The British right can only reinvent itself by resolving the conflict between traditional conservatism and market liberalism. There's just one candidateby Tim Hames / June 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
There is probably no leading British politician for whom the general election campaign is more uncomfortable than Michael Portillo. This is not an entirely novel experience for him. On the eve of the last contest four years ago, he was the clear if not overwhelming favourite to succeed John Major in the event of the then Conservative government being ejected from office. That status obliged him to walk a fine line between loyalty and preparation. As matters transpired, the swing against the Tories was so great that Portillo lost his own seat in Enfield Southgate. His defeat offered William Hague, at the time a little known ex-cabinet minister, the opportunity to fill the space that had been unexpectedly created. Hague may come to regret that his chance arrived so early, for his shadow chancellor appears an even stronger contender for elevation in the event of electoral catastrophe today than was the case in 1997. And this time the electors of Kensington and Chelsea are unlikely to launch a local torpedo at the national ambitions of their new member of parliament.
If Hague comes to regret his decision to seek the leadership of his party at the age of 35, then Portillo has every reason for belated gratitude to his former constituents. It is far from clear that he would be the politician that he has become had it not been for involuntary unemployment at the hands of the electorate. He certainly would not be capable of capturing the breadth of support which may well be his if there is a vacancy for the leadership after the election. One of the many ironies of the 1997 debacle was that only those Tories who had lost their seats were capable of fully understanding the extent to which the electorate had come to detest their party. Yet the only eligible candidates for the leadership were those whose constituencies were so atypical that they were able to withstand the electoral avalanche of 1997. As soon as he re-entered parliament, at a by-election in December 1999, Portillo, unwittingly and unwillingly, assumed the status of the Alternative.
That status has been the source of numerous awkward stories. The most telling surfaced at the beginning of April. It was suggested that Kenneth Clarke and the Tory Reform Group had entered into a formal alliance with Portillo and his band of supporters. The overt evidence for this pact was thin, resting on the word of a former MEP who had left the Tories to form his own “Pro-Euro Conservative Party,” a venture which shows few signs of imminent electoral dividends. But the suggestion had resonance because it shed light on what has been the single most interesting development within the Conservative party in this parliament: the convergence of those once considered stalwarts of the Tory left and a major strand of those often categorised as the libertarian right. It has fallen to Portillo to personify this process of fusion and the creation of what is, in Conservative terms, a “new centre.” It also falls to him, and the coalition which is crystallising around him, whether he cares for it or not, to attempt to answer the question which Conservatives have resolutely avoided for a decade now-what is the future or indeed the function of the right in the new political landscape?
The first and most difficult aspect of this process will be for the Conservative party to recognise that the future of the right and the future of conservatism in its traditional sense are completely separate questions. The main failing of the Conservative party over the past four years has been its reluctance to acknowledge that the 1997 election was more than the combination of a bored electorate meeting an especially creative set of Labour spin doctors. The Tories have been unable to consider their decline in either the context of broader British history or the wider international picture. For much of the 1980s, political parties of the right proved dominant in most of the major democracies of the northern hemisphere, with the partial exception of France and the clear exception of Spain. Yet a decade or so later it was the centre left which held power nearly everywhere with, once more, France as the partial exception and Spain the most consistent deviant case.
The scope of this shift should lead Conservatives to wonder what it was which rendered the left politically coherent and then consider what parallel moves are required of them. There is some evidence that this is precisely what Portillo and his political friends are willing to do even if most Tories prefer not to engage in such introspection.
The post-war left was divided between socialists, those who favoured a new social order based on a high degree of public ownership and equality, and social democrats, those who embraced market democracy but sought to manage it on behalf of the least well-off. Until 1997 the social democrats had only won by making considerable concessions to the socialists-concessions ruthlessly exploited by the right. After 1997 it became impossible to portray social democracy as a dilute form of democratic socialism and the fissures within the left as being just a debate about means rather than ends.
Socialists and social democrats always had quite different views about the merits and potential of the capitalist system-disagreements which sharpened with the collapse of the Keynesian consensus in the 1970s, leaving Labour in electoral disarray. The “third way,” for all the tinsel sometimes wrapped around it, is really just a description of the belated but unequivocal victory of Labour’s social democrats.
The right, in Britain and elsewhere, is in a similar position to Labour before that social democratic victory in the first half of the 1990s. It contains within it two quite separate ideologies which for reasons more of history than of logic have coexisted in an increasingly uneasy political compact. The two broad strands within the right are traditional conservatism and market liberalism, or as it is sometimes (not very helpfully) put, between “authoritarians” and “libertarians.” Conservatives have invested an enormous amount of energy in the fiction that either these two incompatible outlooks differ merely on means rather than ends or that it is the purpose of the Conservative party to reconcile them. At a debate hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies late last year, David Willetts, one of the Tories’ leading intellectuals, declared that he believed in “ordered liberty.” Perhaps he also believes in square circles.
Traditional conservatism is hostile to change, reverential of the past, and intensely fatalistic about the future. Liberalism, on the other hand, assumes that change is the natural dynamic of society, has a polite but largely disinterested relationship with the past and is essentially optimistic about the future. A conservative would approach the present dilemma of the right-namely a left which has finally embraced market democracy-by largely abandoning the traditional economic terrain and adopting cultural politics or traditional values as the next political battleground. The liberal, by contrast, would welcome the new consensus on the market but still wish to engage in hand-to-hand combat on issues of regulation, choice, taxation and public services. The revival of the centre-right will thus depend on a successful repetition of the exercise which the centre-left has undertake in the past decade.
That means the Conservative party needs to put conservatism to one side and become a more consistent force for all aspects of liberalism. But market liberals also have to be capable of taking a hard, cool look at the record of their programme while in office and at the demands and values of contemporary British society. If unreformed market liberalism takes on a renewed social democracy then it is likely to be only marginally more effective than a more traditional conservatism. It is this need for the liberal right not merely to discard its awkward authoritarian allies but to engage in profound self-criticism which makes the fusion of sections of the Tory left of the 1980s and parts of the Tory right of the 1990s a necessity. And it means that all roads lead to Kensington and Chelsea.
There are three broad explanations for the crisis of the right, (part of which have applied to the old left too). The first is that the rapid economic, social and technological change in the 1980s was as devastating for conservatism as it was for socialism. Conservatism, like the old trade union left, had only one approach to change-an instinctive resistance to it. This response has been rendered politically irrelevant.
The second related change concerns the extraordinary transformation in British society and its values since the 1960s. The most significant of these changes are the revolution in economic opportunities for women with all its consequences for sexual relationships and children; the massive expansion of higher education which has reached the stage where the majority of children from even moderately affluent backgrounds might be expected to remain in full-time education until the age of 21; and finally the proliferation of the mass media and its usurpation of the role of the family as the principal device for shaping political and social outlooks.
I never cease to be amazed by the number of politicians on all sides, but especially Conservatives, who will freely admit that changing gender roles, mass higher education and an all-consuming media are indeed social phenomena of the highest significance, yet at the same time assume that they have no significance for the content or conduct of contemporary politics. The tentative fusion between the Portillo camp and progressive Conservatives who swear loyalty to Kenneth Clarke is based on their mutual willingness to concede the implications for traditional Tory values of this rapid social change.
The third and final element concerns the collapse of communism. The events of 1989 were almost as disastrous for conservatives in western Europe as they were for the communists of eastern Europe. Indeed, there have been many countries in the old Warsaw Pact where the communists regrouped and recovered rather faster than the right in western democracies. The removal of a common and truly fearful enemy has hastened the unravelling of the imperfect coalition that became the British Conservative party. It also produced the space for another political force-European integration-to emerge and prove extraordinarily divisive in Britain. The Tories desperately need to find a formula for containing that division; so far they have failed miserably.
The future of the right depends on three rather more practical developments in its politics. The first is the adoption of a core set of principles around which factional fusion can acquire firmer foundations. The second is the recognition of the need for a transformation in political style and language to suit an era where class and income are not automatic indicators of voting allegiance, where the middle class is likely to be cross-pressured by “right wing” economic views (distrust of high taxation and the capacity of the state alone to deliver efficient services) combined with “left wing” cultural opinions (on gender, race, sexual orientation, on pluralist family structures and even to some extent on social justice). The third is an electoral strategy which, in contrast to the approach taken since 1997, regards recovery in London and southern England as the precondition for a broader national revival.
The philosophical basis for a Portillo-led fusion within the Tory party could, I would tentatively suggest, be based on the following six political principles.
1) A willingness to acknowledge that while a smaller state should be the primary objective, it will not be achieved if it is perceived that such a state would be less likely to mitigate the effects of poverty and disadvantage than a larger version. Both electorally and ethically the Conservative party needs a strategy for the losers from the market system. Market liberals, myself included, were, to put it bluntly, not very interested in poverty during the 1980s and 1990s. Conservatives operated under their own version of Says Law, namely that the supply of capitalist opportunities via market reform would automatically create the demand and the capacity to take up those opportunities. Portillo concedes that this was a mistake. Conservatives will need to favour activism on poverty alongside the argument that the state should be less intrusive as individuals become more affluent.
2) A willingness to concede that the primary arena for politics over the next decade will not be levels of taxation but the quality of “public services,” notably health, education, pensions, transportation and crime prevention (which would logically demand a fresh look at drugs policy). This is not the intellectual concession that it might seem. It is, in fact, the consequence of the Labour party’s own recognition that it cannot win elections as a high tax party. Nor is it the case that a focus on public services implies social democratic solutions. The largest political wager undertaken by the Labour party since it came to power has been that a substantial burst of additional spending combined with modest managerial reform will be enough to persuade voters in 2006 that there has been a discernible improvement in outputs. This provides a big political opportunity for the right. The Conservatives can propose a host of measures with a larger independent or private element than that still favoured by social democrats. They can only do so with credibility if these areas, not cultural and national concerns, become the focus of their intellectual and political energy. Portillo seems to accept this logic.
3) The distinctive market approach to social policy would be based on the progressive reintroduction of the insurance principle into most fields of social policy-notably long-term healthcare, higher education and pension provision. This would replace the current stress on tax credits and means-testing with all their unavoidable traps and disincentives to save-especially for those on middling incomes. This process will involve a substantial period of transition and an entire generation will need to pay twice for public services, once through general taxation and then again through insurance (either public or private). The few policies from the 2001 Conservative manifesto which may be worth preserving are those which tentatively explore some of this territory. There is again considerable consensus here between Conservative party progressives and market liberals for Portillo to exploit.
4) Conservatives need to become as passionately interested in matters of personal liberty and social pluralism as they have been in economic liberty and political pluralism. There is no future for a right in Britain which is unwilling to sue for peace with the 1960s. It is not sufficient for Conservatives reluctantly to accept that social attitudes have altered and therefore public policy must evolve as well. The right needs to compete with the left, as Graham Mather has argued, over the whole concept and language of rights. The drive for “inclusion” must involve a full-scale retreat from the outdated theology of “family values” in favour of a more neutral position between different social arrangements-Portillo’s confession of gay affairs in his youth does no harm to this cause.
5) The right will also be obliged to acquire a different interest in Britain’s constitutional architecture. The government has been able to pursue a piecemeal and often incoherent set of reforms because the Conservatives have offered nothing but an unthinking defence of the status quo in return. A market liberal understands the importance of strong institutions in a highly dynamic society. It may thus fall to the Conservatives in the next parliament to favour a written constitution and a Bill of Rights-if only to make Labour’s reforms work. Market liberals, with the notable exception of Ferdinand Mount, did not bother themselves much with constitutional matters while the Conservative party last held power. It is difficult to envisage how they could avoid them when returned to office.
6) Domestic politics also requires an international dimension. The Conservatives have managed to devise a chaotic foreign policy for themselves in the past decade. It is a confusing blend of ultra-nationalism, knee-jerk Euroscepticism, pro-Americanism and a nominal commitment to free trade. The right now needs to opt decisively for internationalism over nationalism. That means no longer making a fetish of national sovereignty and considering EU initiatives on their merits. Given the many ways in which Britain’s economy and politico-legal system diverges from the continental European mainstream, this will still provide plenty of grounds for rational rather than theological Euroscepticism.
These six principles, imprecise but no more vague than the concepts which underpinned New Labour when Tony Blair assumed the leadership of the Labour party in 1994, are plainly distinct from both traditional conservatism and social democracy even in its revitalised mode. The state would perform quite different functions if the principles were implemented. The evolution of society, as distinct from the state, would be the subject of rather more political consensus than has been the case for the past three decades. This prospectus is also the basis for fusion between Tory progressives and Portillo liberals.
To draw upon American analogies, the above principles represent a mixture of the policy platforms put forward by George W Bush and John McCain in the Republican primaries last year, proposals which were strikingly different from those which had been advanced by Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes four years earlier. The Republicans could not have become credible had they not been willing to undertake a shift in philosophy and presentation. The same is true for the Tories.
The past four years have been profoundly depressing for the Conservative party and its inexperienced leadership. It might have been assumed in the aftermath of the Blair landslide in 1997 that the Tories would have welcomed a chance to return to the drawing board. The fact that they have not is often attributed to continuing division over Europe. In truth this is just an alibi for a broader failure. For ever since the Blair government decided not to hold a euro referendum in its first term, Europe has not been a big issue.
The Tories have, in fact, simply returned to their base instincts. Hague appeared to be sincerely interested in the modernisation of the Conservative party in the first six months of his leadership but retreated in the face of opposition from entrenched conservative interest groups. The Tories, no matter how many or how few seats they hold in the next parliament, are in no better intellectual shape than they were four years ago. They suffer from ideological confusion and organisational atrophy. They will not escape this dire condition unless and until market liberalism first supercedes traditional conservatism and then looks searchingly at itself. At that point, the right might have a meaningful future and function.
This leaves two big unanswered questions. Will the Conservative party tolerate the marginalisation of conservatism in the same disciplined manner in which the Labour party swallowed the diminished status of socialism? And will Michael Portillo have the chance to be the agent of a major realignment within the British right; does he even want to serve that function? He remains an ambitious politician, but in his gloomier moments he has talked to friends about being the Keith Joseph rather than the Margaret Thatcher of the next phase of the Conservative party’s history. He has also argued that anyone, like himself, who held high office in the 1980s or 1990s is now “damaged goods” and that new leaders must be found. But who are they? Assuming William Hague does give up the leadership following a bad defeat on 7th June -and that is still quite a big if-to who else but Michael Portillo can the Tories turn?