Madsen Pirie: A beginners guide to Conservative factionalism

19 Feb

Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute.

I was recently credited on a website with dividing the Conservative Students of the 1970s-1980s into the three groups of “wets,” “dries,” and “shits.”

In reality, I did not coin the term “shits,” though I did write about it in my book, “Think Tank.” The term was coined by the student Conservatives themselves and was used to refer to the group on the right who opposed the state planning and controls of the “wets,” but who had no time for the free market libertarian views of the “dries.” They tended to be more paternalistic, even authoritarian, tough on crime and immigration, and assertively patriotic. I never discovered why they merited the term “shits,” unless is was simply an expression of abuse by their opponents.

None of those three terms is in use today, although the Conservative Party is, as it has always been, a broad church of different groupings on the centre right of the political spectrum. The “wets” were swept away by the success of Thatcher’s successful revitalization of the British economy following its decline under the postwar consensus. And if the term “shits” were used today, it would describe people who share not a political grouping, but a personality trait.

There are, however, the successors of the “dries.” These are those who embrace the capital-C Conservative political tradition. They do not oppose change, but want it to be spontaneous and organic, rather than directed according to a preconceived plan. What they want to conserve is not any particular state of society, but the means by which it changes. They seek to conserve a process rather than an outcome. And if the shape of society is to be determined by the choices people make, it follows that they must be free to make those choices. Necessarily, therefore, they support free markets and individual liberty, and most would support free trade. If they were given a descriptive name, it might be “libertarian Conservatives.”

Another group, by no means insignificant, might be called “traditionalists.” They emphasize patriotism, moral values, strong defence, law and order, and stability. Many of these are small-c conservatives, with an aversion to change and a disdain for some of the changes to society that have arisen from people choosing to behave in less rigid ways than did their predecessors.

A further group might be called the “managerialists,” or perhaps “pragmatists,” seeing the role of the party as one of solving problems that arise with empirical solutions that they hope will work in practice. They make a virtue of not being limited by any particular philosophical outlook, but free to approach each situation on its merits. They listen to public discontents and try to redress them with policies simply designed to deal with them one at a time, rather than being part of a unified outlook. They stress making society’s institutions more efficient, rather than looking to see how they might respond to the wants and needs of its citizens. Fundamentally, they want to make the country work better, as they see it.

There is also, of course, a fourth group that is always there, composed of those who pursue personal ambition and advancement ungoverned by any set of principles that might impede those aims. They are the parliamentary Vicars of Bray, who align their views with the current leadership, changing them as the leadership changes, just as the legendary Vicar of Bray changed his religion and his political allegiance several times to correspond with those of the monarch of the day and the government of the day.

While these broad groupings might be a good way to categorize those who currently call themselves Conservatives, it should be stressed that many of them refuse to be simply pigeonholed into one narrow category, and instead see themselves as embracing the values of more than one of the groups. It should also be noted that personality as well as philosophy plays a part. Within each of the groups there are traits separating those optimistic about humanity and its future from those more pessimistic, who seek only to hold off bleak possible outcomes. There is also a divide separating those who embrace spontaneous change from those suspicious and even fearful of it.

There is, however, one belief that has always united all of the groups within the Conservative Party, and which still does. It takes it as a given that the Conservatives are the party of government. They believe they do it better than the alternatives do or could do, and aim to continue doing so.

Mark Brolin: Ignore Johnson’s moralistic detractors. Many voters may end up thinking that we’re lucky to have him.

9 Feb

Mark Brolin is a political analyst, economist and author. His most recent book is titled Healing Broken Democracies.

The anti-Boris Johnson forces, both inside and outside his own party, have trumpeted the “clown-and-a-liar” message ever since the day he entered politics.

Yet he won both Brexit and the 2019 general election – to no small degree because numerous voters know that Johnson is no more evasive than most other politicians, just more attacked when it happens.

In fact, part of his voter appeal is that he sometimes calls a spade a spade. Such as over the EU. And wokery. Unless brought down during the following weeks, Johnson is likely to emerge from partygate as underestimated as almost always.

Most Labour commentators are totally relaxed about Keir Starmer having a beer with his colleagues while up in arms about the Prime Minister having the same thing. Still, an opposition expressing tribal outrage surprises no one. Partygate developed into a major drama only after two aggrieved Conservative subtribes, Remainers and Covid libertarians, decided to exact revenge by siding with Labour’s Johnson bashers.

A key message highlighted by all Johnson’s detractors, such as Covid libertarian Fraser Nelson, is that the Prime Minister is irreparably damaged. This is a classic tactic when trying to topple a leader. Simply because the prophecy turns self-fulfilling if it influences key backers to redraw support. Yet, for three reasons, the damage to Johnson is arguably far from irreversible.

First, he is strong where it counts. In fact, he is one of remarkably few key politicians in sync with the voter majority over both Brexit and lockdown. Conservatives not in sync with Johnson over these issues remain vocal but still represent minority opinion only. It speaks volumes that the Prime Minister’s enemies have had to dig out their inner Cromwell (puritan) to find common ground surrounding an obvious Johnson weak spot.

Following all personal scandals throughout Johnson’s career, it is hard to believe anyone voting for him in 2019 is too surprised about some garden beer or birthday cake rule stretching. Meaning that, despite today’s proactively inflamed moralism, many will eventually write off partygate as “Boris being Boris”.

Not a chance, you say? Well, remember when most commentators lined up to claim “Boris the lying clown” would never pull off Brexit. Yet he did. Why? Partly because voters could tell that singling out Johnson and then going on and on about his missteps, as if he is the only one in Westminster bending the truth when cornered, reeks not only from double standards, but from an anti-coalition ganging up to cut down a feared political rival through bullying.

When the dust has settled many voters are likely to deduce, regardless of current opinion polls, that the UK has in many ways been lucky to have been led by outside-the-box Johnson during the outside-the-box Brexit and Coronavirus years. Since hard to see how a “system clone” Prime Minister would have done a better job. Would, for example, anyone more strongly steeped in the establishment ways have allowed Kate Bingham to run her highly successful task force largely outside the Whitehall structure?

Second, the flipside of moralistic battles is that these easily transgress into silliness. Take Daniel Finkelstein, normally one of the most thoughtful Remainers. He now argues that no heed should be paid to the proportionality argument. Downing Street rule breaking has, as he sees it, severely violated the bond of trust between politicians and voters. If Johnson stays, he continues, it weakens the integrity of nothing less than democracy itself.

Yet it is hard to square Finkelstein’s outrage and sudden championing of the voter bond with his always relaxed attitude towards the massive EU democratic deficit, the EU consistent rule-stretching and the lack of voter insight in Brussels. Also, UK democracy never has been at risk due to Johnson’s Downing Street birthday cake or thank-you-drinks, despite the exceptional circumstances and legal grey area involved.

Democracy is only at risk if a) voters are not allowed to know about doubtful activities and b) voters are not themselves offered an opportunity to pass judgement. Nobody can claim voters have not been made aware of partygate. In fact, Putin is probably still laughing about how a few beers and an HR-investigation has brought the UK government to its knees.

Third, Johnson’s outsider credentials have been boosted by all the PM-bashing. Eton you say? Yes, obviously. But he is still an outsider in a much more politically important sense. Since not thinking and acting in the way of Westminster officialdom. Incidentally this is why he irritates, to bits, so many Westminster insiders. Does anyone really think that Starmer would have faced a similarly moralistic onslaught had he had a beer or a slice of cake in Downing Street during a lockdown? Precisely.

Tribal groupthink is again in play when Johnson is slapped and slapped in the face until he is forced to promise a Downing Street shake up. Unsurprisingly, many staffers immediately start looking elsewhere for opportunities. Whereupon the anti-Johnson forces are publicly gloating: “See, what did we tell you, everyone is leaving”.

Johnson-bashers do not seem to get that many voters can sense such partisan scheming from a mile away. Also undecided voters might very well deduce that if the establishment wants Johnson gone so badly he must be doing something right. This is incidentally one of the best points rarely made in the emotional debate surrounding his future. Since the prime reason democracy must always be upheld is that only the people can be relied upon to offer push back against the paternalist tendencies often developing within an administration class.

Among Johnson’s rivals for the top job, is anyone really better suited, currently, to offer such pushback? The administration class does not seem to think so. It does however seem to love to hate the Downing Street “drinking culture”. Perhaps while seemingly so swimmingly verifying an always much favoured self-image among paternalists: “refined philosopher Kings” versus “vulgar people’s tribunes”.

Nonetheless, even though premature to talk about Johnson as a necessarily spent force, the key reason not to oust him over partygate is much bigger than both Johnson and the Conservative Party. Just think about the precedent it would set if the wording of an unelected civil servant, Sue Gray, is allowed to play a key role in deciding the political fate of a British Prime Minister – following an attempt by that Prime Minister to relax for a few minutes after a number of frantic months.

Political robots will then turn into a permanent feature at Downing Street. Why? Since every Prime Minister will be terrified to put a foot wrong. Well aware that any day the leading civil service “HR-inquisitor” might be tasked to scrutinise, given only yet another bandwagon witch-hunt, if Downing Street has fully followed a “protocol” largely determined by the inquisitors themselves. “What did you see? Alcohol! So you feel it was a ‘party’ rather than a ‘work meet’? Tell me and you might save your own skin.”

Given how moralism as a political weapon has crept back into society – and through mission creep transformed HR-departments from non-entities into rightfully feared internal affairs units – it was probably always only a question of time until this weapon was to be used against one of the last influential anti-moralists still standing. Johnson.

Nonetheless, whatever we personally think of him and partygate, democracy weakens big time if HR-inquisitors can be used to deny voters the chance to pass balanced judgement on the pros and cons of an elected Prime Minister.

Adrian Lee: Different values from those of the BBC: The Prisoner and the “culture war” of the sixties

29 Aug

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Fifty-five years ago this weekend, on Sunday 28th August 1966, a film crew started shooting the opening scenes of a new TV series for the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) in the streets of Westminster. One location on that sunny morning was the Abingdon Street underground car park on College Green, just opposite the Palace of Westminster. No casual passer-by could have then realised the political significance of the programme starting its first day of filming and few recognise even today that the resulting series, The Prisoner, represented a counterblast to the Left bias of the BBC from its independent rival in an undeclared Culture War of the 1960s.

During the 1960s BBC Drama received universal applause for crafting period costume series such as The Forsyte Saga and multiple adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels. Whilst these productions exhibited little cultural or political bias, the BBC compensated when it came to their long-running series of The Wednesday Play (1964-1970). Here, the emphasis was placed upon miserablist, social realism and grotty “kitchen sink” settings with plots revolving around homelessness, abortion, and inequality.

Few will forget the impact of the plays Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, which launched the career of Marxist filmmaker, Ken Loach.

Arguably the most notorious episode of The Wednesday Play was Peter Watkins’ film The War Game, which portrayed the after-effects of a nuclear strike on a home counties town. It was intentionally horrific and powerful propaganda for the unilateralist cause. At the last minute, the BBC realised they had gone too far and pulled it from the schedules, but they ensured that it was shown to invited audiences in cinemas and CND was able to obtain copies to show at public meetings across the country. It was belatedly given a full national broadcast by the BBC in 1985, at the height of CND’s campaigns against Cruise and Trident.

Over on ITV, the mission was to entertain rather than to preach. In the Sixties, ATV/ITC supremo Lew Grade had progressed from producing variety shows like Sunday Night at the Palladium to making glossy action series with his regular team of Monty Berman (Producer) and Dennis Spooner (Scriptwriter), such as The Saint, Department S, The Champions and Man in a Suitcase. Grade had the foresight to improve the visual quality of British television. Not since the Kordas’ Denham Studio days in the 1930s had there been such a will to beat Hollywood at their own game. Wobbly sets went, film studios replaced television studios, theme tunes were written by top composers Ron Grainer and Edwin Astley and all series were shot on film stock rather than videotape. Grade’s aim was to produce first-class products that could be sold worldwide and that meant that they had to be made in colour.

One of Grade’s best-selling shows was Danger Man, a conventional spy series featuring Anglo-Irish actor Patrick McGoohan. Danger Man had gone down well Stateside, but when the time came to switch to full colour production, McGoohan informed Grade that he wanted to embark upon a new venture with scriptwriter and author, George Markstein. McGoohan pitched an entirely original series to be called The Prisoner in which the hero is an intelligence officer who resigns his post and is promptly kidnapped by persons unknown. He wakes up in a mysterious Italianate coastal village (Portmeirion, North Wales). Each week the anonymous authorities controlling the village would attempt to extract information from him, whilst the hero would defy their will and try to escape. Grade was sufficiently intrigued by the idea to give this production his approval.

The Prisoner is not really a spy story at all. Once the lead character is abducted from his flat and ensconced in the village, the narrative turns into an allegory of Man versus the State, the individual against the collective. None of the inhabitants of the village have a name, only a number and CCTV cameras watch their every move. However, unlike the sort of dank and dingy hell envisaged by Huxley and Orwell, this repressive society is brilliantly colourful and superficially attractive. The village Tannoy system broadcasts the ice cream flavour of the day, there is an old people’s home, free health care, social security and a labour exchange. Ersatz lounge music is piped into the inhabitants’ comfortable homes and the village brass band plays the Radetzky March in the square. Even phoney elections are occasionally held. The message is clear: if you conform and do as you are told, you can have a whale of a time in the village. McGoohan and Markstein were making a bold libertarian statement on the limits of European Social Democracy. This series would never have been made by the BBC.

McGoohan’s character is called Number Six by the village authorities, but he continues to insist “I am not a number. I am a free man.” At one point, one of his captors, angered by his continual defiance says “You’re a wicked man. Have you no values?” Number Six replies “Different values.” The village is run by a succession of Number Twos (played by the cream of British actors of the period) who represent transitory political leaders. Number One, the ultimate authority, is never fully revealed. The Swastika or Hammer and Sickle of this totalitarian society is a canopied penny-farthing bicycle, which we find emblazoned everywhere, from public buildings to the labels on tinned food. The village streets are patrolled by a large white weather balloon, Rover, which descends upon the inhabitants and smothers them, should they dare step out of line. Finally, the village has a diverse international community of different peoples. Nothing really knits them together, save their captivity.

Filmed between 1966 and 1967 in sumptuous 35mm colour, no expense was spared on its production. After a couple of months filming on location in Portmeirion, the crew moved to the MGM film studios in Borehamwood for the interiors. It is estimated that the whole series cost over £20 million in 2021 monetary value, making it one of the most expensive British television productions. Visually, the details added by Art Director Jack Shampan are stunning. The whole village has a uniform feel and great care was taken in designing costumes and props. The studio sets of Number Two’s office and the Control Room are particularly memorable and would not be out of place in a Bond film.

Despite all the efforts that had gone into production, much of the visual effect was lost on viewers, owing to the fact that colour broadcasting had not yet started in the UK. Faced with mounting costs, Lew Grade decided to cut the series short at 17 episodes. By this time, McGoohan had fallen out with Markstein, leading to the latter’s departure. Consequently, McGoohan, by now exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown, took charge of the final four episodes, which arguably were poorly structured and carried surrealism too far. The final instalment when broadcast in 1968 led to a public outcry.

The Prisoner gained a cult status in later decades with re-runs on television and home release. However, to conservatives and libertarians the programme holds a greater significance as the only British television series bold enough to express a different set of values to the stagnant, cultural-socialist agenda of the BBC. It certainly shows us a glimpse of a path not taken, where different talents, separate from the old Left clique, could have been given free rein. The Prisoner should also inspire us to what can be achieved in the future.

Bella Wallersteiner: As a parliamentary staffer, I’m appalled by the double standards on who has to wear a mask

25 Jul

Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.

After England moved to step four of the Government’s roadmap for lifting Covid restrictions, Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, confirmed that face masks were no longer mandatory for Members of Parliament from July 19. Instead, MPs are being “encouraged” to wear face coverings while moving around the wider Parliamentary estate.

Unfortunately, the same discretionary freedom has not been afforded to parliamentary staff for whom mask-wearing remains compulsory. Unions have been quick to point out the unfair and divisive nature of one set of rules for MPs and another set of rules for people working in the engine room of our legislature.

Before the summer recess, a significant number of Conservative MPs celebrated “Freedom Day” by ditching face masks in the House of Commons for the final Prime Minister’s Questions. And who can blame them? Many of us are desperate to say good-riddance to masks, tear down the bossy and infantilising signs which remind us to practice good hygiene (like washing our hands), remove the pointless one-way systems (we all know how to maintain social distance after 16 months of practice) and dismantle the entire edifice which has given birth to a micro-industry of excuses for disruption “due to Covid”.

And, yes, I am aware that we have all been through a lot since the pandemic started, and need to respect personal choices as not everyone is ready to return to “normal”. If wearing a mask makes some people feel safer, then that is their right and I would not belittle “brainwashed sheeple” as some freedom crusaders have done.

My concern is that once again our legislators seem to think that it is acceptable to have one rule them, another for Parliamentary staffers who must continue to wear face coverings. Until now, the decision to wear a face covering has been a legal requirement, not a matter of personal choice.

All this changed when the Prime Minister told the public that they are no longer legally required to wear masks from July 19 (in spite of Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Office for England, advising that masks should be worn as a “common courtesy”). A confusing miasma of different rules in different settings means that transport operators and some shops have decided to make face coverings mandatory which could bring them into conflict with equality legislation.

The Government has succeeded in making the face covering a daily battle ground between libertarians and those who believe that it is irresponsible to dispense with all protection at a time when nearly 50,000 people a day are testing positive for Coronavirus.

I have stopped wearing my mask in virtually every setting – but as a parliamentary staffer I will be required to carry on wearing one at work. This is just another example of how Covid “guidance” has broken down and become illogical. The Government needs to make up its mind – wearing a face mask should be either mandatory or discretionary, it cannot be both.

I drew attention to this contradiction on social media and Steve Baker, MP for High Wycombe, wrote to the Speaker about this blatant discrepancy in the rules. The Speaker confirmed the House of Commons’ position which is that the Speaker has “no power to prevent democratically elected members from coming on to the estate or in to the chamber when the House is sitting. As such, there is no meaningful way to enforce a requirement on members to wear a face covering.” Sadly, he would not be drawn on the issue of Parliamentary staff being required to wear face coverings at work. In solidarity with staffers, Baker will continue to wear a face mask around Parliament.

The next battleground in the fight for freedom and equality will be the so-called “vaccine passports” for domestic events. The Speaker has rejected the use of Covid passports for MPs around Parliament, but has made no mention of staffers. Vaccination passports will discriminate against people based on decisions they have freely made and threatens the foundations of our liberal society. I have been vaccinated against Covid-19, a personal choice, but I would never stigmatise anyone who is unable to be vaccinated to or chooses not to be vaccinated.

But rules are there to be interpreted in subjective ways as we saw when foreign VIPs were exempted from the burden of travel quarantine to attend the Euro 2020 finals. Who can forget the scenes from the G7 gathering in Cornwall where any pretence of following social distancing rules were dropped quicker than you can say “Build Back Better”.

Fortunately, there are MPs willing to stand up to this discrimination and unfairness. Rumours of a vaccine passport being a condition of entry for the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in October have led to a number of Conservative MPs saying they will boycott the event. I have already confirmed publicly I will not attend conference if such discriminatory measures are in place.

The Government so far has presented the pandemic as an “all in it together” chapter of national solidarity. However, this has led to people being branded selfish for visiting family members living overseas or simply going abroad with their families for a summer break after 16 months of self-incarceration. This sort of intolerance is harming the UK’s reputation for nurturing a culture of individualism and self-regulation.

Ministers have enjoyed wide public support even from those horrified by a level of authoritarianism which has not been seen in this country since the time of Oliver Cromwell. It has been borne on the belief that it would be temporary and, once the vaccines were rolled out, dispensed with forever.

But now an “us vs them” dynamic has emerged which is threatening to upset public trust and Parliament is just a microcosm of this phenomenon.

Credibility and honesty will be critical in completing the immense effort we have all undertaken in response to this crisis. Dominic Cummings has shown us what happens to a government’s health message when those responsible for it fail to adhere to their own rules. We have stopped people from leaving their homes and seeing their dying loved ones in the name of being “all in this together”. The Government must restore confidence by pressing ahead with releasing all lockdown restrictions for everyone.

Freedom Day was supposed to be the moment when the country would be liberated from the tyranny of Covid. Instead, we are in danger of entering a two-tiered Orwellian society where “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

A big question for libertarians: what would they do about obesity?

17 Jul

In the last few days, there’s been a lot of discussion about the latest instalment of the The National Food Strategy. Commissioned in 2019 by the Government, and put together by Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon, it contains radical proposals as to how to tackle the nation’s obesity rates.

Some of its most controversial suggestions are that we need salt and sugar taxes, that the NHS should prescribe vegetables and everyone should eat less meat. Hardly anyone likes the last idea, but libertarians have been vexed by the whole strategy – viewing it as the latest example of the nanny state gone mad.

Having combed through Dimbleby’s report (the second of a two-part strategy – intended to shape legislation in England, but also recommended for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), it seems to me that much of the criticism has been unfair.

For starters, the document is 289 pages in length, so it’s a little ungenerous to write it off in one day. The reactions reminded me of when members of the Left immediately dismissed the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, which is 258 pages, on the basis of a few passages.

Some of the stereotypes about Dimbleby, too – that he’s a rich bloke, like Jamie Oliver, telling us plebs what to do – don’t add up, especially in the context of the report. Far from being bossy, large parts of it are about nature and ecosystems. And where it makes recommendations about food, it acknowledges the challenges for those on low incomes, whom it advises the Government to support more.

On a more serious note, the report has not come about because rich blokes have run out of hobbies. It’s an attempt to tackle a complex but devastating issue: the UK’s rising obesity rates. It points out that one in three people over 45 in England are now deemed clinically obese. You have to wonder sometimes if we have desensitised to these facts and our situation, despite all the warning signs (as the report points out, “[o]ur obesity problem has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate” from Covid-19).

There are many other things you could say about this report, but for the sake of one article, I have one question: what is the libertarian answer to obesity rates? Because at the moment it appears to be “do nothing” or sneer at the baddies who want to take away our Kellogg’s Cornflakes. Dimbleby and Oliver may not have the perfect answers, but what is our solution exactly?

I count myself as fairly libertarian, incidentally, but obesity is an area that challenges this philosophy. That’s because scientists have increasingly found that weight has a heritable component, meaning people have differing levels of willpower with diets. As the report spells out: “not all appetites are the same… in an environment where calories are easy to come by, some of us need to work much harder than others to maintain a healthy weight. You have to swim against the powerful current of your appetite.”

This corroborates with findings from Robert Plomin, one of the world’s leading experts in behavioural genetics, and author of the book Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. He points out that: “Twin studies estimate heritability of weight as 80 per cent, even though all the genetic data together estimate heritability as 70 per cent.”

In short, people are on different starting points when it comes to how easily they can control their weight (and I say that as someone who has to swim hard against the current), hence why telling someone to use willpower doesn’t always work.

Genes are uncharted territory for libertarians because all of our arguments centre around personal responsibility, free will and individual choice. Of course, these are all important things and many of us reject how much lockdown has taken them away. But there’s a big difference between politicians telling people to wear masks, and how people cope in an environment that encourages overeating, which our society does, especially should they have a predisposition to gain weight. We have to make those distinctions.

Even if we ignore research on genes – some people will say that my argument is fatalistic, wrong and that choice is paramount – it’s here and has already been embedded into public policy. Since 2019, the NHS has sold people genetic tests to spot risk for cancers and dementia. People underestimate how easily these tests can be extended into completely new areas (a test to estimate your risk for obesity), which could then be used to justify preventative measures.

While Dimbleby mentions genes creating differences in eating habits, it’s interesting that the report doesn’t delve much into medicine’s role in addressing obesity rates. Yes, the NHS could prescribe vegetables. But we have also seen drugs developed to help prevent obesity, and even a contraption that stops people’s mouths opening properly.

While I find the latter a rather horrible prospect, I think drugs and other medical solutions (gastric bands, for instance) will become more common and less controversial in years to come – the more we test the “willpower argument”, sugar tax, and move very little on obesity rates.

Ultimately, I don’t think The National Food Plan will make any substantial difference, as – shock, horror – it’s not radical enough. It’s also overly romantic in places, suggesting that school cooking lessons are part of the answer (as someone who did Home Economics for two years, I can’t remember any of the recipes. Boys messing around, however…).

But the report gets it right about environmental triggers and how these correspond with genes. And it has, at least, drawn attention to the urgent situation we are in. A situation to which the libertarian response cannot continue to be – as it seems currently – “let them eat cake”.

Daniel Hannan: I hate everything about the lockdown. But most of all, how much we like being bossed around.

31 Mar

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

I hate everything about the lockdown. I hate the confiscation of liberty, and the ease with which it is surrendered. I hate the damage to children’s education. I hate the prying and the prissiness and the pettiness. I hate the way university students have missed out on what should be the best time of their lives. I hate the tone in which police officers address people going about their lawful business.

I hate the way the goalposts keep moving: flatten the curve; no – wait for a vaccine; no – keep the pressure off the NHS; no – stop new variants. I hate the cataclysmic impact on small businesses, and the indifference of large parts of the public. I hate the debt we are racking up. I hate the protectionism and the authoritarianism. I hate hearing words like “hoarder” and “profiteer” – words we used to associate with extremist ideologies. I hate the loneliness that I see weighing on my elderly neighbours. I hate the profusion of pettifogging laws.

But d’you know what I hate the most? I hate what it has revealed about us. It turns out that we quite like being bossed around – at least, a lot of us do. Given the excuse of a collective threat, we revel in crackdowns and prohibitions.

I am not talking about the contingent acceptance of some restrictions. Almost everyone can see that an infectious disease requires proportionate limitations on normal activity. Infecting other people is what economists call an “externality”, a cost borne by someone else.

No, I am talking about the equanimity, even the enthusiasm, with which some have taken to house arrest. “I loved lockdown”, declared a secret card returned to an enterprising London printer who is inviting people to send her their most intimate lockdown confidences on anonymous postcards. I reckon most of us have heard that sentiment, whispered furtively. Many of the printer’s postcards tell the same story: “a lot of people not wanting to unlock,” as she puts it.

King’s College London and Ipsos Mori found last week that 54 per cent of us will miss some aspects of the lockdown. Think about that for a moment. We’re not talking about things that we are free to do at any time. Obviously lots of us find staying at home more pleasant than commuting. Lots of us have enjoyed walks more than usual. Lots of us like seeing more of our children. But the essence of the lockdown is not that it allows us to rebalance our lives; it is that it mobilises the full force of the law to compel us.

We could always choose to forego a foreign holiday in return for working shorter hours. The idea that we need to be coerced into doing so – and have all our neighbours similarly coerced – is a terrifyingly illiberal one. So is the idea that we should be paid to stay at home – with money that someone or other is presumably supposed to find down the line.

I always knew that libertarianism was a minority creed. For most people, safety trumps freedom every time. Even so, it is distressing to see the near-universal demand for the smack of firm government. Take, to pluck an almost random example, the prohibition on leaving the country. Governments have every right to impose whatever conditions they want on people seeking to enter their territory, including quarantine. But leaving? Isn’t that for the receiving country to decide?

Yet that ban, like all the others, was cheered through with barely any debate. Politicians can see which way the wind is blowing: 93 per cent of people backed the first lockdown, 85 per cent the current one, and every easing of restrictions has been unpopular in the polls. There are honourable exceptions, but few MPs or commentators want to take what they know would be an utterly pointless stand. Even the PM, whose dislike of nannying has until now been his ruling principle, seems to have decided that there is no purpose in placing himself in the path of an authoritarian electorate.

This is not a column about the efficacy of lockdown measures. I happen to think that they are disproportionate. It has for some reason become fashionable to mock Sweden, but that country has suffered fewer excess deaths than most of Europe. Then again, there are good and sincere people who take a different view. The question of how much suffering we should inflict in exchange for a given number of lives is never going to have a simple answer.

No, this is a column about what ConservativeHome has called “the freedom gap” – the way in which a country that used to define itself as individualist, eccentric and undeferential now leads the world in its unhesitating acceptance of controls. An alien visitor, judging only from the texture of daily life, would assume that Britain in early 2021 was a far more repressive state than Russia or China.

The editor of this site recently speculated that the elevation of security over liberty might reflect the feminisation of politics. Jonathan Haidt would put it down to the vogue for “safetyism” – the idea that people should be at all costs be protected from unpleasant experiences rather than learning from (and being hardened through) them.

Let me proffer a gloomier explanation. Safetyism is a natural instinct. Throughout almost all human civilisation, people have accepted various forms of hierarchy and tyranny in the name of security. The liberal interlude through which we have lived is exceptional. We may be witnessing its end.

Damian Green: Why a forced choice between a Brexity North and a Globalist South would be a false one – and damage our Party

16 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

2020 has brought many words to the forefront of our conversations: pandemic, lockdown, mask. Suddenly “reset” has become the latest addition to the thesaurus of 2020, as politicians and commentators ponder the future of the Government in the post-Dominic Cummings era. Is Boris Johnson about to head out in a new direction, or would any deviation from the path of 2019 be a politically unwise heresy?

We should start with the Prime Minister’s own favourite self-description. He always refers to himself as a One Nation Conservative. So I take it as a given that he wants to run a One Nation Government: one which seeks to unite, heal and provide opportunity for all. The interesting question is what does this mean for the coming decade, as the country seeks to recover from Covid-19 and make the best of Brexit.

The first change will need to be a simple change of tone. Crossing the road to pick a fight may be a rational strategy in the period of a campaign, especially one which you are not confident of winning, but it is a rotten way to run a government. There are absolutely battles that need to be fought and won, but any administration can only fight on so many fronts at once. If too many people are potential enemies to be denigrated and then crushed, then you rapidly run out of friends. Every government needs loyal friends.

This is a relatively easy reset. The deeper question is whether there also needs to be a significant change of substance. What will a One Nation Government concentrate on, and would that produce a more contented country, and therefore a platform for re-election in 2024?

The short answer is that the Government should re-read the manifesto on which it was elected, and concentrate its efforts on the big promises in it. Brexit has happened – so it should now move on very rapidly to making a reality of levelling up.

Every One Nation Conservative applauds the concept of giving particular help to parts of the country that have been left behind, but also thinks that there are national policies that allow us to do this without creating a competition between North and South.

Much better training and education, both for young people and older workers whose job skills have become obsolete, would benefit everyone, but would have particular effect in towns and cities where jobs have been harder to find.

In health policy, one lesson we have learned from Covid is that it is the co-morbidities that come from poverty and disadvantage that make people more likely to die. So meeting the manifesto commitment to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 can only be done through reducing health inequality. This in itself would be a One Nation priority, but its practical benefits would be most obvious in the Blue Wall seats.

I observe that there is a rearguard action from climate sceptics against this week’s environmental announcements from the Prime Minister. This takes the form of claiming that no one in the North cares about the environment, as they really want jobs and prosperity.

There are two answers to this. The first is that these policies contain vital measures to make sure that the jobs of the future come to this country rather than others. You can, as I do, want more power generated from wind, and want the people making wind turbines to do so in areas of the UK with traditional manufacturing skills. The second is that to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense.

This attack on green policies that were also in the manifesto is a symptom of a wider misconception which is already beginning to spread: that the Conservative Party has to choose between the gritty Brexity immigration-sceptic North and the soft, affluent globalist South.

This is a counsel of despair, as it suggests that there is no way Conservatives can win a stable majority in the long term. More importantly it ignores the capacity of this Government to produce a raft of policies which unite large parts of the country. Strict immigration control (and indeed Brexit) are as popular in my Kent constituency as they are in Stoke, Wigan, or Darlington.

Crucially, though, so are policies which help people into jobs, which preserve a decent welfare system in a time of trouble, and which create the economic conditions that encourage the creation of new businesses. It is not northern or southern (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) to want people to stand on their own and take their own decisions, while being entitled to help from society when they need it. This Conservative version of the welfare state is at the heart of modern One Nation thinking, and our longest period out of power was when Tony Blair and New Labour stole it.

Conservatism needs to be more than libertarianism, and more than small-statism. There are different traditions that come together in the Conservative Party, but what unites them is a respect for our country, out history and our institutions. We will never be “woke” because too much of what passes for progressive politics is transient and illiberal.

But if fighting a culture war from the right involves trashing our institutions, like Whitehall, the judiciary or the BBC, it is dangerously unconservative. A wise Conservative Government will always reform, but very rarely offer revolution. Above all, it should respect the rule of law.

A reset Government will double down on the many excellent promises it made the country last December, knowing that after the worst of Covid has passed it has three years to demonstrate to Conservative voters old and new some visible improvements in public services and communities. The One Nation Caucus is producing a series of policy papers to provide new ideas to help the Government on this course. Let’s hope the new word for 2021 is “recovery”.

Ryan Bourne: A British overspill from America’s result. Why the debate on the right over economics will now intensify.

11 Nov

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

Donald Trump loyalists might not yet admit it, but their man was defeated handily in the U.S. Presidential election. A post-mortem will soon be undertaken within the Republican party, and with it a debate that has been bubbling since his primary victory in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic: what economics should conservatives champion?

Ideally, that debate would be about what policies actually work to improve our lives or liberties. But winning elections is politicians’ raison d’être. So it’s little surprise that those representing major strands of Republican economic thought have conflicting economic narratives of the results already as to what is electorally desirable, a division made somewhat easier by the fact that “Trumpism” blended free-market policies with protectionism and interventionism, in turn offering something for everyone.

Free-market Republicans’ story goes like this: tax cuts and deregulation delivered by a Republican Senate and Presidency delivered robust pre-pandemic economic growth, low unemployment, and rising household incomes. So strong was that economy before Covid-19, that even after a deep pandemic-induced recession, 56 percent of surveyed voters nationwide said their family was still better off financially after four years of The Donald in the White House. Tellingly, Trump led Joe Biden in every battleground state on who voters trusted most to “manage” the economy.

Combine that evidence with the party’s unexpected electoral resilience in the Senate, and huge pick up of Cuban-American and Mexican-America votes in Florida and Texas, and it’s easy to conclude, as former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has, that more free-market Republican economic policies are not unpopular.

In fact, polls suggest voters baulked at the socialist ideas aired in the Democratic primary, and were wary of even Joe Biden’s quite ambitious progressive agenda, particularly on decarbonisation. What lost Trump the election was, in this view, not his domestic economic policies then, but his personal conduct, handling of Covid-19, and, possibly, even downsides of his trade wars, the most obvious consequences of which were government welfare for Americans farmers and manufacturers struggling with inflated input costs.

The “national conservative” counter-blast provided by, for example, Samuel Hammond in the Guardian, says the exact opposite. The last two elections supposedly show the party’s future is to reach into working-class communities of all ethnicities. This opportunity, in part, came about from Trump’s willingness to challenge traditional Republican views on free trade and industrial policy, giving him a hearing with voters suffering the effects of market-led deindustrialisation. The party should build on that to become a true “workers’ party” by embracing a more interventionist abour market and manufacturing agenda, according to the Missouri and Florida senators, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio.

This interpretation even posits that Republicans may have failed to win the Presidency because they did not sufficiently embrace the “good government can do” (to use a Theresa May phrase.) Hammond postulates, for example, that Biden was able to pick up white working-class votes in the Rust Belt by going further on nationalistic “Buy American” agendas and tax incentives for re-shoring manufacturing jobs than Republicans would ever opt for. A more serious policy agenda and a compassionate Republican frontman could therefore build a whole new electoral coalition on this type of platform that Trump opened the door to, if only the Republicans could move on from Reaganism and their commitment to free market ideas.

Now, on the facts, I (perhaps unsurprisingly) find the first narrative more compelling. Exit polling shows that, contra the national conservative view, Republican support still skewed towards those on higher incomes, not lower. If preferences for a more interventionist agenda, as opposed to, say, the culture war or Donald Trump’s personality, are the dominant explanation of vote patterns, it’s difficult to square that with Republican Senate candidates, most of whom are more free market on economics than Trump, outperforming the current President. Of course, in reality voters don’t vote according to policy preferences, so a monocausal link between economics and electoral outcomes is dodgy ground on both sides.

But at heart here is a debate that we’ve heard plenty of in the UK: how far does the political realignment we are seeing necessitate a change in conservatives’ economic ideas? The new “national conservatives” in the U.S. and modern “One Nation” Tories in the UK, such as Nick Timothy, want to throw-off any libertarian influence  with the latter even thinking the 2017 Tory manifesto an appropriate place to caricature the “libertarian right,” as if voters would read that document and take that signal as a cue to shift their vote.

Two things have frustrated me about these intra-conservative debates to date. The first is that the anti-market conservatives appear to just assume that the left is correct and that economic policy is class-based: that policies that are pro-the interests of the working class must necessarily be more interventionist than conservatives have previously considered acceptable.

I’ve written before about why that is not true and how market-led policies could deliver pro-poor outcomes. The U.S. results also show that the assumption is a sham in electoral terms: working class minorities in the south were frightened of Democratic industrial strategies when it meant cheap energy was set to be sacrificed and vast new regulation of a structurally sound labour market were proposed.

But my second frustration is deeper. Thus far thinkers such as Timothy and others in the U.S. have written extensively on why conservatives should move on from free market ideas in the abstract. They document social and economic phenomena that have moved in the wrong direction in the past three to four decades, and then link these to the Thatcher-Reagan revolutions and supposed commitments to “market fundamentalism”.

Yet anyone who has followed conservative policy closely since the 1990s would find it laughable to frame recent offerings as being influenced by an unabashed commitment to libertarian ideas. So this narrative is best understood as rolling the pitch for an even more interventionist conservative economics.

What we have had far less off yet is the specifics: what, exactly, do those such as Timothy want from policy instead of what we see today? National conservative thinkers have hid behind the shield of big picture views of what is electorally desirable to win in the Rust Belt or the Red Wall as a substitute for outlining what actually should be done, and providing evidence for why those proposals would in fact work where previous dalliances with industrial planning have failed.

One consequence of this messy Presidential election outcome and its failure to clearly repudiate Trumpism is that those debates will now be crucial in determining the future direction of the Republican party. And stateside narratives have a tendency to be imported into UK politics too.