Chris Bullivant: If free market and social conservatives find common ground, they could be unstoppable
Chris Bullivant is a freelance writer who has led two think tanks in Westminster and worked on K Street in Washington.
The withdrawal from the European Union ends a long and bitter split within the Conservative Party between eurosceptics and europhiles. There is no longer any need for MPs (or former Prime Ministers) to resuscitate a divide long healed by the results of 2016, 2017 and the two of 2019. In fact, in putting aside this divide, the Conservatives created a huge electoral success story.
Yet talk of a ten-year rule is over-egged. While the commitment to ‘get Brexit done’ unified many to vote Conservative, once achieved what will keep people voting Conservative, especially those from across traditional party lines?
The answer is to develop policy and narrative cross-pollinated by two influential, fully formed, but quite separate wings of the Party: that of social conservatives and economic liberals.
Having helped lead both a socially conservative think tank and a free market think tank, my observation is that personnel in SW1 from either camp rarely shared networks, pubs, or social media followers, with few opportunities for sharing each others’ language or ideas.
They are two sides of the same coin: occupying the same space but looking at the world with totally different perspectives.
Economic liberals are committed to the freedom of the individual to make their own choices: free from the state, free to do whatever they want, in particular to make profits free of regulation, because it is only profit that creates prosperity in a country.
Free market conservatives often overlap with social liberals who argue for freedom from the state for what we do in private. The freedom to view pornography, smoke weed, or consume sugary foods, is an inalienable right that should not be policed by the Government.
The other wing of the Party, social conservatives, is known to stand for marriage, family, and to have promoted ideas like ‘back to basics’ and ‘broken Britain’.
The two ends have different, and on the surface, competing visions of how to achieve a free society. Social conservatives believe traditional institutions outside of the government are best at assisting the individual to live the good life. Free market thinkers, and their social liberal colleagues, simply want maximum freedom of choice for the individual, usually with an onus on the individual to achieve success in the market.
Assuming there’s any truth to this observation that never the twain shall meet, it would make sense.
The social liberal sees government regulation of private, personal choices as the Church having been replaced by Government – who now heed the latest doctrines of the media-university-public sector complex.
To the free marketeer, social conservatives add to the problem, by promoting restrictive kill-joy policies like marriage, chasteness, and prohibition.
And yet this suspicion is to profoundly misunderstand social conservatives.
Social conservatism is about maximising people’s capacity to participate in the market – believing that for the market to be free, people need to be free to take advantage of it.
The work of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), for example, is an exciting reframing of poverty concerned with maximising the freedom of the individual – and being realistic about how it’s done.
They use a simple formula: a family, a job, a school, maintaining good health, and living within your means, are intrinsic to being able to do life well.
When I worked there I met a lot of people up and down the country who agreed with this basic outlook. They worked with poorly qualified young people, with the vulnerably housed, addicts, or sink estates, many in traditional Labour-voting areas.
Few of those I met voted Conservative, but they spoke the language of social conservatism – because it’s how life works. Family done well provides security and emotional development. Education done well nurtures and socialises the individual, gets you ready for entering the workplace and adult life. Work and saving is good, it affirms an individual’s dignity. Over time it should allow for increasing economic liberty. And freedom from addiction means your capacity to choose is not increasingly limited.
Yet to free market socially liberal conservatives, talk about family, education, and in particular policy related to substance addiction, smacks of state intervention in the private sphere. In the name of liberty, they mount opposition to the very means by which more people could participate in the market.
And this is where social conservatives make a vital contribution to policy formation. There are significant, not negligible, numbers of people who do not have all five of these socially conservative assets. In fact, too many don’t even have a positive experience of one of them, in turn reducing their capacity to enjoy the market.
To the man who went from foster-care and graduated the youth justice system with no parents, no job, no savings, and no schooling, marijuana legalisation is the final nail in the coffin of his life chances. It doesn’t matter that he won’t be arrested for possession; he will be incarcerated in a fog of diminished decision-making capacity, less socialisation, more chaos with one additional substance available for insulating him from the market.
On the other hand, most (but by no means all) SW1 think tankers have a positive experience of these socially conservative assets. For them, the additional liberty of, say, legalisation of the consumption of marijuana, is an added bonus.
Meanwhile back at the grassroots, the language of social and economic liberals is remote and irrelevant. It is part of a tidal wave of policy aimed at destroying the very things they know make a person function. Policy papers on relaxation of pro-social norms are the heady indulgence of the elite. They’d much rather hear the ‘common sense’ of social conservatives.
Friends, family, voluntary groups, charities, and churches, provide the assets by which individuals are able to maximise their liberty – and at the same time the very fruits of that liberty, the very point of a free market economy. They are the layers of existence between the individual and the state that give life meaning.
Social conservatives simply ask whether Government policy helps or hinders enjoyment of these assets. This is an argument that should appeal to economic liberals – because it is to ask, ‘How do you get the Government out of the way of people making a success of life?’
For example, we don’t need Government to create a legal marijuana market to regulate and tax, when it defies common sense in helping revitalise left-behind regions.
If putting aside Europhilia allowed the Conservatives to win big in 2019, how much more might putting aside the misunderstandings between these two tribes create massive electoral appeal, as well as a reason to govern for ten years?
These two sides of the Party need to talk to each other more.
Because social policy without free-market input can drift toward a lifeless focus on public sector reform, or a cul-de-sac of charity speak divorced from opportunity.
Free market groups disinterested in ‘how’ individuals participate in the free market can end up presenting a narrow vision of tax breaks or come across as uncaring – blaming individuals for their poverty.
Neither public sector reform nor freedom to eat a high salt pot noodle are a big enough vision to appeal to those left behind by London’s prosperity; nor to balkanised minorities who think only Labour can protect their rights; nor young people who think big-picture socialism is the key to ending inequality or helping the environment.
When these two tribes increasingly work and talk together, it will be a powerful force to inspire a decade of conservatism that is both principled and mission driven, that is both strong in theory and in practical action grounded in reality. Together, an unstoppable force.
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