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  1. The Staggers
4 April 2023

Happy, liberal conservatism is becoming impossible

With less public money to go around, no-one can avoid judgements about who deserves what.

By Henry Hill

As we were recording this week’s New Statesman podcast about the apparent rise of social conservatives in the Tory Party, I was reminded of a joke where a conservative complains they’ve been censored for their views. Their (presumably liberal) interlocutor presses them. Was it wanting lower taxes? Deregulation? No, the conservative evasively replies, “you know the ones…”.

It’s a funny joke. But it’s also a revealing one, inasmuch as both of the examples of good, respectable right-wing opinion are libertarian more than they are obviously conservative in an intellectual (as opposed to big-C political) sense. Moreover, the punchline rests on the conservative’s tacit concession that their views – it is left to the reader to imagine what they are – are indeed beyond the pale.

Yet as Rachel Wearmouth reported in January, many self-styled Tory moderates are worried that a growing number of their colleagues no longer get that key element of the joke, and are increasingly willing to stray beyond respectable economic conservatism and have views on social issues too.

[See also: The strange death of the centre right]

One big problem for those who hanker for a high-status, fiscally-focused conservatism is: what do you do if such a programme isn’t popular – or even practicable? Already there is a gulf between Tory rhetoric on taxes and the size of the state, and the party’s actual policies. David Cameron and George Osborne made cuts, yes, but there was no underlying vision of a smaller state to make their austerity programme structurally coherent.

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Instead of taking politically difficult decisions to stop funding some things so as to protect budgets elsewhere, they instead had the government keep trying to do everything but do it worse. The result is what John Oxley has dubbed “s*** state” conservatism, a lose-lose combination of eye-watering taxes, poor public services and a negligent approach to infrastructure investment. 

This trap is only going to get more constrictive. Meeting the mounting expenses of an ageing population – pensions, social care, the NHS – will all be politically popular; addressing the structural keys to significant growth – housing, infrastructure, immigration – will remain unpopular.

In such an environment, low-tax conservatism becomes impossible to practise. You can’t sustainably cut revenues without cutting expenditure, and even Liz Truss, who fleetingly won the Tory leadership on a superficially buccaneering programme, didn’t rush to spell out where the cuts would fall.

When the pie isn’t growing, politics turns inwards and questions about who gets what little there is – and why they should get it – become much more salient. Contrary to the apparent assumptions of some liberals, such decisions will necessarily entail social judgements, and put a spotlight on those which underpin our current arrangements too. Redesigning childcare to support stay-at-home parents is no more ideological than maintaining a system that prioritises getting as many parents back into work as possible.

If liberal Conservatives want to avoid this, and create an easy, happy, live-and-let-live Britain, they need to get the pie growing again – while they still have the chance.

[See also: Liz Truss is the future of British Conservatism]

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