A poll this week from centre-right think tank Onward provoked some striking headlines – and a torrent of online debate.
The bone of contention was the poll’s conclusion that the electorate have rejected the post-war liberal consensus in favour of a politics based on belonging and security.
While the methodology and conclusions of the project have been scrutinised – and criticised – in some detail, the biggest problem here is the idea that liberalism and security are mutually exclusive, or even antithetical.
Take policing, for example. One does not lose liberty by the government employing more police officers. The same is true of the security services, whose often unheralded work underpins our freedom to go about our daily business without fear of attack.
Equally, how are we to construe ‘economic security’? A reasonable definition might be a decent regular wage combined with a good standard of living. And no system produces those outcomes – that security – better than liberal free market capitalism.
If you look at the Heritage Foundation’s list of the world’s freest economies, all enjoy high living standards, high average wages and low unemployment. That the UK comes in 7th on that list should be a source of pride and confidence, even with the current uncertainty over Brexit.
What the top countries also share, with the exception of the oil- rich United Arab Emirates, is an economic system based on the rule of law – a key component of prosperity and one which may yet hinder the world’s rising power, China, from escaping the so-called Middle Income Trap.
Indeed, measures that are often touted as delivering “security” or “protection” often have the opposite effect for most citizens. President Trump’s tariffs are a perfect example – they may provide a sugar rush for certain pet industries, but their overall effect has been to make goods more expensive for Americans, adding to their economic insecurity.
That is not to say there are not trade-offs – there always are in policymaking. Take the gig economy: for some, a job as a delivery rider offers only piece work at low rates;, for others, it’s the perfect “side hustle” that enables them to pursue vital entrepreneurial projects. (And it’s worth noting that Government research shows that most of those in the gig economy are perfectly happy to be there.)
Yet the questions posed by this week’s poll are still profound for the Conservatives. When it comes to economic policy, for example, will the party head down the road of “Erdington Toryism”, with an enhanced role for the state, or rediscover its pro-market zeal after three years of a PM who at times sounded suspicious of, if not outwardly hostile to, the idea of economic liberty?
Then again, perhaps this too is a false dichotomy. As Tory ministers are fond of pointing out, it’s only through a robust economy that the Government has the money to pay for the kind of public services people want.
Similarly, Boris Johnson’s team appears to have no problem combining measures that offer security – recruiting 20,000 extra police officers, say – with those that maintain Britain’s open economy, exemplified by yesterday’s welcome announcement of a fast-track visa for scientists.
And of course recruiting more police also enhances people’s freedom to go about their lives in peace (assuming the officers focus on catching criminals rather than investigating palpably fraudulent sex crime allegations against elderly and deceased politicians).
There is also a point here about how policy is, or should be, made. Should politicians change their positions based on the latest polling, or stick to their principles? Move to the centre ground, or try to move the centre ground to them?
Too often, the answer within Westminster has been to be to advocate provably bad policies – rent controls, for instance, or energy price caps – simply because of a temporary clamour.
This is not to suggest that politicians should simply ignoring voters’ concerns. Rather it is a reminder to our leaders that the most successful politicians in the long term are those who master the old-fashioned business of making arguments – who stand out for being signposts, not weathervanes.
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