It is worth remembering at this juncture that conservatives usually hold a pragmatic world view. Traditional conservatism is non-ideological. It does not present a solution to a problem and hold on to that solution beyond the point at which that solution is discredited. Conservatives are not (or, rather, should not be) locked into any one way of thinking. It’s this freedom from doctrine that made conservatism such a powerful force in Western culture. The old (and too often derided) One Nation Tories, especially, were intellectually nimble. Their agility made them perfectly suited to dancing around in the middle ground of politics, adapting to changing situations whether economic, social, or geopolitical. For a time, Thatcherism changed all of that and prioritised the free market over nearly any other concern. It is perhaps why the Tory party of today finds itself so leaden when sprightliness is needed and why figures from this still nascent government are appearing on our screens repeating the ridiculous mantras of last week.
It is also why, this week, it was refreshing to see at least one Tory politician finally admit to their new reality. Michael Gove has admitted that “Austerity” (we’ll come back to the inverted commas in a moment) might have to be relaxed. Brexit too, he admits, needs to reflect the opinions of the very many people who voted to remain in order to achieve “the maximum possible consensus”. Pragmatism at long last and in such stark contrast to the ridiculous message coming out of Downing Street for the past six months which had the nation joining hands, singing with one voice, as we were all meant to dance towards the new Eden that would be a hard and uncompromising Brexit.
Just as one swallow does not make a spring, Gove’s words do not necessarily mean that the Conservative Party will find the kind of pragmatic leadership that it has sorely lacked for some time. Labour does, however, have reason to worry. The Tory ship might be changing course and we shouldn’t be surprised to find it anchored in six months time closer to the centre ground of British politics.
“Austerity” was never, of course, the solution to the nation’s woes. It offered a solution but was always a political construct like so many of the constructs of the past. Modern conservatives tend to be fiscally conservative so austerity was always going to appeal to them on a deep and almost spiritual level. Yet the problem with this is the same problem as they faced with the free market. They embraced both a little too keenly and for a little too long.
Margaret Thatcher used the intellectual force of free-market conservatism and energised a nation grown stagnant under the cumbersome burden of the state. Yet the danger with anything counter and disruptive is that it is likely to become the new orthodoxy; just as unthinking and unyielding as that which it replaced.
Younger conservatives, especially, are prone to get a bit Cujo-eyed when talking about the free market. Such enthusiasm is understandable. The free market is still part of a very powerful argument that has its roots in Darwinism. Yet, unlike true Darwinism, which exists in a context where the scientific method teaches us to abandon any model that no longer proves useful, the free market is sometimes treated as though it is as fixed and ideological as any of the fantasies enjoyed by those on the Left. The free market, as well as ‘Austerity’ and now Brexit, are in danger of becoming for those on the Right what Marxism was for a generation of left-leaning activists. The danger for the Conservative Party was always in preaching its church doctrine beyond the point at which the congregation was listening.
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Theresa May now faces the challenge of reinventing the Conservative Party but she might not have the time, inclination, or even intellectual strength to do so. It’s not yet clear if any inside the Conservatives have what it would take but Michael Gove’s words this morning at least indicate that, if she fails, there are others who recognise the challenge and might be willing to take it up. It is, after all, a challenge that the Tories are well placed to win.
Polls (and, today, that really means only the Survation poll) give Labour a six point lead on the Tories. From where I sit, here in the urban and working class north, that feels about right but it would be foolish for those on the Left to think their battle is won or that something fundamental has changed in British politics. Hubris is a real danger for Labour at this moment. They should not convince themselves that their current success means that they don’t still have real problems within the party.
Jeremy Corbyn’s success was not necessarily a success for the politics of Old Labour but, rather, about the tone struck by a single man. I have argued from the beginning that Corbyn brought admirable qualities to the position of Labour leader that pundits on the right have been foolish to ignore. His belief in a more adult debate drew a chorus of laughter from Tory benches but they are least well placed to judge the mood of the nation.
They attacked him for his links to the IRA but, in the memorable words of the mother caught responding to a Conservative campaigner on her doorstep, most people “don’t give a shit about the IRA”. Nor, incidentally, would I imagine that they care much about Marx, Mao, or any of Labour’s other weaknesses up to and including Diane Abbott (though, of the three, Abbott is probably their biggest weakness when it comes to shaping the public’s attitude).
The British public are pragmatic in that they usually want a government that broadly shares their values and it is the party that best tracks those values that will usually do well in an election (see, for instance, the rise and decline of UKIP). Sometimes that means addressing issues that might not be as sexy as the big issues of defence spending but which do affect people’s lives. Forget Trident. This means a government that cares about potholes, hospital parking, or, even, the price of buses given than most of us are priced out of using public transport when the price of a single stop is often the same as travelling across a county.
These are issues that are too often overlooked by the doctrinaire but which Corbyn cleverly made the stuff of the last election. This is where Corbyn is proving strong. They’re issues that the Conservative Party need to start thinking about and taking seriously. It’s a long time since the Tories have offered policies that are couched in details of everyday life, with David Cameron’s promise about rail fare increases, desperate as it was during the 2015 election, at least pragmatic.
Ironically of all: it is the advocates of the free market that have perhaps forgotten their own golden rule: give the people what they want. For Theresa May and those that follow her, that has to begin with substance instead of sound bites. Deal with the world as it is and not with how it exists in their minds.