The Chancellor has redefined conservatism for the 21st centuryby Anatole Kaletsky / July 9, 2015 / Leave a comment
At 10pm on 7th May, the exit polls stunned the nation, reminding misguided commentators (myself included) that Britain is a fundamentally conservative country, as indeed it has been for centuries past. Two months later on 8th July, George Osborne presented the first fully Conservative budget of the 21st century and we learned what this means for the decade ahead. The message was even more surprising than May’s election result.
While the early reaction to the Budget focused, as usual, on economic bean-counting—the changes in deficit and debt projections, the upgrades or downgrades to growth forecasts, the timing of social spending cuts, the precise meaning of the new balanced budget law and all the other largely meaningless numbers which will be revised out of recognition by the next Budget and completely forgotten by the one after—the political and social implications were what really mattered. For Osborne’s speech was unabashedly modelled on Disraeli’s Budgets, in trying to present a comprehensive Tory vision of Britain in the century ahead, as the repeated use of Disraeli’s “One Nation” slogan made clear.
If viewed in this perspective—as a socio-political manifesto and not just an exercise in economics or accounting—the 21st century’s first Conservative Budget conveyed a message significantly different from the expectations that followed the Tory election triumph and also from the early reactions.
Osborne has been denounced by the Labour Left—and correspondingly praised by the Tory Right—as a throwback to the Thatcher era’s social Darwinism and obsession with small government. But on closer inspection, Osborne’s policies are very different from the market fundamentalism of his putative intellectual hero Nigel Lawson, for whom “less government and more market” was the obvious solution to every problem. The new Tory vision, by contrast, seems to recognise an important and growing role for government intervention not only in the politically sacrosanct public services—health, pensions and education—but also in stimulating economic growth, raising productivity, setting wages and even in influencing the most intimate personal decisions…