25 November 2019

The Conservative manifesto is much more radical than you might think

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There’s not much bold about the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto, we keep being told.  It is, suggest the pundits, anodyne and unambitious.

Really?

The opening paragraph alone promises to take Britain out of the European Union within the next ten weeks.  Having spent much of my adult life campaigning for precisely that, I found myself doing a double take, re-reading the sentence several times to appreciate how radical a step that actually is.

Five years ago, the idea that there should be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU was regarded as undesirable by the upper echelons of the Conservative party.  Most members of the current Cabinet opposed a referendum.

Three years ago, a large majority of the Conservative Parliamentary party believed supporting Leave was career-limiting.  Today, the party is standing for election on a manifesto entitled ‘Get Brexit Done’.

If the manifesto seems a little vanilla, its only because its authors wish to avoid offering any hostages to fortune – which is understandable, given what happened in 2017, when a Conservative party went to the country with a large lead in the polls, but squandered their lead with a series of ill-judged policy proposals.

Looking at what policy pledges that there are – more GP surgery appointments, more stop-and-search policing and tougher sentencing, an Australian-style immigration system, a tax cap – it seems as though Tory HQ has focus-group tested what is on offer.  Unlike last time, this is not a manifesto that has been drafted by a group of too-clever-by-half insiders.  These are the kind of policy offers that resonate with the sort of swing voters the Tories need on board to win.

Tempting though it might be to contrast the Conservative manifesto with what Labour published a few days before, it would be pointless.

Why?  Labour’s manifesto is not so much a coherent programme for government, but more of a far-left fantasy wish-list.  It’s not so much radical, as kooky – full of plans to try to organise the British economy and society by top-down design.

To give just one example, according to Ed Conway of Sky News, for every additional £1 of extra day-to-day spending that the Conservatives are proposing, Labour is seeking to spend an extra £28.

Fundamentally, there are only two stances that a party can adopt as it goes into any election;  either it can stand for the way things are, or champion change.

In 2017, Theresa May found herself fighting in favour of the status quo when, irrespective of what was in her manifesto, she went around the country offering “strong and stable” leadership.

Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, as in 2017, is fighting this election in favour of change.  But so too, this time, is Boris Johnson.

Understated this manifesto might be, but tucked away within it are hints of wider radicalism to come.

Tucked away on page 48, for example, is a pledge to ensure that judicial review is no longer “abused to conduct politics by another means”.  The implications of those few words are enormous.  Then there’s a promise to establish a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission to overhaul the way our governing institutions operate.  Everything from the House of Lords to the way the civil service works would be on the agenda.

Having witnessed the civil service dysfunction that is now endemic across much of Whitehall, this manifesto implies that there might at last be people in Downing Street prepared to try to do something about it.

If there is one quibble I have with this otherwise excellent manifesto it is with the claim on page 13 that ‘Talent is evenly spread in this country, but opportunity is not’.

Why does this single sentence matter?

It has become an article of faith across among the ruling elites across much of the Western world that whenever there is any kind of inequality of outcome, it must be due to some sort of unfair restriction on opportunity.

The implication of this is that whenever there’s any unequal outcome, a little bit more state intervention and regulation is needed to put it right.  But what if different outcomes aren’t due to inequality of opportunity after all?

Published a few years ago, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart identified the emergence of what he called “Super Zip codes’ in America.  These uber-affluent neighbourhoods, clustered around large cities on the east and west coast of America, are full of extremely educated high achievers.  Talent, Murray shows, is far from evenly distributed.  Indeed, it’s becoming more concentrated, with all kind of undesirable implications.

Perhaps something similar has happened in Britain?  A wealthy class of the highly educated and influential has emerged in and around London and pockets of the Home Counties of England.  Working in tech and financial services, this new elite is out of touch with much of the rest of the country.

While the older establishment of yesteryear assiduously cultivated the support of the working class, this new elite is oblivious of their existence.  They are also shocked to discover that ordinary, suburban Britain does not share their Remain-supporting and politically correct outlook and assumptions.

The long-term challenge for the Conservatives beyond Brexit is to ensure that the British state is run in the interests of the whole nation, not just the kind of people that become special advisers and write party manifestos.

In office, if not in this manifesto, they need to have an idea of how they might do that.

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Douglas Carswell was an MP and co-founded Vote Leave. He runs the Centre for Economic Education