21 June 2018

Forget Brexit, there is a much bigger divide in the Conservative Party


I keep hearing about the civil war among Tory MPs over Brexit. I am not sure there is one. There’s a small(ish) insurgency — to use a bit of military terminology — which is making a lot of noise due to the make-up of the Commons. The numbers, whilst real, tell a story which would be barely worth telling if we’d run a decent election campaign.

This week — yet again — Brexit was the dog that didn’t bark. However, there is a battle for the “soul” of the Conservative Party. It is a fascinating one and more interesting — and important — than the tedious psycho-drama of Brexit, which, provided it actually happens, will pass into history like a painful but time-limited process, such as teenage zits or an embarrassing STD.

The real battle is over what the Conservative Party is. Are we a libertarian/liberal party — as many of our think tanks seem to think — or are we still, recognisably, a conservative party? What is the balance between the power of free markets and ideas of conservatism, especially expressed through the sense of community and identity. For the purposes of this article, I am using “liberal” in the free-market version of the term, not the US, left-liberal definition.

The Conservative Party appears to have come full circle in 20 years. From being economic liberals and social conservatives, we are metamorphosing into social liberals and economic conservatives. First, a little bit of background. The collapse of the old Liberal Party in the early 20th century, caused in part by the success in spreading its values, resulted in the Conservative Party inheriting the two great traditions in British secular political thought – conservatism and liberalism.

The former appealed to Conservative traditional audiences and the latter to new, meritocratic ones. The Tories used these electoral constituencies and their intellectual inheritance to win elections, limiting socialist ambition and shaping Britain. In these years, the paternalistic conservative tradition was dominant, in part by accepting Labour’s Welfare State and the profound change ushered in by the 1945 election.

From 1979, Mrs Thatcher buried this dying consensus. Whilst embracing social conservatism, she unleashed economic liberalism, often against the instincts of her conservative colleagues. The rest, as they say, is history: privatisation and council house sales were two of the flagship policies of her time at Number 10.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown accepted economic liberalism, with limitations, but rejected social conservatism. David Cameron pretty much accepted Labour’s agenda, extending social liberalism as well as questioning the economic liberal consensus.

Cameron’s line: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the State,” is a remarkably eloquent conservative counter to the liberal Thatcherite slogan: “there is no such thing as society.”

Cameron ended the principled adoration of free markets. That’s not to say he didn’t see the worth of free enterprise, he did. But the Cameroons also recognised the transformative, positive power of the state, albeit working with private enterprise, in initiatives such as, for example, the Northern Powerhouse. Thatcherite liberals remain sceptical, on principle, at such statist projects.

Enter, stage left, Theresa May, following the circular firing squad of the 2016 leadership election. Nick Timothy’s 2017 manifesto — often very good — was stillborn due to the collapse in the PM’s confidence and the debacle over adult social care.

So currently, we have an uneasy truce between liberals and conservatives, overshadowed by the transitory divisions of Brexit. Meanwhile, and perhaps against Number 10’s desires, an active debate is taking place via the plethora of new and old think tanks.

These arguments are being played out on two levels. The first is on the Westminster think tank party circuit. Bright young things and journalists seeing who’s up and who’s down before invariably listening to a speech by Michael Gove, a brilliant, one-man ideas factory. In an entertaining piece, Peter Franklin described the ideological divide amongst these London, Tory think-tankers as between liberals versus libertarians.

However, more important that these occasionally esoteric debates are the creative frictions which remain between free-marketeers and interventionists on a range of critical policy areas which influence our national life.

Take housing; on the Isle of Wight the quasi-worship of markets clashes with our desire to grow our economy. We export our young people because the homes we need aren’t those developers want to build. A free market would kill our economy — certainly the visitor element. The landscape and coastline celebrated by names such as Keats, Tennyson and Turner would be ruined by names such as Wimpey, Bovis and Berkeley.

However hard I try, I cannot see how the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith — a man I greatly admire — would achieve anything other than the ruination of my heavenly little piece of England. I need an interventionist council — and the state that gives it the power to intervene — to have any kind of balanced economy and to enforce efficient land use rather than lazy greenfield development.

In overseas policy, the Blair/Cameron days of liberal posturing is probably shot. The vast spending on DfID, with very little return, is looking like an exercise in narcissistic vanity in this age of global authoritarianism. There is a strong argument for a more muscular foreign policy built around the national interest. That probably means less moral posturing, less cash for DfID and more for Defence, especially the Air Force in Europe (to deter Russia) and the Navy in the Gulf and Pacific to keep the sea routes open (to deter Iran and China) to make sure we have a world with which to trade.

It would probably also entail Parliament redefining what the 0.7 per cent spend on overseas aid actually means. Possible results include forcing DfID to fund an expanded BBC World Service (TV and Radio) and paying for all Armed Forces peacekeeping operations: no bad thing in my book. These are just two examples. There are others: BBC funding, the case for economic intervention versus lower taxes, who pays for our digital infrastructure and whether we really are going to order companies to put workers on boards and regulate energy firms further. Indeed, there comes a point where the problem becomes too little market, not too much.

I want markets — and I certainly want the ideas and energy that comes with the genius of individuals being freed from the often dead hand of the state — but let’s see political decision-making through a lens of understanding sometimes fragile communities. The world really is very different outside London.

Tensions between liberals and conservatives in the Conservative Party are inherent as long as both live in one camp, which should last as we have the current electoral system. This is a good thing — even a great one — helping us get the best of both remarkable intellectual worlds. But perhaps to all the bright young things, and slightly older MPs, that enjoy the free wine and good conversation at the various think tank receptions this summer, I’d suggest some modest ideas.

These are: let’s stop being top down and start being bottom up, let’s give greater freedoms and powers to local councils like mine to experiment, let’s think about strengthening institutions, let’s remember and respect those things which have no immediate price tag and let’s protect those fragile social bonds formed by human relationships and which are easily damaged by misusing the levers of government.

In short, it would be no bad thing if some of our “conservative” think tanks were a little more, well, conservative.

Bob Seely is Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.