In the aftermath of the mini-budget, cultural conservatives have taken to denouncing the radical pro-growth policies of the Government as ‘not conservative’.
One of the most eloquent cultural conservatives, Tim Stanley, declared a ‘coup by think tanks’ – one that flies in the face of his vision of ‘Tory socialism’, a Britain of ‘pretty town centres with bakers and butchers’, where the ‘spiritual is put before the economic’. This portrait is of a piece with an intellectual, aesthetic conservatism stretching back from Roger Scruton (conservatism as the politics of attachment), through to Orwell (English Socialism) and eventually even Tolkein (in the cleansing of Isengard). Who can claim not to be moved by the thought of vicars playing cricket on village greens with Classics teachers in tweed jackets and colourful trousers?
Of course, such romanticism cannot possibly exist with the soulless individualist / globalist / utilitarian / neoliberal (delete according to taste) stylings of Liz Truss and co. The merciless logic of the market, surely, will see every blade of succulent shire grass obliterated by solar farms and Barratt boxes.
On a more serious note, the debate over whether Truss and Kwarteng’s plans are ‘real conservativism’ is an intellectual dead end, and the frequent resurgence of this asinine debate makes me oddly envious of the American political system’s deracinated political parties. One never hears semantic debates about being a ‘proper’ Democrat. What draws most people to the political right, which the Conservative party represents in Britain, is genuine pragmatism. This often manifests itself as scepticism towards the utopian perspectives of the left, whether on immigration or economic inequality.
Conservatives should be similarly sceptical towards a vision of an economy which is premised on aesthetic sensibilities. There is a reason supermarkets have annihilated the village butcher – they are more efficient and provide lower costs for consumers. Trucks on roads are more effective at delivering goods than boats on canals, however pretty they might be.
What’s now known as ‘post-liberalism’ is presented by its proponents as a novel intellectual movement – but this reactionary vein of thinking has been the prevailing view of the British cultural and political establishment since the end of the Second World War. The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, the Green Belt, the National Trust, the listed building system, National Parks and Conservation areas – all have served to retard economic growth in service of ephemeral aesthetic preferences.
The point here is that trying to preserve the country in aspic has created inefficiencies that end up damaging ordinary people. The tariff to protect a British farmer, for instance, turns up in higher prices for shoppers. Moreover, 55.4% of our GDP relies on international trade, the quality of life that we have currently can only be damaged by making ourselves less internationally competitive. Economic reality, not wishful thinking, should be the first premise of any meaningful ideological conviction.
And while it is certainly legitimate to sound caution over the amount of borrowing the Government is indulging, pro-growth economics must be at the centre of Conservative politics. As Emmanuel Macron warned, ‘the end of abundance’ has now arrived. There was a brief period in the political cycle, during the late 2010s, where post-liberalism seemed affordable. Interest rates were low, government debt was cheap, and there was room for social conservatism combined with an ever-growing state.
This was the consensus that British politics reached in 2019, both parties making promises to radically increase funding for public services like the NHS and an election fought largely on cultural lines, encompassed by Brexit.
To paraphrase the Chancellor, we have now entered a new era of political discourse. Until energy markets return to a reasonable position – whether through a conclusion of the conflict of Ukraine or a substantial increase in our domestic energy supply – every action the Government takes must be judged by how much growth it produces.
It is a sincere hope of mine that, at some point in the future, cultural conservatism becomes a pertinent issue in British politics again. Like the first dew of spring, the next Peter Hitchens column calling for a return to the shilling will be a sign that our economic winter has ended. Until then, we are in the hands of the bean counters.
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