Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
In the 1930s and 40s, the US military established military bases across the south Pacific. As a result remote island cultures, with little or no contact with the outside world, suddenly found themselves face-to-face with the might of twentieth century America. Though the islanders were in no position to understand the outsiders’ technology, for a brief moment they were able to share in its benefits. But then something terrible happened: the visitors went away again.
It may be that some of the islanders were happy to see the back of the Americans, but others were desperate for the visitors — and their hitherto unimaginable wealth — to return. Indeed, in some places that longing took on a religious aspect.
So-called cargo cults sprang up in numerous locations. Cult practices sometimes took the form of ritually re-enacting the mysterious things that the visitors got up to — like clearing landing strips in the jungle. In other cases, mock aircraft were created out of local materials and symbols like the Red Cross reproduced as objects of reverence. The hope was that such rites would somehow bring back what had been lost.
Cargo cults might seem ridiculous to us — and in fact the term itself has fallen out of academic favour for that very reason. However, we westerners would be foolish to assume that we’re not susceptible to the same kind of thinking. Instead of working through the challenges that face us in the here-and-now, it is often easier to re-enact scenes from an imagined heyday.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with respecting the past and trying to learn from it. But equally we must be aware that our problems are constantly changing, and the solutions that we apply must change with them.
I’m worried that a discombobulated Conservative Party has forgotten this. Consider, for instance, our response to the return of inflation — and the criticism directed at the Bank of England for not getting on top of it. Clearly, we’ve got a major problem on our hands, but the idea that we can solve it by yanking up interest rates — because that’s what worked before — is pure cargo cultism.
The inflationary monster today is not the same beast that was slain in the 1980s. Nor does its origin lie in the last decade or so of very low interest rates, otherwise it would have shown itself years ago. Rather, the beast was born out of the extraordinary disruption to global supply chains caused by the pandemic and compounded by Putin’s war.
There was a furious reaction when the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, suggested that policymakers were helpless in the face of these inflationary pressures. Bailey could have chosen his words more carefully, but he’s a lot closer to the truth than those who believe that UK interest rates can control global commodity prices.
Other Conservatives see a lack of growth as a bigger problem than rocketing prices. In the long term, they’re probably right — but they’re wrong about the means by which they want to revive the economy: i.e. tax cuts. Again, we see a demand for the ritual re-enactment of policies from the Thatcher era; but the conditions that applied then don’t apply now.
We’re not perpetually on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve. Rather our number one economic problem is the chronic failure of British business to invest in productivity improvements — despite the incentives of lower Corporation Tax, cheap migrant labour and minimal borrowing costs. The Chancellor acknowledged this structural impediment in his Mais Lecture earlier this year, but even he felt the need to appease the tax cut fetishists in his ill-fated Spring Statement.
The ritual re-enactment of past triumphs isn’t limited to economic policy. The Conservative cargo cult is also attempting to resurrect the Right to Buy. To widespread groans, the Government has dusted off a policy to extend the Right so that housing association tenants can buy their homes too.
This is fine in principle, but the offer isn’t attractive without a hefty discount on the market value of the relevant properties— and who is going to pay for that? First proposed in 2015, the Government has already tried, and failed, to make this policy work. There’s no reason to suppose that a second attempt will be any more successful. One has to ask whether a serious effort will be made at all — or whether the announcement was just an excuse to conjure up the past.
However, I don’t want to give the impression that the conservative cargo cult is only about the 1980s. Thatcherite nostalgia is big part of it, but there are more recent triumphs to hark back to — not least, our miraculous escape from the clutches of the EU.
However, the problem with getting Brexit done is that you can’t do it again. Or can you? One fears that the main reason why the government has chosen this moment to unpick the Northern Ireland Protocol is that it needs a Brexity distraction. But if they think they can summon up the spirit of 2019, they’re badly mistaken. Brexit was about getting the EU out of our lives and allowing the UK to forge its own path. That means levelling-up and shaping and economy that works for everyone, not refighting old battles.
That’s why my heart sank when I read about Suella Braverman’s call to bring back the Conservative Party’s torch logo. Digging up this old totem really would be the ultimate cargo cult move. But anyone who thinks that dressing up in Margaret Thatcher’s clothes is going to stop Labour from taking back the Red Wall or the Liberal Democrats from making in-roads down South is deluding themselves.
If the Conservative Party really wants to honour its past, then, like Thatcher, it must fearlessly face-up to and tackle the problems of the present. If that means breaking new ground and attempting the previously impossible, then so be it. After all, our greatest duty to tradition is to take it forward into the future.