide us, even if this remains largely internal.

Remember: British politics has now entered a period of discontinuity (as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) in which people have increasingly become dissatisfied with the previous Cameron-Blairite centrist, pro-EU political settlement and are demanding something new, something which addresses the unique challenges we face as a nation in 2017. This cannot be done without first diagnosing these challenges, understanding where they are interlinked, and then devising a set of mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle them.

We saw the same thing in 1977, when the influential Stepping Stones report (no, I’m not going to stop talking about it anytime soon) provided a blueprint which Margaret Thatcher then took to Downing Street and started implementing in 1979. The Thatcher government did not save Britain from inexorable national decline by conceding that reversing years of state ownership of industry and tackling the over-powerful trades union was “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. On the contrary, the Conservative Party of 1979 was forced to accept that discontinuity had to be met by new and previously unthinkable policies, just as the idea of leaving the EU remains unthinkable to so many within the political class today.

Believing in nothing and playing the role of the calm technocrat is all very well when times are good, when society and the economy are in steady-state and there are no urgent or existential challenges to be addressed. In such times, the Conservative Party is very welcome to play the tedious but necessary role of fixer. Unfortunately, we live in rather more interesting times which require inspired and often disruptively innovative policymaking rather than the usual government painting by numbers.

I can understand why this scares people like Philip Collins. The last time it was incumbent upon the Tories to be truly ideological, in 1979, they ended up remaking the country (and together with America, the world) and stamped a new political settlement on Britain which even now has not been fully rolled back. It is therefore natural, if a little cynical, that he now counsels the Tories to think small, to “keep their senses” and throw their arms around the status quo. The alternative must be terrifying to contemplate.

The last thing that the guardians of the current, fraying political consensus want is for conservatives to come up with an ambitious, ideologically coherent new internal narrative and then remake the country anew all over again.

And that is precisely why we must do it.

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Building A Britain Fit For The Future

Building a Britain fit for the future - new Conservative Party Tory slogan

Strong and stable, version 2.0

Word on the street is that the Tories have got themselves a shiny new slogan. Guido Fawkes reports:

Here are seven words you can expect to hear a lot more of over the next few weeks and months: Guido understands the new Tory slogan is “Building a Britain fit for the future”. Theresa May used it three times at PMQs on Wednesday, telling the Commons: “this government is building a country fit for the future”, “we are building a Britain fit for the future” and “We in the Conservative Party are building a Britain that is fit for the future”. This morning the CCHQ Twitter account used the same phrase.

As slogans go, I suppose that “Building a Britain fit for the future” could be a hell of a lot worse. It is certainly better than “strong and stable”, though according to Guido it seems as though the Tories are already in danger of wearing out their new slogan through enthusiastic over-use.

BABFFTF has potential because it at least acknowledges that we are entering a period of discontinuity – a time where the current system or political consensus is starting to fray and show signs of fatigue, where new and previously politically unfeasible policies are required to break the impasse or respond to the concerns of the electorate. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the vote for Brexit are just two of the most prominent signs that we have entered such a time of discontinuity, with the pro-EU, centrist consensus adopted by Labour and the Conservatives through 2015 increasingly failing to address the hopes, fears, concerns and priorities of many people.

The problem, though, is that the slogan seems to have been trailed before the necessary supporting ideas – the vital national reboot checklist which can steer Britain through Brexit and on to the other challenges – have been developed. Now, it’s possible that Theresa May has been huddled in Downing Street with her SpAds brainstorming some breathtakingly original new ideas, and that we will all be bowled over when they are announced in the coming weeks – but it seems unlikely. Firstly, she would be breaking the habit of a lifetime (doing something bold and visionary) and secondly it is hard to tell when such inspired policymaking might have taken place given all of the shenanigans going on in her Cabinet.

While we can finally detect a few faint signs of new intellectual life in the Tories – notably the Big Tent programme launched by George Freeman, and the Square Deal initiative led by Nick Boles – these groups are barely getting formed, and are months away (if not more) from reaching full fruition. And as I have previously written (and will continue to expand upon in coming days and weeks), we are still missing anything like an overarching framework to diagnose the issues facing Britain, draw out the links between them and produce an electorally viable set of policies to tackle them. Discontinuity requires policymaking through extraordinary means; the same old processes tend to yield the same old solutions.

That being said, the Tories cannot remain silent altogether while they try to get their act together. It is good, in a way, that Brexit is currently consuming most of this government’s energy because that means that they have little time (and even less political capital) to push through some of the authoritarian, statist, anti-market policies which one suspects Theresa May would now be rolling out had she won a thumping majority. A de facto “first, do no harm” doctine has thus been partially imposed on this government, like it or not.

But still the Tories must do something, starting with the Budget next week, to show that they are starting to understand the depth of public dissatisfaction with the old political settlement, particularly on housing (since this is a vital policy area more separated from some of the others). Years of disappointment mean that I have zero positive expectations of Phillip Hammond when he gets to his feet to deliver the Budget next Wednesday. I fear that even if there is noticeable movement on housing, it will be a big sop to Labour by focusing on the building of new council housing rather than the big unleashing/encouraging of private development (upward, not outward) which we need. This is Hammond’s chance to prove me wrong, as well as everybody else who has lost faith in the current government being anything more than a very clumsy caretaker.

The pessimistic part of me still believes that a mid-term rescue for the Tories is simply impossible; that it will take a (hopefully) short, sharp spell in opposition to rid the current Tory frontbench of much of its dead wood and see some new talent push forward – hopefully talent less beholden to the current political consensus, and which wants to do more than simply make a few cosmetic tweaks to win back public opinion. Readers will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot think of one example of a successful political turnaround that was driven by refreshed policies rather than the good fortune of events.

But a Jeremy Corbyn government is not something to be entertained lightly. The next government will likely set the tone and direction of Britain’s immediate post-Brexit years, and so will play a large role in stamping their imprint on whatever the new emerging political consensus or centre of gravity happens to be. After years of leftward drift under both New Labour and Conservative governments, it is important that the next significant course change is to the right. In a world of pure ideology one may well want the Tories decimated at the next election so that they can grow back stronger and with a renewed sense of purpose, just as controlled forest fires can ultimately benefit an ecosystem even as they destroy in the short term. But since we all have to live in this forest for the duration, dropping a match onto dry leaves by ushering Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street really must be an option of last resort.

Therefore let us hope that “Building a Britain fit for the future” and whatever quickly-concocted policies lie beneath it buy the Tories sufficient breathing room to attempt a more fundamental policy review – to create the new Stepping Stones report for 2018 that Britain needs to chart our way from one failed political consensus to a new one which addresses today’s challenges.

Let’s hope that it falls to conservatives to build the Britain of the future, and not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

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The Centre Must Not Hold

WTF is Centrism

Calls for the Tories to pursue and embrace the non-existent “radical centre” are a dangerous Siren song for conservatism at a time when the country needs conviction and clarity of purpose

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.

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.

– John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, “Stepping Stones Report”, 1977

For over a week now I have not been able to bring myself to write anything new for this blog. Why? Because the patterns of failure in British politics are now tediously familiar beyond all endurance, as are the mistakes, missed opportunities and blunders routinely committed by politicians and thinkers who call themselves “conservative”.

Yes, the past week was a particularly torrid one for Theresa May’s shambolic government, but it did not teach us anything new. So more evidence emerged that Boris Johnson is totally unfit to be Foreign Secretary, the Tories no longer even seek to act like the party of Defence while the prime minister is utterly dependent on her questionable deputy Damian Green – these are not new revelations. They have been relentlessly, depressingly drummed into our consciousness over a matter of months and (in some cases) years.

Besides, even if Theresa May’s Cabinet were a precision-engineered Rolls Royce jet engine operating at maximum power and efficiency it would not matter – we would simply reach the same dismal destination somewhat faster than is currently the case. This is not an ambitious and visionary government let down by flawed execution and unfortunate scandal; it is a government which never had any real purpose to begin with.

Every two-bit conservative commentator is now saying what this blog has been screaming for years – that aimless, centrist government devoid of purpose is a dogma of the quiet past, inadequate to the stormy present; that we may as well not have bothered deposing New Labour in 2010 if we were only going to replace Gordon Brown with a bunch of slavish centre-left devotees wearing blue rosettes instead of red ones.

Well slow hand clap, guys. What do you want, a medal? Some of us have been making this point for years now, back when the well-paid and ubiquitous journalists and TV commentators were purring over David Cameron and Theresa May, predicting an uninterrupted decade of energetic, fruitful Tory rule even as their timidity and incompetence led us ever closer to the abyss.

Already there are a number of travelling quacks offering their own dubious potions and cures for the Tory malaise, most of which are vague at best or completely misguided at worst. A few thoughtful people have genuinely interesting ideas, but many seem to propose a further shift to the left, as though additional concessions to Corbynism will do anything other than validate Labour policies in the eyes of the electorate. Others suggest that “compassionate conservatism“, that hateful, self-sabotaging and worn-out phrase, is the magic solution. But most common are the tedious, meaningless calls for the Tories to recapture the “radical centre” of British politics.

The latest to take up this cry is Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who offers a fairly blistering (and by no means inaccurate) critique of past Conservative failures, taking Theresa May to task for her failures of leadership and the party as a whole to task for their ideological drift.

From the Telegraph:

“It smells of decline, and the people won’t have it” said Mr Mercer, MP for Plymouth Moor View, who bucked the national trend and increased his majority by five-fold at the last election.

“There becomes a cross-over point in seats like mine, it becomes about your personal integrity, about your credibility. You have to step back and question what your party is doing – of course.  Yes we are beginning to get there I fear”.

[..] He went on: “A Corbyn/McDonnell Government would fundamentally change Britain and what it means to be British. We would not be forgiven as a party for 20 years. We must remain, if nothing else at the moment, credible.”

[..] “We have a duty to the Nation to ensure the Cabinet is comprised of the best people in parliament, not the most famous names. Theresa May had to make a decision where she formed her cabinet: whether to select members to manage the fall-out from Brexit or select the best modernisers to bring about social change. She chose the former – I understand that, but now is the time for bold, outward facing leadership in my view.”

But then, just as you are expecting something radical or attention-worthy proposed as an alternative, Johnny Mercer merely proposes a further attempt to “grab the middle ground”.

This is so incredibly disheartening, coming from somebody whose profile and biography would potentially make him a very attractive future leadership candidate. Having diagnosed the problem, where is Mercer’s solution? More grasping for the centre?

People: THE CENTRE IS NOT A FIXED PLACE. It merely describes a point equidistant between two other, polarised positions on the political spectrum – usually the status quo, or today the groupthink of a pro-EU establishment who are becoming increasingly extreme in their contempt for democracy. The centre is not and cannot be a place from which to build effective policy because it is rooted in nothing but triangulation and brazen political calculation as opposed to any kind of firm conviction as to how society should be ordered, or the rights of the people and the role of government set out.

If the last few years in British politics have taught us anything, it is that the people respond surprisingly warmly to sincere politicians who hold clear convictions springing from a coherent and easily explainable worldview. People may not agree with Jeremy Corbyn, but even many of his detractors admire the fact that he has held and advocated for many of his ideas in good times and bad, back when they were on the discredited fringe and now, when they are being taken more seriously once again.

The Tories need a Jeremy Corbyn of their own, but instead they got Theresa May, who frittered away the Conservative majority because she stood for nothing. She is an authoritarian pseudo-traditionalist whose intellectual blood bank (in the form of Nick Timothy) has thankfully been exiled from government, but not replaced by anything better.

May’s risible pitch in the 2017 general election was strength and stability, but these are states of being, not a direction of travel. People jetting off in an aeroplane together would generally prefer less turbulence to a more bumpy flight, but more than anything they care about arriving at the correct destination. Jeremy Corbyn made his flight plan crystal clear to the British electorate. Theresa May didn’t even bother to produce one, preferring to pander to the Politics of Me Me Me.

You don’t win a convincing mandate to govern by chasing the centre. You win such a mandate by coming up with a clear plan of action flowing from a coherent and easily explainable view of the world, one which is so compelling that it makes sense to an election-winning majority of voters, thus causing the floating centre to shift in that direction.

Margaret Thatcher’s government did not rescue Britain from a failing post-war consensus and 1970s national decline by cautiously seeking consensus and the same elusive centre ground fought over by the previous Heath, Wilson and Callaghan administrations. She made her mark on Britain by charting a new course, braving resistance rather than capitulating to it, and dragging the centre to the right so that after the Tories finally lost power, New Labour had neither the ability nor the desire to undo many of the changes she wrought.

That’s how you run a government worthy of the history books. The Tories should stop slavishly chasing the centre, and come up with a new blueprint for Britain – the new Stepping Stones Report which we so desperately need, updated for 2017 – which will shift the centre of British politics back in the direction of liberty underpinned by the autonomous nation state (or some compelling improvement on it).

Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is just noise.

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Things fall apart the centre cannot hold - Yeats quote

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The Centrist Persecution Complex

Tony Blair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tony Blair - Open Britain - centrism

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The Big Tent Ideas Festival

Stepping Stones Report - Goals and Risks - Brexit - EU Referendum

Searching for the missing conservative soul in a Berkshire field

Various people have been raving about an event which took place last week in Twyford, Berkshire, where Conservative MP George Freeman set up a few yurts in a field and held an impromptu late-summer symposium on how to renew British conservatism.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival is a laudable ongoing effort to refresh and reset British conservatism while the Tory party is still in government, as opposed to waiting until they languish in opposition. This is easier said than done – as anybody can plainly see, Theresa May’s listless and fratricidal government has run out of what little ideological steam it inherited from David Cameron’s equally muddled tenure. Now they sit, idling in neutral, on the cusp of making an almighty mess of Brexit and being kicked out of office without a single lasting achievement to their name.

Mark Wallace of Conservative Home was in attendance, and describes the extent of the challenge:

The Right’s challenge is that time in government saps the energy, and increases the centralisation, of any movement. The never-ending trials of running the country drag in, and burn through, many of the policies and people. Indeed, we produce our best ideas and develop our greatest new talents when the variety of interests that exist across the centre right movement have room to breathe and freedom to operate. Often that happens in Opposition – the Party’s apparatus, authority and powers of patronage are more limited, and there’s a clear objective to pursue.

That’s as true for Labour as it is for the Conservatives – consider the contrast in energy between the respective camps of Major and Blair, or Brown and Cameron. The task for our movement today is to break that cycle: to renew and innovate now, while the Conservative Party is still in power. To do so requires us to recapture that freedom and urgency enjoyed in the years between 2004 and 2010, which saw such fertile growth of new thinking and campaigning organisations, the development of new outlets to communicate our ideas (not least ConservativeHome), the development of a raft of strong, new policies and the emergence of a generation of talented campaigners, thinkers and communicators.

The Big Tent is currently focusing on three main strands of renewal: Social Renewal, Political Renewal and Economic Renewal. Fair enough – these designations seem to make sense. And some of the questions being debated across all three areas resonate very strongly with topics that this blog cares deeply about, namely:

  • What are the causes of the deepening crisis of disconnection between government and the citizens it is supposed to serve?
  • How do we define a meaningful notion of citizenship with reciprocal responsibilities with the state, which works for us all?
  • How do we better support our third sector and encourage volunteering?
  • How do we reform our benefits system?
  • How do we build lifelong learning, from antenatal, through the early years, school and adulthood, and incorporating resilience, emotional and social learning, as well as key skills? How do we get parents and communities to support this in the poorest areas?
  • Is the rise of extremism – to left and right – a function of failure in the mainstream centre or simple liberation of the radical fringes?
  • Given the public’s rejection of mass low wage migration, how can we achieve the transformational skills and training revolution of the UK workforce which has defied policymakers for 150 years?

And particularly:

  • How do we embed lifelong learning to increase workforce resilience for the coming tech change tsunami so we do not make the same terrible mistakes as happened in 1980s mining areas (and from which we have still not recovered)?

Remarkably, though, the housing crisis was not called out as a separate issue for discussion, even though it is the pre-eminent challenge driving a wedge between the Tory party and otherwise potentially sympathetic voters. This is a very curious feat of omission, to the extent one wonders whether it can have been accidental. As with Conservative policy since 2010 there seems to be a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the need to do anything which might annoy the current rural, home-owning, NIMBYish Tory base by threatening the continual upward trajectory in the value of their houses.

This is short-sighted, and needs to be addressed urgently. Housing should be one of the absolute key issues being debated by the Big Tent, not something whispered about on the margins or tangentially as part of another discussion. In the 2017 general election, the Tories did not win a majority of any demographic until the average age ticked over fifty. Fifty! Conservatives no longer merely have a problem with youth voters, though we are certainly more radioactive than ever among this crowd. We are now almost equally unpopular among young professionals and people in early middle age.

At least the Tories of Margaret Thatcher’s day had some slick city Yuppies with stripy shirts and enormous cellphones in their corner. I have lived and worked in a professional capacity in London for a decade now, and can count the number of fellow “out of the closet” conservatives in my social circle on two hands, with fingers to spare. That CCHQ does not presently view this deficit among young, educated voters as an existential crisis speaks volumes about their complacency and sheer incompetence.

This is a demographic time bomb waiting to explode in the Conservative Party’s face. The metaphorical conveyor belt carrying young idealists from left-wingery to conservatism as they age cannot be taken for granted – it has only worked in recent decades because as people get older, government policy has allowed them to acquire a greater stake in society, primarily through home and equity ownership. People do not just magically start voting Conservative when they get their first grey hair, and people who have been consistently screwed over by selfish, short-termist policies which pander to the Tory base at the expense of the wider national interest will develop a lasting antipathy to the Conservative Party and to conservatism in general.

Dodging the housing issue is not an option. It must be tackled head-on, and (unlike Theresa May’s “dementia tax” debacle) it must be done with care and sensitivity. So long as Jeremy Corbyn or somebody like him leads the Labour Party, the Tories will have a bit of political cover to do something radical on housing – even if it enrages a section of their base, few of these people will defect to a Labour Party eager to tax them to death. Failing to act before Labour falls back into centrist hands means that the Conservatives’ scope for manoeuvre will be greatly reduced.

Additionally, while the tripartite focus on social issues is laudable at first glance, this area should not be allowed to dominate the discussion as it dominated much of Cameronism and now Theresa May and Nick Timothy’s very statist, paternalistic brand of conservatism.

Yet Toby Guise at The American Conservative reports that the “society” tent was by far the most popular:

The mainly young delegates heard speakers in tents marked “politics,” “economics,” and “society.” Tellingly, the last of these was the largest—with a program that opened with pitches from the founders of two significant charities focused on social exclusion. This theme reflected the fact that accusations of a compassion-deficit are at the heart of Labour’s attack on the Conservatives.

This reflects the current priorities and incentives for success in conservative Westminster politics. Being seen as a beardy Nick Timothy acolyte seeking to extend government influence into every home and mind is viewed as trendy and forward-thinking, while sitting at a desk thinking about how to encourage entrepreneurship and decrease reliance on the state is seen as excessively “ideological”.

It may sound harsh, but conservative renewal will not come about by focusing relentlessly on social issues, as though the state can and should provide an answer to every single social ill in Britain. It is tempting to believe that government must fill this expansive role these days, especially since the Tories are pounded day after day by Labour’s wobbly-lipped moralisers about how they are supposedly so callous and unfeeling. It is only natural in these circumstances to want to begin offering scattergun policy prescriptions to address every last issue which happens to excite the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Indeed, the phrase “compassionate conservatism” only plays into the Left’s hands by wrongly conceding that ordinary vanilla conservatism is somehow cruel and uncompassionate, and that we can only redeem ourselves by accepting statist, left-wing talking points and policies. This is a dangerous nonsense.

People say that they are interested in social justice and equality, particularly at dinner parties, when talking to pollsters or otherwise needing to make themselves look good. But when they are in the privacy of the voting booth they actually care about the economy and the general direction of the country. That means that to make a measurable difference in the fortunes of the Conservative Party, the Big Tent should focus primarily on the Economic and Political renewal branches, trusting that improving the overall health of the nation and spurring the reinvigoration of civil society will improve conditions for all. Rather than more government intervention, we need to create the conditions for a rapid growth of charitable (real charities, not 90% government-funded money laundering outfits) and private solutions to entrenched social problems rather than the clunky, failed attempts at social engineering preferred by New Labour and their successor Tory governments.

The good news is that there is precedent for all of this. In 1977, the “Stepping Stones” report was published by the late John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, two businessmen (at IBM and Unilever respectively) who took it upon themselves to diagnose the “British disease” which threatened to doom us to long-term national decline, and propose radical solutions. Crucially, the treatment prescribed by Stepping Stones was not a mixed basket of scattergun solutions to individual problems, but rather a coherent package of reforms which sought to simultaneously treat all of the symptoms of the British disease while also identifying and destroying the root cause (the grip of statist socialism and the unions).

The Britain of the 1970s, wallowing deep in the failing post-war consensus, can hardly be described as being highly receptive to radical right-wing thinking at the time Stepping Stones was published. But that didn’t matter – Hoskyns and Strauss managed to get the ear of aides to Margaret Thatcher back when she was still Leader of the Opposition, and when she walked into Downing Street in 1979 she did so with Stepping Stones in her handbag and on her mind. Then, as now, the important thing to begin with was not that the country understands the entire plan or knows that the Tories view the current status quo as a disease to be cured, but just that the government seems to have energy and purpose again. The plan will reveal itself in good time, just as Stepping Stones did.

That doesn’t mean that the Tories can avoid coming up with a better narrative than “Strong and Stable” or “Brexit means Brexit”. These were appalling battle cries with which to fight the 2017 general election, and deserved to be mercilessly picked apart and ridiculed by the media and a newly-confident Labour Party. A new narrative is certainly needed, but this must be both authentically conservative and it must avoid clashing with policies that the government intends to adopt. For instance, it is no good for the Tories to publicly wring their hands about such-and-such social issue when they have little intention of directly tackling it through the levers of government. That’s why I am hesitant to support the Big Tent’s heavy focus on social renewal – it opens up endless opportunities for the sanctimonious parties of the Left to attack us for weasel words or hypocrisy, while at the very best all we can hope to do is fight the socialists to a draw.

But of course, back in 1977-79 all of this ideological and rhetorical renewal was done from the relative comfort and obscurity of opposition. Now, an intellectually exhausted Tory Party must effectively perform the same feat while in government and seeing their worldview held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong up and down the land. This is a much harder task, bordering on the impossible.

Yet that is exactly what we need. We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, recognising that the challenges we face today – globalisation, automation, mass migration, Islamist terror and Brexit – are very different to those faced by the incoming Thatcher government in 1979, but that these contemporary problems must be tackled with exactly the same spirit and according to the same conservative values.

Hopefully the Big Tent can play an important role in this process. If nothing else, it is hugely encouraging to see somebody, anybody else finally acknowledge that the Conservative Party does actually need to renew itself and come up with a compelling conservative vision for Britain rather than arrogantly waiting for Jeremy Corbyn to fail. This blog has been something of a voice in the wilderness on this topic since mid way through the coalition government – hammering home the point here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere and here – but it is good to be belatedly joined by a chorus of establishment journalists and conservative commentators who have finally woken up to the fact that the Tories need an explicitly ideological answer to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s resurgent socialism.

Toby Guise is broadly hopeful that the Big Tent has potential:

Disheartened conservatives should remember that cultural Marxism was born out of weakness not strength—specifically, the failure of Western proletariats to obey Marxist doctrine by revolting during World War One. Since the fall of Communism, the strategy has been pursued with ever-greater vigour as a displacement activity from discussing discredited economic ideas. When British Labour politicians are put on the spot about policy, they often flounder spectacularly. Yet the overall direction of travel in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today at the Labour national convention was clear: towards a Venezuelan-style command economy based on nationalization and authoritarianism. Equipped with this tried-and-failed policy program, it’s no surprise that the party machine diverts as much attention away from economics and onto kulturkampf. By refusing to engage this strategy—and instead directing attention firmly onto clear-minded political solutions that make markets work for all—the Big Tent Ideas Festival is precisely the right type of response.

Mark Wallace was also pleasantly surprised:

I’m pretty sure I saw some Hunter wellies, and some conversations did occasionally threaten to induce a minor wince. But, if we’re honest, there was probably less of each of those phenomena to be seen in the beautiful Berkshire sun than there will be in Manchester next week.

Crucially, they did not outweigh the value of the event, which grew on me as the day went on. Here were Conservatives, entrepreneurs, inventors, charity founders, policy experts, young people, older people and a mix of journalists and politicians talking about ideas for a whole day. That shouldn’t be unusual, but it is. The election, and the problems suffered by the Conservative Party among certain key demographics, was the inevitable backdrop to the discussion, but the Big Tent encouraged people to exchange views openly, to hear experiences alien to their own, and to consider how their principles might be applied to real world issues.

With about 220 people in attendance, it wasn’t a lobbying-fest, or a jockeying arena for glad-handing and card-swapping. It felt more like what I’d imagine to be Steve Hilton’s ideal wedding reception (except with more shoes): tents and bunting, a good buffet, and a bar of sustainably-produced beverages, along with speeches about the environment, prison reform and the impact of technology on democratic culture.

This wasn’t a representative sample of the Conservative Party, still less of the electorate, either socially or ideologically, but I found it refreshing to see people applying their minds and experiences to pressing problems.

I have also now volunteered my time and effort to the cause. And in a way, I will regard whether my offer of help is taken up as a sign of whether the Big Tent has the potential to be a useful vehicle for conservative renewal. Not because I am so amazing, talented and inspired that I can single-handedly save British conservatism, but because if they start listening to independent bloggers and other voices (besides the usual MPs, journalists, Westminster types, charity representatives and community organisers) then it will be a clear sign that British conservatism is willing to entertain ideas from outside the bubble. That having hit intellectual rock bottom they are finally willing to take a dispassionate look at their failings and make some vital changes.

Stepping Stones, which literally formed the blueprint for saving Britain from 1970s-style national decline, was not borne of a cosy conversation between people inside the Westminster political elite. It took outsiders – from the world of business, in this instance – to hold a mirror up to the country and to the establishment, showing them that the old path was unsustainable and that new ideas, previously dismissed as unworkable or politically unpalatable, were required to get Britain back on track.

We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, and a Conservative Party with the ambition, courage and clarity of thinking to get on and carry out its recommendations, effectively executing a dramatic mid-term course change rather than waiting fearfully for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to cast them back into opposition.

God speed to the Big Tent and the work they are doing; Lord knows that it is desperately needed.

 

Stepping Stones Report - Wiring Diagram

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