How conservative is the Conservative Party? Since the high noon of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the party has been on an ideological journey propelled more than anyone else, by Tony Blair.
His apparent invincibility during New Labour’s prosperous decade seemed to demand a new kind of politics and a search for new political truths. Blair, it might be said, destroyed Conservatives’ belief in the electoral efficacy of conservatism.
Initially, this didn’t involve a wholesale repudiation of what had gone before. It was more in the nature of a rationalisation. Hard-edged Thatcherism might have been needed in the 1980s to revive an inflation-prone, strike-plagued economy slumped uncomfortably at the bottom of the European growth league.
But, the argument went, the economy had been fixed. The Tories could now be the party of non-economic well-being and elevate broader social and environmental, indeed planetary concerns, above narrow selfish, materialistic ones. Thatcherism’s economic successes had made itself redundant.
As Britain enters its second lost decade of poor economic growth, the Conservatives’ continuing neglect of economic policy evinces complacency rather than sagacity. The disappointing GDP numbers for the first quarter of 2018 might well have been affected by the weather, but the overall performance of the economy since the financial crisis is hardly reassuring.
In the years before the recession, Britain had the best multi-factor productivity growth of any G7 country. OECD figures for 2016 show that combined capital and labour productivity was lower than before the recession. Of the G7, only Italy performed worse, and its productivity has been on the slide since 2000. Sound micro-economic policy can seem dull. But deregulation and tax reform, not spending billions on daft things like the world’s most expensive nuclear power station and a railway line based on fantasy economics, yield real economic results.
Two milestones mark the Tories’ progress on their journey to the promised land of post-Thatcherite collectivism. “We know we have a shared responsibility, that we’re all in this together,” David Cameron told the Conservatives after their third successive defeat at the hands of Tony Blair in the speech that propelled him to his overwhelming victory in the 2005 leadership election. “There is such a thing as society,” he declared to signal a break with Mrs Thatcher’s argument that society is a collective abstraction comprising individual men and women and families, before adding “it’s just not the same thing as the state.”
It was more a case of vocalising than regulating. Retailers were called out for stocking chocolate oranges rather than real ones. When he reached No.10, a nudge unit was set up in the Cabinet Office. As leader of the opposition, David Cameron had set the pace on climate change. He ripped into Gordon Brown, accusing him of being a phoney on the environment. “In a carbon-conscious world, we’ve got a fossil-fuel Chancellor.” Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrats out-competed each other to show the depth of their concern with the future of the planet. The outcome was the 2008 Climate Change Act. Irrespective of the cost and what other countries did, Britain would unilaterally halve its greenhouse gas emissions, a target raised to 80 per cent as the bill went through Parliament.
If David Cameron’s embrace of the state was uneasy, under his successor, the Conservatives became a full-blown party of the state. “Government can and should be a force for good,” Theresa May declared in her first party conference speech as Tory leader. “We should employ the power of government for the good of the people.”
The state being a force for good implies forcing people to be good and making them do good. What was implicit is now explicit. Taxing sugary drinks, banning supermarket buy-one-get-one-free offers, cotton buds, plastic cups, and regulating the size of chocolate bars; the Conservatives have become the party of and for the humourless scold. Without a map, the Conservatives arrived in a land of taxing and banning, ending up deep in the terrain formerly occupied by mid-20th century socialism, a task that even Labour’s post-1945 government might have thought hubristic.
“In the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves,” Douglas Jay wrote in The Socialist Case in 1937.
From Churchill down, post-war Conservative politicians used to deride Labour for believing the man in Whitehall knew best. Today’s Conservatives are different: people can’t be trusted to look after themselves, let alone the planet.
The environmental expert in Whitehall knows better than farmers, who need to be endlessly micro-regulated to prevent them destroying the productivity of the soil on which the value of their farmland depends. Saving the planet is, as French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has written, the great category of blackmail.
Last month, energy minister Claire Perry informed the United Nations of plans to legislate for a zero emissions target. “This is probably the most difficult task we have ever given ourselves,” Christiana Figueres, the then head of the UN climate change secretariat, said three years ago. As I document in Green Tyranny, tackling climate change is meant to bring about an economic, social, and cultural transformation comparable in scope to the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions – only this one is to be centrally conceived, planned and directed.
Policy and politics are closely entwined: are the Conservatives the party of the people or a party of the state? In a recent pitch to Tory donors, the Prime Minister accused Jeremy Corbyn of “exploiting populist politics”.
If they want to fight populism, the Prime Minister and her advisers first need to understand it. A starting point is the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko and his 2016 book The Demon in Democracy. According to Legutko, populism is a reaction to a situation where the ideology of the state is in conflict with a society’s culture and values.
The Conservatives and Theresa May face an acute dilemma. The Prime Minister has spoken of the EU referendum indicating a broader dissatisfaction with the status quo. But a party of the state, representing in the words of de Tocqueville, its immense and tutelary power, cannot articulate popular discontent and then lead it to constructive ends.
Far from the Conservatives’ journey taking them to the promised land, they find themselves at a dead end. They have less than four years to work out what they should do.