24 July 2020

Is Boris Johnson’s Conservative government establishment or radical?

By Alex Morton

“Britain is closing the page on a struggle. The failure to leave the EU has been put right and we can look forward to a new dawn. The last decade has seen useful reforms and, while a few changes may be necessary, our institutions are largely staffed by good people working hard with government and delivering for this country. Talk of a culture war is the preserve of an aggressive minority who risk inflaming the situation while we try to deal with justified progressive complaints. We must be less partisan.”

“Britain is in the middle of a struggle. The huge delay in leaving the EU shows just how bad things have got. The Foreign Office has misjudged our place in the world for decades with disastrous results. The last decade has largely been a missed opportunity. Our failing institutions are increasingly staffed by hostile progressives intent on driving out conservatives and waging war on ordinary people. The culture war is already here – and it’s being won by progressive extremists aiming to tear down free speech and our shared heritage. We must be more partisan.”

The quotes above outline two views of where the UK sits a year after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and as we begin to emerge from the Covid crisis. The first is what you might call the ‘establishment conservative’ view. This sees the 2019 election triumph as a rejection of Corbynism and looks forward to a more conciliatory 2020s. The second might be termed the ‘radical conservative’ view, which sees the election as a victory over the Remain establishment and looks forward to a decade of reform and renewal.

Much has been written about specific issues since the surprise victory in December 2019, which saw the biggest Conservative majority since 1987, and biggest majority for any party since 2001 (and in England an eye-watering majority of 155 for the Tories over all other parties). But underlying all of the policy debates is the tension between the two visions above.

The tension between these two visions was evident in a Conservative election manifesto that managed to be both very dull and very radical: it proposed quite limited specifics – essentially no tax rises, improved public services, and loosely defined ‘levelling up’ – but it also promised to sweep away the establishment’s “barriers to Brexit” and, implicitly, to turn attention away from the metropolitan class who have controlled our fate since at least 1997, and arguably since the removal of the provincial warrior, Margaret Thatcher.

Depending on your outlook, the Government is either using Brexit to safeguard an establishment view of the world, or as a battering ram to smash through that same establishment.

This tension is now running through the entire edifice of this government and makes it increasingly unclear what comes next. It is not just about economics, especially any particular detailed debate. Some argue that after 1990, the Conservative party lost its ability to even think or talk about economic issues, relying instead on a few mumbled Thatcherite platitudes instead of any serious thinking. Even those of us who rate her as the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th century must recognise that  the solutions from the 1970s and 1980s are not enough to tackle the issues we face today.

One lesson we should draw from Thatcherism, though, is that you start with your approach and philosophy, and only then do you move outward to economics. As she said, “economics is the method, the objective is to change the soul”. Her fight was not some dry technocratic battle to slightly improve numbers on a spreadsheet – she fundamentally believed that her vision was morally superior to the left. As she put it: “we must not focus our attention exclusively on the material, because, though important, it is not the main issue.”

She believed that ordinary British people were under threat from a hostile minority using hate and division to impose an illiberal agenda, while at the same time feathering their own nests – and that most of those in her party did not have the nerve to stand up to them. Again, the Iron Lady saw this not as a purely political or economic battle, but a moral one. “The real case against socialism,” she said “was not its economic inefficiency but its basic immorality. Socialism was a system designed to enlarge the power of those who wanted to boss the lives of others to the point where they controlled everyone and everything.”

This is what drives economic agendas – a fundamental worldview. What is often proposed by those non-conservatives offering advice to the Conservative Party is a tick-box economic agenda not far from the sensible free market wing of the Liberal Democrats (if such a thing exists these days). Though the individual policies may be reasonable, this approach fails to grasp the essential truth of any successful political victory – philosophy and approach first, economics second. The revolt of provincial England, which secured the vote for Brexit and Boris Johnson’s huge majority, does not feature in or drive it.

The question now is whether Boris Johnson sees his role as being to calm the provincial revolt or drive it forward. Is this crisis an opportunity to prioritise levelling up, by reducing the power of London, or is our goal to return to 2019, just with slightly better roads in the Midlands? What is the Government’s vision for the country? Are they a radical conservative government that is trying to renew itself and the country – a break with the last few decades? Or are they an establishment conservative government that seeks to encourage the establishment to accept Brexit and move on together – largely keeping the institutions and economic structures of the last few decades intact? 

This first year, dominated as it has been by Brexit and a global pandemic, has meant that this fundamental question has been avoided. But in the year ahead, it is likely that the answer will become far clearer. Within the next 12 months we will have a better idea of what Boris Johnson’s government really is about – and what it is seeking to achieve.

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Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies.