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Artillery Row

Why Britain needs Popular Conservatism

The Conservative Party has not fulfilled the promise of Brexit or overcome the legacy of Blair

Last week, I helped to launch a new initiative, Popular Conservatism. The mainstream media could barely conceal their glee.

We knew that the mere title of our group would raise eyebrows — especially with the Tories currently at such a low ebb in the polls. A good number of journalists who are unsympathetic to our core propositions (of which, more below) were either hopeful or confident of the whole enterprise being a damp squib. On the day of the launch itself, The Times delighted in dedicating their cartoon to an image of Liz Truss, bearing a PopCon banner, with a mere handful of others gathered in a broom cupboard.

Unbeknownst to the Times cartoonist, the real headache facing the PopCon team was not an absence of interest, but how to handle a flood of applications for tickets which could have filled the central Westminster venue three times over. Many hundreds of those intrigued by what the PopCon proposition was all about were going to have to watch over YouTube rather than in the flesh.

The heart of the Popular Conservative case is a simple analysis that has been beginning to gain ground in public debate but is not yet front and centre. The surge in interest round our launch suggests it might now be striking a chord — or at least touching a nerve.

In essence, our claim is that the institutional infrastructure of the United Kingdom now heavily mitigates against achieving a swathe of conservative ends.

Evidence A is the extraordinary, protracted battle to get Brexit over the line, showing just how powerful and determined this infrastructure can be.

Winning a vote in a free and fair election was a necessary prerequisite for securing our exit from the EU, but clearly far from a sufficient condition. A network of establishment groups and bodies worked in a surprisingly co-ordinated fashion to seek to overturn — or at least revisit — a democratic mandate.

Brexiteers made two strategic errors. First, they assumed that the referendum result would be enough to guarantee at least some sort of form of Brexit. Leave campaigners packed up and returned to their normal activities. The Remain campaign continued and came surprisingly close to prevailing.

Second, after the many years of post-referendum wrangling, most Leavers concluded that the efforts to stymie or cancel Brexit were a one-off spasm by the metropolitan liberal elite. In the minds of many, it was the monumental nature of such a constitutional decision that triggered this supposedly unique scale of resistance.

However, what we’ve seen since indicates that the backlash against Brexit was not a one-off. Shifting the UK even an inch in a conservative direction seems a Herculean task. You can put forward policy ideas, win party leadership elections or even general elections and make spectacularly little progress.

Evidence B is the short-lived Truss administration. Books and PhDs will no doubt be written — some already have been — on how Liz Truss managed to remain in office for just seven weeks. The conventional analysis is that she mismanaged her party, went too far and too fast with her agenda, which she didn’t succeed in lucidly communicating to her Parliamentary colleagues — let alone to the general public. Her “shock and awe” approach spooked the markets and her government swiftly unravelled.

No doubt some of the accusations levelled against Liz Truss have some sort of merit. But imagine a parallel universe in which she made not a single misstep and managed to blend together the charisma of Ronald Reagan with the wisdom of Soloman. Even then, how much of her agenda would she have successfully piloted into law? My guess is very little.

Evidence C is the activity of our current, troubled government. Let’s take Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt at their word and assume they genuinely wish to lower the tax burden. They seem boxed in — either by the apparent impossibility of meaningfully reducing public expenditure or by the Office for Budget Responsibility’s fluctuating — and typically wildly inaccurate — predictions of the fiscal headroom they have to play with. The strong impression given is that Richard Hughes, the head of the OBR, has considerably more sway over the tax and spend policies of the country than either the Chancellor or the Prime Minister.

The overarching lesson is that if you want to see a more conservative Britain … you will have to reset our constitutional and institutional framework

The problem goes even wider than this. The civil service is hardly geared to finding imaginative ways to deregulate our stagnating economy nor to fill ministers’ red boxes with a plethora of ideas about which inefficient government programmes should be axed. Or in the area of immigration, think of any sensible policy you might want and then ask yourself what prospects you have of it becoming reality given the constraints of our ECHR membership and the ponderous nature of our legal system. 

The overarching lesson is that if you want to see a more conservative Britain – featuring lower taxes, fiscal prudence, less burdensome regulation, individual liberty and secure borders — you will have to reset our constitutional and institutional framework. We need a great restoration of the constitutional procedures and protocols that pre-date the Blair era.

This might sound like a technical exercise. The rules of engagement of any given political process are assumed to leave the electorate cold — apparently, they focus more on the bread and butter issues of policy delivery. 

However, I remain rather more optimistic. So great is the disillusionment with modern politics that an agenda for major reform might just channel the disgruntlement and upset of the wider electorate into a positive agenda.

In any event, it is now a necessity for achieving conservative ends. If a near decade and a half of Tory government does come to an end later this year, it is worth noting that — on almost any metric — the Conservatives will have left the country in a less conservative state than they found it in.

The newly-founded PopCon movement thinks it has worked out why that would be the case.

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