Why coronavirus has deepened the crisis of the conservative mind

Nothing in Tory ideology has prepared this generation of politicians for the scale of state intervention required.

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I remember when Conservatism was about “what works”. Now it's about what doesn't work. All it took to achieve this was a bat virus, some overextended hedge funds and a prime minister distracted by a book deadline. 

In the fourth week of lockdown the government is not only failing in its basic duty to find and supply masks, gloves, gowns and ventilators to hospitals and care homes; it can no longer even tell a straight story about how we got here. 

First, the decision not to take part in an EU ventilator procurement scheme was "an oversight", then, by the admission of the most senior civil servant, it was "a political decision"; six hours later, on headed notepaper, it is reclassified as a mistake. What’s going on here is not simply incompetence: it’s the disintegration of an ideology, and the institutional framework it has engendered. The ideology is conservatism – or more specifically the anti-state conservatism rekindled by the Thatcherite right in the 1970s and rote-learned at Oxbridge by figures such as Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock.

At the core of the doctrine is the idea of the self-correcting market. The state’s job is to stand aside and allow the market to regulate society. Where it has to exist, and taxes have to be raised to pay for it, the state itself must be as marketised as possible. Hence, the Department of Health cannot be allowed to run the NHS: there has to be NHS England, Public Health England, plus numerous Clinical Commissioning Groups and Foundation Trusts, all committed to each other via contracts, service-level agreements, chief executives on six-figure salaries and EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation) accounting standards.

But when push comes to shove it doesn’t work: it is fragmentary, expensive and inefficient. Ministers suddenly discover they cannot order the NHS to do anything, and that ridiculous over-centralisation, slowness and buck-passing pervades the entire managerial culture.

And because all they learned at Oxbridge was Hayek and Friedman, the solution was supposed to be yet another company: Supply Chain Coordination Limited, set up in 2018 and wholly owned by the health secretary. Its purpose is to save £2.4bn a year by “providing strong commercial capability, a relentless approach to create value, gain competitive advantage and become the strategic procurement partner of choice for the NHS”.

And yet we have no masks, gowns or visors. The coercive introduction of market norms of behaviour into the basic task of providing free, universal, standardised healthcare was always a bad idea, but combined with austerity – the second core tenet of modern conservatism – it is creating a disaster.

In pursuit of eradicating the deficit and shrinking the national debt, the Cameron/Osborne government destroyed the resilience of our public services. The coalition government slashed nearly 13,000 general and acute beds out of the NHS in its first year in office, and over the next decade the Tories eradicated 20,000 beds in total. The May government slashed nurse training bursaries, leaving the NHS in England 40,000 people short. Adult social care, its budget cut by £7.7bn over the past decade, was in crisis even before the virus struck: with an annual staff turnover of 30 per cent due to abysmal pay, and care home businesses going bankrupt. The system, said its directors last year, was “not only failing financially, it is failing people”.

And when the crisis came, it was time for the government to display a third, fatal reflex of modern conservatism: inaction. To understand how deeply conditioned modern conservatives are to do nothing in a crisis, you have to read their prophet, the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott. For Oakeshott, the state was not like a ship bound for a destination, its crew focused on a clear purpose. For conservatives, he wrote in 1962, the ship of state has “neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel... and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion”.

Or, as one former ministerial adviser put it to me: the point of conservatism is for the government to do as little as possible. As for the “traditional manner of behaviour”, what better example could there be than the Prime Minister going to a hospital treating patients with coronavirus, shaking everyone by the hand and boasting about it on TV.

It was the do-nothing spirit, not some secret belief in eugenics, that lay behind Johnson’s “take it on the chin” musings, the initial attractiveness of the “herd immunity” strategy to Downing Street, the decision to allow events such as Cheltenham to go ahead, and the absurd idea of holding a competition to redesign ventilatory technology from scratch.

The Tories went into this crisis nurturing the belief that the state should have no motivating purpose, that complex market relationships make public services more efficient, and that public spending is a bad idea. At time of writing, the result is that England and Wales's weekly death toll is 75 per cent higher than normal.

The thought-architecture of conservatism has been so clearly broken by the pandemic that the buzzword in elite circles is now “post-ideology”. We're spending an extra £350bn, cancelling the entire deficit reduction efforts of the past ten years because we have to. We're paying 80 per cent of people's wages because the alternative is the collapse capitalism. We’re imposing draconian restrictions on individual liberty because the scientists say we have to – though it riles every Burkean bone in our bodies.

But conservative ideology is not dead: it’s just in exile. Head over to Toby Young's Lockdown Sceptics website and you’ll see what the conservative mind really thinks about this crisis. “Spending £350 billion to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people,” Young tells us, “is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money”.

Professional reactionary Lionel Shriver condemns the British public for our “supine capitulation to a de facto police state in a country long regarded as a cradle of liberty”. And though there has not yet been US-style organised defiance of the lockdown, organised by the far right, Nigel Farage has begun to lay the political basis for it, saying “I do not want to live under a house detention regime or for this country to be remoulded into a police state”.

Within the cabinet there are already reportedly calls for renewed austerity once the presumed “V-shaped recovery” happens. But the global scale and prolonged nature of this crisis means a return to normality is impossible. 

The government will emerge from this with the national debt well above 100 per cent of GDP. Many businesses will go under, or have to remain on life support for years. Global capitalism – already on the life support of a 322 per cent of GDP debt pile and $20trn of central bank largesse – will have to be sustained by more debt, more state ownership, higher welfare payments and permanent central bank intervention.

There is, of course, a form of conservatism that would be congruent with this new reality, but you’d have to go back beyond Margaret Thatcher, Oakeshott and Enoch Powell to find it. “I shall advocate..." wrote Harold Macmillan in The Middle Way in 1938, “a wide extension of social enterprise and control in the sphere of minimum human needs. The satisfaction of those needs is a duty which society owes its citizens. In carrying out that responsibility it should adopt the most economical methods of large-scale co-operative enterprise."

A modern Macmillan might link a return to paternalistic corporatism to the Brexit project, arguing that – because we have chosen to walk off a cliff at a particularly stupid time – we have to adopt state ownership, intervention, welfarism and planning to get us through. That's maybe what the FT’s Robert Shrimsley had in mind when he described Boris Johnson as a Gaullist.

But here’s the problem. Conservatism gained its modern character through first creating by force, and then having to maintain by force, the neoliberal system. It's twin leitmotifs are celebration of the rich and justification of inequality, not celebration of the immigrant social care worker and state seizure of the private healthcare system.

No, I don’t expect a chastened cabinet to emerge from this as converts to Macmillan-era concepts of social justice and economic planning. I expect them to fight the culture war. As the civil servants spill the beans about how badly the Tories have screwed this up, they will come out fighting. As Shrimsley points out, they are already attacking diversity targets, decarbonisation policies and other “onerous” regulations. If the Brexit transition period is extended (as looks likely), the target will once again become Europe and the pro-European, cosmopolitan urban classes. 

As we face the biggest economic slump since 1921, combined with the urgent need to decarbonise the world, there is only one solution – and nothing in Tory ideology has prepared this generation of politicians for it. It is massive borrowing, massive spending, state control of the medical-supply sector, the monetisation of debt by central banks, and the creation of a comprehensive, universal welfare state, providing everything from health and social care to food and housing.

We know the Tory mind cannot process this. The pressing question is whether the newly assembled minds around Keir Starmer can.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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