Cars on the Final Assembly line. Photo: PA

A Conservative vision for the future

How can the right get it right? Conservative MP Lee Rowley—part of the 2017 intake— casts his eyes to the horizon
June 15, 2018

The conservative perspective is not always associated with big picture visions, but there is today a pressing need to demonstrate how our policies will bring a better tomorrow. It’s an especially important challenge for a Conservative MP like me. For two years, Brexit has so absorbed British politics that other debates have been downgraded. Irrespective of how we all voted, we should recall that there is life beyond March 2019.

Of course, Brexit is a fundamental milestone on our national journey. But when the NHS, schools and welfare struggle for airtime between the breathless re-telling of summit dinners in Brussels, we are in a very odd place. Beyond that, the last few years have shown something is amiss in society. There is a growing dislocation between the rulers and ruled. We are facing technological change so dramatic that our basic ideas of work, rest and play could all be disrupted. How might pragmatic conservatives—or for that matter anyone else—chart a course through?

My contention is simple: western democracies, and Britain in particular, need to place greater emphasis on the long view.

What do we want this country to look like in 20 years’ time? What objectives are we seeking to fulfil for British citizens? And how will we deal with new challenges?

The notion of a grand national strategy conjures up natural scepticism in the pragmatic Tory mind. Visions are disdained as the semantic playthings of the oligarch and the autocrat; democracies just don’t do them. Those in the west who have tried their luck at scanning more distant horizons have seldom seen their efforts rewarded. In 2008, Kevin Rudd, the former Australian PM, held a 10-day summit of 1,000 delegates to think up ideas for 2020. A year later, with less fanfare, 135 out of its 138 recommendations were abandoned.

As well as the lack of any obvious electoral rewards, those of us on the right are especially mindful of the inefficient and dehumanising results of the left’s heavy-handed planning. (Just think, for example, of the refusal of 1960s tower blocks to turn into the happy, orderly streets in the sky that the bureaucrats of the day had envisaged.) And there is no doubt that debates about how to solve the most challenging questions have, all too often, defaulted towards central planning.

What business, some will ask, does conservatism have in grappling with the future? The important distinction here is between knee-jerk reaction, the attitude that seeks to hold back the tide of history, and intelligent conservatism, which seeks to manage change for the good of society. If the last 200 years since the Industrial Revolution have taught us anything, it is that pure reactionary politics is doomed: change is the only constant.

One venerable Tory virtue has always been stewardship—conserving the best of our individual and collective inheritance for the next generation—and this is a virtue which I would argue becomes more important in a world of remorseless change.

*** So, what are these big issues that conservatives must confront? Fundamental demographic change as our population grows older and more geographically concentrated. The suffocation of privacy by technology. The slowdown in economic growth threatening our ability to pay for our retirement, health and public services. The automation of production, and the gulf between the skills we need and those we’ve got. Finally, and most unnervingly, the leaching away of power from familiar institutions and towards border-straddling actors who are breathtakingly agile in avoiding attempts to impose oversight.  (Yes, among other things, I’m talking about the tech giants.)

Let’s focus on automation, AI and big data. The next 40 years will see the automation of much blue-collar work, and the encroachment of disruptive technologies into professional employment too. Our roads, homes and communities will be transformed. While the government’s Autumn Budget made welcome moves on this terrain, the bigger discussions still tend to lapse into one of two stale tropes: “we are all doomed,” or “everything will come out just fine,” as new jobs replace the old.

I happen to be optimistic about our long-term opportunities. But we must think through any changes. Conservative thinkers can’t duck the reality that some change is going to be painful: difficulties will arise, and established patterns of life be unsettled. The groundwork must be prepared so that we can cope. Otherwise, when the robots start coming for middle-class jobs, hell will never have seen so much fury. The window to allow us to manage this properly is rapidly closing.

Yet another discussion that we aren’t having in conservative circles concerns power. The influence of government is being challenged like never before. States are left posturing in the face of growing cross-border activity; and international institutions such as the EU are so scared of taking action that they seem content to settle for irrelevance. Trials of the tech giants by select or senate committees may provide compelling viewing, but an effective regulatory approach it is not.

Despite all the angst about Cambridge Analytica, we still lack a framework for managing the privacy and data implications of technology companies. The answer should not be extensive state regulation, but we at least need to decide. We live in a world where data is king and Google mouths platitudes like “don’t be evil.” Quite simply: who is in power today? If national leaders aren’t managing the big issues, then who is sovereign?

Growth is another thorny question. Richard Heinberg recently talked of growth as “the sine qua non of economic existence,” but I have always been bemused by the west’s refusal to properly debate how much of it is possible—or even desirable. Long-term growth is the hidden actor in almost all our debates—immigration, housing and infrastructure to name but a few.  As a Conservative I am naturally all for harnessing economic development to secure a rising tide of prosperity.  Yet democracies need to debate these trade-offs.

And—as average growth slows in the west—they also need to think through what happens when there is less bounty to go around. Shortly before his election in 2016, Donald Trump committed to another dash for expansion, boisterously declaring a 4 per cent “national goal.”

He conveniently omitted the reality that it has been nearly two decades since the US last achieved that, and even the debt-busting tax cuts of last winter haven’t hit the target.

Wouldn’t it be helpful, then, to discuss the implications of persistently slower growth? And even though it is hopefully many generations away we might also start a discussion about what happens when growth ends. A zero-sum economics scenario would send an entire system based on the notion of perpetual progress into chaos.

Western democracies give too little thought to these sorts of questions. All require a vision; though the political rewards for developing one are uncertain.

Yet, despite the pitfalls, and the temptation to concentrate on the here and now, all of us in public life—and especially, perhaps, those of us whose party is committed to conserve the best of the old in new times—have a duty to take the long view.

So, at the risk of my Conservative colleagues recoiling in horror, let’s hear it for some Royal Commissions, some Ministries for the Future and expert panels. Talking shops they might be, but at least they might generate a national conversation about our long-term future. It’s good to talk—and opportunities will abound if we can grab them early enough.