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Westlake Legal Group > Margaret Thatcher

Vox pub: Cornish voters wonder whether they can trust the Prime Minister more than the Lib Dems

Voters in St Ives are in a state of deep perplexity. Many of them feel politically homeless.

A large number of left-wing Leavers in West Cornwall are unhappy about supporting either of the two main contenders for the seat, and can also be heard wondering whether they can trust Boris Johnson.

The highly marginal constituency of St Ives, which includes Land’s End and Penzance, was held in 2017 by Derek Thomas for the Conservatives, who beat Andrew George, for the Lib Dems, by 312 votes.

The same two candidates have faced each other over the last three general elections and will fight it out again this time, George having represented the seat from 1997 to 2015, for much of that period with just over half the vote.

Nigel Farage’s announcement on Monday that the Brexit Party is withdrawing its candidates in Tory-held seats has shocked Leave voters in St Ives.

Tris Stock said on Monday evening in the Longboat Inn in Penzance, the largest town in the constituency, he was so infuriated that for several hours that afternoon he had contemplated standing himself in St Ives under the banner of “Real Brexit”.

He added: “You are speaking to someone who was right on the verge of trying to take votes away from the Conservatives.

“It was because the Brexit Party dumped us, and I liked the Brexit Party a lot.

“I’m a democrat before any other political consideration. I mean that.

“And I’m a Brexiteer. Any socialist has to be a Brexiteer. Don’t think for a moment the Labour Party is anything to do with socialism. It’s about maintaining the status quo.

“There is only one socialist left in the Labour Party as far as I’m concerned and that is Dennis Skinner.”

Stock will not support Labour in this election: “They screwed me over because they said, ‘We will respect the referendum’.”

Nor will he support the Lib Dems, with their commitment to reverse Brexit, although “I quite liked Andrew George as an MP “.

But can he trust the Conservative candidate? Stock wrestled with this question: “Ninety-five per cent of all the people I know are not only pro-Brexit but don’t like Derek Thomas. They hate him. They don’t believe him.

“Those sort of people are why Leave won the referendum – it managed to get people who are not very interested to vote. And they’ll vote pro-Brexit on 12th December.”

ConHome: “But does that mean voting for Derek Thomas?”

Stock: “It probably does. There’s a part of me that wants to pin him down to a written statement that he accepts what Boris Johnson said, that we will not extend beyond 2020. He’ll avoid me like the plague.

“So I have to trust Boris Johnson, who I would not trust as far as I could throw him. Do you?”

A retired coach driver stood up for Johnson: “I actually like him. Everybody said he’s going to make a mess. I said no, he’s too intelligent.

“We’ve got to vote Tory down here and get rid of the Lib Dems. They’re signing up with the Greens to stop Brexit.”

Someone else remarked that Andrew George “is actually a decent guy”. The retired coach driver replied: “”Yes, I totally agree with you there, but I can’t vote for him.

“This area has always been a Lib Dem area but I think they’ve shot themselves in the foot [by backing revoke].

“In Newlyn [the fishing port next to Penzance] they voted out. I hope to God the Tories don’t let them down. They’ve got to protect the fishing thing.”

“Everything is a farce,” another man declared. “You had the referendum which had the highest turnout ever. Now the politicians haven’t carried through on the plan they all support. And that’s a farce.

“And it’s not going to get any better. They want to be ruled by Brussels so they don’t have to take any decisions. Easy life for them, isn’t it.

“The less they have to do for their salaries and the more they can concentrate on their company directorships the happier they are.”

A 72-year-old lawyer said: “I take the view that people of my age shouldn’t be voting at all.”

Before the referendum, he accordingly consulted his 11 children, all of whom – except the youngest, who gave no advice – urged him to vote Remain, which he did: “They feel European and they know full well that all the stuff about we’ll have a great future is complete bollocks.”

Stock urged ConHome to conduct research in some other pubs, so we make our way in the rain up Market Jew Street, a name said to be a corruption of the Cornish for Thursday Market, and admired the statue of Sir Humphrey Davy, famous son of Penzance, in front of the granite portico of the Market Building, whose lantern floats above the town.

My guide recited a Clerihew:

Sir Humphrey Davy

Abominated gravy.

He lived in the odium

Of having discovered Sodium.

We entered the Tremenheere pub, where we met a greenkeeper from one of the local golf clubs. He said he usually votes Conservative but doesn’t know who he will back this time: “Who’s got the best lies?”

An unemployed chef said of Brexit in a judicious tone: “I don’t think there’s a completely wrong and right answer to it.”

A couple waiting for some food said they will be voting Lib Dem. After we had left them, I suggested to Stock that there did not seem to be many Lib Dems around.

He corrected this misapprehension: “Liberal Democrat, Remain types – they exist. They’re all over the place. They sit in the corners of pubs.”

He offered his gut feeling about the election result in St Ives: “It’s leaning Lib Dem, but I can’t for the life of me say why. It’s a Brexit area, right?”

Stock insisted no tour of the pubs of Penzance could omit the Seven Stars, a few yards down a street to the left of the Market Building. The pub was animated, eight or ten figures gesticulating at each other in front of the bar, which is decorated with photographs of Marilyn Monroe.

The music was too loud for interviews, but as we stood with one or two smokers in a covered passage outside, a fisherman came out and introduced himself as Matthew Price of the Ajax. He said:

“I don’t know. The country was given the opportunity – we voted out.

“The British Government is looking so weak it’s an embarrassment. We’ve had no one to lead us into Brexit.

“Theresa May – what a pisspoor choice. This country needed someone like Donald Trump.

“Someone who’s totally outspoken. Someone who’s not a politician. This country needs to have a backbone.

“What we need is a strong leader who’s not going to bullshit us.

“I like Boris Johnson for the simple fact he’s a bit outspoken, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, he’s not some political f—ing puppet.

“But I’m a big Margaret Thatcher fan.  She had the balls to shoot the Belgrano in the back.

“She turned round and said, ‘I’m sorry, this is war, it’s in English waters.’

“All I want is can we please have a government that has some backbone. This whole Brexit has been an embarrassment. We look weak on the world stage.”

Price remembered the night of the referendum: “I was on the boat, there was six on the boat, me and the skipper stayed up and watched it all night long.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in my lifetime apart from the Eurovision Song Contest.”

High seriousness, jokes and a mercurial sense of independence co-exist in West Cornwall. The Prime Minister might be well advised to go and assure the crew of the Ajax he is not going to let them down.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Ryan Bourne: Thatcher and Cameron made us happier

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Perhaps David Cameron had better foresight than he’s given credit for. At a Google conference in 2006, the then leader of the opposition declared “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general well-being.” With the financial crash ravaging the public finances through 2010 and conventional economic indicators in the doldrums, he risked opprobrium by tasking the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to measure wellbeing for the first time.

Well, his desire to be judged on such metrics now looks incredibly prescient. Never mind sluggish GDP growth throughout and after his premiership. Forget the polarisation of Brexit. The ONS’s latest wellbeing stats, released last week, show that the British people are significantly happier and more satisfied than back in 2011.

It really is remarkable. Every self-reported measure of wellbeing has improved near continuously in the past eight years. Asked on a 1-10 scale whether they are satisfied with their lives (0 being “not at all” to 10 “completely”), the public’s mean score has risen from 7.11 to 7.42, with the proportion answering 7 or above rising from 76 percent to 82 percent. This isn’t some anomaly either. How worthwhile we perceive our lives and self-reported happiness have been ever rising too, on average. Anxiety, meanwhile, has fallen, albeit having levelled out recently. If Cameron had convinced us of wellbeing’s central importance, we’d now be celebrating his wonderful legacy.

As it happens, of course, this “good news” got about as much coverage last week as a positive Brexit business story. Remainer demands for a new Brexit impact assessment show that pounds and pence are still king in UK politics (at least until there’s an EU regulation the same Remainers want us to follow). We free-marketeers were fearful, when subjective happiness metrics were introduced, that they’d become active targets of policy. We needn’t have worried. Political leftists’ attachment to them proved skin deep, falling away as soon as they suggested Britain was not hell on earth under the Tories.

But was classical liberals’ fear of such metrics misguided? Perhaps. Consider a new paper from researchers at the University of Warwick. Reviewing eight million publications digitized through Google Books, the study aims to construct longer-run indices of wellbeing from 1820 through to 2009. Its findings are even more jarring than the ONS stats.

Here’s how their index is put together. Use of positive words in published books, such as “cheerful,” “happy,” and “joyful,” are considered proxies for better subjective wellbeing. Negative words such as “sad” or “miserable,” are tallied up as measuring worse wellbeing. In short, the academics assume that in a happier world, more “happy words” would be written in published tomes.

Now, I was sceptical of that methodology. But they check their results against life satisfaction data over recent decades from Eurobarometer and the UN, finding strong correlations in the numbers. Emotive positive/negative language does appear to proxy well for self-reported wellbeing since the 1970s, when both sets of data are available. Having satisfied themselves of the methodology, the retrospective application to earlier periods produces fascinating results.

Wellbeing was consistently high in the UK in the 19th century, fell around the time of World War One, before then recovering. Unsurprisingly, it plunged again during World War Two, before rebounding to a lower peak. But the post-war phase is most striking, splitting clear into two obvious periods. From the 1950s to 1980 there was a sustained fall in wellbeing. After 1980, there was a dramatic rebound, fitting with Eurobarometer data showing a sustained improvement in life satisfaction in the UK over the past 40 years. Britain’s life satisfaction index since 1950 is therefore distinctly V-shaped.

What might explain this dramatic inflection circa 1980? Social trends would surely be a slower burner. People had been getting better off between 1950 and 1980 too, so this is about more than rising wealth. No, there’s one rather obvious explanation fitting the time trend: the UK’s abandonment of its quasi-socialist economic model and embrace of Thatcherism.

Such a thesis is supported by the fact the US experienced a near identical V-trend in its index centred around the launch of Reaganism. Germany, in contrast, saw wellbeing completely flatline from the 1950s onwards. Neoliberalism’s birth, it seems, facilitated sustained rises in wellbeing.

These findings dunk all over accepted truths. Claims from the Spirit Levellers that inequality and marketisation made us miserable are dismissed. If anything, the exact opposite appears true: the post-war period saw socialist equality beget misery. Life satisfaction rose with inequality through the 1980s and continued to rise once inequality settled at a higher level.

Nor can GDP or the labour market adequately explain the trends. Rising GDP per capita, other things given, would be expected to improve life satisfaction, and Britain’s economy did perform well relative to other countries after 1980. But growth was stronger in previous decades, when life satisfaction was falling. Wellbeing does not appear to have fallen after the financial crash either. Sure, tightening labour markets might explain some of the rise in wellbeing since 2011, but Britain had very high unemployment in the 1980s, just as life satisfaction took off.

No, the absence of clear outcomes-based economic explanations suggests that my friend Terence Kealey may be right. What might explain the reversal from 1980 is simply that we Anglo-Saxons value our economic freedom, above and beyond its GDP or employment impact. Economic liberty makes us happier.

The post-war period saw high tax rates, capital controls, Keynesian demand management, nationalisations, price and income controls, and high inflation. Afterwards we shifted towards freer trade and migration, lower taxes, lighter touch regulation, and free movements of capital. Of course, we’re not near libertopia; if anything the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions proved a brake on a longer-term government juggernaut. But there was a paradigm shift on economic freedom. We Brits, and our American cousins, found it deeply satisfying.

For a libertarian, this isn’t surprising. Our worldview is centred on the belief that individuals know best how to live their lives to improve wellbeing. Thatcher, of course, claimed her economic liberalisation agenda was in tune with the true instincts of the British people. All this suggests she may well have been right.

David Cameron had no such ideological inclinations. In fact, he probably advocated happiness metrics, in part, to distance himself from the supposed economics-obsessed “libertarian” wing of his party. How ironic then that the sorts of wellbeing measures he championed took off when classical liberals turned the tide on socialism, and strengthened through the “age of austerity.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Skelton on One Nation, and how Tories must take the lead in reviving towns which have been left to rot

Little Platoons: How a Revived One Nation Can Empower England’s Forgotten Towns and Redraw the Political Map by David Skelton

The rhetorical star of this book is Benjamin Disraeli. He did not invent the term “One Nation” – that distinction belongs, as Lord Lexden never tires of reminding us, to Stanley Baldwin.

But Disraeli is by far the most enjoyable and inspiring Tory for One Nation Conservatives to quote, and Skelton uses him very well. He reminds us that Disraeli rebuked the Whigs, after the Great Reform Act, for trying to establish “a utopia composed purely of wealth and toil”, based on a “spirit of rapacious covetousness”.

The Conservatives are today widely thought to be actuated by a “spirit of rapacious covetousness”, and to care only about the rich. The injustice of this claim does not make it any less damaging.

And the claim is in any case not totally unjust. Parts of the kingdom have been left behind, excluded from the prosperity enjoyed by the rest.

Labour is at least as to blame as the Conservatives for this sin of omission. That is one reason why Labour support in Scotland collapsed: for many decades it had taken its impoverished heartlands for granted.

And it is why Labour is now vulnerable in its English heartlands too.

Disraeli understood the alliance the Tories could make with the newly enfranchised working class. Skelton contends, convincingly, that the Tories can now connect with the patriotic working class which for decades has felt disenfranchised, but which in the 2016 referendum seized the chance to make its presence felt.

In his opening paragraph, Skelton reminds us that “of the 42 former coalfield areas, some 41…voted for Brexit”. He himself is from Consett, in the north-west corner of County Durham, which felt shut out from from politics since the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks on which for over a century the town’s fortunes had rested, and where men were proud to work:

“The steelworks was home to world-leading engineers, metallurgists and chemists and dozens of different types of craftsmen who passed these skills on to apprentices.”

One of Skelton’s grandfathers was a foreman fitter in the works, the other was a miner, or pitman as they preferred to be known, in the Durham and Northumberland coalfields.

There was immense local pride in the Consett works, and local control until nationalisation, which meant decisions about the future were taken hundreds of miles away, and essential investment in modernisation took second place to the need for public spending cuts.

A year after the closure of the works, a third of the men in Consett were unemployed. Low-paid, insecure jobs, for those who could get them, and low-quality training programmes whose chief purpose was to keep others off the dole, did not restore the dignity of labour to these craftsmen, but became a daily humiliation.

Nor did either of the main political parties have much to offer. Labour, a party created by the trade unions, ceased to take much interest in the fate of the working class once the power of those unions had been broken.

The unions could bring the country to a grinding halt: not an ideal state of affairs, but one which gave the working class, or its leaders, undeniable clout.

Here was a ladder of advancement for gifted trade union organisers who could get a political education, gain selection as Labour MPs and rise into the Cabinet. That stream of recruitment has pretty much dried up, and the party finds itself in the hands of an urban middle class which feels a greater affinity with Brussels, Berlin and Paris than with Consett.

Skelton’s chief purpose in this book is to trace the One Nation tradition in Conservative politics, and to argue that it needs to be rediscovered. He does it very well: again and again, one wonders if he has thought of, say, Iain Macleod, and up an apposite quotation pops.

Harold Macmillan is the hero of this account:

“He was probably the last Prime Minister with a genuine belief in ‘Toryism’ and the real importance of balancing economic efficiency with social justice. He had a burning desire that we must never again become ‘two nations’ and was convinced that government and private enterprise had an important role to play, together, in preventing that from happening. He believed in modernising industry and the country, but without the managerial indifference of Heathism or the retreat into liberal economic determinism. His One Nation was a profound belief in the common good and the fundamental national unity that makes us stronger.”

Under Margaret Thatcher, Macmillan’s spirit of pragmatic intellectual compromise started to sound a bit wet. Some of her Government’s successes – the Nissan works outside Sunderland, the start on regenerating Liverpool and the London docks – would not have happened without the state playing a leading role, but this was not the story she and her admirers told.

The Conservatives were gripped, in Skelton’s phrase, by “myopic economic liberalism”, the illusion that if only the Government got out of the way, recovery would occur of its own accord.

In Consett, this was not the case. It was a steel town which now produced no steel, and could not pull itself up by its bootstraps. Its most able and enterprising young people left: they went off to university and never came back.

Forty years on, Skelton reports, Consett is in large part a dormitory town for people who work in Newcastle or Durham:

“In contrast to the beauty of its surroundings, its town centre is still pockmarked by a collection of charity shops, bargain stores (including Consett’s enormous ‘Barry’s Bargain Store’, which has taken over the whole of the old indoor market), travel agents and bookmakers.”

Our country contains hundreds of towns like Consett. Often the handsome old buildings bear witness to former pride and prosperity, eclipsed in recent decades by demeaning and self-perpetuating shoddiness.

Few people with energy or talent want to settle here, or shop here, or set up new businesses. For about half a century many of these town centres have been left to rot, however prosperous and pretty the surrounding villages may be.

Skelton remarks that policy makers in London pride themselves on the regeneration of a dozen cities. He quotes with approval Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, who says

“this consensus that began under New Labour, and was embraced by George Osborne, sees cities as engines of economic growth with surrounding towns at best anchored to them and pulled along in their prosperous wake. This is a model that has neither provided nor defended the things that matter most in our towns: thriving local high streets, shared community institutions like libraries, post offices and community pubs, good public transport, work that gives dignity and meaning, green open spaces and time with families.”

Any Tory who wants to understand how a revived One Nation tradition can help to revive our towns should read Skelton’s book.

In a recent piece for ConHome, he itemised some of measures, including world-class infrastructure, the creation of “prosperity hubs” and a vocational education revolution, needed to transform our forgotten towns. This list, enlarged upon in the final chapter of the book, will not make every Tory heart beat faster.

There is, however, a Conservative with a remarkable command of language, and declared One Nation sympathies, who can take forward the revival of these neglected towns with a brio worthy of Disraeli and Macmillan.

Boris Johnson has recently been at pains to emphasise that we will remain a European nation: rhetoric with which he wishes to reassure Remainers that he does not intend to lead a retreat into barbarous isolation.

But in the forthcoming general election campaign, he will doubtless also seek to persuade working-class patriots who voted Leave, and who feel an intense love of country, that the regeneration of this nation must extend to its unloved towns.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

David Gauke: Whatever briefings from Downing Street may claim, an election fought on a No Deal platform would be disastrous

David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.

How much has the Conservative Party changed? To what extent has it moved from being a mainstream, centre-right party containing a broad range of views to being a party overwhelmingly focused on delivering an uncompromising Brexit?

It is a question I have asked myself a lot in recent months. Having fought off a deselection attempt because I opposed a No Deal Brexit, and having lost the Conservative whip because I continued to oppose a No Deal Brexit, it is hard to escape the conclusion that quite a lot of Conservatives disapprove of people who oppose a No Deal Brexit. Has the debate become so rancorous and intolerant that there is no longer a place for the likes of me in the Conservative Party?

The answer to that question is uncertain, but I took some encouragement from the Manchester Party conference.
I admit to attending with some trepidation. My position on Brexit is evidently a minority one within the Party. I have not sought to hide my criticisms of the substance and tone of the Government’s approach to Brexit. And I have not ruled out standing in my constituency as an independent if the whip is not returned. If ever I was going to get a hard time from Party activists, now would be the time.

And yet, at fringe event after fringe event, Party members were courteous and polite. Andrew Gimson generously wrote up my appearance at the ConservativeHome event, but a similar report could have been written for those I did with the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. Don’t get me wrong: I am not claiming that I won the audiences over to my position – the occasional eye-roll, sigh and shake of the head was detectable – but nor was there anything like the hostility one might expect if, for example, you ever read the comments below one of my ConHome articles.

In truth, the Conservative Party felt – in those fringe meetings, at least – very similar to the party of which I have been a member for 29 years. Sensible, practical, well-meaning and decent.

I also take some encouragement from the apparent, new-found enthusiasm within the Government to reach a deal on Brexit. In previous columns, I have argued that seeking a deal and being willing to compromise is the right approach. That view would appear to be in the ascendant at the time of writing.

Until recently, an alternative approach appeared to be prevailing which seemed determined to crash us out on  October 31 at any cost. I have previously acknowledged the electoral case for this strategy, but in terms of the outcome for the country, it is thoroughly irresponsible. As such, it is also a huge departure from the modern traditions of the Conservative Party.

Let me give seven examples of principles that most Conservatives would support. I would happily sign up to each and every one of them but I struggle to reconcile them with those pursuing a No Deal Brexit at any cost.

  • We believe that living standards can only be raised and public services properly funded if you have a strong economy.

It is the argument that we have to fight at every election when our opponents make great promises but we respond by pointing out that we have to create the wealth in the first place if we properly want to fund the NHS, for example. Yet the overwhelming economic consensus is that No Deal Brexit would result in a sharp contraction in GDP. And before anyone rushes to claim that this is all a re-run of 2016’s ‘Project Fear’, remember our economy is 2.5-3 per cent smaller than it would have been had Remain won.

  • We believe in free trade.

Open markets benefit both our exporters but also our consumers. This has not always been the Conservative position but, thankfully, it has been for some time. And I know that there are plenty of Brexiteers who are sincere free traders and think that Brexit provides great new opportunities for bringing down trade barriers.

Unfortunately, it is simply not true. The Government’s analysis shows the benefit of getting trade deals with all the English-speaking nations and the major emerging economies will be just 0.2 to 0.6 per cent of GDP whereas the loss of access to European markets of a Canada-style free trade agreement (let alone a no deal Brexit) will be 4 to 7 per cent of GDP. The net effect of a No Deal Brexit or even a Canada style FTA will be to make our economy less open and more protectionist.

  • We believe in fiscal responsibility.

This was the battleground of British politics from 2009 to 2015 when we made the case for getting the deficit down. The contraction of the British economy will inevitably result in deteriorating public finances. Add to that a political strategy which focuses on winning the support of traditional Labour voters which has meant that we are almost certainly already breaking our fiscal rules.  Remember when we criticised Labour for more borrowing and more debt?

  • We don’t believe that the Government should bail-out unviable industries or businesses.

As a statement, this sounds like a bit of a throw-back to the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher weaned the country off supporting lame-duck businesses. But what do we think would happen when businesses no longer became viable because of the impact of No Deal? The pressure to provide support ‘in order to deal with the temporary disruption’ will be immense. The Government has already prepared for this with Operation Kingfisher but removing that support will be very difficult politically. There is a risk that our economy will become much more corporatist than any time since the 1970s.

  • We believe in our national institutions – Parliament, the monarchy and the independent judiciary.

This should go without saying but when Number Ten briefs that the next election will be people versus Parliament, that the Prime Minister will ‘dare the Queen to sack him’, that the judiciary is biased and that the Government will not comply with the law, we don’t sound very conservative (to put it mildly).

  • We believe in national security and ensuring that we do all we can to protect our citizens from terrorism.

And yet a ‘source in No 10’ says we will withhold security co-operation from those countries that fail to block an extension. Meanwhile, the former head of MI6 says that our security depends upon co-operation with the EU and that leaving without a deal means we will have to ‘start again with a blank sheet of paper’. In addition, it is hard to see how any ‘no deal’ outcome doesn’t destabilise the Good Friday Agreement one way or another. The Prime Minister, it is reported, is increasingly concerned about the risk of an upsurge in terrorist activities by dissident republican groups.

  • We believe in the United Kingdom.

It is obvious that Brexit is placing a strain on the union. A No Deal Brexit would be likely to result in a border poll in Northern Ireland, especially with Stormont not sitting and some form of direct rule being necessary. As for Scotland, the chaos of a No Deal Brexit provides plenty of ammunition for the separatists.

Not every Conservative voter will agree with every single one of those principles, or my criticisms of a No Deal Brexit. But a Conservative Party that fights a general election with No Deal at its heart must know that it will be pursuing an approach that is such a radical departure from the traditions of the Conservative Party and that it is vulnerable to losing the support of millions of our longstanding supporters.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Martin Parsons: What is the point of the Commission for Countering Extremism?

Last year, the Government set up the Commission for Countering Extremism with a remit to “identify and challenge extremism in all its forms and provide the government with advice on the policies needed to tackle it.  And a few days ago, the Commission duly published its first major report: Challenging Hateful Extremism.

‘Extremism’ is a word that was little used in either the UK or USA prior to the 9/11 attacks. Look at political biographies of the post-war era, and you will see it occasionally used to refer to those at one of end of the mainstream political spectrum. In the pre-Thatcher era, it was actually used to describe those with the temerity to challenge the so-called ‘post-war consensus’ of a partly nationalised economy.

After 9/11, first in the USA, and then in the UK under Tony Blair, it primarily came to refer to Islamist extremism, meaning those holding more extreme views than what was sometimes called ‘mainstream Islam’. However, not only did this approach ignore non-Islamist extremism, but there were two more fundamental problems with it.

First, it became clear that Blair’s government had little understanding of the potential points of conflict between the legal and political aspects of what had been historically taught in classical Islam and the values of a free democratic society.

Second, this definition of extremism allowed the then Labour government to engage with a range of Islamist groups who were demanding, for example, a partial implementation of sharia law as a legal system in the UK. Blair’s government simply pointed to other Islamist groups which were even more extreme than those they were working with. Its policy even led to extremists being allowed to join the security services.

That is why during those years a number of us argued, including on ConservativeHome, that if ‘extremism’ was to be a useful term at all – it had to be defined as meaning extreme in relation to historic British values such as parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and one law applying equally to all people.

That paradigm shift was enacted when David Cameron’s Conservative led government came to power in 2010 – and some of the credit for that must go to ConservativeHome’s editor, Paul Goodman, who was shadow Communities minister for the period leading up to that. To some extent, however, determining what those ‘British values’ actually are remains contested territory, not least because of attempts by some social liberals to hijack them as the Casey Review did in 2016 (Casey incidentally is now part of the Commission’s expert group).

It is worth reflecting quite how much progress we have made in understanding and tackling extremism since 9/11. The official report into the 7/7 London bus and tube bombings concluded that we did not understand what motivated the bombers. Politicians and public figures went out of their way to blame various social factors such as deprivation. As someone who had just returned to the UK after several years living as an aid worker in Afghanistan, including under the Taliban, I was astonished at the lack of understanding of Islamist ideology.

That is why I find this first report from the new Commission for Countering Extremism so troubling. In one sense, it ignores the very substantial progress that has been made since 9/11. It provides no significant analytical framework for understanding extremism, contains a whole section on ‘drivers of extremism’ which describes five social factors – but ignores ideology.

Although one cannot adequately summarise a 139 page report in a few words, one of the key thrusts of the report is that it is critical of the Government’s current counter-extremism strategy because, among other reasons, its definition of extremism is too broad and not well understood.  The basis for this claim and for much of the report is a survey of just under 3,000 people undertaken by the Commission. At best, this was a questionable basis on which to base public policy recommendations, risking being little more than a large-scale focus group or simply reflecting the views of lobby groups.

In case you missed it, the Government’s definition of extremism set out at the beginning of the 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy is:

Extremism is the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values…Life in our country is based on fundamental values that have evolved over centuries, values that are supported and shared by the overwhelming majority of the population and are underpinned by our most important local and national institutions. These values include the rule of law, democracy, individual liberty, and the mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of different faiths and beliefs.

What the Commission found was that just over half of ‘practitioners’ who responded to its survey thought the government’s definition of extremism was helpful, but three quarters of the members of the public who responded did not. That may well mean that the Government needs to do more to promote it, help people to comprehend it – and, crucially, help people to understand the story of how these fundamental British values developed over the centuries.

However, what the Commission proposes is that instead the Government should replace the definition with something that they claim will be clearer and easier to understand: a focus on ‘hate’.

“We currently summarise this hateful extremism as:

Behaviours that can incite and amplify hate, or engage in persistent hatred, or equivocate about and make the moral case for violence;

And that draw on hateful, hostile or supremacist beliefs directed at an out-group who are perceived as a threat to the well-being, survival or success of an in-group;

And that cause, or are likely to cause, harm to individuals, communities or wider society.”

I am probably not alone in thinking that is a good deal less clear than the government’s definition. Not only that, it simply ignores the hugely problematic nature of ‘hate speech’ – particularly in English law, whereby any third party can, however unrelated to the event, claim that something is motivated by hate.

This has affectively allowed hate speech to be weaponised by various groups intent on censoring any public disagreement with their own ideological beliefs, which incidentally includes those intent on imposing an Islamic blasphemy law by the backdoor.

Yes, the Government’s definition of extremism could be tightened up a bit. For example, ‘equal treatment of all by the law’ would be better than ‘the rule of law’: after all, Islamists also believe in the latter – it just happens to be sharia.  However, Ministers have rightly shied away from including certain types of speech in the definition of extremism for fear of creating a sedition law. Free speech is after all one of our historic British values.

What this report admits we need – but fails to provide – is a counter-narrative.

In the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, provided a counter narrative to the extremism of the French revolution. In twentieth century, Winston Churchill, who had begun writing his History of the English Speaking Peoples prior to the Second World War, saw the narrative of how our democracy and freedoms had been established over the centuries as a counter narrative to Nazi ideology. During the Cold War those such as Roger Scruton and Margaret Thatcher actively sought to develop a counter narrative to Communist ideology.

That too should be a central role for the Commission for Countering Extremism.

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Matthew Lesh: The radical neoliberal programme which can revitalise the Conservatives

Matthew Lesh is the Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

As the flus from last week’s Conservative Party Conference slowly fade, it is worth turning our minds back to a conference that we must never forget.

It was the autumn of 1980. The country was facing economic turmoil. Decades of Keynesianism was taking its toll with high inflation and low growth.  But there was a leader, a radical neoliberal, who refused to accept the status quo or allow the doomsters to take her off course.  “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning,” Margaret Thatcher told Conservative Party Conference.

Thatcher unashamedly spoke not just of policy change but creating “a new independence of spirit and zest for achievement”. She called her administration “one of the truly radical ministries of post-war Britain”.

Boris Johnson’s party conference speech last week has been lauded for its political nous: get Brexit done, and fund the NHS and other public services.

This makes a lot of political sense, particularly for the party’s ‘Go Midlands, Go North’ strategy: the plan to win northern Leave working class areas who traditionally voted Labour Party.

But Johnson’s spending is frustrating to many free marketeers, who have traditionally found their home in the Conservative Party. Boris speaks of a “dynamic enterprise culture” and the Conservative Party’s history in pioneering “free markets and privatisation”. But so far there has been little meat on the bone, while the party is giving up its reputation for fiscal conservatism by committing to big-spending plans.

Politically, this approach undermines support from economic liberals in London and the Southeast. This danger is heightened by the likes of Sam Gyimah’s defection, signalling the acceptability of the Liberal Democrats to Tory economic liberals. With the Lib Dems also winning over the likes of Chuka Umunna there’s a danger the two main parties are seen by voters to leave the centre stage to the Liberal Democrats — and leave governing alone to the scrap heap of history.

To get a strong majority, Boris needs to win both Chelsea and Fulham as well as Stoke-on-Trent. He needs to be able to hold up his economic credentials to win back Remain-voting Conservatives voters – not just give them another reason to abandon the party.

But this balancing act is nothing new. Thatcher, despite some reforms to childcare and housing subsidies, oversaw a huge increase in social spending. She declared that the NHS is “safe with us” and bragged about “enormous increases in the amount spent on social welfare to help the less fortunate”. David Cameron similarly declared that the NHS is “safe in my hands,” while cutting taxes, introducing free schools and reforming welfare.

Thatcher and Cameron balanced public spending with undertaking fundamental free market economic reform to boost the economy. To ensure the Conservative Party remains a broad coalition, it is important that Boris’ free market rhetoric is given meaning. There needs to be some meat on the bone. The Conservative Party will be much weaker if it does not have a serious economic policy offering that creates a clear distinction with Labour.

On the political left, while many may disagree with their approach and ideas, there is undeniably a radical reimagining of policy and a clear agenda: a four day work week, shutting down private schools and nationalising industry.

Some on the Right have chosen to respond to the emboldened Left by adopting parts of their agenda in the hope of placating and preventing the worst. But, as Theresa May’s premiership displays being Labour-lite and adopting policies like the energy price gap, or nanny state policies like the sugar tax, simply does not work.

The Neoliberal Manifesto, a joint project between the Adam Smith Institute and 1828 released last week at the Conservative Party Conference, presents a positive vision for Britain’s future. In the past, the word “neoliberalism” has been twisted by those seeking to manufacture a strawman on which to blame every societal ill.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Neoliberals are champions of freedom. We want government to protect and facilitate your ability to flourish; we believe in the power and ability of each individual; we believe in doing what is most effective; we are optimistic about the future; we support market intervention to address specific issues but reject paternalism; we are cosmopolitan and outward-looking to the world.

The manifesto calls for a liberal, free market approach to trade that encompasses cutting tariffs and pursuing deals based on the principle of mutual recognition. It declares that need to reform Britain’s outdated planning laws to allow for the building of more houses to fix Britain’s housing crisis. The manifesto also calls for a simpler, fairer tax system by getting rid of stamp duty and allowing capital expenditures to be expensed in full immediately.

On migration, it calls for a liberal system that brings the most talented people to our nation. On education, it explains the need for more choice. On innovation and technology, it calls for an optimistic approach defined by permissionless innovation.  It also calls for a liberal approach to drugs and personal choices, a compassionate but cost-effective approach to welfare, and addressing climate change without sinking our economy.

Many of these ideas are radical, and today can be expected to receive a mixed reception. But we think that our politicians should lead from the front, not the back. These policies are not designed with the idea of what may or may not be popular today, but rather setting the agenda for the future.

While not every action she took was immediately popular, Thatcher’s agenda transformed the country for the better and proved a politically successful formula across three general election victories. Cameron similarly won a majority after undertaking difficult decisions.

If the Government does not have an offering for people who want lower taxes and the state to live within its means, they risk unexpected losses.  Johnson can follow in the footsteps of successful leaders with his own liberal, free market agenda.

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Moore on Major’s part in Thatcher’s downfall, and why she considered women superior to men

On Monday night, Boris Johnson hailed Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher as “the greatest recent work of biography” and “the greatest work of modern British history”.

Johnson observed that at the heart of the third and final volume, Herself Alone, now published, lies “a single glittering and terrible event, an assassination”, and said of those who carried it out: “They are all honourable men, Brutus, Cassius and the rest.”

In this interview, Moore describes the conduct of John Major during her downfall as “not noble, but understandable”, though had she known Major was playing a double game, and was “shafting” her, she would not have “anointed him her heir”.

And Moore explains why Thatcher regarded women, not as the equals of men, but as their superiors. For women

“suffer from fewer illusions, they’re closer to reality, more conscientious, and more aware of the human factor, and less likely to be patronising, pompous and jargon-ridden.”

Moore has written a history, so declined to speculate about how Thatcher, who died in 2013, would regard the present Prime Minister. But he did remark on one of the reasons for her success:

“People were always telling her she must have a strategy. She said no, I mustn’t, because politics isn’t like that. So what she had is big aims, and big principles, but no strategy. 

“And this used to drive people, particularly with a business background, mad. Her phrase for it was, ‘We don’t want to get stuck on graph paper.’”

Johnson is always being told he must have a plan, when what he actually has is a big aim. He can perhaps derive some comfort from his great predecessor’s example.

ConHome: “What influence has Thatcher had on women politicians today?”

Moore: “Well of course a lot of women politicians admire her, or are very interested in her – Liz Truss for example, Priti Patel and Nicola Sturgeon – the last not being a fan in terms of her politics, but a student of how she did it.

“Only a very foolish aspiring politician, particularly a woman politician, would not be interested in her.

“There is a school of thought, I see, from Corbynistas that she is almost literally the devil incarnate – there’s nothing to learn from her except how to exorcise her spirit.

“But otherwise I’ve found that people right across the political spectrum study her, and the particular thing they’re interested in is, from the woman point of view, how do you do it, how do you thrive in what even now is probably a man’s world, though of course she so comprehensively shattered the glass ceiling that it is much less of a man’s world.”

ConHome: “You’ve said in the last few days that she reckoned women are better than men. Did she actually say that?”

Moore: “She didn’t say it in so many words. But she liked Kipling, ‘more deadly than the male’; she said the famous thing about the cocks may crow but the hen lays the eggs, and she said that men just talk and women do.

“And all those things plus lots and lots of other things amount to saying women are better than men as – not needless to say in every respect – but they suffer from fewer illusions, they’re closer to reality, more conscientious, and more aware of the human factor, and less likely to be patronising, pompous and jargon-ridden.”

ConHome: “Do you agree with all that?”

Moore: “Well it’s not really for me to agree or disagree. I think she exhibited the truth of some of those propositions.”

ConHome: “Did John Major help you with this book?”

Moore: “Yes, a lot.”

ConHome: “Because he’s quite astute about the whole thing, when she’s in desperate trouble in November 1990 and he’s having his wisdom teeth out, but his conduct is also a little bit underhand.”

Moore: “You need to read that very closely, and it’s very subtle and clever of him, the way he shafted her.

“And it’s important to be fair to him on this. He did shaft her, he did conspire against her, I think that’s undoubted.

“But it was very difficult for him, because if he felt there was good reason to think that after not doing well enough on the first ballot she ought to go, it was natural for him to have the ambition to succeed her.

“And if his nomination had gone through for her on the second ballot, he would not have been able to compete to succeed her.

“So that’s why he did this very complicated manoeuvre, which I expose, by which he only promised to nominate her on condition that his nomination was not used.

“And she did not know that. And if she had known that, she would not have anointed him her heir.

“So the effect was to deceive her. But I wouldn’t say the motive was ignoble. I’d say it was not noble, but understandable.

“Because she was going anyway. There was a danger of being linked to a corpse. He didn’t bring her down. He was one of many who did not try to prevent her fall.

“He was positioning himself very carefully and very well.”

ConHome: “In one of our previous conversations, you said that among other things she was ‘a great twister and turner’, as well as a conviction politician.

“Would you say that is an indispensable part of politics? You have to adapt to circumstance, and circumstance changes.

“People have this naive idea of politics that as long as you have a plan, and it’s the right plan, and you stick to it, everything will be fine.

“But of course, nothing could be more damaging, once circumstances change.”

Moore: “Exactly. Because if you say you’re going to go along that railway line, and in fact you’ve learned there’s a carriage lying across it, your promise to go down that railway line must be aborted if you wish yourself and everyone else to survive.

“And she knew that. The way she expressed it was always to do with her resistance to the idea of having a strategy. People were always telling her she must have a strategy.

“She said no, I mustn’t, because politics isn’t like that.

“So what she had is big aims, and big principles, but no strategy.

“And this used to drive people, particularly with a business background, mad.

“Her phrase for it was, ‘We don’t want to get stuck on graph paper.’”

ConHome: “Yes. In fact Boris is rather like that, having big aims, but no strategy.”

Moore: “Yes. She was more focussed in her aims I think than Boris, and she had more of them. And she knew much more about the detail than Boris.

“But it was the same essential political understanding of the need for tactical flexibility.

“A famous example is her capitulation to the miners in 1981. She wasn’t ready. Which made it absolutely clear to her that she had to be ready for the miners when they next came round, which was in 1984. And she was ready.”

ConHome: “The Tories are very good at putting on these tremendous leadership contests every 20 or 30 years.”

Moore: “Every 20 or 30 minutes now.”

ConHome: “Did her manners get worse towards the end of her time in office? I remember John Whittingdale saying he’d never seen anyone be as rude to anyone as she was to Geoffrey Howe.”

Moore: “I think they did get a bit worse, but I think it’s partly because the context was different. She’d been the doyenne, the senior leader of the western world, the longest-serving from 1982 onwards, and very dominant at home, with three resounding victories under her belt.

“So there were fewer and fewer people who could answer her back, and she fights fiercely if they do, and that deters them, and they get more resentful.

“Howe and Lawson were the only two remaining senior ones, and they fall out with her.

“So there’s almost nobody who can say, ‘Come on Margaret, stop it.’ Denis can. He couldn’t stop her remaining in office. He tried to get her out in May ’89, but she wouldn’t do it.”

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The Extinction Rebellion protesters are far more conservative than they realise

It is easy to mock almost every aspect of the Extinction Rebellion protests. It can be annoying to find the streets blocked by protesters who claim “governments are doing nothing” and “businesses are doing nothing” about climate change.

But although mockery is tempting, it would also be a mistake. For it would obscure the profound conservatism of these protesters.

Their street theatre conceals a traditional outlook. They are anxious not just to recapture the first fine careless rapture of the 1960s. They want most sincerely to preserve the planet. What conservative, or Conservative, objects to such a motive?

From a political point of view, it would be madness to suppose that scornful contempt is the right reaction. Many of these protesters are young, and Conservatives are already sufficiently unpopular among the young without picking a fight about climate change.

And if one characterises the protesters as a load of hysterical, self-indulgent, grandstanding idiots, it becomes pretty much impossible at the same time to persuade anyone that Conservatives take the environment seriously.

This does not mean agreeing with every word uttered by Greta Thunberg. Nor does it mean getting into an auction about how quickly the United Kingdom can achieve zero emissions of greenhouse gases.

It simply means demonstrating that Conservatives are committed to sensible, practical policies to protect every aspect of the environment, without destroying the British economy.

As the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday evening, Margaret Thatcher took climate change seriously long before most of the Extinction Rebellion protesters were born.

She prided herself on being a scientist. Science, she knew, is the ally of environmental protection, and on 26th April 1989 she convened an all-day seminar in Downing Street on climate change.

As Charles Moore relates in the final volume of his biography of her, the scientists were astonished by her ability to ‘preside as if she’d presided over science meetings all her life’, while the Cabinet ministers who were made to attend were grumpy that they had to keep quiet and listen to what the scientists had to say.

It would be surprising if, within the next few weeks, Boris Johnson were able to find a whole day he can devote to such an exercise. But he will be well aware of the need to do something like this in the fairly near future.

He has already pointed out that once Brexit has taken place, the United Kingdom can impose a ban on the live export of animals. A sovereign country has the ability to act, rather than merely to preach.

But in order to mobilise public opinion behind the rapid reduction of harmful emissions, it will be essential to show that this can be achieved without wrecking the economy.

The answer is not, as one might guess from the Extinction Rebellion protests, to start living in tents, pitched wherever these can cause maximum inconvenience.

The new technologies required to reduce emissions will come from businesses and universities which set out to find better ways of doing things.

This ought not to be a difficult argument for Conservatives to make. There is no disagreement about the objective, which is a healthy and sustainable planet.

The dispute is about how to attain that end. Is it best to take to the streets, declaring that the end is nigh? Or to work at developing and implementing practical solutions?

For a few days, taking to the streets may fill a moral need to stand up and be counted.

There was a time when the trade unions had to be taken seriously because they could bring the country to a halt. Extinction Rebellion perhaps envisages a similar role for itself.

But in the end, the politics of protest only get one so far. Bringing the country to a halt is only worth doing if it can be set going again on new and better terms. And that pragmatic task demands political leadership, which each new generation of Conservatives has to show it is better equipped than its rivals to provide.

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Neil O’Brien: Fifty shades of conservatism

Neil O’Brien is MP for Market Harborough.

You might say socialism and liberalism are ideologies, while Conservatism is more like a character trait. But that’s not quite right. Socialism and liberalism are ideologies about maximising one thing, be it equality or freedom. In contrast, Conservatives believe in a wider variety of ideals.

So what kind of conservative are you?

Since the classic Liberal party gave way to Labour, we’ve been the party of the free market and sound money, even more so since the Thatcher/Reagan era. The free market is a such huge part of what we are about, it tends to dominate, but there’s much more to conservatism.

Perhaps you are a law and order Conservative: patron saint Thomas Hobbes, who, inspired by his experience of the civil war, observed that without strong authority and law and order, life tends to be “nasty, brutish and short.”

But in a nice example of how conservative ideas fit together, a strong law and order policy is also a One Nation policy: because who suffers when there is crime and disorder? Those who live in the most deprived fifth of neighbourhoods are 50 per cent more likely to be victims of crime than those in the richest fifth.

Or perhaps you are a constitutional conservative. Do you believe in keeping the Monarchy? A House of Lords that isn’t elected? Do you believe in keeping first past post elections, and an unwritten constitution? Do you believe in the common law and rule of law? Those ideas are more important now Labour believes in expropriation of your pension, your shares, your house, and anything else that isn’t screwed down.

Perhaps you’re a conservative because you believe in Liberty. Habeas Corpus. Limits on Government. Legal protection of personal and family life. Liberty always raises contentious issues like hunting or drugs. Or think of recent cases like the gay marriage cake. I thought the courts got it right: a business can’t refuse to serve gay people, but people can’t be made to promote political views they don’t hold, even if I disagree with those views.

What do we think about the growing deployment of live facial recognition technology in public places? Liberty lovers might want to ban it. Law and order fans might want to allow it.

Liberty-loving conservatism can also clash with another ideal – social conservatism. Are you worried about family breakdown? What do you think about transgender issues? What do you think about full facial veils? That question pits liberty against traditional pattern of our society. France banned them, we allow them.

Do you think what you get out of the welfare system should be linked to what you put in? And how should we make choices about immigration: do we just think about migrants’ skills and earnings, or how easily they will integrate into our culture? I incline to the latter view.

One big idea that I think fits under social conservatism is the idea of the nation state. National self-determination and the lack of a shared European demos powers the idea of Brexit, but it also explains why we are prepared to make compromises to try and keep the United Kingdom together.

Zooming down from the nation to the individual, conservatism is about individual self-reliance. That’s why we strongly support individual home ownership. Mrs Thatcher expressed this well. She said that people: “are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

Things like the doubling of the Income Tax Personal Allowance and the National Living Wage – and also welfare reforms – are about self reliance. George Osborne was onto something when he talked about a “higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare spending” society. Personally, I believe tax should be based on the ability to pay, and so we should bring back the higher tax allowances for children Labour abolished in the 1970s.

But conservatives don’t just believe in individualism. We are the society party. Civic conservatives know that many problems can’t be solved by either the free market or the state. David Cameron said: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” When we think about problems like loneliness in an ageing society, we can only solve them by catalysing and helping voluntary groups and family life. The Big Society may have been a good idea, badly timed. But the ideal of voluntary action remains very attractive, I find particularly to younger conservatives.

Conservatism is also about gradualism. Burke attacked the French revolution as a huge, risky, leap-in-the-dark.
Gradualism is behind all our biggest policy successes. Welfare reforms started under Peter Lilley, continued under New Labour, and then under another Conservative government – and now have the record employment. The academy schools programme also spanned governments: from Kenneth Baker to Gavin Williamson.

In contrast, Socialists believe in utopian leaps. In the USSR and under China’s Great Leap Forward millions died, yet John McDonell still says, “I am a Marxist”. In contrast we should be proud gradualists. What do we want? More use of evidence. When do we want it? After randomised control trials.

As well as gradualism, Conservatism is about pluralism and decentralisation. Environmentalists have shown us why it is dangerous to have a monoculture of anything, because if things then go wrong, they do so on a huge scale. Think about the Irish potato famine.

Take a more recent policy example: during the heyday of disastrous progressive teaching methods, they swept all before them. But independent schools and grammar schools were a bastion for traditional methods (like phonics), which could then make a comeback after trendy methods failed.

Devolution allows experimentation. In the US they say the states are “laboratories of democracy”. Ideas like welfare reform or zero tolerance policing were tried locally and taken up nationally when they worked. Conservatives also believe in pluralism in a deeper way. People have different ideas of the good life.

That’s one reason I think we should keep the honours system – to recognise those who are motivated by something other than money, whether they want to serve their country on the battlefield, or help their community by running a youth club. That should inform our thoughts on things like childcare. Do we just focus on maximising employment or education? Or let people choose if they want to be stay at home parents?

I’m sure readers will point out things I’ve missed. But those are some of the main elements of Conservatism.
Law and order. The Constitution. Liberty. Social Conservatism. Civic Conservatism. Individual-self reliance.
Gradualism. Pluralism. Ideas that are sometimes in tension, but which fit together.

Conservatism is a bit like the roof of parliament’s Westminster Hall: which is held up by a lot of huge, ancient beams all resting on each other. Likewise, the elements of conservatism fit together, and have also made something really strong and enduring.

This article is based on a contribution by the author to a Centre for Policy Studies event, “Free Exchange: The case for conservatism”, at last week’s Conservative Party Conference.

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Rob Colvile: Here’s how to show that the Left doesn’t have a monopoly on compassion

Robert Colvile is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies. His new report ‘Popular Capitalism’ is published today and available at cps.org.uk.

“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.”

I was struck when I read those words by Paul Goodman on ConservativeHome this week – because they were almost identical to ones I had just written:

“Many on the Left appear to believe – and are eager to tell the world – that they have a monopoly not just on compassion, but basic humanity. To be a conservative, in their view, is simultaneously illegitimate and inhumane. It is to hate the poor and love the rich, to put profits above people, to be wrong not just on the facts, but in your heart. And the same is true of being a capitalist.”

That section comes from the introduction to a new essay, published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, called Popular Capitalism. It is my attempt to explain why support for the free market is not just pragmatic, on the grounds that it is the best tool we have yet found to create and share prosperity, but deeply moral – because it trusts people enough to give them more control of their own lives.

Thinking about this, it struck me that arguably the best path to convincing people of the merits of capitalism is to extent Vote Leave’s famous slogan – “Take Back Control” – to the domestic agenda. For politicians to make it clear that their priority is to promote ownership and opportunity, enterprise and aspiration.

The essay, of course, suggests concrete ways of doing this, based on our policy programme at the Centre for Policy Studies. We suggest raising the National Insurance threshold so that everyone gets the first £1,000 a month they earn tax-free; addressing public concerns over the fairness of the welfare system by ensuring that it treats you more kindly if you have proved worthy of trust; addressing the ownership crisis that scars our society by incentivising landlords to sell to tenants, and providing those tenants with the core of a deposit; and freeing small businesses from the burden of tax and administration by offering them the chance of paying a simple levy on turnover.

All of these policies are fully developed, fully tested and – according to our research – extremely popular. But they also say something very profound: that the politicians adopting them really are concerned about the many rather than the few.

One of the most alarming things about the current Labour leadership – aside from its attempt to elevate “Never kissed a Tory” into a principle of moral supremacy – is how adroitly it has stolen its enemies’ clothes. Popular capitalism, in its original form, was a brilliant Thatcher-era coinage, reflecting both the desire to widen participation in the economy (by giving people homes to own and shares to buy), and to make capitalism popular by proving that people could benefit from it.

Today, Labour talk relentlessly about ownership. But where Thatcher told people (rightly) that militant trade unions were preventing them from having the freedom to live good lives, John McDonnell tells people (wrongly) that “the Tories” and “the bosses” are doing the same.

Labour is selling its renationalisation plans, for example, as being about taking from “the shareholders” and giving to the people. To the many, from the few.

Of course, the devil is very firmly in the detail. Labour’s plans for employee ownership of companies, for example, turn out to involve a massive tax grab by the state – and a blocking vote for trade unions on corporate boards.

Or take the nationalised industries. These, Labour argue, should be run by a harmonious alliance of customers, workers (represented via their union leaders), the community (represented via council placemen or Left-wing activists), and the wise hand of government.

But what happens when these interests collide? What happens when the unions want a pay rise that is against the interests of the customers?

And what happens when the customer is dissatisfied? Under a nationalised system, they cannot take their money elsewhere. They have lost control in a fundamental way.

The moral of this story is that competition – in both public and private services – is not just good, but essential. Example after example shows that the key to driving up performance is to put power in the hands of customers and consumers. Because no matter how much you venerate doctors and nurses and teachers, the brutal fact is that any organisation run by human beings will – without a corrective mechanism – come to be run for the convenience of those self-same human beings.

In the two years since I took over the Centre for Policy Studies – the think tank founded by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher – I keep coming back to those original speeches and pamphlets that set the Thatcherite agenda. And one of the most striking things is the moral streak that runs through them – especially through the speeches of Thatcher herself.

So often, she grounds her remarks in a point of moral principle, proceeding outwards to apply that principle to the political environment.

It is a style of rhetoric that sounds utterly alien to modern ears. But one of its main effects was that people very certainly knew who and what she was for. As she told her first party conference as leader: ““Policies and programmes should not be just a list of unrelated items. They are part of a total vision of the kind of life we want for our country.”

It is impossible to overstate the difficulties faced by Thatcher and those around her as they wrested the British economy on to a better course in the 1980s. The fact that Britain has a private sector that basically works, that it has millions more people in employment, that inflation has been tamed, that our lives are not disrupted by strike after strike, that we can afford to pay for our public services – all of these are ultimately down to the reforms she pioneered.

Yet in retrospect, it is clear that the reformers of those days had one under- appreciated advantage. If they wanted to show why they were right, they could simply say: “Look around you.” Their radical diagnosis of Britain’s problems could only be implemented because voters had lost all patience with the alternative.

Today, a free-marketeer invoking that phrase might seem, to harsher critics, more like Ozymandias, inviting those admiring his statue to survey what amounts to ruins. Or, to put it more prosaically, if people today see our society as capitalist, then they see the problems with it as the product of capitalism.

This is why defenders of capitalism cannot be satisfied with the status quo. They need to show how they can make people’s lives better – to accept that their problems are real, rather than telling them that they may not own a home, but at least they have an iPhone.

Arthur Brooks, the outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute, has a beautiful way of challenging his fellow conservatives on this issue. Why, he asks, do you get up in the morning? Is it to entrench the power and wealth of those who already have power and wealth? Or is it to expand the power and wealth of those who do not have them?

If it is the former, he says, you are doing evil. If it is the latter, you are doing good.

All conservatives, in other words, need to dedicate themselves to giving people opportunity. To giving them ownership. To giving them control.

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