1 September 2023

Are free marketeers and social conservatives really that different?


Party unity can be an overrated virtue in politics. If there is a genuine division on an issue of national importance politicians should not imagine that the voters won’t notice. It is better to resolve it rather than to pretend it doesn’t exist. 

Brexit is the obvious example from recent years. Theresa May desperately tried to reconcile the irreconcilable. She would agonise over a ‘form of words’ to placate her critics, a compromise of a synthetic Brexit where we would have still be beholden to the EU. In seeking to please everyone she pleased nobody. 

Boris Johnson then brought carnage in terms of party unity – defections, resignations, the whip withdrawn from 21 Conservative MPs. But the clear leadership was rewarded in the 2019 General Election. His downfall came when the direction of travel on other issues became more confusing. 

A generation earlier it was vital that Margaret Thatcher overcame the opposition from the ‘wets’ to reform the trade unions as well as other controversial changes such as privatisation, deregulation and monetarism. 

So I am all for a healthy bit of factionalism to enliven a political party. Often it is described as ‘petty’ when the matters to be decided are anything but. Yet there is one recent outbreak of Conservative internecine warfare that has left me perplexed. 

Social conservatives (such as the MPs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates) are portrayed as being in a different faction to the Thatcherite free marketeers. They are anxious to eschew libertarianism – recoiling from a vision of atomised rootless individualism where responsibility is abandoned and any sense of place is lost. These social conservatives (sometimes called National Conservatives or New Conservatives) seek community cohesion more than personal freedom. 

Yet this split is more about motives than different policy objectives. 

For instance, Cates is particularly concerned about the declining birth rate. ‘Across the nations of the developed world, the birth rate is collapsing,’ she told the National Conservatism Conference in May. ‘In the 1960s, British women each had an average of around 2.6 children. Now it is fewer than 1.6. For the first time ever last year, half of women reached their 30th birthday without having a child. There simply is no future if we don’t reverse this trend.’ 

Some might object that it’s not the business of politicians to tell us how many children we should have. But that misses the point that many would like to get married and have children but are prevented from doing so by the housing shortage. Cates agrees that is a huge factor – who could not? The reason for it is that the state severely constrains the housing supply through the planning system. Liberalising that system would allow a lot more houses – which would mean a lot more marriages and a lot more babies.

There could be the sort of safeguards with zoning, traditional design and place-making favoured by the late Sir Roger Scruton, a guru of social conservatives. Even so, that would allow a huge increase in development. Kruger looks to Community Land Trusts as the answer to our housing needs. They might help a little but will be pretty thin gruel. He is desperately looking for something which is an alternative to the state and to the market. It just leaves him floundering. The reality is that capitalism is needed for building on the scale required. 

Ah, but where would we find all the brickies and plasterers needed to build all those new homes? The painters and the carpenters? The sparkies and the plumbers? There is concern – not least among social conservatives that immigration is already too high. 

The answer is to cease subsidising all these ‘Mickey Mouse’ college courses. All the ones with a name ending in Studies. Media Studies, Social Studies, Peace Studies, Film Studies and so on. So often graduates spend years imbibing woke nonsense only find themselves saddled with debt (further delaying starting their families) with no advantage to their employment prospects. The Vice Chancellors have done well out of it – often on annual salaries of over £250,000, while giving speeches espousing egalitarianism. But their students would usually be better off learning to be plumbers. 

Rewarding work and tackling state dependency is another priority for Social Conservatives. Lower taxation and further welfare reform are needed. 

Cates is rightly concerned with some of the woke indoctrination going on in our schools – including some extraordinarily graphic sex education materials in primary schools. How could parents be empowered to protect their children? Education vouchers would give them choice. State schools get an average funding of £7,460 per pupil. Imagine the impact if parents were offered that as a voucher towards school fees? 

Suppose a venture capitalist started a chain of hundred schools modelled on the Michaela School in Brent. That is a school where the National Anthem is sung, poetry recited, discipline strictly maintained, traditional teaching methods embraced and the results are outstanding. A rival venture capitalist could fund a chain of hundred woke schools. Who do you think would make a profit? 

Another grievance many social conservatives have is with giant corporations squeezing out small businesses. They often blame the free market for this. But more often corporatism is the culprit. Big firms lobby for subsidies and regulations that suit their interests and thwart competitors. Less state intervention would make life easier for small firms. 

Social conservatives might recoil from free market rhetoric but unless free market policies are applied to meet their objectives they will flounder.

So Social Conservatives might not believe that freedom is to be prized for its own sake. But if we are free to choose they would probably end up liking the choices we tend to make. Thus the priorities might be different but the desired destination is agreed upon – as are the means for reaching it. We all like quoting Edmund Burke – even if we might prefer different bits. So social conservatives and free market conservatives should join in a shared patriotic endeavour to scale back the intrusive overmighty state. Fusing the Conservative right in this way allows the chance to focus on the real enemy. The wets.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.