Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Who’s afraid of populism

The Tories cannot escape their base

Artillery Row

The coming showdown between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will be exhilarating to a certain type of boffin. Battle can now commence within the halls of Britain’s illustrious liberal thinktanks over which of the two hopefuls, sporting their divergent economic plans, is the closer reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher.

Professor Patrick Minford, a former advisor to the country’s first woman Prime Minister, claims that Truss would represent a more authentic return to the 1980s. Sunak, meanwhile, views his rival’s deficit-financed tax cuts — calculated by Truss to turbocharge growth — as anathema to the Thatcherite principle of sound money. 

He has attacked her “something for nothing economics” as the stuff of a socialist dream-land. Again, the policy-wonks of this world will be thrilled to see tax-and-spend issues emerging as the battlelines in the Tory leadership contest. Their elation is not completely unreasonable. At a time of economic difficulty, it is a reasonable trial through which to put both candidates, even if it means appointing Thatcher’s knackered ghost as judge, jury and executioner.

The problem is that most people in this country, seldom moving in technocratic circles, care about more than the arcana of the next budget. It was not by pandering to the Institute of Economic Affairs that Boris Johnson decimated the Red Wall and won an overwhelming majority in 2019. Truss and Sunak give every indication of having forgotten this significant fact. 

Will they be honest arguments or empty words?

Neither candidate has yet said anything of any import about the hot-button issues which galvanised the unlikely coalition that Johnson managed to build. Where is the stuff on immigration, on crime and disorder, on rooting out the woke obsession with national self-loathing from the public sector, on buying British, on reviving and supporting our broken manufacturing industries, on challenging the left-liberal orthodoxies which so hamper free thought at our schools and universities, on reforming the civil service, on building new neighbourhoods with beauty in mind, on being confident enough to leave the ECHR — a notoriously misunderstood issue — if need be? “Populism” is the dismissive name typically given to this electoral formula, but the wailing of Alastair Campbell and the gnashing of Guardian teeth have made no dent in its appeal. Why are both Tory hopefuls so reluctant to drink from the populist reservoir? 

The fact is that the Conservative Party has an ambivalent emotional relationship to its own grassroots base, as well as its newly acquired Red Wall supporters. The likes of Truss and Sunak live in terror of being condemned by their metropolitan peers as “populist” rabble-rousers. They are too in love with the image of themselves as a set of reliable, cultivated gentlemen (and ladies, of course) with firm hands on the wheel of government. 

Yet in times of uncertainty, that manufactured appearance becomes far harder to sustain. When popularity is in short supply, then the Conservative Party does away with the disdain it obviously feels for its own voters. Instead it tries to pander, often unpleasantly, to the (mis)perceived vulgarity of the people who keep it in office.

Perhaps now that the grassroots are having their say we will begin to see less technocratic jostling and more primal, populist rhetoric. Expect tonnes of red meat to be chucked in the direction of members: immigration targets, housing plans and fighting talk about finishing Brexit or waging a war on woke. Apart from anything else, hitting these popular talking points will serve as a handy respite from the debate around inflation — particularly for Sunak who, as Chancellor for two years, has his fingerprints all over the problem. But will they be honest arguments or empty words?

The fact that such issues were not central from the beginning, when the various candidates were seeking the approval of fellow MPs, is itself proof of the monumental insincerity that characterises the Conservative machine.

So, what should be the Tory direction? Some have called for a Harold Macmillan-style revamping of the state to navigate us through the growing crises: high inflation, regional inequality, declining rates of home ownership, rampant crime, etc. Others are hoping for a restoration of the neo-liberal heyday of Thatcher and Reagan. The debate is one between greater control and greater freedom. 

Police will sooner quiz a TERF than catch a thief

Less kindly put, those of us who see the Conservative Party as the only political organisation worth influencing are engaged in a fight between dogmatic appeals to Friedrich Hayek and the more paternalist, postliberal hunger to see government satisfy a populist wish-list.

What we could do with, is a happy mixture of the two: the right kind of control combined with the right kind of freedom. In fact, freedom can only flourish within a pre-existing orderly structure — one that is supported by law, customs and even our personal powers of self-restraint, the alternatives being anarchy, relativism and ennui.

The Tories are skilled marketers of the “freedom” side in that equation. Thus, we find Truss promising to “liberalise” planning laws and Sunak urging the need for more post-Brexit “deregulation”. But the main populist element in the Conservative government’s mandate cannot be ignored: “take back control”. That means securing the nation’s porous borders, having a zero-tolerance policy for any indulgent woke guff which distracts vital public services from fulfilling their true purpose, repatriating our laws and courts, presiding over infrastructure projects which serve the common good, and rediscovering that whackiest of reactionary notions: that the police exist to suppress crime. 

The police in modern Britain may be the best example of control and freedom being abused in equal measure. Soft on actual crime, they take a serious interest whenever a law-abiding person strays from the shackles of political correctness. They will sooner quiz a TERF than catch a thief. 

The only time that I have ever seen officers patrolling my local park, despite the unmissable stench of illegal drugs near the children’s playground, was during lockdown. My Dad, brothers and I were ordered to stop playing football on the open grass, a sizable distance from anyone else (until the police bothered us, of course). They told us to go home on pain of arrest. Meanwhile, when I used to work night-shifts at a petrol station, we were routinely robbed. One time, it happened with two officers situated no more than twenty yards away in the adjacent car park. They took longer putting away their meal deals than they did pursuing the woman in question (still jogging visibly down the road), came back to say they had failed to find her, made no queries and drove off aimlessly into the night. It was at this point that I noticed a garish LGBT flag emblazoned over every inch of this crime-fighting vehicle. 

What does our next nominally Conservative leader intend to do about this and other issues which so concern decent, law-abiding voters? An economic contest over tax cuts, though important in a cost-of-living crisis, is not sufficient. We need imaginative thinking on the cultural, moral and social values which determine the flourishing of communities and the strength of nations.

If pushing the need for such reforms runs the risk of having one being smeared as a mischievous demagogue, so be it. True, the stability of our political system is based on established conventions, but it also requires results. Without them, it will not be long before we start mourning the ostensible “populists” of today as alert firefighters to whom we should have listened.

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