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Artillery Row

The daring buds of May

The promise of Conservative realignment should be renewed

In 2016 British politics became exciting. The referendum on EU membership not only brought the possibility of a genuine constitutional revolution over Britain’s sovereignty, it also heralded a clear catalyst moment in our national political direction, offering the Conservative Party the chance to become a new kind of party — with new electoral opportunities as well.

Given the tone and contents of the policy debate between Tory leadership candidates — insofar as there’s been one — there is now a real danger. Scrambling to please members, who will choose the new leader, the Conservative Party is in danger of abandoning this opportunity to embrace and define its turning-point.

This powder keg set Britain on the road to Brexit

Events are usually brought about by the convergence of ostensibly unrelated things, and to a degree this was true in the case of Brexit. An internal trench war within the Conservative Party dating back to the Maastricht Treaty clearly needed resolving. David Cameron’s pledge to hold a once-and-for-all in-out vote was clearly designed to provide closure and generate party unity on the question of Europe. At the same time, wider socio-economic storms beyond the conception of centrist liberals such as Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, had been brewing, and their clouds were ready to burst. The two decades of neoliberalism preceding the vote to Leave in 2016 had (in the minds of our political elite) generated unprecedented growth, making the rich richer but also driving up living standards for the working-class, too, through productivity, technology and global trade.

But there was a problem. 2008 heralded the effective end of per capita growth in Britain. Thatcher’s great social contract — that growing inequality could be justified so long as the poor were getting objectively better off — had suddenly ceased to deliver on its promise. The “consensus” model, of personal and economic freedom yielding up ever more material prosperity, was shattered.

The formula for this stagnation was long in the making. Branko Milanovic’s famous “Elephant Graph” showed that in the 20 years from 1988 to 2008, developing economies skyrocketed in their share of global growth, as did the Western super-rich. Meanwhile, the Western middle and lower class fared the worst of all global income deciles. Indeed, their position relative to the rest of the world has been in freefall since deindustrialisation.

Now add into the mix a period of unprecedented immigration, and you have a recipe for profound socio-cultural division and economic breakdown. People were not only failing to see any rise in living standards — their communities and neighbourhoods were being changed in front of their eyes. This was the result of policy choices to which UK voters had never consented.

This powder keg clearly set Britain on the road to Brexit, mirroring the rejection of globalisation and multiculturalism reflected in the US in the election of Donald Trump. The diet of social and economic liberalism, mass immigration, multiculturalism and globalisation fed to Western voters by technocratic elites was, it seemed, the only thing on the menu — so, voting with their feet, the people simply went elsewhere.

Grasping the failures — or, at the very least, the limitations — of markets, negative liberty and globalisation is absolutely essential for any Western conservative leader worth their salt. Identifying early the need to embrace a more communitarian re-alignment was Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s policy guru. Sadly, his vision of a more nation-centred, less individualistic conservatism with an industrial strategy to promote more equitable growth, was torpedoed in the debacle of the so-called “Dementia Tax”. 

The profound challenges of 2022 are not those of 1983

The tragedy of 2017 is that the bold, socially reformist policy platform advanced by Timothy and others came too early for the Tories. They simply weren’t ready for it, and this chance to pivot the party was sunk over a few paragraphs on elderly social care.

The new British political partisanship was identified by others, too, including David Goodhart — most notably in his coinage of the distinction between liberal, affluent, globalist “Anywheres” and patriotic, family-oriented “Somewheres. The latter experience change primarily as loss. Many of them have witnessed their old forms of employment evaporate in the global race.

Likewise, political scientist Matthew Goodwin has repeatedly explained the electoral opportunities of a party leaning left on economics and right on culture. Indeed, extensive polling demonstrates that in a modern political spectrum, the quadrant representing “socially liberal, economically libertarian” is devoid of voters, yet appears to be the quadrant into which politicians crush.

The Johnson landslide of 2019 was a rare “second go” at getting the realignment right, with Dominic Cummings — another of its comparatively early heralds — steering the ship. The 80-seat majority won on the back of Brexit, immigration reform and “levelling up” proved a vindication of the Goodhart-Goodwin analysis. 

It would be entirely wrong to view 2019 as a vote for socialism, but it’s clear that the new Conservative voters had more appetite for cultural conservatism and active government than any previous British political party had been willing to entertain.

Fast-forward to the leadership race of 2022. One would expect the debate to be about jobs, growth, culture, immigration and the social fabric, right? Bafflingly, the entire campaign has been dominated by an arms race on tax cuts and invoking the name of Margaret Thatcher. Fair enough, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are playing to a gallery of older party members. But there is a distinct sense that this generation of senior Conservatives are simply not ready to move on.

The profound challenges of 2022 are not those of 1983. We do not have a top rate of tax of 83 per cent, nor do we have swathes of inefficient nationalised industries. Those reforms have been done — and rightly so. Neither are they the challenges of 2010 — of the need to overcome a global banking crisis and tackle a horrendous spending deficit.

Boris Johnson’s victory, delivered via a coalition of loyal Tory voters and Brexit voters in economically left-behind heartlands, was an opportunity to forge a new direction for the Conservatives, more properly reflecting the priorities of British voters. Sadly, Boris Johnson was not the right person, in the end, to lead that realignment.

But the weather has changed. If there is to be any chance of a fifth term in 2024, the new Prime Minister will need to grasp the post-liberal pivot more fully and with more energy than Boris ever did. Right now, the party risks going into reverse.

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