22 April 2024

No, Richard. Rishi Sunak is not a socialist


The right of the British political spectrum is currently an arena of vicious hand-to-hand combat. Touchstones like immigration, gender identity and integration are central to the fighting, but some combatants deny their rivals are even in the appropriate place. With depressing regularity we hear accusations that some of those engaged are not really conservatives at all.

Richard Tice, leader of Reform UK and Nigel Farage’s current placeholder, upped the ante this weekend with a statement so extravagant it was absurd. Appearing on Sky News’s Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips, the millionaire property developer who inexplicably imagines himself some kind of people’s tribune targeted the prime minister directly. Rishi Sunak is no conservative, Tice argued. He is in fact ‘a con socialist. I invented this word. I’m very proud of it. It defines what he is.’

What does Tice mean? Essentially, he proposes that Sunak has presided, first as Chancellor and now as Prime Minister, over record levels of taxation and government spending – which is a valid argument – and therefore is a socialist.

The problem with this idea is that ‘socialism’ is not as reductive as that, nor is it ‘things Richard Tice doesn’t like’. Some of the hallmarks of socialism, even taking a broad definition, are public ownership and control of the means of production, the rejection of the profit motive and of the free market, central planning of the economy and the elimination of unearned privilege and hierarchies. That doesn’t sound very much like Rishi Sunak (Winchester, Oxford PPE, Stanford MBA), or his multimillionaire lifestyle.

There are, however, elements of the ideology which might resonate with Reform UK. The party wants to ‘nationalise 50% of key utility companies‘ and rails against the existing electoral arrangements because ‘the two-party system embeds the status quo and prevents real change’. On the National Health Service, it affirms that ‘free at the point of delivery is at its core and must always continue’. So far, so Wolfie Smith.

That is not to say that Reform UK is socialist. It is a heady mix of populism, dirigisme, slash-and-burn deregulation and social conservatism, as if it had been devised by disgruntled city financiers on a weekend away after too many sherbets. It has little ideological coherence, but it doesn’t need it, as it is simply a vehicle for the anger of disenchanted conservatives and some bemusedly abandoned by the policy gymnastics of the Labour Party. The party’s bread and butter is immigration and a wholesale assault on anything which it thinks can be labelled ‘woke’.

Reform UK’s influence at the general election will likely be overwhelmingly a negative one. Judging by the opinion polls, it is unlikely to win any seats at all – it is telling that the only ‘person with significant control‘ over Reform UK Party Ltd, Nigel Farage, has not committed to a parliamentary candidacy – but its current strength of anywhere between eight and 16% will almost certain deny many Conservative candidates victory. Predictions that the party will cost Rishi Sunak 50 seats or more are not unreasonable.

But it is already having a damaging effect on intellectual debate on the Right.

As we reassess our circumstances after the pandemic and the attendant economic slump, as Russia and China menace their neighbours and huddle together in an authoritarian alliance with Iran and North Korea and as globalisation ceases to be seen as a panacea, there is a lot to consider. What are the limits of the role of the state? How do communities co-exist and integrate while retaining their identities and beliefs? How do we fund an ageing population with a shrinking tax base? At what level are decisions made? Who makes them, and how?

These are fundamental, almost existential questions, and even on the right of politics there is a diversity of thought. Some say national sovereignty can only be guaranteed by protectionism and the nurturing of domestic industries, while others continue to point to the unprecedented prosperity and freedom from want and disease that global free trade had brought over the last 60 or 70 years. 

Conservatives cannot have this kind of careful, intricate, profound debate while populists shout for their latest enthusiasms, like Mr Toad with his caravan or motorcars, and tell anyone who disagrees that they are ‘socialists’ or on the wrong side of the political fence. If Reform UK continues on this trajectory, it will provide a ladder for the left to storm the Conservatives’ ramparts, warm its hands on the ensuing blaze and then salt the earth when the fire has gone out. That must not happen.

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Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.