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The Conservatives must join and win the battle of ideas

September 29th, 2018

The Thatcherite consensus is dead; the case for choice, freedom and opportunity is not

In full, the United States’ Declaration of Independence is not a very good document. It bears the classic mark of the composite motion, being too long overall and unbalanced in its structure: very nearly half of it is a list of twenty-seven grievances. Fortunately, for history and for the revolutionaries, it was drafted by someone who knew not only how to turn a phrase but where to place it. There may have been more than a smidgen of dishonesty in Jefferson’s assertion (abridged here) that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, with the unalienable rights of life and liberty; that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; and that it is the Right of the People to abolish unjust forms of government”, but that’s not the point. The point is that he defined what the war was about in words that were inspiring, simple and righteous, and did so at the outset of the document, before people lost interest amid the detail. It is the masterpiece in political framing.

Few political battles have such high stakes but whether physical or electoral, framing the question on which the contest is fought remains critical. In Britain, at the moment, it is Labour who is setting the terms and as such, are gaining for themselves a huge advantage.

The reasons why Labour is evangelising their beliefs and the Conservatives are not aren’t hard to pin down. For one thing, Labour has much more space and time in which to do so. The government is spending a huge amount of time and effort on a policy it doesn’t really want and probably can’t deliver without some – perhaps a great deal of – damage to the country. Domestic politics, where the battle-lines are being drawn, is taking a back-seat. In effect, the Conservatives are still fighting the last war, to a large extent among themselves.

Secondly, there has probably never been as big a gap between the managers at the top of the Tories and the activists at the top of Labour. Governments always tend to grey as their time in office increases, as competent administrators rise and firebrand populists who made their name in opposition fall, but May and Hammond are particularly lacking in any sense of ideological fervour.

By contrast, Corbyn has spent his entire life as an activist: decrying injustices or fighting for (or more often against) some cause or another. These were frequently fringe or unpopular causes – some of his pet topics still are – but allied to the more politically savvy McDonnell, Labour has now put together a superficially plausible critique of society and the economy that appeals to a lot of people because many of the problems he campaigns on, from housing to inequality to funding of public services, have an element of truth in them that resonates with those struggling. And Labour’s the only party proposing change.

And the third part is that the Conservatives have got out of the habit of making the ideological case. Their consensus – the Thatcherite consensus, seemingly cemented in place by New Labour’s conversion to its basic structure – was in place for so long that they have never needed to argue for why the mechanisms that underpin the Conservative model of the economy, public services and society are best. It’s a complacency that can no longer be taken for granted: that consensus is dead.

It wasn’t always like that. In the 1980s, it would be a rare interview when the likes of Thatcher, Tebbit or Lawson wasn’t advocating policy just because it was (in their eyes) effective but also because it was an ethically good thing for people to, for example, own their own homes, keep more of their income or own shares in the nation’s great industries: it gave them both a greater stake in the country and a return on its success. Choice and markets were good because competition drives up choice and quality, and drives down prices (assuming the market works effectively).

In reality, forty years of experience have produced some notorious examples where that model has failed – though usually in implementation rather than concept – and that’s what’s given the Labour left both the opportunity and the confidence to fight back. But without a Conservative leadership ready and able to take to the field on behalf of the moral and practical benefits of individual choice, regulated competition and a smaller state, the argument is in danger of going by default.

    If the Conservatives want to be reasonably confident about their chances in 2022, they need to do a lot more than deliver a satisfactory Brexit and manage the economy effectively. They need to inspire, as Corbyn has inspired.

They need to reconnect with people – particularly the 25-49 age group – whose aspiration and ambition to get on in live is being blocked by structures that the government has the power to reform. Those people need to be able to buy their own house and put down roots; they need to know that their investment in education is worth-while; they need to believe that the thrifty will not be disadvantaged in their old age as against the reckless.

To do that, Theresa May or her successor needs to frame the Conservatives’ own vision of what a fair and successful Britain looks like, what’s preventing that at the moment, how those obstacles will be removed, and – above all – why that journey is worth joining. The Tory top brass might regard those truths to be self-evident but, like Jefferson did, they need to spell them out all the same.

David Herdson