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Artillery Row

The strange death of Tory pragmatism

Why can’t the Conservatives get things done?

One line stood out as Rishi Sunak delivered the first Bible reading at the coronation on Saturday: “Being fruitful in all your good works”. This echoes the line the party has been pushing recently, that they get things done. As we look back at the last thirteen years of Conservative government, just how fruitful have they been in their works? 

There have been many achievements: deficit reduction put us on a sound footing ahead of the major pandemic expenditures; academy schools were a significant shift in the basic model of education; gay marriage was a major social reform; getting Brexit done, with a deal on Northern Ireland, was thought impossible; the pandemic response was imperfect but included fast action on vaccines. Some justification, perhaps, for the idea that this is the party that gets things done. 

Look at the most recent claims, though, and a different picture emerges. One claim is the recruitment of an additional twenty-thousand police officers. There have been fluctuations in the number of police officers in the UK since 2010 — but there are now roughly as many as there were when David Cameron became prime minister. Another claim is boosting NHS funding. This is true. Healthcare spending has grown, especially in recent years, but we don’t seem to be improving the state of the system, far from it. 

Historically, a lack of ideology has been the heart of Tory pragmatism

The two leading ambitions — halving inflation and growing the economy — are a joke. Inflation is the responsibility of the Bank of England, and massive programmes of government spending won’t help bring it down. The average rate of economic growth halved after 2008, and the Conservatives have done little to reverse that trend. Liz Truss had an ambitious agenda of supply side reforms to boost growth, but the Tories don’t really want to make these changes. Again and again they have failed to make it easier to build more homes, the largest and most significant restriction on growth. Again and again they have chosen not to simplify the tax system and remove its disincentives. There has been progress on areas such as capital allowances, but the system remains baroque and the overall level of taxation is at a post-war high. 

Instead, we see their priorities in the new protest bill.

Britain today has violent criminals given measly sentences by the courts, thousands of single mothers and people on low incomes prosecuted over their television licences, children getting ill from the persistent mould growing in their small and poorly maintained flats, railway infrastructure that needs upgrading whilst HS2 is endlessly delayed, a Dickensian scandal in the Post Office, and stagnant productivity — but rather than overhaul the criminal justice system, reform the jails, decriminalise the television licence, tackle the massive NIMBY blob that is eroding basic living standards for a huge proportion of the population, or make reforms to improve productivity, the Tories have increased the prison sentences of people whose protests are too disruptive.

What stops the Conservatives from getting things done? You might think it is because they have the wrong ideas, or that they lack convictions. Historically, a lack of ideology has been the heart of Tory pragmatism, however. When A.J.P. Taylor reviewed conservative historian Keith Feiling’s History of England, he said it was like “history with the ideas taken out”, which gave him the realisation that the Tory party might seem dim-witted to ideological intellectuals, but people vote for them because they are effective. If you want to get something done, vote Tory. Margaret Thatcher might seem like the obvious exception, but the real secret of her success was not her dogmatic ideas but her indomitable drive.

Following this logic, we might wonder if the Tories’ current malaise is caused by too much ideology. This seems unlikely: with Cameron’s fiscally-restrained modernisation, May’s paternalism, Johnson’s red-wall libertinism, Truss’s free-market beliefs and Sunak’s traditional steady-ship, the Tories have cycled through a series of ideological beliefs — perhaps the broadest set of ideas in any period of Tory government. What the list of achievements shows is that the more recent accomplishments are responses to events, rather than planned reforms. 

Forsyth is in the position where he can whisper to power

The party is also suffering from audience capture. Tory politics are too closely bound up with the home-owning, pension-drawing, culture-war-grumbling part of the population that opposes many necessary reforms. Indeed, the two people responsible for the most important reforms since 2010 — Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove — have an ambivalent relationship with this sort of shire Toryism. Gove is a reform-minded liberal; Cummings would happily see the whole party destroyed. ARIA, the innovative new science research funding agency, was Cummings’ idea and will likely be the most important legacy of this period of government. 

The prime ministers, though, have lacked this ambivalent pragmatism. Cameron was inexperienced; whilst he modernised the party, he failed to revolutionise Whitehall: the new immigration rhetoric hardly suggests a Cameroon legacy. May had a restrictive Home Office view of the world that tangled up her entire period in office. Johnson was energetic but not effective. Liz Truss had significant cabinet experience, just not very successful experience. What seems to have mattered most is not the ideas these people held, but their inability to get them implemented. 

James Forsyth, Sunak’s new advisor, is said to be changing this. We’ll see. Certainly, Forsyth’s demeanour as a Victorian Punch cartoon disguises his ecumenical pragmatism. Forsyth is a pro-market, middle-England, historically-minded High Tory, who seems to want to bring various factions together into a coalition of the winning. Although his years of experience in Westminster mean Forsyth is supposed to know how power works, he doesn’t seem to be a new radical like Dominic Cummings. It is hard to imagine him pushing ARIA. He remains, like Sunak, an essentially establishment figure, susceptible to the vested interests of the Tory party and the instinct to regulate with measures like the Online Safety Bill. Forsyth is in the position where he can whisper to power, change the course of events, find ways of bringing people with them — let’s hope he chooses to use some of his influence to work on the problems the Tories have so far been unable to solve. The recent emphasis on small boats, police spending and protests are not a promising sign that Forsyth is anything more than a continuity Tory.

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