Nick Boles is a former Planning Minister and Education Minister, and is MP for Grantham and Stamford. His new book, launched today, is Square Deal.
As the 19th Century gave way to the 20th, Teddy Roosevelt faced a tricky challenge. In 1901, he had ascended to the highest office on the assassination of his predecessor, President McKinley. McKinley had been re-elected the year before as a solidly conservative defender of big business. But Roosevelt could see that American capitalism had become its own worst enemy, elevating the interests of a powerful few over the needs of ordinary working people. Roosevelt knew he had to change the script if he was going to hold off the challenge from William Jennings Bryan and the populists. He did so by promising Americans a “Square Deal.”
He challenged the robber barons, regulated the railroads and busted open the monopolies (or ‘trusts’.) He introduced laws to protect the consumer, and to give the small producer a level playing field. He championed conservation and created America’s first five national parks. Roosevelt won re-election in 1904, and would certainly have won again in 1908 if he had not stood down in favour of his friend and protégé William Howard Taft (who went on to win comfortably.) The “Square Deal” had changed the image and reputation of the Republican Party and helped it see off the populist threat from William Jennings Bryan. By taming American capitalism and preventing its excesses, Roosevelt saved it from those who would have dismantled it altogether.
Modern Conservatives should take inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt. We face similar challenges. Our economy has stopped delivering the goods for ordinary working people and our opponents are making the running with extravagant promises to nationalise the utilities and abolish tuition fees. If Britain is to avoid the overthrow of our free market system by John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative Party needs to get its act together – and fast.
Our first task is to understand what went wrong on 8th June. The flaws in the Conservative campaign have been brilliantly dissected by Mark Wallace on this site. No doubt they contributed to the scale of the disappointment. But the primary reason for the loss of so many seats was more fundamental: Brexit had sundered the Cameron coalition. Even as we piled up the votes of older, less educated Leave voters in the Midlands and the North, we lost Battersea, Bath, Brighton Kemptown, Bedford, Ipswich and Bristol North West because voters in their 20s, 30s and 40s moved away from us to a dramatic degree. The British Election Survey has established that for most of them the most important issue motivating them to change their vote was the prospect of Brexit – and their desire to stop it, or at least to secure the ‘softest’ Brexit possible.
We need to win these voters back. There are grounds for cautious optimism about our chances of doing so. Brexit will no longer be in prospect in 2022. It will have happened three years before. Even the two-year transition will have finished and should have facilitated a relatively uneventful departure. Short of an economic shock caused by a sudden exit without a sensible deal, Brexit is unlikely to be the issue of greatest concern to voters. And, in general elections, voters focus on the future, not the past.
But we have a lot of work to do. We need to start by listening intently, and with humility, to those who deserted us. Telling them about our record on job creation when their main concerns are the level of wages and the cost of housing just demonstrates that we are still not listening. Telling them that Britain would do fine under WTO rules, when they want us to have a deep, and close, relationship with the EU, just underlines our apparent indifference to their views.
We also need to recognise that, after seven years in government, we cannot offer more of the same until 2022 and then expect people to think we deserve five more years in power. Austerity has served its purpose and Britain is immeasurably stronger as a result. Now we need a new mission. One that is rooted in a fresh analysis of what needs fixing in our country. We cannot trot out tired old tropes about the Winter of Discontent and expect voters who were born in the 1980s and 1990s to give us a second look.
It’s time to devise our own Square Deal. We must fashion a new economic policy that is focused on delivering productivity improvements and real wage growth. We must show how we can build enough houses while preserving the wonders of the British countryside so owning a home is affordable for anyone in work. We must address the threat posed by robots and artificial intelligence and develop a plan for technical education and training at all ages so that people are always able to find rewarding work. We must explain how we will restrict levels of low-skilled immigration while allowing businesses and the NHS to recruit the skilled workers they need.
Today I am publishing the opening instalments of a new book that will describe this contemporary Square Deal. It will be published online at www.squaredeal.org.uk and I plan to release new chapters two or three times a month. I do not have all the answers. I hope that ConservativeHome readers will comment on my ideas, suggest improvements, even propose new chapters of their own. At the end of the process, I will bring together the ideas that have survived the public mauling and publish it as a book online, to be distributed for free.
I particularly hope to hear from Conservative MPs elected for the first time in 2015 and 2017. Pragmatic, modern and diverse, they look and sound like 21st Century Britain. Listen to them in the House of Commons, follow them on Facebook and Twitter, and you find a generation of practical idealists, people who want to make our country fairer, greener, stronger and more dynamic, but who prize common sense over ideological fervour. I believe that they offer us our best chance to reboot conservatism, and modernise our approach.
At the start of the 20th Century, Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal saved American capitalism from itself and revived the fortunes of Republican Party. Let’s see what a new generation of MPs and a home-grown Square Deal can do for 21st Century Britain and the Conservative Party.