Radical liberalism is Boris’s only hope

Conservatism learns from looking backwards and not always by learning from applied conservatism.  On how the present government will combat today’s unprecedented crises, there is both hope and cheer for British Conservatives. From the gloom, Edward Heath demonstrated how giving into ‘the consensus’ pleases no one and annoys everyone. Heath’s government abandoned a strict Selsdon programme of tax cuts and privatisation, arguably ‘Thatcherism’ before Thatcher, to return to government interventionism, re-hashed prices and incomes policy and inflation. Of course, Heath sympathisers point to the Troubles, the 1973 oil crisis and trade union agitation as a reason for his downfall. The lack of clarity and purpose, however, showed a government out of control and weak to a challenge.

From Margaret Thatcher there is optimism – and a rebuttal of Heath apologists. Regardless of the external factors, there was a single aim – the restoration of the British economy to sound money, privatisation and the restructuring of commerce and industry so that the economic crises of the past could never happen again. 

To the chagrin of many conservatives and Conservative politicians, this involved ignoring past principled totems, mostly involving foreign affairs. On Zimbabwe and Northern Ireland, Thatcher brushed aside worries from the Right and let compromise take its course. On the EC she won a crucial early battle, though some debate her actual involvement in the ‘handbagging’, but again she let events take their course until 1988, including passage of the Single European Act. Thatcherism, unlike any other Conservative government in the post-war period, was a project with an identifiable goal of its own choosing. It unravelled when those objectives had been met and external factors related to the continuation of the project, for example European integration, could be ignored no more.

Our present government began as revolutionary as that of the 1980s. It sought to change Britain’s role in the world. However, it is, arguably, a decision made under duress. Let us remember the Conservative Party was dragged kicking and screaming towards Brexit by electoral questions over its own existence. 

Yet the Boris Johnson government, with a majority nearly as large as Thatcher’s in 1987, shows no sign of having a project, or an ideological goal. EU withdrawal seems only an end in itself, rather than a means to something greater. 

To have a ‘project’, however, is contrary to conservative orthodoxy. To have a goal, an abstraction, is anathema to conservatives who follow tradition and pursue organic change, allowing society and institutions to adapt. Given these characteristics of conservatism, it is easy to ascribe those who wished to remain (and reform) the EU as the conservatives.

Governments, when they run out of reasons for their own existence, die a very slow and painful death. It is true of Thatcher and Blair. Johnson, however, with a working majority that could easily survive two parliaments, risks taking the country back to the consensus days of bigger government, regional planning and high public spending, for the lack of a grand project. The temptation to please all is irresistible for mainstream politicians, especially ones such as Boris.

Early signs of challenging the ‘institutions’ such as the BBC and the civil service, of which conservatives are notably deferential to and defensive of, showed promise, albeit diverging from conservative orthodoxy. Yet a blind reverence for institutions hides the behaviour of the institutions that act against a conservative, and Conservative, interest. There was hope when the government announced its challenge to the BBC, only for it to pass into the grey mire of ‘consultation’. Hopes dashed as the can is kicked down the road.

These proposals were more liberal than conservative, for their radicalism and implications on the size and role of the state. Common debate dictates the following fallacy: those on the ‘right’ are more critical of what is ‘liberal’ because it is not ‘conservative’. The opposite is true. The liberals have, from the right, critiqued conservatism from the Conservative position. Let’s look at this through David Cameron’s leadership.

David Cameron’s government was essentially conservative in its behaviour and policies, despite being in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It attempted a return to sound finance, despite lacking the liberal radicalism required to return to budgetary surplus or balance within its own stated timeframe. It kept to traditional conservative tenets of noblesse oblige and a concern for the environment, tempering the markets. The latter assertion and Cameron’s vote blue and go green agenda irked many Conservatives, but it is a constant in traditionalist conservatism to favour the rural, village way life over metropolitan, urban life. 

The preservation of the green landscape matters to conservatives, as it is the inheritance a generation receives to pass on. It is a part of the nation, the country, that one has a physical, objective attachment to. It creates a conservative love of country, in all its empirical senses.  For a conservative it is a material concept. Some Conservatives may see the ‘country’ in abstract political terms, but all conservatives will take an attitude to preserve the country in an environmentally sound way. 

A common criticism of Cameron was his foreign aid policies, but ring-fencing foreign aid was no less conservative. The obligations placed on those with privilege matter as much from the rich to poor in the borders of the Kingdom, as it can be applied to the wider world. David Cameron, rather, was not a liberal when it came to his conservatism, but rather, broadly, a traditional conservative. 

The liberal critique of Cameron opposed the extra taxes, the enlarged scope and size of government, adhering to principles that the state should be limited. Upholding abstractions like the market and putting faith into unseen invisible hand forces and theories are anathema to conservatives. For these views to be seen as coming from the ‘Right’ shows just how outdated the left-right spectrum is and how looking through that prism completely misjudges conservatism. 

And so, to Boris Johnson. We are left with assumptions that, the EU aside, there is to be more conservatism in the form of Macmillan and Cameron, than Thatcher. Redistribution through obligations from south to north was cemented in the pre-crisis budget. Enforced environmentalism showed itself with the commitment to carbon zero by 2050 and the phasing out of non-electric vehicles by 2035 through government policies as opposed to free choice through market solutions. There’s little to whet the appetite of radical Tories, but that is conservatism. It is stability, gradualism and tradition as opposed to the white-hot heat of liberal transformation.

Yet the latter is what is needed most. The Thatcher aberration poses for conservatives a difficult question. Conservatism lacks the dynamism of liberalism to bring new energy from sudden change or a crisis.  How is it feasible for a conservative to leave the current crisis with hundreds of billions of pounds of borrowing and still abide by conservative principles?  Past experience has shown what happens when public spending runs out of control and the state intervenes to remedy problems of its own making. Talk of fixing the roof when the sun was shining turned out to be just talk when applied conservatively. It will be so again.

Little, if any, of the old Johnson programme should remain. The Office of Budget Responsibility forecasts predict a sharp upturn following a 35 per cent drop in GDP this quarter. Can we expect conservative orthodoxy to regenerate that given its commitments to gradualism, redistribution and how tenderly it is approaching post-EU politics? How can they justify HS2 and £640 billion of proposed regional planning? Or, for that matter, can it justify billions in overseas aid? 

Conservatism is a disposition for constancy, as it is the soundest ‘ideology’ if one is looking for stability. Adherence to the tried and tested works when that prescription has brought about the good times. Paradoxically, for Conservatives, that is often not what they find when they take up the reins of power.

Conservatism and liberalism have always been in conflict within Conservative politics. From taking a conservative view of its own post-war history, a tumultuous time of political instability and economic crisis, Conservatives should look to the liberalism of its past, not its conservatism, if it is to get Britain back on the right path.

NB small-c conservatism denotes reference to ideology, big-c Conservatism is the actions of politicians from the Conservative Party.

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