George Freeman is a co-founder of the 2020 Group, co-chair of the Innovation Economy, Commission and MP for Mid-Norfolk
Is the future of the Conservative party one of a house divided against itself, as Tim Montgomerie eloquently suggested recently? Must the tensions between social conservatives and social liberals inexorably divide us? Or can the most successful political party in history draw on the best instincts of our liberal and conservative families, and build a Progressive Alliance for our generation which is relevant to the profound challenges we face?
The economic crisis demands that we reboot modernisation to show that, far from being a divisive indulgence in cultural gestures rendered irrelevant by the more urgent imperatives of the economic crisis, as it is sometimes seen by traditional Conservatives, it is deeply relevant to tackling the toxic economics of Labour’s debt legacy. Indeed, far from killing off modernisation, the financial crisis should have been the making of it, rebooted for the age of austerity and showing how progressive politics can be fundamentally economic politics.
I believe the crisis can still be our opportunity for a much more profound and unifying modernisation and renewal that unites social liberals with the social conservatives around a new Progressive Alliance. As well as the divisions over issues like gay marriage, we have seen examples of how all wings of the party can unite around the most progressive measure of this Parliament: taking the lowest-paid out of income tax – achieving progressive ends through conservative means.
Seen through this lens, it quickly becomes apparent that economic modernisation is not just a potential election strategy, but a geopolitical necessity. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the financial crisis signalled the death-throes of the post-war model of growth, fuelled by ever-bigger Government and blind to the challenges from the emerging world. It was a historic wake up call for the UK economy. The Brownite con – fuelling a false boom through the steroids of debt and a wave of cheap migrant labour – was the last gasp of a broken economic model. Through the rubble of its collapse we see a new world of cut-throat competition, with China, India and Brazil threatening the West’s economic primacy.
It called first for a rescue, helping retain the confidence of the bond markets. But it also calls for a new vision for the economy. Not the statist vision of Labour, smashed to pieces in the catastrophe of the crisis, but a profoundly modernising optimism about how the UK – a small, windswept island of just over 60 million – can compete with the 1.3 billion of China. Margaret Thatcher was a true moderniser because she saw that the Keynesian consensus had ended and a new, more open world was coming. Now, in the light of the worst financial crisis in a century and the certainty of further fiscal crises in decades to come, we must show in 2015 how our rescue operation has moved to a truly modernising view of a more innovative British economy, fuelling a more mobile British society.
Whilst an early moderniser might view the gay entrepreneur, Asian software developer and female venture capitalist and remark first upon their diversity, the modernisers today should view being gay, Asian or female as entirely unremarkable, and instead focus on how we can better unlock their talents to accelerate economic recovery and redesign the British state and public services, smashing open our urban ghettos of disadvantage.
Progressive economic modernisation would insist that you can have both an innovation economics and a politics of belonging – economic wings and social roots, in David Willetts’ terms, the two great strands of Conservative thought – brought together, tackling the ‘hollowing out’ of the British economy and society of which the Prime Minister spoke so powerfully in his leadership campaign.
The world faces huge structural challenges in the decades to come: in health, welfare, pensions and credit-addicted economies. Indeed, the challenges of the twenty-first century will be first and foremost economic. As the West slowly begins to lose absolute dominance in the race for resources, the global race for food, energy and medicine will intensify. Western economies – increasingly dependent as they are on creditors in emerging markets – will struggle to fund welfare commitments as societies continue to age.
The macroeconomic architecture is changing fast. By 2025, China is on track to fulfil predictions and become the largest economy in the world, entrenching a lead over a 40-year period with the renminbi challenging the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. India may finally liberalise its economy, loosen restrictions on investment by foreign companies and begin to discover its true potential. Japan’s experiment to revive its economy could finally work, propelling it back as a major driver of growth. Other countries thus far in our peripheral vision – Indonesia, say, or Mexico – could embrace reforms which propel them into the global fast league.
The Right always has to be reminded that the Left doesn’t have the monopoly on optimism. Punching the Labour bruise on debt will be a vital element of a successful election strategy for 2015. But creating an Innovation Economy based on increased social mobility, productivity and competitiveness is the only way to put money in people’s pockets and drive a really sustainable recovery.
In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor began the work of setting out what the future of the UK economy can look like. An economy based on scientific discovery (‘a personal priority’ as he put it), innovation across the public and private sectors, world-beating infrastructure and a global outlook. It is both modernising and optimistic. And one which all corners of UK society – North and South, gay and straight, young and old – can be a part of. Far from enduring a social split, embracing true economic modernisation can show in 2015 that the Tories herald the future, Labour the past.
And that the Conservative Party’s socially liberal and conservative wings can unite around a Progressive Politics which delivers #GrowthForAll.