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Westlake Legal Group > Conservative history

Mark Wallace: How Eurosceptics survived the wilderness years, and returned to win the day

Looking at the full story of Brexit, in the longer sweep of modern history, there are two really important achievements which made it possible. And, perhaps unusually, they operated in tension with one another.

The first is the simple fact of the survival of the Eurosceptic or anti-EU movement at all. The fact that the movement which lost the 1975 referendum so heavily, which was rebuffed so resoundingly in the 1983 election, and which stood every chance of dwindling away to nothing actually kept going for all those years is itself quite remarkable.

For a long time, there were more bleak years than warm days. The mid-1980s saw the Eurosceptic left in full retreat, both inside and outside the Labour Party, while Margaret Thatcher, the dominant force on the right, pushed on with the ambition of cementing market principles at a European level.

In 1988, Jacques Delors pulled off the feat of flipping the trade union movement from a Eurosceptic to a pro-integration position, essentially by holding out the prospect that a federal EU could entrench left-wing policies just as easily as it could embed the competitive ideas which Thatcher advocated. Here was a way to bypass the difficulty Labour faced in actually winning elections.

The rise of Blairism brought with it EU-enthusiasm as an article of faith for anyone who considered themselves ambitious and modern in a Labour Party which was extremely keen to reject the errors – and defeats – of the past.

Things weren’t much better on the Conservative side. Through the disastrous Major years, the institutions of the Conservative Party in particular developed an ingrained dislike of Eurosceptics – “the bastards” had caused endless trouble over Maastricht, supposedly accompanied by “the flapping of white coats” – and there was a concerted effort to follow Labour in equating opposition to the EU with division and unpopularity.

David Cameron uttered his complaint about Tories “banging on about Europe” in 2006, in his first conference speech as leader, but he was expressing a frustration picked up in the 1990s. On both sides of politics, the anti-EU position was associated with defeat and navel-gazing; the prevailing cultures and dominant institutions in both main parties actively worked to prevent people who espoused that view from getting elected.

These were the background conditions that produced the extraordinary situation that Philip Davies recounted yesterday: in 2005, he found himself elected to a Parliament in which there were no MPs publicly saying the UK should leave the EU.

The wilderness years

How did the idea itself live on through those hostile conditions? A core of activists, donors and politicians kept it alive, on life support, perhaps, but alive nonetheless, through dogged persistence. Some of the organisations founded before the UK’s entry to the Common Market fought on after the 1975 referendum – the Campaign for an Independent Britain (CIB), the Anti Common Market League, Labour Euro-Safeguards – despite a dwindling hearing in Westminster.

They held speaker meetings, and ran newsletters, and wrote to the papers, sold merchandise and organised raffles to keep themselves going and keep their cause alive. While the flare-ups of new-found Euroscepticism in countries like Denmark and France tended to be young, and media-friendly, the UK’s longer history of opposition inevitably made for a more aged movement, a scourge which affects organisations as much as individuals.

Their persistence required a sense of humour as well as determination. I remember visiting a branch of one such organisation as a guest speaker some time at the tail end of Tony Blair’s premiership, to find that the meeting would be recorded – not as a podcast, as it might be now, or for YouTube, but on a gigantic two-reel tape recorder which looked older than me. I was warned in advance that a chap in the front row would signal if the tape needed switching, at which point they would greatly appreciate it if I could pause mid-speech to wait for them to change the reels. They sold copies of the audio tapes to members, to support their next leaflet drop. (I could fill a column with similar anecdotes; for now I simply refer readers to the words “Godfrey Bloom stamped on my face”.)

Being anti-EU wasn’t cool, or something anyone did to get ahead in their career. It was easy for shiny Blairites, and equally polished Cameroons, to mock the Eurosceptics and take their unfashionability as confirmation that they were wrong.

Easy, but mistaken; because they had another powerful asset to sustain them in addition to a stubborn refusal to give up. The EU kept proving its critics right, and rallying people to the Eurosceptic cause. The sacrifice of democratic control involved in the Maastricht Treaty alarmed many people; the obvious risks of a Single Currency reached millions more; the insistence that referendums be repeated if they didn’t go the ‘right’ way began to rankle, and the lesson became obvious over time that this was a ratchet, operating inexorably in only one direction.

That process kept the original activists motivated, provided a growing source of new recruits, and also drove the creation of new organisations. Outfits sprang up like the Bruges Group, an expression of Thatcherite disenchantment with the European project; the Referendum Party, Jimmy Goldsmith’s timely effort to save the pound; and the UK Independence Party, originally the Anti-Federalist League. The emergence of new political parties was a symptom of the hostile environment facing Eurosceptics in Labour and the Conservatives.

For those inside the main parties, it seemed to be a confirmation that this was now a fringe interest. But the fact that these new competitors were capable of winning election-changing numbers of votes should have inspired at least a little reflection. The Referendum Party was sufficient threat in 1997 that it secured referendum pledges from both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, while UKIP won its first MEP seats in 1999. They had an audience.


If the first achievement which served as a pre-condition for Brexit was the survival of the Eurosceptic idea through the long wilderness years, then the second achievement was just as hard-won: the development and implementation of a route back from that wilderness to the mainstream and then on to victory at the ballot box.

Survival was itself a victory, but by the turn of the millennium it was reasonable to wonder which victories anti-EU campaigners had actually won. The threat of the Euro had been forestalled, but beyond that the previous 25 years had largely been a story of rearguard actions and defeat. In every strand of Euroscepticism, some people began to grow impatient, and wonder if it was possible to grow beyond the accustomed tactics and functions which had sustained their campaign so far.

Nigel Farage was one symptom of that impatience; UKIP’s rising star experimented, essentially in public, with new ways to communicate his message and to campaign. Dominic Cummings, too, was studying and trying out new approaches, first as campaign director of Business for Sterling, intended to be the No campaign in a possible referendum on the Euro, and then in the North East Regional Assembly referendum. Similarly, the centre right’s new media outlets in the age of the blogosphere – sites like ConservativeHome, Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale’s Diary – also came with a more Eurosceptic tone than the more establishment voices they were disrupting.

The disruption applied to the existing culture of Euroscepticism, too. The experiments of Farage, Cummings and others were starting to show potential, but they produced some challenging conclusions about what was necessary in order to win.

Within UKIP, a debate raged about how far to professionalise; while they cultivated an image of happy-go-lucky relaxation about gaffes, Farage also developed a steely (and sometimes brittle) intolerance of people he saw as playing at politics to the expense of the end goal. When he finally felt free to speak his mind without restraint, he famously described UKIP’s NEC as “total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksack”, and carefully designed the Brexit Party not to feature any such encumbrances on his decision-making.


More broadly, the question was what was the best strategy and message to advance the anti-EU position?

The tight-knit subculture which had developed in the wilderness years had its own language and hobby horses. The problem was, they were of limited appeal beyond those who already agreed.

I remember sitting in on focus groups run by James Frayne, over a decade ago, in which he asked potential swing voters to discuss and define the word ‘sovereignty’. They all agreed they liked sovereignty, and wanted to defend it. They also, almost universally, defined it as referring to the Royal family and the existence of the monarchy.

That was the Eurosceptic challenge in microcosm. Sovereignty is at the heart of the anti-EU case, but the jargon, the terms guaranteed to fire up the base, were of no use – or, worse, were actively damaging – among those voters whose support would be needed if they were ever to win. Combine that with the inherently negative position of a movement formed in opposition to a project, and there was a clear need for a new message: a positive pitch, in terms that people understood and found convincing.

As Philip Davies kindly mentioned, that was the thinking which underpinned the Better Off Out campaign which he and I helped to co-found in 2006. Others, like Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell, came to the same conclusion, as had Cummings and Matthew Elliott.

It wasn’t universally popular on their own side; they were asking people to give up the things they found fun to do, or which they’d always done, or which got them the easiest round of applause from the existing audience, and instead to challenge themselves to do what might actually work to win over the electorate. For some that was a perceived insult to their experience – something Vote Leave ran up against with some Conservative MPs in the referendum campaign. For others it was a weak compromise – the critique deployed by Leave.EU against people they felt were insufficiently robust. And most difficult of all, it was simply a change from what Eurosceptics had grown used to doing.

And yet, to their lasting credit, when the referendum came enough of them weighed up the opportunity to finally win, and bit the bullet. When it was presented to them, they recognised the effectiveness of the ultimate and decisive answer to that need for a positive, clear and convincing message which communicated the Eurosceptic case to the required mass audience: “Take back control”. So they did.

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David Gauke: As a non-Tory at the last election, my worry is that this Government won’t be Conservative enough

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

The Government’s objective for the first 50 days of this Parliament is easily identified – passing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and leaving the EU. In many senses, the nature of the next Government will only become clear once we move beyond that, but we are getting some indications as to where it is going.

It may not come as a total surprise to you that I have one or two concerns. After all, I had the Conservative whip withdrawn, I resigned my party membership, stood as an Independent and argued that the country should not return a Tory majority. And my concerns? That this Government might not be Conservative enough.

The Prime Minister described himself as ‘a Brexity Hezza’. However oxymoronic that phrase may be, it is an interesting insight.

Michael Heseltine is a great man. He served with great distinction in a number of Cabinet roles and his commitment to ensuring that the entire country can prosper is something that the Government is right to try to emulate.

I also owe him a particular debt – he kindly endorsed me in the general election and spoke on my behalf. At the age of 86, he remains one of the best public speakers in the country. When he speaks, people should listen. (I would argue that a few more people listening to him in South West Hertfordshire in December would have been particularly desirable.)

But just as the views and actions of Margaret Thatcher have often been over-simplified and misunderstood, claiming the mantle of ‘Hezza’ does not justify the abandonment of all Conservative orthodoxy.

Let us take four characteristics that ran through the approaches of the Governments in which Thatcher and Heseltine served. In each case, there is at least a doubt that Johnson Government will observe the same approach.

First, fiscal conservatism. Thatcher’s Government placed greater emphasis on reducing borrowing than cutting taxes or increasing spending. The tax burden rose in the years after 1979 and public spending was tightly controlled.

The current Government’s commitment is, as yet, less clear. Sajid Javid won an important battle to ensure that there were fiscal rules within the manifesto, but there were also plenty of spending and tax commitments. Given the expensive demographic pressures on the public finances that the country faces, plus the significant short term risks for the economy because of Brexit, a fiscally prudent Budget on March 11 would be sensible. It doesn’t look inevitable.

Second, as well as ensuring that we only spend what we can afford, we should also spend it wisely. The taxpayer is entitled to expect that a Conservative government, in particular, extracts good value for money. That should mean focusing on outputs not inputs and, where there are areas of significant increases in public spending, these should be matched by significant public sector reforms.  During the campaign, we heard more about extra spending or extra people but, in delivering on those pledges, it is essential that additional resources are deployed as effectively and efficiently as possible. We need to hear more about this.

As for changing the rules on infrastructure expenditure so that more is spent in the north of England, there is a good case for it. But those rules shouldn’t be replaced by a free-for-all whereby multi-billion projects are determined on the basis of ministerial whim. Rigour and the need for value-for-money must remain at the heart of all these decisions.

Third, be wary of supporting uneconomic businesses. Of course, there was a divergence between the Thatcher and Heseltine approaches to intervening in the economy but let us not forget that it was Heseltine who was prepared to close loss-making pits.

As a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I am uneasy about the bail-out of Flybe. Yes, it is not unheard of for a business to be given ‘time-to-pay’ their tax liabilities and, yes, regional connectivity is a legitimate policy objective. But every time a private business is bailed out by the taxpayer, the pressure grows the next time there is a potential insolvency. There is a case to be made for an interventionist industrial policy, even if that means ‘picking winners’ but the political imperative is very often on government to ‘pick losers’ – in other words, preserve loss-making ‘zombie’ businesses.

This issue may become particularly acute as the year goes on. Even if we get a deal with the EU, the Government clearly wants the ability to diverge from the EU, and there is no more talk of ‘frictionless trade’ with the EU – merely ‘zero tariffs and zero quotas’, which is a very different thing. This will mean that those businesses with complex supply chains face very considerable problems. It would be naïve to assume that this won’t threaten the viability of many businesses.

And, by the way, the risk of a WTO Brexit at the end of 2020 is, in my view, significantly under-priced. I will return to that issue in greater detail in future.

I mention this not just to antagonise those ConservativeHome readers who continue to question why I am allowed to write on this website. It is to make the point that there could be quite a lot of businesses for whom the adjustment to our glorious post-Brexit future will be painful. Some of them won’t be able to make it, not without some taxpayer support. Some of them might be able to make it but quite fancy a piece of the action if the Government is in the habit of providing financial support.

Of course, they will all say it is temporary and as long as the Government is sufficiently far-sighted, there will be no need to lay-off thousands of workers located in newly marginal seats. Nice little Conservative constituency you’ve got there, Prime Minister, we wouldn’t want anything nasty to happen here, would we?

So for the sake of the taxpayer, the Government should tread warily in bailing out businesses. The more you do it, the harder it is to stop. And the pressures in the next year or so may be immense.

There is a fourth attribute common to both Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine – a belief in free trade. As with every major Conservative figure for generations, they recognised that removing trade barriers is of enormous benefit to businesses who are able to export and consumers who can better access imports. The increased competition brought by reducing trade barriers helps economies become more efficient and drives up productivity. We saw this in the 1980s when the consequences of membership of the Common Market played through and inefficient UK companies were driven out of business by European competitors, and efficient UK businesses were able to expand because of access to European markets.

Evidently, this country is about to go in the opposite direction. Departure from the Single Market and the Customs Union will inevitably result in increased trade barriers with the EU. Regulatory divergence will increase those barriers yet further. Pretending that this can be fully compensated for by entering into trade deals with other countries is, sadly, delusional.

Margaret Thatcher once said that the facts of life are conservative. I might no longer be a member of the Conservative Party, but I think this is broadly right. The public finances have to be sustainable. Taxpayers’ money should be spent wisely. By and large, the market and not government should determine which businesses survive. Free trade is a driver for prosperity.

The Conservative Party has changed. It is a change that has enabled it to win a large majority. But the economic facts of life remain the same. I hope the Government will remember that.

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Alistair Lexden: The origins of One Nation – now in fashion once again within the Conservative Party

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here

]On 4 December 1924, Stanley Baldwin spoke at the Royal Albert Hall, with members of his Party filling every seat. The Tories had just achieved a great election victory, winning 419 seats and gaining an overall Commons majority of 223. The Liberal vote had collapsed and Labour had lost ground in its heartlands. Baldwin knew that his Party’s approach to policy had to be redefined if it was to retain its unexpected ascendancy.

Baldwin told his audience that the Party must show that “ we stand for the union of those two nations of which Disraeli spoke two generations ago: union among our own people to make one nation of our own people at home which, if secured, nothing else matters in the world.”

That was the first time that the phrase that was to become so famous had been heard. During the five years that followed, Neville Chamberlain, the most remarkable social reformer the Tories have ever had, gave substance to Baldwin’s vision. The social services became the largest item of public spending for the first time; contributory pensions were introduced for most working people; the framework of a national health service, Chamberlain’s greatest passion, began to take shape; a massive house-building programme began which, in the 1930s, rose to an all-time record level.

Conservatives today would be proclaiming proudly that they were Baldwinian One Nation Tories if the founding father’s reputation had not been so gravely damaged, very unfairly in my view, by the widespread belief after 1939 that he had not rearmed in the face of the Nazi menace. The high unemployment which blighted the inter-war years also cast a shadow over his achievements.

Churchill, who reversed his once high opinion of Baldwin, was disinclined to use his trademark term. He referred to Tory democracy as his guiding inspiration, a vague phrase coined by Lord Randolph Churchill, the father he adored. Asked what it meant, Lord Randolph replied, “mainly opportunism.”

Nothing more might have been heard of One Nation if a number of able, ambitious younger Conservatives, elected for the first time in 1950, had not adopted it as the name of a group they formed to win attention for themselves as advocates of moderate ideas suited to the post-war world of consensus politics.

It was Angus Maude, the possessor of a powerful political mind, who came up with One Nation. The name adorned a pamphlet—in effect the group’s manifesto—which set Party members talking excitedly at the 1950 Party Conference.

It contained sentiments suited to the time. “Socialists believe that the State should provide an average standard for those in need. We believe it should provide a minimum standard, above which people should be free to rise.”

It was the kind of language the Tories needed to distinguish themselves from Labour without threatening major political change. There has been a One Nation group of MPs almost constantly since then, formulating no more than mildly controversial policies to help counter “ the almost traditional anti-intellectualism of the Tory Party”, as The Economist put it in 1954.

Tory Central Office decided that this badge of moderate Toryism would be much more effective if a great name from the past could be attached to it. Since it denoted a commitment to healing a great social divide that Disraeli had famously dramatised in the 1840s in his novel Sybil: or The Two Nations, he was obviously their man.

He had also given the vote to a limited number of working men in urban areas in 1867 and introduced a few mild measures of social reform in 1875. They could be hailed as the starting-point of One Nation Conservatism, giving it a most useful venerable veneer.

In two famous speeches on public platforms (where he rarely appeared) in 1872, Disraeli had spoken of “ elevating the condition of the people.” The speeches were now reprinted for the Party faithful, and quotation from them appeared frequently in the utterances of Party leaders from Anthony Eden onwards.

Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism was born as a convenient historical fiction.

Margaret Thatcher subscribed to it until the mid-1980s. She stopped referring to One Nation when her “ wet” critics began to claim it as exclusively their property, on the grounds that Disraeli would never had contemplated any reduction in public spending, something which had no basis whatsoever in fact.

If Boris Johnson now gives real political substance to what has become an overused catch-phrase, he will recreate the Tories in the image of “ Honest Stan” Baldwin. But will the ghost of Disraeli ever be laid to rest after its most useful service since 1945?

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“Johnson put out his right hand softly and drew the sword out as gently as from a scabbard”.

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-12-13-at-20.41.46 “Johnson put out his right hand softly and drew the sword out as gently as from a scabbard”. ToryDiary Tony Blair Tim Montgomerie Stanley Johnson Spectator Rory Stewart Philip Hammond! NHS Munira Mirza Michael Howard Margaret Thatcher Lord Kerr London Liverpool Highlights Have I Got News For You Europe EU Dominic Cummings Danny Kruger Conservative history British history Brexit Andrew Neil Amber Rudd 2019 General Election

Earlier this week, I told the tale of how ConservativeHome liked Boris Johnson’s Party Conference speech of 2017; offered him a fringe platform at that of 2018, and backed him for Tory leader last summer – because we believed that he was the candidate most likely to win a snap general election for the Conservatives.

I went on to describe how he restored the Tories from 20 per cent in the polls, and the disaster of last summer’s European elections, to 40 per cent or so in less than six months – despite multiple Commons defeats, the Supreme Court judgement, the Letwin vote, the Benn Act, a biased Speaker and the revolt of the twenty-one.

Our editorial ended by quoting T.H.White’s The Sword in the Stone, whichtells the story of how Wart, a.k.a. King Arthur, is unable to free the sword at first attempt. As he heaves and sweats, his childhood tutors, companions, and friends become mysteriously present.”

“For the next four days, Johnson is the Wart, the Once and Future King, of this electoral struggle. “Put your back into it,” says one friend to Wart. “What about those forearms?” asks another. “Keep a steady effort,” says a third, “and you will have it yet.” “Come along,” says the last, “for all we humble friends of yours are here waiting to cheer.”

The next line in the story is: “He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard”.

Johnson has been told all his life that he won’t be able to draw the sword from the stone.  Andrew Gimson’s biography of the Prime Minister quotes a letter from Martin Hammond, who taught Johnson at Eton, and has been described by the latter as “really influential”, to his father, Stanley Johnson.

“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility…I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.”

This is an early demonstration of the Johnson Derangement Syndrome that I once described as having driven me “nuts”,  and which has put pay to Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Rory Stewart, Amber Rudd and a very large number of more conventional people.

Johnson has been told that he could not dream up quotes and survive as a working journalist; be both Spectator editor and a Conservative candidate; be taken seriously as a politician and appear on Have I Got News for You; irritate Michael Howard and survive on the Tory front bench…

…anger the people of Liverpool; win the London Mayoralty; win the London Mayoralty again; be on the winning side of an EU referendum if he backed Leave; contest the Conservative leadership election a second time; survive his turbulent period as Foreign Secretary; win as a front-runner in that leadership contest…

…survive the Supreme Court judgement; endure in the Commons 40 or so seats short of a majority; win a no confidence vote; get a deal with the EU; maintain campaigning discipline; not be brought down by the Leeds Infirmary row; evade Andrew Neil; vanish into a cupboard – or gain a majority, let alone a landslide.

That he has somehow done all those things is a tribute to his strange genius. An even greater one is that he had the humility, last autumn, to bring order to his Downing Street operation by sending for Dominic Cummings, Munira Mirza, Danny Kruger, Tim Montgomerie and the most committed Number Ten team in modern times.

I wrote yesterday that Johnson has at last laid to rest the legend that no Conservative leader other than Margaret Thatcher could again win with a big majority.  His near-landslide may also mark an even greater achievement, putting Thursday’s election into the same basket as that of 1979, 1997 or 1945.

Thatcher and Tony Blair were part of the long continuum of Prime Ministers who, however different they may have been, governed on the assumption that Britain must be part of the EU (one that the former only began to bridle at towards the end of her long period in government).

These were the years of the rule of the EU Ascendancy – summed up for us by Lord Kerr, a former Ambassador to the EU, who told the Lords last year that Britain would “come to heel in the end, probably quite quickly”, and be absorbed back into the European project which the British people voted to escape in 2016.

Johnson’s big win marks the end of that Ascendancy and the beginning of a new era: that of Britain as a sovereign nation – whose government will honour the instruction given to us in the country’s greatest-ever democratic exercise.  This will be good for the country, Parliament, politicians, the Conservaties and Johnson himself.

Trials and tribulations lie ahead: the next phase of the Brexit negotiations; Scotland; squaring the Tory majority with its new electoral territory; making sense of conflicting needs and demands.  But there is reason to hope that Johnson, so often scorned as a liar, will begin to restore trust in politics, simply by delivering the referendum result.

Some of us have waited a long time to see a working Conservative Government with an emphatic Commons majority.  Not since the second Thatcher landslide, the third Thatcher term, of 1987 has the country seen one in action – over 30 years ago.  Then, I was 27.  Now I am 60.

“Well, Wart,” said Merlyn.  “How nice you look in your crown…in future it will be your glorious doom to take up the burden and to enjoy the nobility of your proper title: so now I shall crave the privilege of being the very first of your subjects to address you with it – as my dear liege lord, King Arthur.”

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John O’Connell:

John O’Connell is Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Tax is back on the agenda in this election. Whether or not Labour could pay for their list of free stuff with tax increases only on the top five per cent of earners was a feature of Andrew Neil’s grilling of Jeremy Corbyn; cuts to national insurance was central to Sajid Javid’s recent media round.

We are, reassuringly, debating the size of the state. The tax burden isn’t a full measure of the size of the state. It doesn’t capture interest or profits of government corporations, the deficit, the regulatory state or how the government influences culture, for example. But it’s arguably the pre-eminent factor and certainly the aspect which most concerns us at the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA).

The tax burden is the sum total of taxes in a year divided by the total value of the economy in the same year. It is now at a 50-year high. That’s a widely-known statistic, following TPA research in July last year when we published “Highest tax burden this year since 1969-70”. We thought we’d take that research a step further and look at the average tax burden under each prime minister since 1948, which is as far back as OBR tax burden data goes.

Broadly, the data shows what you might expect on party lines. All Conservative prime ministers until Major left with a lower tax burden than when they entered Number 10. But since Thatcher, things haven’t been so clear. Major, Cameron and May have all left Downing Street with the tax burden higher than when they entered as Prime Minister. Intriguingly, while Wilson and Blair left office with substantially higher tax burdens, the burden fell under Callaghan and Brown.

The numbers need to be treated with caution, however, because many factors interact in ways which can delay or even confound the assumption that cutting taxes means a lower tax burden. That relationship does broadly hold, but the economic cycle means the tax burden rises and falls with the economy.

In a boom, incomes rise fast, pushing more low earners into income tax and more high earners into higher tax bands. Corporate profits and asset values rise as a share of economic output, too, leading to disproportionately higher corporate, capital gain and stamp tax receipts, even if tax rates and thresholds remain unchanged.

The ‘pro-cyclical’ nature of the tax burden explains why it fell so sharply under Callaghan (2.1 percentage points lower in 1979-80 than when he became Prime Minister in 1976-77) and Brown (0.3 percentage points down, despite tax rises).

It also goes some way to explain why it was just 0.7 percentage points lower after Thatcher’s 11-year administration. For readers familiar with the ‘Laffer curve’ it makes some intuitive sense: if tax rates are high enough, as they were when Thatcher took office, cutting them can stimulate activity so much that revenues actually increase.

Similarly, the long boom during Blair’s premiership, arguably a result of the spending restraint of both his predecessor and his own early years in office, may explain some of his substantial rise in the tax burden, too. Despite his image as a moderate, he left it 2.5 percentage points higher.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect, just three days from an election, is what the party manifestos say about what they want to do with taxes, and what implications that will have on the tax burden.

Taking their own revenue assumptions at face value, and assuming the plans have no effect on GDP, we calculated that the tax burden would rise another 0.4 percentage points to 34.8 per cent if the Conservatives win, giving Boris Johnson an average tax burden of 34.7 per cent over his term. That’s the highest burden since Attlee, whose figure (between 1948 and 1951 only) was 35.8 per cent – and falling as the economy demilitarised after the second world war.

Unsurprisingly, Corbyn’s Labour manifesto would be far, far worse from a taxpayer’s perspective. We calculate that he will push up the tax burden to an astonishing 37.9 per cent, the highest ever recorded. And while the OBR tax burden figures only go back as far as 1948, their ‘current receipts’ figures (which include interest, dividends and profits from government corporations) go back further still.

Current receipts were 6.6 percentage points higher than the tax burden in 1948, but before then it was only twice higher than Labour’s 2019 manifesto plans. And at its highest, at 39.5 per cent of GDP in 1945-46, total current receipts were only 1.6 percentage points higher than Labour’s tax burden plans for 2023-24. It is therefore likely that their tax burden will be the highest not just since 1948, when OBR records begin, but ever.

If the Conservatives do win a majority on Thursday, they will of course have several years in which to announce Budgets and adjust plans. Some policy may indeed be reactive, owing to external factors in the global economy. So a victorious Johnson would have the chance to join Churchill and Thatcher as a Prime Minister that reduces the tax burden. Or, he may stay the course and increase it, joining Cameron and May. We know that Johnson is a big fan of Chuchill – so membership of that former club surely holds more appeal.

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Sheila Lawlor: Ultimately, as the EU’s leaders recognise, the momentum is with Johnson.

Sheila Lawlor is the Director of Politeia and the author of Now or Never: Countering the Coup Against Britain’s Democracy, from which the article below draws.

Boris Johnson, no novice to the craft of politics, kept his friends for the most part on side and his enemies guessing. He extracted a new deal from the EU that dropped the backstop and the UK’s subjugation to EU customs union law; sent, but did not sign, Parliament’s delay letter, and dealt with the duplicitous Letwin amendment to stop Brexit by his firm resolution to see the deal through into to law. MPs who refused to back it still don’t know whether that will lead to no deal or delay.

Much depends on the EU and its leaders, who have committed to Johnson’s vision. Fewer than 90 days after assuming office, he convinced enough of them that their way and his lay side by side, on – and even more important – beyond Brexit, turning enemy fortresses across Europe’s capitals into friendly citadels.

Previously, for the EU the Leave vote was a decision to be ignored, a problem to be circumvented by keeping the UK in and under the EU system. It had reasons of realpolitik – to show rebellious member states that  the UK could not really leave, and that it would be punished for trying.

It also had pragmatic economic reasons: the UK economy must be bound and gagged, into and under EU law, its future path aligned to that law made in Brussels, to prevent a rival competitor on its shores. For France, particularly, Britain’s ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or competitive free market system is an upstart and potential rival to the Brussels (and French) model, of  a protected, centrally planned and controlled, system that had gradually evolved in France from the time of Louis XIV and had been adapted for the EU project.

Johnson realised that Brussels, with its Franco-German axis, needed a political ‘win’, accepting such punitive elements in the May deal as: dispute resolution (e.g: citizens’ rights to be under ECJ jurisdiction), the UK divorce payment to the EU, the 13 months of transition under EU law with no UK vote or voice, all as the price of a new deal. But this deal is finite, a tidying-up exercise for exit – one that will, after the transition, leave the UK and  its economy free.

The big prize will be that the UK’s economic and trade freedom will be restored, something May’s backstop would have prevented, potentially indefinitely. Instead, the UK economy will be under laws made by the UK, not EU law – ]Johnson’s ‘must’, set out in his first official letter as Prime Minister to Donald Tusk: when the UK left the EU, it would leave its single market and customs union,but remain committed to “world-class environment, product and labour standards, though UK laws would potentially diverge from the EU: That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy”.

The ball is now in the EU’s court. It can refuse an extension and focus on the future, to draw a line under the problem they have resolved with Johnson, as Emmanuel Macron, Leo Varadkar and others may be minded to do by vetoing delay. Or it may grant a delay, potentially linked to the dissolution of parliament for a general election.  Either way, the ratification process has now been launched on the EU side.

Ultimately, as the EU’s leaders recognise, the momentum is with Johnson. It has been since he led the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, breaking with his Party’s leadership, to seize the opportunity to shape his and his country’s destiny, as the outsider, a leader in waiting.

He recognises that in this country the authority to make laws derives from the people under the UK’s constitution, the unwritten law that obliged monarchs and prime ministers over centuries, to respect people’s wishes or face the consequences and lose their hold on power.  The MPs who have used the power, with which they were entrusted by the people to execute the referendum decision, in order to try to thwart it have broken that constitutional settlement.

Johnson understands, as Lloyd George, was reported to remark, that ‘at the top there are no friends’. That has helped him make his own way, use his own judgement, cautious, reflective, shrewd. Having taken with him some of the EU leaders who call the shots – Macron, Jean Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier and to some extent, Angela Merkel – he has found a Brexit that works for everyone, or almost everyone.

The DUP, unhappy with the à la carte proposals designed to satisfy the different parties on customs, VAT and consent, should take comfort in the  constitutional reality: Northern Ireland is part of the UK and part of its customs union, a fact reflected in the deal. The practical arrangements to facilitate the smooth running of the all-island economy are just that, and will be subject to consent.

The Prime Minister has yet to deploy the armoury of tools in the executive cupboard in this see-saw for power between the executive and a legislature dominated by MPs determined to stop Brexit. He can choose from a plentiful stock of UK precedents, not to mention the provisions of international law. The country waits to see Brexit’s parliamentary opponents despatched. The EU has agreed to a deal that sets Britain free in December 2020. Labour’s leader may want to make a last ditch try to turn the deal’s economic freedom to servitude by championing a customs union at the eleventh hour.

But he may find  less appetite for that in the EU than before, and less than unanimity for the  hurdles a  long delay could bring. Its leaders, like Johnson,  belong to the school of politics in which there are neither eternal enmities nor friendships, only interests.

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Progressive Conservative reformers 3) Disraeli – and his first and only full term of government of

A series of posts about the never-ending story of progressive Conservative change, which contrasts with the events of this week’s Labour Party conference.

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There is a fashion for saying that Disraeli was never a One Nation Tory at all.  That he never used the phrase (he wrote in Sybil of “two nations, the rich and the poor”); that his conception of politics was fundamentally aristocratic, not democratic; that his real aim in steering the 1867 Reform Act through the Commons to “dish the Whigs” – not to enfranchise more people.

A claim can be true while missing the main point.  So it is here.  Yes, Disraeli’s approach to politics was formed in his youth, but that’s true of nearly all of us.  His two great speeches of 1872 show a man adjusting to a new politics that he himself had helped to bring about: the dawning of the age of mass democracy.  But although times were changing, his vision remained consistent.  He wanted to “elevate the condition the people” – as he had done since his youth as a radical.

Disraeli was then the best part of 70.  He had served as Prime Minister only briefly.  Most of his political life had been spent in opposition.  But when he declared in the first of those speeches that “the first consideration of a minister should be the health of the people”, he was beginning to map out an election-winning mass appeal.  Two years later, the Conservatives won their first election victory since the days of Peel.  And Disraeli became Prime Minister again for a first full term – and the last time.

By then, he was afflicted by asthma, bronchitis and gout.  Much of the reforming work of his ministry was undertaken by Richard Cross, the Home Secretary.  But it was a formidable body of legislation: the Factory Act, Artisans Dwelling Act, Public Health Act and Pure Food & Drug Act.  At least one of the measures had what we would now call a localist flavour: the Artisans Dwelling Act didn’t empower the government to replace slums with better housing, bit gave local authorities the powers to do so.  The modern Tory suspicion of central government has deep roots.

There were fewer barriers between the Conservatives and working people in those pre-socialist days. So it was that Disraeli’s Government also saw the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, which allowed peaceful picketing, and the Employers and Workmen Act which enabled workers to sue employers in the civil courts.  He was the bridge between the Tory reforms of Peel, who he had helped to bring down, and those of our modern age.

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Progressive Conservative reformers 3) Thatcher – and the sale of council houses to their tenants

How better to follow Jeremy Corbyn’s speech yesterday than by turning to the great Conservative leader who embodied everything he hates?  But who nonetheless did more than he has ever done to bring about – in the words of Labour’s most left-wing manifesto in modern times – “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”.

We refer to the sale of council houses to their tenants which, over time, gave millions of people a stake in the system that they didn’t have before.  Thatcher’s radical move bust one of the barriers between labour and capital.

Not that all Tories always supported the policy.  Some believed that those who had worked hard to buy their own homes would jib at others being able to do so with a discount.  (The same objection is raised today whenever it is proposed to give social housing free to tenants.)  According to Andrew Gimson, Thatcher herself was originally one of them, and was first commandeered into proposing the policy by her then boss, Edward Heath.

So all credit to Horace Cutler, a Tory leader of the then Greater London Council, who sold some council homes early; to Peter Walker, and Michael Heseltine, who insisted on the discounts.

Heath was duly replaced by Thatcher – who swung behind the policy and made it happen, thus helping to fulfill Antony Eden’s original vision of a property-owning democracy.  The flaw in the plan’s execution was the non-replacement over time of the stock of council housing.  But that does not in itself detract from the success of the signature policy of the Thatcher years.

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The never-ending story of progressive Conservative change

Near the start of this year, ConservativeHome and Andrew Sharpe, the Chairman of the Conservative National Convention, put together a rough list.  It was of Tories who were either themselves involved in landmark progressive reform, or symbolise modernising change in some way.

  • Lord Shaftesbury: The Ten Hours Act, which restricted the employment of children, and the Lodging Houses Bill, which provided for the registration and inspection of homes for the poor and destitute.
  • Robert Peel: His Government (1841-1846) cut working hours, created rail services and abolished the Corn Laws.  He is also the father of modern policing (hence “Bobbies”), by means of the earlier Metropolitan Police Act.
  • Benjamin Disraeli: First and only Jewish Prime Minister.  The 1867 Reform Act, plus the Factory Act, Artisans Dwelling Act, Public Health Act and Pure Food & Drug Act – all passed during his premiership of 1874-80.  Disraeli’s Government also saw the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, which allowed peaceful picketing, and the Employers and Workmen Act which enabled workers to sue employers in the civil courts.
  • Lord Salisbury: His second Government of 1888-1892 saw the Free Education Act, which abolished fees for primary education; his third of 1895-1902, the Workmen’s Compensation Act, which made employers liable for accidents at work.
  • Lord Balfour: His Government of saw the Education Act of 1902, which set the pattern of elementary education in England and Wales for four decades, and established county councils or boroughs as local education authorities.
  • Nancy Astor, first woman MP to take her seat.
  • Votes for Women: The Votes for Women Act of 1928 gave the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership. Previously, only women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications could vote.
  • Neville Chamberlain: first under the Baldwin Governments (1923-1924, 1924-1929) and the National Government (1931-1937), and then as Prime Minister (1937-1940), delivered laws which cleared slums, built thousands of council houses, extended unemployment benefits, improved pensions, made paid holidays mandatory, and limited working hours.
  • Rab Butler: As Minister of Education in Churchill’s wartime Coalition Government (1940-1945), his Education Act provided free secondary education for all pupils.
  • Henry Willink: As Minister of Health in that Government, he produced a White Paper proposing a National Health Service.
  • Harold Macmillan: Drove the building of 300,000 houses a year under the Churchill Government (1951-1955).  As Prime Minister (1957-1963), responsible for a Clean Air Act, a reduction in the standard work week and the Robbins Report, which paved the way for new universities.
  • Margaret Thatcher, first woman Prime Minister (1979-1990).  Radical programme included sale of council houses to their tenants and wider share ownership schemes.
  • William Hague, Disability Discrimination Bill, introduced under the Major Government (1990-1997).
  • David Cameron: Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, passed under the Coalition Government (2010-2015).
  • Michael Gove: As Education Secretary under the Coalition Government, established Free Schools and expanded Academies.
  • Sayeeda Warsi, first woman Muslim Cabinet member.
  • Theresa May, second woman Prime Minister (2016-2019).
  • Sajid Javid, first Muslim Home Secretary and Chancellor of Exchequer.

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  • Parts of this summary are necessarily partial.  For example, much of his own party opposed Shaftesbury; Disraeli was baptised into the Church of England; the 1902 Education Act was opposed by the nonconformist movement; the first woman MP to be elected was Sinn Fein’s Constance Markievicz; and so on.
  • Not all the reforms mentioned were popular with the Conservative Party at the time.  For example, more Tory MPs voted against Same Sex Marriage than voted in favour.  (This site shared their reservations at the time.)
  • None the less, the Conservative Party and Tory politicians have, demonstrably and undeniably, a long and colourful history of delivering progressive social change, sometimes alone, sometimes in partnership with other parties.  See also the writings of Alastair Lexden, the Party’s official historian, on this site and on his own.

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Why tell a summary of this story now?  Perhaps because this is the week of the Labour Party Conference.  Like most of the rest of the Left, much of Labour seeks to delegitimise the Conservatives altogether – in other words, rob them of their right to be heard by suggesting that they are beyond the ethical pale.

A surface response to this is to turn the tables of Labour itself – for example, over its shocking position on anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn.

A deeper one is to own, or at least co-possess, the moral high ground.  Telling the Tory story is integral to establishing that ownership.  The Party is consistently bad at trying to do so.  The last senior Conservative who grasped the point was George Osborne.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  The Left grasps the point of Orwell’s line from 1984.  Does the Centre-Right?

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Richard Ritchie: It is futile to ask where political giants of old would have stood in today’s chaos

Richard Ritchie is the author of a recent history of a secretive group of Conservative MPs called The Progress Trust (Without Hindsight: A History of the Progress Trust 1943-2005). He is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs

Anyone who has had the privilege of a close association with a political Giant of Old must be accustomed to the question “And what would ‘X’ or ‘Y’ be saying or doing now?”

Normally, it is possible to give a reasonably objective answer, and always with the important qualification of “all things being equal”. But of course they never are “all equal”, which is why nobody knows for certain how any figure of the past would react to a contemporary event.

Some politicians, however, are more careful than others to provide future generations with material on which to speculate. For example, one might argue from Churchill’s past speeches on Europe that today he would have been either a fervent remainer or brexiteer – both sides of the debate have indeed claimed as such. It is difficult, however, to banish the suspicion that their selection of the great man’s quotes are largely driven by their own political objectives, and often with less regard to when they were actually said.

In the case of Enoch Powell, with whom I worked, I always add the qualification, when asked “what would Enoch be saying now”, that it depends on what stage of his career you are speaking. When Powell started off in politics, he was an imperialist. He wished to govern India and maintain the Empire. But being young with a political future ahead of him, he abandoned this principle when it was no longer tenable – and being Enoch, he abandoned it dramatically, logically and conclusively.

I have sometimes wondered whether he would have acted similarly over Europe, had he embarked upon a political career in the 1970s. I have always thought it possible that he would have adapted to a loss of sovereignty in the same way as he adapted to loss of Empire. Of course, nobody knows. But there is at least enough material on which to construct a case for the possibility.

There is one sense, however, in which the question “what would they be saying now?” is especially difficult to answer at the moment. That is because we can no longer rely on the conventions of the past, which in turn is mostly due to the European curse – for better or worse, membership of the EU has eaten away at Britain’s unwritten constitution. And that is why we now seem to be confronted on a daily basis with one constitutional aberration after another which, only a few years ago, would have been considered unthinkable.

In the space of a matter of weeks we have had a Government accused of breaking the law, in contempt of the courts, and in contempt of Parliament; but at the same time we have a minority Government with no control of its business in the House of Commons but denied its right to hold an election in order, as it would argue, to honour the result of a referendum.

Were they alive, the great Parliamentarians of the past – the Powells, the Foots, the Benns – would have been at the forefront of these events. But nobody can be sure of what they would be saying. Perhaps it’s helpful to consider Powell again in this context – not because he is more important than many others, but because he vividly illustrates the difficulty of making parallels with the past.

Most people would surely assume that were he alive today he and his supporters – MPs like Ronald Bell, Dick Body, Nick Ridley and possibly John Biffen – would at this juncture have supported leaving the EU with no deal, although even that is uncertain had they believed in the veracity of the Yellowhammer document’s warnings. It’s worth recalling, for example, that the reason why Powell supported Macmillan’s effort to join the Common Market in the 1960s – unlike many in his Party who were already objecting to the political implications – was that he feared that our trade with Europe would be threatened outside the group.

With the global liberalisation of trade and the developing political ambitions of the European Union, his mind changed. But given his extreme distrust and dislike of America and his championing of Ulster, one shouldn’t assume that even Powell would have been sanguine over the economic dangers of leaving “without a deal.”

But whatever his views on this, it’s hard to believe he would have challenged Parliament’s right to try and prevent it. He and his friends would have been aware of every legitimate political trick and device available to thwart the Government, and provided their perpetrators acted in accordance with precedent they would have upheld their right to do so, however much they disagreed with their purpose. After all, that was the concept of Parliamentary sovereignty which all shared at the time. However dangerous and unwise it might be, Parliament has the undoubted right to ignore the result of a referendum and repeal any Act it has passed. Retribution, if deserved, will follow at a general election.

Except that now we are denied a general election – and this is something Powell could never have conceived. I am sure he would have considered it unconstitutional for a minority Government, having lost control of the business in the House of Commons, to continue in office. It is not without precedent for an Opposition leader to refuse to take over from a Prime Minister in difficulties. But for a failing Government without a majority to be denied a general election by its opponents would have been unthinkable to Powell or any of his contemporaries.

Neither could any of them have conceived of a Speaker who only respects Erskine May when it suits him and who regularly criticises the Government, even when on holiday. Powell often criticised the Speaker of his day for failing to observe precedent or to preserve Parliamentary standards of behaviour, but always in private. However, I think with Speaker Bercow he would have moved a vote of censure against him.

Above all, neither he nor any politician of his generation could ever have imagined a measure such as the Fixed-terms Parliament Act of 2011 reaching the statute book. They would have regarded this Act as madness from the start – they would not have needed the benefit of hindsight.

That does not mean, however, they would have approved of this particular prorogation. Powell and most Tories of the past would surely have been concerned that the precedents created today would prove extremely dangerous under a socialist government. Whether they would have agreed that this was a matter properly to be considered by the courts is a different matter – of course, for Powell the Supreme Court did not exist, and the high court was Parliament itself with a proper Lord Chancellor in office.

But when it comes to how we ended up in this situation, what would Powell, Foot, Richard Crossman, or Tony Benn have said? Powell would have started off by saying, unhelpfully, “I told you so”. Conservative governments are not expected to meddle with the constitution. But that is what a Conservative Government did when it acceded to the Treaty of Rome in 1972: from henceforth it’s been downhill all the way, and now Heath’s (or should I say the Nibelung’s) curse continues to wear away the Norns’ thread of destiny. Powell would have undoubtedly believed this.

But the existence of a legislative Parliament in Scotland; a referendum result which opposed the policy of a Government on a fundamental matter of principle; a partisan Speaker; a fixed-term Parliament; the island of Ireland now divided not only between Unionist and Republican but between the competing political regimes of the EU and the UK – this means that any revered Tory politician of the past would, today, be completely out of his depth. No point in asking what Enoch, or anyone else, would have done in today’s circumstances. We just don’t know.

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