19 November 2020

Forget wokery or class war – the Conservatives need to embrace conservatism


The chorus from the commentators in recent days has been rising in volume. The Government needs to pick a side. 

“This choice – between becoming the Respectables or the Dependables – lies at the heart of the struggle we will witness in the coming weeks and months,” thunders Nick Timothy, former chief of staff to Theresa May, in the Daily Telegraph. The “respectables”, we are told, have a “liberal and affluent perspective” who enjoyed David Cameron’s combination of lower public spending and “progressive” rhetoric. Speeches about climate change would placate the “consciences of the high-consuming and socially self‑segregating rich”.

Timothy would prefer siding with the “dependables” – the northern working class Tory voters who swung to the Tories and caused the Red Wall constituencies to fall. To secure their backing the Government “will need to be far bolder than it has been hitherto in delivering for them”. By this he means more spending. It would be a “terrible mistake” to decide it was “unaffordable”. Better to soak the rich southerners with tax hikes: if it “requires asking more of the privileged and the prosperous, then so be it, and in fact so much the better”. 

Meanwhile on ConservativeHome, Rachel Wolf characterises the choice as between the “Just About Managing” and the affluent. Helping the former involves more spending. (“You demonstrate you care about public services by giving them money.”) Or the Government could take “the long and winding road back to Notting Hill”. The key message is: “There is no third magic middle path.” 

Then there’s this site’s editor-in-chief, Robert Colvile, who warns of trouble ahead “if the Tories are perceived as having betrayed their new supporters, or if they retreat to a home counties comfort zone”. He reminds us of the American football coach who said: “You dance with the one who brung ya.” 

I doubt that the Prime Minister will welcome all this stern advice. Boris Johnson has never been too keen on tough decision-making – reflecting with breezy optimism: “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.”

While I get as exasperated as anyone with the dithering from Downing Street over policy direction, in this case the choice I think the choice being presented is false.

For a start the stereotypes are absurdly sweeping – and a little insulting to those concerned. There are many poor people in the south, and many who voted for Brexit and are worried about crime. There are rich people in the north. and many who voted Remain and are worried about the environment.

So far as the “culture wars” issues are concerned the big divide is on age rather than geography – if we must generalise at all. Not that the Conservatives could expect to win many votes from anywhere – young or old, north or south – by attempting to be more ‘woke’ than Labour, the Lib Dems or the Green Party.

Another glaring mistake in the way the choice is presented is that it mischaracterises David Cameron’s electoral coalition and policy agenda – with the implication that as PM he only cared about the rich.

Naturally, there will be various definitions as to what “Cameronism” or a “Cameroonian” means. As Herbert Morrison said: “Socialism is what a Labour Government does”. In the same vein, I define Cameronism as what the Cameron Government did. Some say the education reforms that turned round so many failing schools were thanks to Michael Gove. Or the welfare reforms, such as Universal Credit were thanks to Iain Duncan Smith. Or raising the threshold that took many lower earners out of paying income tax, was thanks to Nick Clegg. Fine. But these were all big changes which helped the poor that took place on Cameron’s watch.

But the biggest howler in this forced choice for a Conservative Government between helping the one part of the country or another is that it rests on socialist assumptions. It only makes sense if we concede a dominant role for the state in directing economic activity – choosing which industries will be picked, where housing will be allocated by tweaking an algorithm, which areas will get subsidies. 

Those who favour free market policies would hope and expect such policies to deliver economic growth and greater prosperity to the ‘just about managing’ and the affluent, wherever they are. Even if this growth driven by the market might be uneven and unpredictable in where the greatest gains may be. It is impossible to guess what the jobs and products of the future will be. That is a very good reason why the arrogance of the “man in Whitehall” trying to “pick winners” is so absurd. But the record does show that if unemployment is falling sharply – or real wages are rising strongly – across the UK overall then nearly always there will be some positive change in each region. 

By the same token, tax increases are never a good recipe for prosperity. But now would be a particularly foolish time. Above all the economy needs confidence to recover from the pandemic. And in any case the tax burden is already so high that it is highly doubtful that tax rises would raise much more revenue. 

If the efficacy of the market is embraced then some of the dilemmas of the statist approach can be lifted. Take the example of shale. If the absurdly excessive rules on fracking were liberalised that would have two big impacts. First, it would boost economic growth in the north of England. Second, it would make a substantial contribution to easing our CO2 emissions. 

“You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift,” declared the American religious leader William Boetcker (Ronald Reagan mistakenly attributed the comment to Abraham Lincoln.) “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.”

Beggar thy neighbour is not a suitable pitch for a ‘One Nation’ Government. It would be especially for an affable Prime Minister whose nature is not to embrace miserablism and fist-shaking – despite the difficulties over recent months. The Conservatives are being told they must either embrace wokeism or class war. But both are dead ends. Better by far for the Conservatives to embrace conservatism. A self-confident, patriotic message for all classes and regions: that with individual liberty and free enterprise we will succeed together.

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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.