A Freer Future by Luke Graham and Lee Rowley
Why are you a Conservative? This is so hard a question to answer in a few words that the temptation is to avoid it, and talk about something else.
For Luke Graham and Lee Rowley, such evasiveness will not do. In 2017 they entered the Commons by winning seats which had formerly been Labour, so managed to do what Tory candidates had hoped to achieve on a far larger scale, namely persuade former Labour voters that the Conservative Party is preferable to Corbynite socialism, or indeed to socialism of any stripe.
Graham took Ochil & South Perthshire, which before a brief SNP interlude in 2015-17 had been Labour since the creation of the seat in 2005. Rowley captured North East Derbyshire, Labour for over 80 years, and in his maiden speech offered a vivid account of how that seat has changed, and is now held by a working-class Conservative whose aunt worked for Arthur Scargill:
“My constituency has been happily and completely intertwined with Chesterfield for hundreds and hundreds of years. From that market town rises the crooked spire, with which some Members may be aware: a church that has been in place for over six centuries and which is notable for its spire not quite being as straight as it should be. It dominates the landscape of Chesterfield and my constituency for miles around. I am a son of that crooked spire. I was born only a few hundred metres away from where it has stood for those six and a half centuries…
“My constituency came of age in the service of its nation in the provision of energy. At one point a century ago, a predecessor of mine stood in this place and talked of 40,000 men in my constituency who were mining under its ground every single day. Mining is in my constituency’s blood and…I share that trait, in that both my grandparents were miners, including one who mined for a time at Westhorpe colliery in Killamarsh, a town that I now have the privilege to represent.
“I am the son of a milkman who left school at 15 and went out to work every day before dawn in order to provide for his children and his wife. I am the son of a lady who left school at 16 and, through sheer force of will, went back to school in her 30s and, while holding down a job and bringing up two boisterous young boys, got two university degrees so that she could provide for her kids and make her life better. I am the great-nephew of the lady who ran the post office at Renishaw, a village in my constituency, and I am the nephew of an aunt who once went to work for the National Union of Mineworkers during the miners’ strike.
“North East Derbyshire has demonstrated by electing its first Conservative Member of Parliament since 1931 that it has changed. I do not say that in the spirit of partisanship; I say it as it is merely a fact. In the same way that my constituency has changed, I think my family somehow reflects that change as well, from the descriptions that I have just given. That I am stood here today, a working-class boy able to talk in this place and represent the people I grew up with, is something that I will never forget. I will always seek to do my best for my constituency as a result…”
In A Freer Future, which is only 19 pages long, Graham and Rowley, warn that “socialism stalks our landscape again”, and declare that it can be beaten by championing “free markets, free society, and free expression”. They want to speak for “Northern, aspirant, working-class heartlands filled with those who want to get on”.
This is a powerful message. In place of the sense of helpless victimhood long encouraged by Labour MPs comes an idea of freedom and of hope. But it cannot be said that at national level, the Conservatives managed in the 2017 election campaign to articulate this message.
Graham and Rowley are moved by an evident sense of frustration at the failure to take on the “fossilised, incurious” Corbynite Left more effectively. They have helped to set up FREER, a new organisation which will advocate “genuinely free-market ideas” and promote “both economic and social liberalism”. Its first Director, Rebecca Lowe, is part of the ConservativeHome team, and its parliamentary supporters include Bim Afolami, Kemi Badenoch, Andrew Bowie, Alex Chalk, Simon Clarke, Therese Coffey, Eddie Hughes, Stephen Kerr, Kwasi Kwarteng, Andrew Lewer, Rachel Maclean, Scott Mann, Damien Moore and Elizabeth Truss.
Badenoch is going to contribute a paper about freedom of thought, which will ask: “What should the centre-right approach be to new assaults on freedom of expression and diversity of thought?”
Clarke will tell us, “How British society can grow up and ditch the nanny instinct in work and play. The right ways to give young people responsibility.”
But first we have Graham and Rowley, born in 1985 and 1980, defending “the ideas of freedom and classical liberalism”, which they believe “have somehow become more tainted than a generation ago”, with “an incredibly effective hit-job…executed on the terms, blamed for market inadequacy, corporatism, and – in ‘neoliberal’ guise – even foreign policy misadventures”.
They remind us that thanks to liberalised trade, “The number of people in extreme poverty has fallen, on average, by 130,000 every day since 1990.” But they fear their own generation has no idea of the progress that has been made, or of the reasons for it:
“They plot the destruction of capitalism while sipping their Starbucks lattes, and plan their South American gap years unaware that the freedom they enjoy here has been taken away from their Venezuelan peers by the same ideology they, these unfortunate Britons, propound.”
Here is a worthy venture. But the authors have not yet found the language in which to reach people who do not already agree with them. The very word “Freer” is an unsatisfactory battle cry, for it exists also as the name of a Conservative MP, Mike Freer, and is far less trenchant than the word “Free”.
Nor can the Conservative case be made entirely in terms of freedom. Graham and Rowley admit this when they write:
“For us, freedom has never meant atomisation. It does not mandate selfishness or greed, or passing by on the other side. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: freedom builds up the true chosen bonds of community and civility that strengthen our society and champion the less fortunate. The mutual intertwining of the interests, relationships, and shared narratives of our lives is inherently valued. Yet, what we do not do is to seek to direct those ends from on high. We have faith in the goodness of individuals, as innately social animals, to make the right decisions, to offer their service, and to become active in their communities.”
These are worthy sentiments, but will not make a single heart beat faster. They offer no sense of conservatism as the best way of reconciling freedom with authority; upholding existing institutions including the nation state; and cherishing, adapting and carrying forward traditions to which Labour voters may be as attached as Tories are.
David Cameron’s “Big Society” failed to fire people’s imagination. The Cameroons drew on admirable traditions of public service, and demonstrated a pragmatic benevolence which at its best was informed by an instinctive grasp of the nation’s religion and history, as well as by an understanding of how the world is moving.
But they too could not find the words to answer the awkward question, “Why are you a Conservative?”
All credit to Graham and Rowley for attempting, however inadequately, to fill this void. At least they recognise there is a serious gap here, which very few politicians or writers are even attempting to fill.