Changes in the squad: Boris Johnson with the MP for Hartlepool, Jill Mortimer, and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. Photo: PA/Alamy

How Brexit finally buried Thatcherism

It’s a bitter pill for Remainers to swallow, but Brexit could herald the return of a One Nation Tory Party
December 9, 2021

“One Nation.” It means so many things to so many people that even Ed Miliband felt able to briefly adopt its mantle while Labour leader. Inside the Conservative Party, it has become a sort of meaningless short-hand for social liberals or those squeamish about the “culture wars.” But really, One Nation Toryism was about a rejection of laissez-faire economics and a belief in the power of government to forge a stronger, more cohesive and more conservative British society.

Political parties need an animating purpose to cohere around. This is especially true in British politics, where our first-past-the-post electoral system requires parties to unify a range of compromising factions. If there is no central pole around which these factions can gather, then they either splinter or simply tread water.

From the 1970s to 2016, the animating purpose of the Conservative Party was a bare-bones state and a conviction that freedom trumped all other virtues, in the marketplace at least. Shorn of any other purpose around which to coalesce, the party couldn’t let go of the one that Margaret Thatcher had gifted it, even when letting go was the only route to defeating Tony Blair’s Labour. Unity was maintained at the price of power.

Thatcherism robbed a lot of natural Tories of a political home. In 1981 Peter Tapsell, the last Tory Keynesian, voted against the Budget—becoming the first Conservative MP to have done so since the 1930s—because he saw it as extinguishing the Tory tradition to which he belonged. He was right. Every One Nation Tory challenger for the leadership between 1990 and 2005—from Michael Heseltine to Ken Clarke—lost.

And then along came David Cameron. Cameron spent the three years between his election as leader and the financial crash talking about a different kind of conservatism. He borrowed liberally from the other traditions of the party—talking about the power of communities and the importance of society; committing to match Labour’s spending plans rather than slash away at public services; discussing love and solidarity as important measures of national success. It is always mildly embarrassing to recall one’s youthful naivety and enthusiasms, but I confess that I was quite the Cameron fanboy back then. The Big Society, the post-bureaucratic state, “there is such a thing as society…” there I was, cheering from the sidelines and applauding vigorously in my shiny suit.

I worked at a think tank, churning out pro-Cameron policy papers with titles like “Recapitalising the poor,” “Civic streets: the Big Society in action” and “A place for pride.” I sincerely believed that Cameronism offered a route back to the kind of Toryism that Tapsell feared had died in 1981—one that understood responsibility and ethic as its central virtues, rather than ambition and greed. Then came the crash, and—seizing their opportunity—Cameron and Osborne immediately pivoted their party back to its comfort zone. What followed was austerity, a savage assault on the economic security of the poor and the abject abandonment of concepts such as “the Big Society.

I recount all of this not simply to express my personal bitterness at being taken in, but to explain why even foolish, high-Tory romantics like me feel a tad sceptical about the current government’s expressed commitment to “levelling up.” So much of what this government is saying it is doing or will do chimes with what people like me have wanted all along. Investment in infrastructure and skills to improve the public sphere and reduce the brain drain of talent and aspiration to London. Pushing back against big business’s insatiable appetite for ever-cheaper labour. Environmental commitments that flow into how we manage and subsidise agricultural land. An industrial strategy that is unapologetic about the role of the state in shaping our economy. Moderate social conservatism at the top of our cultural and regulatory institutions, pushing gently back against the latest crazes and craziness and insisting at least some sense of perspective is maintained. All of this feels like the Toryism that the One Nation holdouts hoped and believed could be revived. But the character of Boris Johnson makes it hard to believe that any of this will really happen; that he won’t, just like Cameron, seize the first opportunity to revert. And the stench of entitlement and lack of probity risk any progress being fundamentally undermined by the sense that what matters most to this government is looking after its own, even in the most egregious of circumstances.

There is a reason for hope, however: Brexit. For many One Nation progressive conservative types (who tended to back Remain, as I did) this is a bitter pill to swallow—but swallow it we must because, with Brexit, things really might be different this time.

Brexit has gifted the Conservative Party a competing animating purpose. You can be an economically wet, infrastructure-obsessed Keynesian, and so long as you either always believed in Brexit or are now happy to convincingly embrace it, you can find a home in today’s Tory Party. That resets the navigation system for the party. It enables thinking that falls radically outside of the Thatcherite orthodoxy, because Brexit replaces that orthodoxy as the tie that binds. Would the Cameron government have established a furlough scheme as broad and as generous when faced with the pandemic? Or would it have asked Lex Greensill or some assortment of pals to deliver a private-sector solution? Would that government now be investing in the public realm and in public services? Because, despite the rhetoric about tax cuts and balanced books, that is what this government is doing.

And it is because of Brexit that the personnel of the Conservative Party has changed, too. Not all red wall Tories are economic wets in the One Nation tradition. But the appetite for intervention, investment and active policy among both the voters and the MPs on whom Johnson depends is unquestionably higher than it is in the comfortable shires and suburbs that made up Cameron’s base.

Ben Houchen spearheaded the dismantling of Labour’s post-industrial heartlands when he was elected mayor of Tees Valley in 2017. His platform is one of radical economic dynamism—buying back the airport into public ownership; establishing the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of London to directly create 20,000 new jobs; campaigning for government support to green thousands of industrial jobs via carbon capture infrastructure. Heseltinian Houchen and his colleagues are robustly pro-Brexit, identifiably Tory and yet profoundly at odds with the laissez-faire presumptions that have governed the Conservative Party for most of the last 40 years.

Finally, the realities of Brexit require a retreat from free-market purism and demand a somewhat redistributive economic settlement. Brexit cuts off the flow of cheap labour into the UK and further undermines the ability of government to rely on private-sector growth to smooth out inequalities in our economy.

This is recognised at the heart of this government. When Michael Gove lays out the regional rebalancing that “levelling up” means to him, he is articulating a political philosophy that is deeply at odds with Thatcherism’s sub-Darwinian attachment to “managed decline.” When Johnson demands that big businesses increase wages rather than rely on visa workers, he is breaking with the mantra that what is good for our corporate giants is automatically good for the British people. Whether they would be speaking and acting like this were Brexit not forcing these choices is unknowable. But Brexit is forcing these choices, and is pushing the Conservatives further away from Thatcherism and closer to the dynamic economic activism of One Nation Toryism. It has become, to use the Iron Lady’s own phrase, a “ratchet” that inches the government inexorably away from the free market and towards a more managed economy.

These factors—of politics, people and economic orientation—mean that the Conservative Party of today is fundamentally different to that which Cameron led. It is more sincerely disposed towards a Toryism that does not ask “what would Maggie do” but instead asks how government can act to revitalise communities that have been left behind.

And that is the source of the hope that this time it will be different. Because, yes, Johnson is a vapid and dishonest man. And no, his Cabinet does not invariably embody either the talent or the ethics that one might hope for from one’s government. But—contrary to both his own assumptions and those of most of our media—not everything is about Johnson. Brexit has fundamentally changed the Conservative Party. It has rewritten some of its DNA and potentially liberated it from the clutches of Thatcherism. The irony of this is not lost on either One Nation Remainers or Thatcherite Brexiteers—it is one of the reasons there is profound discomfort and nervousness to be found on all wings. But the only successful path through Brexit is forged through intervention, active regeneration and regional redistribution. Somewhere, the ghost of Peter Tapsell is having the last laugh.