The future of Conservatism

Thatcherism set in motion perpetual revolution in every area of British life—except the Tory Party, whose ideas are still frozen in the 1980s. Regime change in Downing Street must now be a prompt for a serious overhaul
July 15, 2019

It has been 40 years since Margaret Thatcher arrived in 10 Downing Street to begin her revolution. She unleashed an era of change—not just one-off events but a process of incessant, repeated convulsion that the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” Her impact wasn’t just felt in Britain and in the many other nations that embraced her free market creed but within the Labour Party, too.

Over the four decades since the Iron Lady overturned the postwar economic consensus the Labour Party has thoroughly reviewed its political priorities twice. There was the Kinnock-Blair phase of accommodation, which saw the party abandon unilateral nuclear disarmament and an active role for the state in economic management. More recently there has been the Jeremy Corbyn revolution and a marked shift to a form of socialism that is both redder and greener than its immediate predecessor. While Michael Foot and other pre-Blair Labour left-wingers would recognise and welcome the interventionist economic policies of Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, they would barely recognise the socio-economic make-up of Labour’s new coalition. Labour’s rainbow policies on LGBT rights, university education, climate change and the Middle East have won friends in prosperous places like Islington and Cambridge but aroused suspicion in old industrial heartlands.

In adapting and re-adapting Labour has echoed so many post-Thatcher private and public institutions, and responded to the shifting preferences and values of consumers—or, in this case, voters. But one institution has been doggedly trapped in the 1980s and that is the Conservative Party itself. This summer’s leadership election saw welcome flickers of new thinking, but also many of the old records being replayed. As a long-term Conservative activist who sees this—the Brexit moment—as the point that can finally force a wider renewal, this piece is the memo that I would like to put at the top of the in-tray of the new man in No 10.

We’ve seen massive modernisation of the royal family, the City of London, higher education and industries like the media. But despite the arrival of the -internet and social media, the rise of China, the collapse of many working-class families and mass global migrations, conservatism has been far too conservative. The 1980s recipe, popularised as much by Ronald Reagan as by Thatcher—of lower taxes, lighter regulation, privatisation and laissez-faire industrial policy—remains the instinctive creed of the party. The failure to win big since the second half of that decade has somehow never jolted us into a serious rethink. Theresa May initially toyed with renewal and a new emphasis on community, but overwhelmed by delivering a Brexit project she never understood, lost the chance to put her stamp on the party’s thinking. And so those instincts remain unchanged. I doubt that Thatcher would approve of this reflexive fidelity to the policies of 40 years ago. Having remade her own times, she would likely be baffled by politicians who couldn’t adjust to theirs.

Maggie would not identify with the men (and they’re nearly all men) who style themselves as today’s keepers of the Thatcherite flame. If Thatcherism were really the arid individualism it is understood as being, by both its staunchest defenders and sharpest critics, I don’t believe that Margaret Thatcher would be able to call herself a Thatcherite. In the early 1990s, within her memoirs, she wrote about the need for a “Social Thatcherism” to address some of the problems of crime, family breakdown and urban malaise that characterised those years. Over the generation since, the Blair/Cameron/Osborne years, attachments to traditional industries, communities and even the nation came to be regarded by the reigning technocrats as hopelessly nostalgic, and the politicians became almost as coy about non-materialist values and morality as Alastair Campbell was about his boss “doing God.” Holding on to these attachments was pejoratively described as having a “closed” rather than an “open” worldview.


An idea about the individual

Raised a Methodist, in parochial England and within the small business culture of her father’s grocery store, Thatcherism was not a narrowly individualistic philosophy of atomism, but a very moral idea about the individual, a similar idea, in fact, to that which Catholic Social Teaching calls personhood. Few have articulated this as well as Shirley Robin Letwin did in her 1992 book, The Anatomy of Thatcherism. Letwin, the mother of Tory MP Oliver Letwin, wrote about Thatcher’s specific idea of what we might call a Great Briton: “The individual preferred by Thatcherism is, to begin with a simple list: upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends, and robust against enemies.”

Letwin continued: “The qualities in the list are of a very marked stamp. Broadly, they can be described as the vigorous virtues. They are to be contrasted with the softer virtues such as kindness, humility, gentleness, sympathy, cheerfulness… Thatcherism has always been a ‘vigorous’ creed in the sense not that it wishes to abolish the softer virtues but that it emphasises the vigorous virtues, and if necessary, where conflicts arise, at the expense of the softer virtues.”


Loadsamoney capitalism

These softer and vigorous virtues were combined in the Wesleyan doctrine of “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Thatcher believed in that doctrine and hoped or assumed that her fellow citizens did too. She was disappointed that British business people, in particular—liberated by the environment she created—did not become as philanthropic as their American counterparts. Those who worked with her at the time maintain that she truly believed that the top tax reductions would spur effort and maybe even encourage pay restraint as business leaders were freed from the temptation of tax avoidance. As she rolled back the frontiers of the state she hoped that millions of “Great Britons” would step forward and fill the vacuum with superior alternative forms of private and societal care.

Unfortunately, neither they nor their vigorous virtues showed up in sufficient numbers. Too many of the people enriched by the 1980s resembled Harry Enfield’s “loadsamoney” caricature.

Thatcher would be even more concerned today at what capitalism has become. I think of telephone number-like levels of CEO pay, where there is often an inverse relationship between remuneration and performance—where reckless behaviour is handsomely rewarded, because companies deal with failure through costly “golden parachutes.” Of landlords—especially in major cities like London—who behave like sharks towards young people in the rental sector. Of the tardy attitude of social media companies to the removal of pornographic and terror-supporting content on their platforms. Of low interest rate monetary policies that allow zombie companies to live long beyond their shelf lives. Of competition policies that see big business enjoy ever more concentrated market power—divorcing themselves from any loyalty to locality or nation.

It’s these changes from within capitalism itself that are now putting the system in political jeopardy. The hyper mobility of capitalism—overseen by the people described by May as globe-trotting citizens of nowhere—might have been tolerated if the Great Expansion had not ended with the Great Crash of 2008. But, of course, it did. True, immediately after the banks failed in such spectacular fashion western electorates did not choose revolutionary governments. They chose no-drama-Obama. They stuck with Merkel. Across most of Europe, moderate and pro-market parties did better in elections than their left-of-centre, bigger state rivals. Economic prudence looked to be beating economic interventionism, but it was a prudence that fell disproportionately on poorer households. Services like the NHS—used by middle-class as much as poorer voters—escaped the deepest cuts but local government services that supported some of society’s most vulnerable people were cut in often savage ways.

Before the crisis, too many Tories were tempted to imagine that the trusty 1980s formula, subject perhaps to a Cameronian splash of greenwashing, was good for all time; in its immediate wake, they were only emboldened in this conviction. But this complacency was dangerous. There was always bound to be a reckoning for the bankers’ crash and the extended period of wage stagnation that surrounded it. The only question was exactly when it would come.


Year of the shift

That question was answered in 2016—the year of Trump, Brexit and a rising tide of populism. Voters may have wanted a steadying of the ship in the immediate aftermath of the crash but with that apparently accomplished, they wanted something done about the still all-powerful banks. They wanted the border-straddling bosses tamed.

But the technocrats kept talking as if all the people needed was to be told what was good for them: Brexit wasn’t a decision but an emotional spasm, which voters would come to their senses over and recant the moment they had it explained. There were also too many politicians on all sides who saw it as their job to soothe or reassure the public to the point where nothing would change. This pitting of elected representatives against the electors was never sustainable.

Donald Trump is often crude, sometimes offensively so, but he was also the most prominent politician on the right to “get it.” He realised that for all of the strengths of the Thatcher-Reagan conservative settlement, a huge gap had grown up between the priorities of the super-rich donors to the Republican Party and the average Republican voter. Fiscal conservatism was jettisoned with his pledge to protect the entitlements of American pensioners. Promises of a wall across the US-Mexican border and tariffs against China resonated in rust-belt America—but were hated by the Wall Street Journal, the newspaper of the donor class. His “America First” rhetoric appealed to voters in those places contemptuously described as “flyover states,” who felt that the coastal elites had more in common with Paris, London and other global cities than with Arkansas, Wisconsin or West Virginia.

Josh Hawley, the 39-year old who last November notched up a Senate gain for the Republicans in Missouri at the traditionally-difficult midterm elections, used his maiden speech to elucidate this new but still evolving conservatism. He attacked the corporations that saw cheap goods from abroad as more important than jobs for American workers. He attacked Hollywood for looking down on patriotism, family and faith. Linking economics and culture Hawley suggested that the people who run corporations, that make the rules and who set the tone for contemporary culture were essentially the same people—an arrogant new aristocracy. In rhetoric more associated with the left, he described America as a country which focused on helping the already wealthy rather than the people who wanted to build a life in the places where they grew up.


Off your bike!

The former Tory leader Michael Howard caught this spirit of conservatism exactly, when he once described conservatism as always ready to stand up for the underdog against the over-mighty. The identity of the over-mighty is not constant. In the 1970s and 1980s the all-too-powerful trade union barons and nationalised industries were the over-mighty at home. The Soviet Union was the over-mighty from overseas. Thirty years later, in this second decade of the 21st century, the over-mighty include “too big to fail” banks, tech giants, centripetal urban centres, the forces of globalisation and, as I’ve tried to explain, the sort of almost proudly amoral individualists who would be an anathema to the Methodist-raised Margaret Thatcher.

That opportunity to “build a life in the places where they grew up” is a conservatism that sounds very different to that of the 1980s when Norman Tebbit urged unemployed Britons to “get on their bikes” as his father had done and look for work in other parts of the country. In explaining a shift from a conservatism of freedom to a conservatism of locality and security I’m not advocating the total eclipse of one in favour of the other—simply a rebalancing. Conservatism, of course, existed in many incarnations before Thatcherism, and at its best—including during the 80s—was never “only” about economic freedom. Amid the obsession with individualistic economics not so much under Thatcher as in her name subsequently, conservative words like “nation” and even “family” sometimes fell away. But at heart conservatism should always be a pragmatic philosophy that values continuity, which loves—as Burke put it—“the little platoon we belong to in society,” and respects people-sized institutions, as well as locality, nation, order and inheritance.

“In the 80s, a torch of liberty was a fitting logo. But few Britons feel unfree today. A home is a better choice ”

It made sense for the 1980s Conservative logo to be a flaming torch—promising liberty. Communism, in particular, hated freedom, but few Britons feel unfree today. Even libertarians implicitly concede as much: “sin taxes” on smoking or bad diets seem to be their current fixation. But problems like obesity are an obvious pressure on NHS budgets, and even if the “nannying” is not effective against them, the answer is not a reboot of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. The many roads to insecurity are the greater problem, as David Cameron recognised when he snuck a victory in 2015 by emphasising safety and stability: Trident, and the integrity of the Union were big themes (remember the poster of Ed Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond). Meanwhile,  Vote Leave’s winning slogan was not “set us free” but “take back control.”

A more appropriate emblem for conservatism than the torch in this new age would be a house or home. The home symbolises refuge from the outside world but it can also represent family, neighbourhood and neighbourliness, ownership and—at its best—beauty and belonging. Home isn’t just a physical house but it’s the place in which people can be known and know. It’s the region, culture or nation to which people owe loyalty and expect loyalty in return. It might also be taken to imply a promise to respect the living conditions of ordinary working people, not to leave them subjected to squalor and sometimes homelessness which has become too evident since the austerity years.

A conservatism of the home is a fundamentally relational thing and a challenge to the material individualism of both the contemporary left and right. Too much of the contemporary right only sees each of us as taxpayers, entrepreneurs or employees. The contemporary left only sees us as workers, welfare claimants, or members of identitarian groups defined by gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Neither sees us first and foremost as parents, children, neighbours, churchgoers, volunteers or, for example, patriots. And insofar as they do, they rarely devise policies that help us to grow in those roles.


Country before market

Ideas in the country are already—because of Brexit—reshaping fast. A Conservative Party that does not wish to be left behind in the new times must appreciate that it is in a race to catch up. Already by 2017, while the Conservative vote share surged nationally, conservatism was already in retreat in Remain-voting constituencies in prosperous urban areas of the south: think Oxford West, Brighton Kemptown, Canterbury and Kensington. Simultaneously, though, once rock-solid Labour seats were becoming competitive—in the midlands (in a difficult election nationwide, Mansfield went blue for the first time ever) and in the north (Copeland, snatched by the Tories in a by-election a few months earlier was retained). One big upside of this Great Switcheroo of better-off voters moving leftwards and poorer voters moving rightwards—also evident in the recent electoral victories of Donald Trump in the US and Scott Morrison in Australia—is that we might see more competition for the votes of poorer, blue-collar voters who have long been taken for granted, since their loyalty was largely monopolised by only one half of the political spectrum.Brexit has reshaped the nation and the Conservative Party in multiple ways.

Within the Tory Party the magnetism of national sovereignty has finally overtaken the magnetism of free markets. In embracing the 2016 referendum result and Britain’s departure from the EU, the party has decided that nation is more important than the single market. The party must now ride this reshaping to its logical conclusion, and embed the market and associated freedoms in the societal context upon which—in truth—they have always had to rely. This will mean embracing policies that acknowledge social preference for the local, and the preference of the human being—and particularly those of the conservative human being—for a pace of change that is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

That newly open political competition will have to see conservatism change, if it is to thrive. It is going to have to start emphasising policies for local businesses rather than global businesses. Tax cuts will need to be targeted more carefully on the low-paid and globalisation’s other casualties. It will focus more on technical education for blue-collar voters and less on ever greater expansion of the university-educated class and its opposition to conservative values. It will not turn against immigration, trade and other aspects of globalisation but it will do more to protect the victims of change from its rapidity. All of these changes will be long-lasting because technological innovation and the other forces that are changing politics are also long-lasting and far-reaching.

Forty years after Thatcher changed the Conservative Party, the party is changing again. The Thatcher of caricature would not approve. The real Thatcher—of Methodism, Grantham and the corner shop—most certainly would.

A manifesto for the new PM

With David Cameron’s idea of the “Big Society” and Theresa May’s Downing Street promise to tackle the injustices of her time, both PMs had ambitions to modernise conservatism but lacked concrete policies to realise those ambitions. This time it has to be different.

FAMILY  House building policies that allow members of extended families to afford to live close to one another—so preserving all of the largely unmeasured benefits that flow from such proximity. Grandparents are huge providers of childcare and, in due course, benefit from eldercare when they grow older. Rich family networks are the best way of fighting mental illness, loneliness and social delinquency in the young. Inter-departmental procedures already require regulatory, equality and environmental “impact assessments,” forcing Whitehall to pause and ask what it is doing in these domains. “Family impact assessments” should likewise become automatic.

PLACE  Tax policies that favour local and high-street businesses and infrastructure policies that seek to level the playing field between northern, rural and coastal Britain on the one hand and London and the southeast on the other, featured prominently in the Tory leadership contest between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson. Levies on giant companies like Amazon that could help fund lower taxes on high-street bookshops and other retailers is also worth considering. Tellingly, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has pledged £200bn of economic investment outside of London, an extra prompt for the Tories to raise their game.

COMPETITION  The sharpening of anti-monopolies policy with the aim of preventing burgeoning global businesses getting so dominant that they hurt consumers and make it hard for small, upstart firms to compete. The recent veto of Sainsbury’s proposed merger with Asda—which would have created a supermarket chain that would have accounted for one-third of all grocery sales—is a heartening sign of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (now under the chairmanship of former Tory MP Andrew Tyrie) belatedly baring some teeth. In the US, presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has been advocating various moves to counter market power in the technology, airline, retailing and banking sectors. She may be a Democrat, but almost everything she advocates here should be welcomed by conservatives who care about cronyistic relations between big business and big government.

GLOBALISATION  An immigration system that protects lower-wage, less-skilled workers from competition from abroad (impossible within the EU because of freedom of movement between member states with vastly divergent levels of GDP per head) as well as more gradualist trade policies than we’ve been used to in recent decades could both protect the most vulnerable from globalisation. Ultimately free trade between nations is of huge benefit to all, but in any industrial or trade transition there can be losers and the sluggishness of welfare and education services to help them recover and retrain argues for moving to more open markets at a careful pace. Government should use its procurement powers as one temporary way of helping domestic industries who might be threatened by a global competitor advantaged by cheap labour or new technology.

THE WIDER WORLD  A new emphasis on putting the nation state first, with less reliance on standing, “supranational” institutions like the European Union and United Nations and towards building “maxi-lateral” coalitions of the willing—within, for example, the G7 and G20. Maxi-lateral groupings are built on the maximum number of nation states that are willing to opt into concerted action, for example on countering climate change or global terror. The independence of nation states, where in democracies at least governments are directly accountable to the people, is maintained. Furthermore, and counter to globalist theory, action is frequently speedier than in supranational institutions, where decision-making is often hide-bound by complex procedures, and countries with little appetite for action in a particular area can veto any action at all.