There were two great periods of intellectual modernisation in the Conservative Party in the twentieth century. The first took place after Attlee’s landslide victory in 1945, and was led by the trio of Eden, Macmillan and Butler. It accommodated conservatism to the post-war Keynesian political and social settlement, with the Industrial Charter, presented to the Tory conference in 1947, and One Nation, published in 1950, as its signature documents. The second was the Thatcher revolution, which was fermented in the think-tanks and transatlantic gatherings of the neo-liberal avant garde, and which took flight in the early 1980s. It was a comprehensive and bold intellectual and political assault on the crumbling foundations of the post-war era.
Has the Conservative Party experienced a modernisation of this reach and scale in the aftermath of the New Labour era? At the beginning of the Coalition government there were many commentators arguing that its agenda was truly transformative; that in ambition, if not style, something akin to the Thatcher revolution was underway. As the end of the Parliament approaches, the verdict is less breathless, and more often sullen in many conservative quarters. Few argue that the Cameron era has witnessed a sea change in conservative thinking akin to those of the 20th century.
One reason for reading the ConservativeHome Manifesto is that it helps us get a fix on the question of what ideological stage contemporary conservatism has actually reached, and where is it going next. ConHome occupies an important place in the political landscape of the Right because digital technology has opened out policy debate to a wider grassroots engagement than is possible in the seminar rooms of the think-tanks and universities or the meeting rooms of the party hierarchies. It is valuable because it distills different perspectives and brings together currents of thought in the broad conservative movement.
What does it tell us? First, on macro economic policy, the manifesto is dry as dust. It seeks to lock in a fiscal and monetary conservatism that would render null and void the tools that policymakers have used to fight the Great Recession and its aftermath. It locates the cause of the crisis in “cheap money” and argues for a constitutional debt brake and a legislative bar to QE. This would go down well in certain quarters of the Bundesbank but, if it registers anything, it is that the modern Conservative Party remains resolutely attached to its Thatcherite economic moorings. In point of fact, George Osborne’s fiscal rules have been much more flexible than the ConHome framework would allow, as has the Bank of England’s monetary policy. ConHome would tighten the belt in perpetuity.
Yet on many other issues, the ConHome manifesto is a recognisably post-crash revisionist document. It is troubled, not just by public debt, but by over-leveraged consumers and the housing bubbles that have inflated prices and mortgages beyond what their wages and salaries can service. It calls for a major programme of house building, not just by relaxing planning laws but through strategic state interventions in the land market and the creation of Garden Cities. It sets full employment as a central ambition and goes after corporate tax avoiders. And it targets tax cuts – in the form of national insurance reductions – on the young and low paid. Macmillan could have readily signed up to these goals.
ConHome’s evocation of a “property owning democracy” also owes much to the traditions of Noel Skelton and Macmillan, rather than Thatcher. It takes seriously the agenda of spreading asset ownership more widely across society, and sets out a progressive policy for shifting tax reliefs for pension savings and ISA holdings towards those on low and modest incomes. This would be a radical change. The Labour Party has not committed to anything like it. In a similarly radical move, ConHome argues for a new UK Sovereign Wealth Fund, mutually owned by the citizens of the country, something more usually advocated on the Left (although it largely skates over the tricky question of how to capitalise such a fund at scale).
Perhaps of greatest interest in the current, fevered days before the Scottish independence referendum is what the manifesto has to say about the future of the union and its democratic renewal. The sections on direct democracy are Carswellian in flavor. “The old political model is to talk about a new political model and then do nothing about it”, it declares, which is precisely the charge Carswell laid at David Cameron’s door when he quit the party. ConHome picks up the baton on the Right to recall, electronic voting, default decentralization, civil service reform, and open primaries for candidate selection. Most of this would have been incomprehensible to both Macmillan and Thatcher; it shows how Gingrich style techno-Toryism has entered the bloodstream of key parts of modern conservatism.
The ConHome manifesto also reflects the thoroughgoing Euroscepticism of the modern Conservative Party. It breezily demands a full repatriation of immigration policy from the European Union, as if one of the founding articles of the Treaty of Rome could be summarily renegotiated, but then lets the cat out of the bag by arguing that were this not possible, Britain should just quit. On this, it doubtless expresses grassroots conservative sentiment, as well as the feelings of a large segment of the population. Whether it is a credible prospectus for a party that aspires to govern is another matter.
Where ConHome goes further than most Conservative MPs or activists is its recognition than the constitution and democratic settlement in the UK needs fundamentally to be recast – whether Scotland votes yes or no. It is not afraid to name the problem: a fundamental sense of powerlessness, coupled with outright contempt for established politics, that is rife in the country, and which feeds populist politics. Decentralisation – to city mayors, local authorities and communities – is a key part of the ConHome answer, as it is now increasingly for the other main parties.
But ConHome goes further in arguing that England must have her place in the union secured, with her own First Minister, and a hard edged version of “English Votes for English Laws” in the House of Commons. Given the well documented rise in English political self-awareness, and increased hostility to its two unions (the UK and the EU), it is mystifying that so few conservatives have not arrived at this place sooner. UKIP is certainly already there, acting effectively as an English national party. Scotland’s choice will force everyone else to catch up. Given England’s dominance of the UK (it has 85 per cent of the population) few in the mainstream parties will argue for a federal formula of “Home Rule All Round”, and the creation of an English Parliament.
However, ConHome’s case for a reconfigured Westminster Parliament, coupled with devolution within England, at least sets out the terrain on which the argument will be fought. What it lacks is any recognition that this process of constitutional and democratic reform cannot be left to the politicians. Citizens need to be at the heart of it, as they have been in Scotland, whether through a Constitutional Convention or any number of other means. Next year is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. There could be no better time to revisit the foundations of our liberties and democracy.