A bizarre idea has crept into our political discourse during the past six months. It presents Margaret Thatcher as the archetypal Conservative, and equates “abandoning Thatcherism” with “abandoning Toryism”.
In fact, Margaret Thatcher was an almost accidental party leader, and her doctrines owed more to the Manchester Liberals than to any recognised form of Toryism. Those doctrines worked magnificently, of course, giving the Conservatives 18 years in government and raising Britain once again above the run of nations. But they were only ever in a loose alliance with the party through which they found expression; they never colonised it.
Perhaps the most influential classical liberal in Britain during the second half of the 20th century was Ralph Harris, who founded the Institute of Economic Affairs. Shortly before he died, he told me something quite extraordinary. After the 1950 election, which had seen the obliteration of the Liberal Party, he and a handful of free-marketeers had debated how to inject their ideas into the mainstream.
Some wanted to preserve the purity of their precepts, meeting occasionally at the Mont Pelerin Society and publishing their tracts, rather in the manner of those Irish monks who, at the edge of the known world, painstakingly copied out Christian texts during the Dark Ages. But Ralph saw no point in doctrines that were not implemented, even if patchily and messily.
The problem was that, in those days, neither of the two big parties was friendly to classical liberalism. Clement Attlee’s Labour was unapologetically socialist, of course, and was busily engaged in nationalising the means of production. But Churchill’s Tories were hardly free-marketeers. My party, at that time, was imperialist, paternalist and mildly protectionist. Still, Ralph and his allies regarded it as the more promising of the two, and set about trying to convince individual Conservative candidates and MPs.
They succeeded. Enoch Powell was one of the first to understand that Britain’s post-war problems were largely the result of bloated government, and he was joined by Geoffrey Howe, Nick Ridley and others.
The breakthrough came with the winning over of Sir Keith Joseph, a brilliant intellectual who until then had been a textbook paternalistic Tory, chiefly interested in the social work that he carried out through a family trust. Reading Hayek and Friedman, and listening to Alfred Sherman and Anthony Fisher, Sir Keith was transformed. “It was only in April 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism,” as he later put it. “I had thought I was a Conservative but I now see that I was not really one at all.”
Except that he had been. His previous views had been squarely in the tradition of One Nation Toryism – the pragmatic tradition of Benjamin Disraeli and Stanley Baldwin, of Randolph and Winston Churchill, of Harold Macmillan and R.A. Butler, of David Cameron and Theresa May.
Sir Keith went on to win Margaret Thatcher to his new creed. He helped found the Centre for Policy Studies (CapX’s parent organisation), which did most of the intellectual heavy lifting of Thatcherism. But let’s not delude ourselves: he and she were mahouts on the back of a mighty elephant. They could steer the beast as long as it was content to move; but, ultimately, it was the elephant carrying them, not the other way around.
That imbalance – we Thatcherites should be honest with ourselves about this – reflects the relative reach of our ideas. Small-government types like us are to the Left of most people on cultural issues and to their Right on economic issues.
Arguably the most under-represented strain in Parliament, relative to its popularity, is that form of authoritarianism that hovers somewhere between patriotic Old Labour and working-class Tory: pro-spending, pro-intervention, anti-immigration, Eurosceptic, tough on law and order, mildly homophobic. While no party exactly matches that formula, it’s fair to say that the current Conservative manifesto is less distant from it than is the typical CapX reader. The reason Theresa May’s approval ratings are so high is that she is close to Britain’s political centre of gravity.
I don’t want to overstate things. The platform on which she is fighting the election is not Heathite or social-democratic. Robert Peston tweeted a page of it last week with the words “Theresa the leftie”, when the passage he was copying was a classic statement of mainstream conservatism, ending with an almost direct quotation from Edmund Burke about the partnership between the dead, the living and the unborn.
The parts of the manifesto that might upset Thatcherites – changes in corporate government rules, an energy price cap, new regulations on foreign takeovers – turn out, when you look at the detail, to be less radical than the headlines suggest. Other bits of the manifesto – the promise of lower and simpler taxes, the one-in-two-out rule on regulations, the commitment to free trade – have received virtually no attention at all.
Still, let’s allow that there is a difference in philosophy between the Tory Democrats and the Manchester Liberals – or, if you prefer, between the interventionists and the libertarians. How should free-marketeers respond?
We should surely recognise, with Ralph Harris, that we will succeed only as part of a broader conservative alliance. Purely libertarian parties – ACT in New Zealand, say, or Gary Johnson in the United States – have never risen above single figures. When free-marketeers spend their time arguing about pornography and drugs, they sound eccentric. When they argue about fractional reserve banking and a return to the gold standard, they still sound distant from most people’s concerns.
But when they concentrate on the areas where they agree with traditional conservatives – welfare reform, tax cuts, school choice, Euroscepticism, property rights – they can achieve extraordinary things, as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did.
Conservatism is an instinct, not an ideology. The elephant has a powerful, though unspecific, sense of where it wants to go. It is moved, not by any philosophy, but by what Disraeli called “the sublime instincts of an ancient people”. Don’t jab your goad into that great beast: that won’t end well for you. Rather, coax it, encourage it, whisper into its vast ear and, if your arguments are as good as you believe they are, it will respond.