Richard Carr is a Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. Follow him on Twitter.
Bradley W. Hart is a Lecturer at California State University, Fresno. Follow him on Twitter.
Our current discourse is dominated by payday lenders, energy markets, and where to tax the wealthiest elements in British society. Such questions are of great importance in the here and now, but they also reflect longer term debates over how far British Conservatism is comfortable with intervening to correct market failures per se.
In our new Bloomsbury book The Foundations of the British Conservative Party, leading historians, economists, think-tank commentators and Sir John Major consider this question over the gamut of the Twentieth Century and into the present. The current Prime Minister’s recent attempts to goad Ed Miliband as “loving Engels instead” does not speak to the complexity of the issue in Conservative thought, nor his previous utterances on curbing the excesses of Thatcherism.
Now, simplifying the debate is hardly Cameron’s sole preserve. A variety of left-wing opinion formers busied themselves in the summer recess by asking whether the Conservatives were, in fact, “evil”. Given that perhaps the most publicly identifiable difference at the time between left and right was whether to have a 45p or 50p top rate of tax this was pretty petty stuff, though it’s good to be able to isolate the tipping point of evil at 47.5p in the pound. But such contemporary point scoring is indicative that it is worth looking further back – and this particularly applies to the debate over where and how to address capitalism’s failures.
As leading historian Stuart Ball notes in our volume, mid-twentieth century Conservatism sought to “resist the excess of Victorian non-intervention in the past, just as it resisted Socialist control in the present.” Though we challenge whether 1950s Conservatism bought the new post-war consensus wholesale, clearly the era of “stop-go” involved significant elements of direct and indirect intervention, most famously in housing. This tradition goes back to the interwar period, when reformers like Harold Macmillan cut their political teeth against the backdrop of the depression and, crucially, in working class constituencies such as Stockton.
To view a map of the 1931 General Election is to take in a Britain – from Southampton to Aberdeen – almost entirely Conservative-dominated. And in the 1930s, backbenchers like Macmillan urged the government to go further on capital spending in the north and on the introduction of a minimum wage. Post-1945 Keynesianism owed much to Macmillan’s earlier correspondence with the man himself.
Move the clock forward a few decades and, as Kieron O’Hara highlights, the debate over interventionism played out over Michael Heseltine’s desire for a “highly interventionist strategy in Liverpool after riots in Toxteth”. Then an uneasy compromise was reached between Geoffrey Howe and Heseltine, whereby the government intervened but with far less resource than the latter would have preferred. Toxteth aside, Michael Heseltine’s love of the grand projet (HS2 being the latest example) has always marked him out amongst his contemporaries.
And yet, even if questions of intervention are settled, who should intervene? For Steven Howell, “whereas Labour’s history … is intertwined with a positive narrative of central government intervention, the Conservatives have always been more sceptical of the centre and more willing, to empower the local.” Rory Stewart, in a recent speech at the think-tank Localis, has made much of the loss of political engagement between the issues that affect a family in its day to day life, and grandiose supranational quests to end world hunger. If the Conservatives can tap into that space, the party may have more to offer – but if they merely retreat to a narrow, individualistic sense of government ‘getting out of the way’ of everything the party may be in some trouble. Local Enterprise Partnerships may be one avenue the Coalition, and all indeed all parties, should be taking a little further.
As for those contemporary bogeymen, financiers, Irwin Stelzer argues that policies such as “bankers’ bonuses being subjected to claw-backs if the loans they make eventually go sour … have advantages over a system that encourages behaviour that can create the enormous costs associated with massive disruption or collapse of the financial system”. The global race, and the desire to placate the City of London, need not be the axiomatic element of modern Conservatism it arguably is – and certainly is perceived as.
And, as the reaction from Nick Clegg and others to Boris Johnson’s recent comments on IQ show, perception matters. In 1997 Tony Blair’s was perceived as leading a youthful, modern party, despite the fact that the average age of Labour’s new MPs (48) was scarcely lower than their Conservative equivalents (50). A Labour landslide followed. And in what one largely positive reviewer has called a “rousing defence of Gordon Brown’s economic record,” we contend that the then Prime Minister vastly outperformed Cameron and Osborne in his response to the crisis of 2008. Acknowledging his previous errors, we argue that he got the big decisions in those fateful weeks right. And yet he lost because the Tories were able to portray him as asleep at the wheel whilst claiming they would assert a “moral capitalism” that would “stand up to business”. Intervene, in other words.
It was this type of Toryism that saw Cameron initially lauded by Andrew Tyrie as a new One Nation Conservative leader in the mould of Disraeli, Baldwin and Rab Butler – a man who saw that not every intervention New Labour had made was a priori a bad thing. And yet the rigours of office have arguably morphed him somewhat. As he considers where Conservatism will end up in 2015, and where others look beyond him to the “next Conservatism,” a re-evaluation of what interventionism means may well be in order.
Jesse Norman, David Skelton and others have made some interesting contributions to the debate, and the move to curb 5800 per cent payday loans is certainly welcome, but the leadership will need to do more. On financial sector taxation, house construction and social mobility, the party has not sufficiently appeased the “instincts” of the electorate. Even assuming the economy does continue to heal, and leaving aside the regional divergence of said recovery, if the government is not pulling the levers to make this so – or the country does not consider they are – the road to re-election may be long and arduous.