Conservatives - Often in Office but Not in Power
The Conservative Party and the wider conservative movement is much better at winning elections or referendums than exercising power. To quote Norman Lamont, the former is often in office but not in power. By contrast, the Labour party understands power and patronage, and even out of power manages to control much of the agenda. The Left comprehends and supports the power of quangos, ‘independent advisory bodies’ and academia. They have created what is best described as a stakeholder-bureaucrat nexus to drive government. ‘Independent’ stakeholders advise expansion of government power, spending, and offer politically correct viewpoints on issues like climate change, diversity and immigration, national sovereignty, obesity, welfare, etc.
Such stakeholders either receive direct support from government, or government makes clear their influence, helping them obtain private finance. Academics tend to sit on the left, obtain funding from left-leaning bodies, and in return provide an evidence base to suit. When was the last time you heard an independent charity or a quango calling for government cuts or deregulation?
The bodies funded by or publicly feted by DEFRA tend to espouse climate change radicalism and impractical environmentalism (recall Owen Paterson and the Environment Agency clashing on flooding), those by the Business Department want more intervention, those by DCLG want more local government and housing spending, those by the Department of Health want more NHS spending and greater lifestyle interventions etc.
In addition, most policy experts either start on, or move to, the left, or at best the centre, because many jobs are in left wing roles or are controlled by left wingers, so the conservative pool shrinks and even neutral bodies tend to take up politically correct policy stances (e.g. the RSPB takes a firm line on grouse shooting while remaining quiet on halal slaughter).
The net result is that Conservative Ministers with a few advisers are always massively outgunned in terms of information, press and media coverage, and those who grasp the detail of policy. Not only that, but the majority of neutral civil servants are constantly being pushed by stakeholders toward left-wing actions and attitudes, on top of the negative incentives that also exist for them to build up their empires by expanding government power.
Different experts, not fewer experts
Ahead of the referendum, I argued we had often ended up in thrall to political and economic experts who presented their personal viewpoints as scientific and verifiable truths. This was not an argument to get rid of experts. It was to point out the establishment ‘expert class’ of policy advisers, commentators, civil servants, and others has strong biases (i.e: pro-EU even in the disaster cases of the ERM and Euro).
What the Right needs to combat this are different experts who believe in conservative viewpoints – a smaller state, national sovereignty, are not automatically politically correct and so on. There are a few effective think tanks, such as Policy Exchange or the Institute of Economic Affairs, (whose Paragon project in particular deserves praise as a comprehensive attempt to reimagine what a smaller state could look like). But they are tiny compared to the bureaucrat-stakeholder nexus, and even they often tend to be un-strategic in their approach.
Most Conservatives are far too unwilling to ask: “are they one of us”? It is no coincidence that Margaret Thatcher, who was prepared to ask it, managed to get some of her radical ideas through (though less than her supporters claim). But even Thatcher refused the advice of her first Policy Unit head, John Hoskyns, who warned that without supportive radical experts in Departments to fight conventional thinking, her government would be out-maneuvered. (A mistake that led to the ERM disaster where officials intellectually captured her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary and turned them against her).
It was typical that when Francis Maude, who tried to reform government, said he was creating a Contestable Policy Fund (which was difficult to obtain, only provided matched funding, and has somewhat dried up), he gave the first funding to the IPPR, a left-wing think tank, to show lack of bias. Labour would not have been so generous.
May’s Government Needs External Allies to Succeed
Theresa May and her Government are at the height of her powers. They need to use it to create a framework that will serve her and her Cabinet as things get more difficult over the next few years. Her Ministers need to ensure they have independent policy advice, bodies that support change, stakeholders that can help provide a positive media narrative, and a way of keeping tabs on the detail of what reform means and how policy is playing out on the ground.
The New Schools Network – A Case Study to be Replicated
There is an outstanding case study – the New Schools Network (NSN). Without this there would have been no Free Schools policy, and academisation, which relied on many of the same arguments, would have been slower. Baroness Evans, now in Cabinet, and Theresa May’s right-hand man Nick Timothy, both have experience of the NSN. While Michael Gove behaved badly in the leadership election, he managed to push through a radical programme at Education in the teeth of massive entrenched opposition. He should be used as a source of knowledge to help the rising stars create similar bodies — many of whom, such as Liz Truss or Sajid Javid, have the gut instincts and intellectual capacity for reform, but who will need external support on top of internal advisers.
Bodies such as the New Schools Network should be replicated in helping spending Departments to drive policy on the ground, provide independent advice, feedback from the front line, and assistance with developing an independent but supportive media voice. Officials, advisers and Ministers will always need external expertise: what we need are conservative-minded experts. In addition, existing quangos need to either be abolished, or if they are genuinely necessary, to be monitored more effectively rather than often driving against Government agendas.
Journalists may obsess about who said what at May’s first Cabinet, or how to define May against David Cameron in terms of social reform, but if you really want to know if May will succeed or fail, look at whether she and her Government use the next six months to abolish the Left’s stranglehold on expertise and build an alternative support network, or squander this opportunity.