Conservative reform? Who needs it? Apparently the dogmas of the quiet past are totally adequate to the stormy present
Just as the prestige conservative media and a handful of prescient MPs are belatedly waking up to the need for serious ideological renewal within the Conservative Party, a reactionary new counter-movement seems to have popped up, determined to counsel complacency and inaction instead of urgency and reform.
Alex Wild of The Taypayers’ Alliance has a new piece in CapX entitled “Does the Conservative Party really need new ideas?“, in which he determines that no, the Tories can apparently do just fine by reheating the ideas and rhetoric of the past.
Not everything that Wild discusses is wrong – he does at least acknowledge that the Conservative Party’s primary political error in recent years has been their cowardly acceptance of leftist ideas and frames of reference, borne out of a pathetic and hopeless desire to be liked rather than respected. That much at least is accurate. But when it comes to diagnosing solutions, Wild seems to be under the dangerous illusion that playing the old Tory Greatest Hits album on endless repeat is a solution remotely equal to the challenge of our times. It isn’t.
Instead of continually accepting the Left’s diagnosis and offering halfway-house policies that don’t actually do anything to address underlying causes, more basic thinking is required.
Energy is widely regarded as a dysfunctional market. But why doesn’t this market work while others, for example retail, do?
Is it because the shareholders and executives of utility companies are much more greedy and incompetent than the shareholders and executives of major retailers?
Or is it because, unlike in the energy sector, the government does not decide which shops are built where, what they sell and at what price?
This is indeed “basic thinking”. There are a number of reasons why even passionate privatisation advocates don’t support the idea of total deregulation of the energy market, not least because short-term profit maximisation may well be in the best interests of shareholders, but does not necessarily promote energy security or national security.
The worst that can happen with a deregulated retail sector is that some of our provincial high streets lose their character and small businesses, to be replaced by out-of-town big box stores which in turn are undermined by online shopping. The worst that could happen with a totally deregulated energy sector, on the other hand, is that the lights go out. We can have a sensible discussion about whether the current mode of privatisation is working, how it can be improved and whether more can be done to give consumers access to better information and ease of switching suppliers, but airily suggesting that the government get out of the way and allow any old punter to throw up a coal-fired power plant is to indulge in libertarian fantasy – and not even the good kind.
And then we get to the main event:
For the less-careerist, more policy-orientated MPs however, a potential pitfall is not just that they advocate variations of Leftist policies, but that they try too hard to find new ideas and wheezes whilst ignoring old ones which we know would actually work.
For starters, they should revisit policies floated between 2010 and 2015 that then failed to make it through the inevitable political wrangling of coalition government.
The reality is that for most of the major challenges the country faces, there are obvious solutions. Huge amounts of time and effort have been spent trying to explain the UK’s “productivity puzzle” but even if there are yet-to-be-fully-understood factors at play there are masses of things the government could do that would significantly increase productivity.
The tax system that punishes investment by taxing profits and not allowing businesses to write off investment in machinery and property from their tax bills. Stamp duty that gums up the housing market, preventing people from moving to take up better-paid jobs. The dreadful planning system that has driven up the cost of housing to obscene levels. The 67 per cent effective marginal tax rate on some high earners. The ongoing Heathrow third runway farce.
These are all problems with obvious solutions. No “blue-sky thinking” is required.
This “programme” of policies is to fail to see the wood for the trees. Sure, some of these ideas have merit – raising the speed limit seems sensible, while we have long known that a broken, NIMBY-enabling planning system is responsible for the ongoing housing crisis (the issue here is a lack of political will to fix it, not ignorance of the solution). Most conservatives also would agree that Gordon Brown’s questionably revenue-positive tax hike should have been repealed completely, not simply reduced by David Cameron’s equivocating administration, while this blog has been championing a third runway at Heathrow since I started writing in 2012.
But given the seismic political changes we have witnessed in British politics – the rise and fall of UKIP, the wane of Labour centrists and the Age of Jeremy Corbyn, the EU referendum and Brexit itself – it should be obvious to any outside observer that there is tremendous public dissatisfaction not confined to any one specific policy or issue, but rather at a systemic level. And looking at the state of the world – with the benefits and challenges of globalisation and automation, the ongoing massive global migration and the threat posed by radical Islam – it should be equally apparent that the standard policies of the centre-left and the centre-right are unequal to these unique challenges.
Reheating the 1980s and 1990s playbook is (in some ways) also currently being attempted by the Republican Party in the United States, and equally doomed to fail there as it is in Britain. With Donald Trump in the White House, Republican congressional leaders seized the moment to pass the big tax cut for which they have been incessantly clamouring. Fair enough. But now that they are in government rather than opposition, the tax cut came packaged with no commensurate spending cuts, meaning that the resulting bill has blown an already sizeable budget deficit wide open. After all the moralistic preaching about fiscal responsibility during the Obama years, only one Republican senator – Rand Paul of Kentucky – expressed serious reservations about this hypocrisy (and even he ultimately voted for the bill).
This approach may reap some political dividends in the short term, as individuals enjoy a slight reduction in their tax burden and certain corporations reward their long-serving employees with an unexpected bonus. But in the medium to long term, all the Republicans are doing is frittering away any remaining claim they had to being the party of fiscal conservatism, kicking the can down the road on every serious entitlement reform which needs to be considered and further sullying their brand by association with President Trump’s new protectionism.
Likewise, rebooting Thatcherism for the 21st century with no introspection or modification is no solution to our present challenges. Thatcher’s privatisation programme and her government’s rollback of the worst excesses of the socialist post-war settlement were vital, and saved this country from likely terminal national decline. There are few more ardent fans of Margaret Thatcher than myself. But to pretend to oneself that the same bag of tricks will get Britain out of an entirely different set of problems four decades later is dangerous self-deception.
One gets the strong sense that the rising profile of backbench MP and Brexit Ultra Jacob Rees-Mogg, refreshing though he can be (on matters other than Brexit) for the forthrightness of his views and his refusal to disavow deeply held values, is also a symptom of this nascent reactionary movement within contemporary British conservatism, the idea that we need only find a new leader who looks and sounds like a traditional Tory in order to repeat past Tory success.
But what Alex Wild and this nascent Thatcherism Redux movement fail to realise is that Britain has entered an unstable period of political discontinuity, a time of serious national challenges, threats and opportunities where the tried-and-tested policies of the past no longer work effectively nor command majority political support. Be it Corbyn’s unreconstructed socialism, reanimated Thatcherism or whatever Theresa May’s inarticulable vision of government happens to be (nobody really knows), none of these options command the kind of enthusiasm or political support on which strong governments with mandates for change are built.
There is no tax cut which can address the fact that Britain’s public pension system is becoming little more than a national Ponzi scheme propped up only by high levels of immigration (itself a solution with rapidly diminishing returns). There is no privatisation scheme which can deliver meaningful healthcare reform within the incredibly narrow Overton window established by the high priests of the NHS. There is no instant productivity fix, or any lasting solution to that intractable problem which does not involve a much wider conversation about how our education system currently fails to churn out school leavers, apprentices, technical diploma holders and university graduates equipped to walk into the jobs of tomorrow – let alone reach back to help those adults struggling to adapt on their own.
These are some of the real root causes of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. Public polling may not yet always the right questions in order to draw this broader, inchoate dissatisfaction out into the open, but the pressing nature of these challenges should be evident to anyone involved in strategic political thinking (apparently a particular weakness in the current Tory Party).
The absolute last thing that the anaemic British conservative movement needs, just as it starts to awaken to the danger in which it has placed itself, is for a new movement to come along peddling false reassurance that new challenges do not in fact require new policy solutions, and that there is no problem too big to be effectively cured by tax cuts and deregulation. Yet this message, if allowed to go unchallenged, may prove to be especially attractive to a Conservative Party in which only a handful of MPs are awake to the need for ideological renewal.
For many senior Conservatives – including Theresa May’s uniquely uninspired senior lieutenants and likely successors – the message that they can succeed by adopting the government equivalent of painting by numbers effectively absolves the government of any need to think for themselves, to acknowledge that the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.
And that’s what makes the siren song of Thatcherism Redux so potentially dangerous.
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