It is often said that conservatism is not a philosophy but a disposition. It reflects a desire for the proper ordering of things, for right conduct in the relations of people, interests, and nations. Style therefore matters. As William Waldegrave put it in these pages recently, Conservatives believe in “civility, decency, respect for tradition and for the middle way”.
Yet there is a complementary, more rumbustious part of the conservative disposition. Some of the great figures of the Conservative Party’s history – Peel, Disraeli, Churchill, Thatcher – were traditionalists only in the sense of restoring the country, often with some force, to a path it had left. In this they reflected a vital feature of English history. From the Levellers to the Jacobites, the Young Englanders to the Luddites, conservative radicals – often romantic, sometimes vulgar, occasionally downright vandalous – have always fought to wrest back power from usurping elites and restore the settled life of the national community.
In 2019 Boris Johnson triumphantly summoned this spirit, completing the long realignment in British politics which had delivered the Brexit vote in 2016. He brought together traditional voters from the English shires and suburbs with voters across the old industrial areas who felt the Labour Party no longer reflected their values: fraternal, industrious, patriotic and anti-establishment. This new cross-class electoral alliance demands a new conservative radicalism for the times we’re in.
The principal reason in many people’s minds to “get Brexit done” was to take back control of our borders. Establishment opinion – the axis of liberalism that runs from the City of London to the Labour front bench, through the universities, the civil service and the media – is that we need high levels of immigration to power our economy. Asylum seekers, moreover, are seen primarily as the victims of Western imperialism and should be welcomed in considerable or even unlimited numbers.
In 2019 Conservative voters thought differently. If the UK has much to be sorry for in its history, it has far more to be proud of. Though we are a compassionate country we cannot accommodate the tens of millions of people driven from their homes by war or hardship around the world: we don’t have enough houses or hospital beds even for those of us living here already. And the arrival of 46,000 illegal immigrants (overwhelmingly single young men) by boat from France in 2022, their housing in hotels at public expense and the almost inevitable decision that they can stay here for life, is a national disgrace.
The importance of this topic to many voters cannot be overstated. To put it as plainly as people outside the liberal bubble put it: the small boats scandal shows that the powers that be are not on the side of the British people, but instead serve the abstractions of “human rights”, “international law”, or other signals of middle-class virtue. Lawyers and activists get to buff their own halos while ordinary people pay the price, in longer queues for public services, lower wages and higher taxes.
Outrage at illegal immigration reflects public unease at the far larger numbers who come here legally. The recent Budget documents revealed that the Treasury was expecting net immigration of 245,000 arrivals a year. We import workers to do jobs that should be either automated or done by (suitably trained and incentivised) Brits. High immigration partly explains the great failure of British firms to invest in technology or in people. And so our own school leavers face a choice, partly determined by cognitive ability. The half who do well at school go to university, to rack up debt and learn about the iniquities of Britain past and present. The rest are invited to pursue some low-status college course, then join some low-productivity firm or public service. It is little wonder that so many drift instead into crime, welfare, or a sad mix of addiction, depression and ill health.
The misallocation of labour reflects the misallocation of capital. Just as this century we recklessly boosted the supply of workers through freedom of movement and non-EU migration, over the same period we recklessly boosted the supply of money through low interest rates and Quantitative Easing (QE). The money flowed into assets, mostly housing in the south-east. Wage growth stalled or even turned negative, while homeowners found themselves sitting on a growing mushroom of unearned wealth.
In the 2010s monetary policy effected a great transfer of prosperity from ordinary people to the propertied class, and put home ownership beyond the reach of young families. And housing, most of all, accounts for the chronic unaffordability of family life. In the 1960s people spent a third of their income on rent or mortgage payments (and a third on food, incidentally). They now spend more like half their income on housing (and a tenth on food). Meanwhile the aspiration of many people to marry, settle down and raise a family is made incomparably harder by a set of fiscal arrangements – taxation and the subsidies for childcare and social care, which systematically disregard family life. The British state punishes procreation and treats people as unrelated individuals whose principal need is to dump their dependents in the care of others.
A Marxist, no doubt, would attribute to these material considerations – cheap capital and cheap labour, leaving young people without property or purpose – the rise of the new revolutionary politics. And, indeed, the culture war is framed, by the graduate revolutionaries at least, in Marxist terms, with cultural forces taking the place of economic ones. Instead of capital versus labour we have “heteronormativity” and “white privilege” versus the sexual rainbow and the victims of racism.
But surely a different and a deeper conflict is going on. In the new religion not Karl Marx but Friedrich Nietzsche is the prophet. Everything is reduced to nothing, destroying the foundations of a civilisation that was built with care and sacrifice over centuries.
Nihilism has consumed left-liberalism from within, and now animates the corpse. Old socialist principles like the dignity of labour and the solidarity of the working class, and liberal principles like free speech, tolerance and the value of dissent, have given way to a new social justice orthodoxy which admits no dignity or solidarity and brooks no dissent. Yet because it occupies the life-like corpse of liberalism, the new orthodoxy attracts the usual bien-pensant progressives (including some calling themselves conservatives) who think they are still promoting a diverse and tolerant society.
The problem is compounded by the great new power in our lives, the combined machinery of the digital age. It is not just conspiracy theorists who worry about what technology could do on behalf of a government emboldened by a dominant morality, empowered by tech and authorised by the druids of science. We saw during the pandemic what the state, corporations and the media are capable of even with the Heath Robinson equipment they had at their disposal in 2020. China, which has a complete apparatus of tech-enabled state surveillance, including “social credits” that reward and punish the citizens for their compliance with the rules, gave us the defining moment of Covid-19: the drone flying between the tower blocks of locked-down Shanghai, intoning from its speaker the recorded message, “Suppress your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open your window to sing.” Welcome to the future.
Here, then, are our discontents. A British state apparently unable to control its own borders. An economy reliant on imports of workers and goods, on cheap credit and money-printing. Couples unable to afford children, families unable to afford a home. Liberty at bay, threatened by technology and by a dire censoriousness in the culture. And meanwhile we have the widespread impression that nothing works; that government is both too big – with the highest taxes and public spending since the Second World War – and too small, with chronic delays and shortages at the front line of most public services.
These are modern problems. But the spirit of the solution lies in the Tory radicalism which marks our greatest leaders – including perhaps the greatest of all. In the early 1780s the country was engulfed by multiple crises. The American colonies were lost, trade was in decline, and France looked set to dominate the New World and the Old. After a decade in power an exhausted, dysfunctional Tory government had lost the support of the public. There was much ruin in the nation.
Enter a young MP, slight but brilliant, especially on finance. William Pitt the Younger became prime minister in 1783 aged 24. His appointment by the king was seen as the last throw of a dying regime. Yet against steep odds, Pitt won the 1784 election by showing the right mix of patriotism and competence. He then set out on a 20-year programme of political and economic modernisation. Pitt was respectful of Church and Crown, and suitably bellicose against the French. But, at the same time, he professionalised the British state, reformed the public finances, and helped his friend William Wilberforce outlaw the slave trade. He ushered in the modern age, pacifying the danger of revolution while establishing the foundations of a party that his successor Robert Peel would call “Conservative”.
Could Rishi Sunak be our Pitt? He has the intelligence and the energy, as well as all the “civility and decency” that Waldegrave could wish for. He has a strong moral compass. And as a Brexiteer, he has the belief in Britain that 2019 Conservative voters, both in the shires and the Red Wall, expect from our party. If he acts as the champion of the realignment that those voters want, he, too, could govern for a generation.
What must Sunak do to become the new Pitt? How can he deliver for the realignment in politics? The answer can be found in the transformation underway in conservatism across the world, and in particular in the runaway success of Ron DeSantis in Florida and, perhaps more controversially, Giorgia Meloni in Italy. These are very un-British characters and they give centrists the heebie-jeebies, but their success is worth studying closely.
The politics we need has been described by the American academic Yoram Hazony as “national conservatism”, an ideology that he traces back to Alexander Hamilton and before that to the British model of parliamentary monarchy. It entails a commitment to the nation state; strong national institutions, with a defined role for the executive; and more generally a confident belief in the traditional social forms that sustain the national community. Next month Hazony brings his National Conservatism conference to London.
What, then, might a revived, British national conservatism offer? It would, consistent with the idea itself, be particular to this country. We must not copy DeSantis or Meloni, let alone the less savoury European nationalists who echo some of the same themes. British national conservatism ought to reflect the liberal, plural, democratic tradition of the Conservative Party at its best. Yet within that tradition is a big political opportunity, to reassemble the coalition of voters who swept us to power in 2019.
The heart and start of the offer to these voters is to take back control of our streets and our borders. That means tough action against crime and low-level yobbery, and continued investment in our armed forces to reverse the cuts of recent decades. And it means fixing our broken asylum system.
The new Illegal Immigration Bill, denying asylum to people who arrive here illegally, is an essential first step. We must go further.
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was used to halt the Rwanda deportation policy, was drafted in the 1940s to help countries on the continent emerging from totalitarianism. It is a fine document, redolent of the English common law principles which inspired it. The problem is the way that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and our own judges, since the ECHR was incorporated into UK law by the 1998 Human Rights Act, have extended its meaning beyond all recognition. The ECHR can now be invoked by courts to regulate almost any aspect of life, including control of our borders.
Scrapping the Human Rights Act and reviewing our membership of the ECHR is an opportunity to revisit the wider framework of rights that the Conservatives inherited from the Blair-Brown New Labour government and, after 13 years in power, have done nothing to amend. The 2004 Gender Recognition Act lies at the root of our problems with sex-based rights. The 2010 Equality Act, with its recognition of “protected characteristics” and especially the “Public Sector Equality Duty”, has emboldened the partisans of the culture war. Its distant ancestor, the Race Relations Act of 1976, set a mission to “promote… good relations, between persons of different racial groups”. That laudable aim is not realised by the Equality Act, which has fostered division and antagonism.
“Good relations between persons” is what we want, and the foundation of a relational society is in families. Rather than pretending that family life is no business of government, we need to use policy to help people do what most people want to do: to marry, own a house, look after their children at or close to home when they are young, and care for their own parents as they age. That requires a decent family wage – the ability to support a family on one full-time or two part-time salaries. It requires a tax system which, like that of almost all other developed countries, recognises one’s family obligations, not just one’s individual income: we need to incentivise and support couples to have children and look after their adult dependants. We also reform of childcare and social care, to empower families with greater choice about how the money that is available to them is used. None of this militates against working parents; indeed the objective must explicitly be to support the choices that parents, particularly mothers, make about the best way to pursue a career and raise a family.
[See also: What does Europe’s right want?]
The social and cultural battle demanded by the realignment of 2019 must be fought simultaneously with the economic one. A great shift is underway, from a globalised economy to one where the nation state matters once again. This entails stress for the UK, which has always been, and still must be, a free trading economy. But we can ride the new wave too.
The prosperity we need is one that reflects our strengths, not least in finance and its satellite sectors, the law, consulting, media, advertising and entertainment. In these fields the UK is an acknowledged global leader. But we also have comparative advantages in sectors that reflect the traditional industries of these islands: advanced manufacturing, sea power, agritech, and multiple other applications of our excellence in science. We need to reinforce these advantages by subsidising success in the domestic economy, even if this puts at risk the trade deals that, given current events, increasingly look like the last gasp of a global economy that died in 2020.
The UK should be self-reliant or nearly so in food, energy and other critical industries. We need greater “tech sovereignty”, not least to remove the Chinese state from our security apparatus. And we need a fierce determination to resist the cheap drug of immigration, which may boost headline growth but holds down wages and reduces GDP per head. Instead we need businesses to invest in their people, through better wages and more training, and in the technologies and other innovations that will improve Britain’s woeful productivity.
The proper objects for social and economic policy should be what the development economist Paul Collier calls the “equality of condition”: people in every part of the country having a decent shot at a good life. And core to a good life is a home. Here we need a great audacious policy that delivers the new houses we need, while respecting the desire of communities to resist ugly new developments. It must be rooted in the tradition of property rights but must also break the cartel of the property developers. That policy is a system of local Land Trusts, acquiring land on behalf of communities to develop, lease or sell homes to local people.
It is easily asked, “Why, after 13 years, should we trust the Conservatives to deal with the great challenges we face?”, and easily answered. In 2019 a new government was elected, with a new electoral base, a new crop of MPs, and a new mandate: to deliver authentic, anti-establishment, “national” conservatism. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Conservative Party’s long leadership wars have prevented this agenda getting beyond the first base, namely Brexit. With the leadership question settled, the 18 months until the general election offer a short window in which to deliver on the 2019 mandate.