Against the imaginary conservative friend

Left-wing and liberal journalists should stop appealing to “true” conservatism

Artillery Row

What would “any true conservative” think of the Government’s rumoured ambition to abolish Inheritance Tax? This was the question posed by John Burns-Murdoch, of the Financial Times, in a recent thread on X:

To put it another way, receiving a large, unearned and untaxed inheritance is welfare for the wealthy. As any true conservative would surely say, if the children of very wealthy people want more money, they should just work harder. Classic aspirational politics.

That actually reads more like a statement than a question — but we’ll take the “surely” as an invitation to clarify matters. Because there is no single “true” Conservative position on inheritance, or indeed on much of anything.

Like any large party, the Conservative Party is a broad church, one which in fact owes its historic success precisely to its ideological flexibility. It contains different factions and philosophies, the influence of which wax and wane. 

There are bare-minimum criteria for inclusion, of course, and some unifying interests and themes; enough to be able to tell when a person or policy definitely isn’t Conservative. Far fewer, though, for any claim that a person or policy is definitionally Conservative.

Not that this stops people trying, of course. “No True Scotsman” is an extremely popular fallacy. Tories often resort to the appeal to purity during their internal rows, which makes it all the easier for their opponents to wield it against them.

Humans are not perfectly rational beings, and control of labels carries some weight even if debates over the definition of words are logically pointless. Setting a narrative can pay dividends, even if it bears little resemblance to the facts of whatever you’re telling a story about. 

Thus, for example, the perennial narrative that today’s right-wingers are a dangerous departure from a vanished age of decency and common sense — a claim that is almost invariably hard to reconcile with what was written about yesterday’s right-wingers at the time. (For some reason, the sensible rightist is never the one currently in power.)

Such cherry-picking also takes place when the subject is principle or ideology. In the disparate philosophies that make up the political right there can usually be found one that aligns with progressives on a given issue, after all.

Take Burns-Murdoch’s example. Yes, it is superficially plausible that a conservative might take such a Darwinian attitude towards inheritance. 

But that would logically lead to them having some very stern positions on many forms of welfare. Yet whenever the prospect of welfare cuts raises its head, I suspect we’d find that the true conservative would suddenly be a One Nation type, conscious of his social obligations and the need for a strong safety net.

If scrapping Inheritance Tax were to be obviously “un-conservative”, there would need to be no plausible grounds upon which a conservative would support it, and that implicit claim doesn’t stand up to the least scrutiny.

For starters, “aspirational politics” need not be purely individual. A big part of it, for many conservatives, is the chance not just to better one’s own lot but that of one’s descendants too. Edmund Burke described society as a partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”; there is no obvious reason to abandon that logic at the personal level.

Nor is it remotely plausible to suggest that Burns-Murdoch’s repeated insistence that private wealth transfer is equivalent to welfare, an extraordinarily statist idea, is a core principle of a party which is broadly sympathetic to smaller government and the importance of the private sphere.

That doesn’t mean that every conservative supports abolishing Inheritance Tax, of course. It doesn’t even mean that no Conservative thinks in such statist terms. Indeed, I have written before about how the Government’s current crackdown on the economically inactive, which lumps people retired and living on their own means together with people on welfare, reflects precisely the state-first attitude Burns-Murdoch describes.

But that policy is the product of a government increasingly resented by conservatives for how little its programme represents any sort of conservative agenda. It emerged not from any philosophical tendency but a desperate attempt to wring blood for the Exchequer from the stone of a stagnant economy.

It is that desperate mission, rather than any sacred principles of true conservatism, which mean the Government is unlikely to actually abolish Inheritance Tax, for all that it is one of this country’s least popular taxes – even when you explain how few people pay it. With precious little scope to reduce taxes, ministers will want to focus any cuts on areas that will benefit the most voters.

In happier economic circumstances, however, a future right-wing government may well take the opportunity to scrap the death tax. There’d be nothing un-conservative about doing so.

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