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Don’t cry for Harold Macmillan

Retro Toryism can’t save the Conservatives

Artillery Row

The Conservatives have a difficult balancing act to perform during this leadership contest, and at present they are not doing it very well.

On the one hand, they need to find the leader that the public and the membership want: a competent and unifying figure whose government will focus on the cost-of-living crisis and the difficult, but eminently achievable, task of winning the next election.

Conservatives of the post-war era are unworthy gods

Yet they somehow need to do this whilst also having an overdue, big-picture debate about what the Conservative Party needs to become in order to thrive — and help the United Kingdom to thrive — in what is shaping up to be a miserable decade.

There is scant evidence that the candidates have grasped the scale of the challenge ahead of them. As Aris Roussinos argues in a coruscating essay, they’re cosplaying as Margaret Thatcher, or a half-remembered, half-imagined caricature thereof. At a time when the state is increasingly struggling to discharge basic functions such as catching and prosecuting criminals, to have the debate focused overwhelmingly on tax cuts is deranged.

But having cast down this idol, Roussinos plunders the tomb of Toryism and returns with the mouldering bones of Harold Macmillan. Here, apparently, is the new reliquary around which the Right should form up and march into the future: “paternal socialism”, a state-capacity Toryism focused on housebuilding and science.

It’s an enticing vision at first glance. I too am a fan of the way the future looked in classic Ladybird books, and have read in Where is my flying car? about how the Sixties was the last era when technological progress was on track. 

But for all their real achievements in certain fields the Conservatives of the post-war era are unworthy gods. The idea that in overthrowing their settlement Thatcher was tearing up the blueprint for a golden age is ridiculous. 

Macmillan was no less resigned to the malignant headwinds of his age than his successors are to those of our own times. The foundations of this country’s dysfunctional, ruinously expensive state were laid after 1945, and the Tories squandered their best chance to do anything about it. They built lots of homes, yes, but left intact the Town & Country Planning Act, the green belt and all the other structural factors which have strangled supply. 

Nor did they move against any of the other straightforwardly harmful excesses of state power that characterised their era, be it the annexation of the entire healthcare sector by the state or the deranged efforts to pick and choose where industry could build. And it was under the Conservatives that the railways, brought safely into the hands of a paternal state, were gutted by Dr Beeching.

The brute fact is that people voted for Thatcher precisely because they felt the way so many people do today: that they were getting poorer, and that the status quo wasn’t going to change that. Thatcherism had its faults, and was in any event a specific response to the challenges of a specific era, but it did change that trajectory for a time. 

Perhaps that is all any movement can really accomplish; to resist for a time the inertial tendency towards dysfunction. It doesn’t seem improbable that even if the Conservatives do find their next era-defining champion, their revolution will sow the seeds of the next generation’s problems.

In truth, any successful Tory answer to the dizzying challenges facing Britain today probably has to draw on both approaches, drawing on the full breadth of historic conservatism and applying the best of it to the future. We need a strong, strategic state — but it seems very likely that such a state would need to be smaller.

Powerful interests are arrayed against the change we need

Why? Because discharging state functions is expensive, and discharging them well is very expensive; because excessive taxes and regulation do choke the economy, and growth is the only way to sustainably finance any sort of positive vision.

That means that if you want to spend more money on policing, criminal justice, defence, scientific research, infrastructure and so on, hard decisions need to be made about where to cut elsewhere — especially since we have missed the era of ultra-low interest rates. And grands projets become much easier to finance if you cull the regulations which mean it costs almost ten times as much to build a kilometre of high-speed rail in Britain as in Europe.

Such an agenda need not be drawn entirely from the right of the Conservative Party, either. Philip Blond set out in Red Tory how a devolved social security system with reduced state control could deliver better outcomes at lower costs than the state-directed monolith conjured up when Clement Attlee and his ministers took their best shot at socialism.

Such a synthesis should not be beyond the wit of a politician interested in doing more than choosing a costume from the Tory hall of fame (whatever their preferred era).

But it would also be extremely hard, because for all that we rail against the politicians — myself as much as anyone — we do live in a democracy and there are very powerful interests arrayed against the change we need. Comfortable homeowners don’t want new development; status-conscious parents don’t want the degree treadmill dismantled; the many, many functionaries of our bloated regulatory state will vote against efficiency every time.

The Tories “don’t care about the future” because their voters don’t, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats trim their sails to the same wind.

Cutting this Gordian Knot would require strategic vision married to extraordinary ruthlessness. A Tory leader serious about change would divide to conquer, buying off the Home Counties NIMBYs by carpeting London with housing and repeating the trick wherever they could pull it off. 

Instead, we get the opposite: inflammatory language that unifies the opposition (“the Blob”) combined with little-to-no practical action on any front. The Conservatives look like a party that can sense the ground shifting but have no idea what to do about it; the sheer rate at which they’re getting through prime ministers gives the impression that the realignment is happening to them, rather than being driven by them.

Perhaps only a leader who came up in this new political world will be able to complete the job of adapting the Tories to it. We probably have some little time to wait.

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