David Skelton is the author of The New Snobbery.
In October 1958, Harold Macmillan gave his second conference speech as Prime Minister and party leader. Here was a man at the peak of his political powers, who would a year later lead his Party to a thumping election win.
Rather unusually for a man of his verve and swagger, Supermac spent part of his speech talking about the nature of his political philosophy.
He differentiated Toryism from liberalism and Socialism with a characteristically fine turn of phrase. Macmillan argued that his opponents were living:
“…either in the past or in a world of make-believe. The pure doctrine of laissez-faire and absolute free trade; the nationalisation of all the means of production, distribution and exchange – these were the cries of my boyhood. What a musty period flavour they have now. How utterly out of touch all this is with the problems and opportunities of today.”
I was reminded of the great man’s speech during the debate that followed the government’s necessary steps to support the NHS and social care last week. One Telegraph columnist even complained that it represented the “total victory of Socialism in Britain” and a “trashing” of “intellectual traditions.” The truth, of course, is much the opposite.
Conservatism – always adapting to meet the challenges of the day
The unifying thread that runs through the entire Tory tradition is a belief that the Party has a patriotic duty to tackle the big issues facing the country today, rather than become trapped by a tight partisan dogma. The Conservatives are the most successful political party of the democratic age because of their ability to adjust to changing circumstances and changing times, just as their opponents become trapped in ideological straightjackets.
When one of the major challenges was the degrading social conditions faced in factories, Disraeli’s Government pushed a radical agenda of social reform. When the state had grown too large, unions too powerful, and business too weak, Margaret Thatcher’s Government set out to restore the balance.
Conservatives have always believed that rigid dogma is the folly of our opponents and that we should do what is necessary to maintain balance and tackle the major issues we face today. We should not pretend that the solutions to the problems of the 1970s are somehow replicable as we face the very different problems of today.
Conservatism isn’t libertarianism
Conservatism has never been a libertarian concept. There’s a good reason why Hayek, the icon of the libertarians, wrote an essay entitled ‘Why I Am Not A Conservative’. In it, he argues that conservatism and liberalism have often been opposites, as conservatism is based on a “fear of change” and liberalism is based on “a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”
Conservatism can never just be a simplistic championing of the unfettered free market. For Tories other things, such as family, community, nation, and belonging, matter just as much as the market. As Robert Tombs set out in his masterpiece, The English and Their History, the reality of conservatism “is more complex, and more intriguing” than modern liberals would argue. According to Tombs:
“Tory beliefs – state intervention to defend the vulnerable.. Spending on welfare, rejection of deflationary economics – chime more with modern sentiments than those of the progressive Whigs.”
As Conservatives, we understand that the state often has a role to play in solving the difficult problems we face, as long as this is done in a balanced way that doesn’t diminish the role or importance of civil society, the market or families. Rab Butler was emphatic when he argued that, “Conservatives have always been ready to use the power of the state. That has been our tradition since Bolingbroke.”
Lord Hugh Cecil, in his important work on Conservatism, even suggested that modern “Conservatism inherits the traditions of Toryism which are favourable to the activity and authority of the state.”
Tackling today’s challenges
The major challenges that we face as a country today are not going to be solved by a simplistic, dogmatic mantra of “small state, low tax.” Social care, for one, is a policy dilemma that successive governments have dragged their feet over, so last week’s announcement that the government will be prioritising a lasting social care solution has to be welcomed.
Similarly, ‘levelling up’ – reviving the “post-industrial” towns that gave us an 80-seat majority – is not going to happen with a dogmatic attachment to a small state. Ambitious infrastructure projects and an industrial policy committed to reviving manufacturing represent the pragmatic solutions to the problems of the day.
Boris Johnson has always instinctively understood the importance of a balanced conservatism. When he was Mayor of London, he was, for a time, one of the only leading Tories who advocated a Living Wage and used his office to extend and support the concept. The Prime Minister has always seen the value of flagship and important infrastructure projects and this is reflected in the ambition that lies behind the Levelling Up agenda.
To return to Macmillan’s pithy summary of the political divide, Conservatives should neither be living “in the past or in a world of make believe.” Conservatives have always done what is right to tackle the challenges of the day, which sometimes involves utilising the power of the state.
Despite the cries of dogmatists on both left and right, simplistic sloganeering is no substitute for making the hard choices that come with governing.