Robert Colvile is the Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
This week, I got a leaflet through the door for the London elections. In the space of roughly 90 words, it managed to use the phrase “Tory cuts” no fewer than seven times – all in bold type or capitals. There were also two uses of “destroying local services”, plus cameos for “social care in a state of emergency”, “fewer libraries”, “fewer Sure Start centres” and “fewer youth centres”.
Labour, in other words, has its message. Never mind whether it’s affordable, or even possible. Jeremy Corbyn’s party will deliver the funding Britain needs, no matter how titanic the bill.
But what about the conservative message? By which I don’t mean Conservative with a capital C, but the counter-argument from those who us who think – for example – that you might want to have more than one company making your sandwiches or delivering your mail, or that China’s stunning economic success owes slightly more to market mechanisms than the Great Leap Forward.
One of the leitmotifs of Britain’s political debate recently has been a certain sense of frustration – even bafflement – that voters, and most especially young voters, don’t understand why capitalism is worth supporting.
As Chris Grayling pointed out in a speech last week to the Institute of Economic Affairs (which repays reading in full), there is a “great irony” that “the generation who are umbilically linked to products by Apple and Samsung, whose lives are shaped by Google and Amazon” are also “the most sceptical about a free enterprise, capitalist society”.
In their consumer choices, the story goes, these people are – to quote the magnificent words of Liz Truss, Grayling’s Cabinet colleague – “#Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters“. Yet when they pick up their shiny iPhones, they are likely as not to use them to film Corbynite propaganda videos.
There are two explanations for this. The first is that voters are in many ways perfectly justified in being sceptical of the current state of affairs, since it has delivered flatlining wages, elephantine house prices, and an unprecedented wealth imbalance between young and old.
But the other is that while they have heard plenty of expressions of concern, voters have heard few concrete proposals for how to fix these problems – save, of course, from taxing the rich and nationalising everything in sight.
This isn’t a criticism of the Conservative Party. The task of repairing the public finances in the wake of the crash of 2008, and Gordon Brown’s ill-considered spending spree, was awesome in its scope. And today, the task of seeing through Brexit is equally awesome in scope, and equally vital to the nation’s future.
Yet at the same time, we are at a political inflexion point – one which actually has little to do with Brexit. The task of clearing away the deficit has mostly been completed (although there are some painful cuts still to come). So what do we do next?
Already, there are all kinds of demands for higher spending, many for extremely worthy causes. NHS pay, social care for the elderly, cash-strapped councils, the defence of the realm – who could possibly object?
Allied to this are gloomy projections that whatever we do now, we are on a one-way track towards higher taxes and higher spending. David Willetts, for example, has been arguing that the low-tax society is effectively dead. To pay the bills for an ageing population, we will need tens of billions more to funnel into the coffers of HMRC – even though taxes are already at 30-year highs.
The problem is that much of this debate takes us right back to the terrain of the leaflet above. A message of spending restraint and balancing the books may have started to grate on the voters’ ears. But in an auction of spending promises, the highest bidder will always win. On university tuition fees, for example, how do you come up with a better offer than “free”?
As Truss put it when we shared a panel this week, the price of liberty is eternal fiscal vigilance. But prudent budget management isn’t enough to see off socialism – we also need some damn good ideas.
To put it another way, it is not enough for those who believe in free markets and a free society to tell others that they are wrong. We need to show them why we are right – by making clear how we will solve the problems of today’s Britain, by both maximising prosperity and sharing it across society.
Back in November, we at the Centre for Policy Studies launched our “New Generation” programme to come up with the policy ideas to take the country forward – to recruit new voices and fresh faces to offer practical examples of how voters’ lives could be made better.
Now, we are buttressing this effort with a series of initiatives to produce such policies in areas that are of pressing concern to voters: tax, enterprise, housing, welfare. Our aim is to come up with policies that promote ownership in all its forms – to give people money in their pockets, a home to live in, support to start and grow a business, the promise that if you do the right thing, the state will do right by you. Helping people, in other words, to take back control. (Now, where have I heard that before?)
In this effort, we will call on the talents of some of the brightest stars in the Westminster firmament. Alex Morton, policy guru and ConservativeHome columnist, will be overseeing the programme. Tom Clougherty, formerly of the Adam Smith Institute and currently of Cato, will be working on simpler, lower taxes. Rachel Wolf, founder of the New Schools Network, and her team at Public First, will be examining the state of the welfare system.
We will also be drawing on private-sector expertise: on housing, Graham Edwards, the CEO of the country’s largest privately owned property company, will be helping our in-house team devise policies to turbo-charge both house-building and home ownership.
And, of course, we will continue to work with a wide range of policy thinkers, including many of the most talented young MPs, to come up with other ideas to take Britain forward.
In the opening paragraphs of the 1987 Conservative manifesto, our co-founder, Margaret Thatcher, made the case that there was an umbilical link between growing the economy and providing the public services people need.
That is still true today. Growth, enterprise, competition – these are not indecent, shameful concepts, but the foundation of a modern, prosperous post-Brexit Britain that provides opportunity and security to all. They are also a pretty good starting point for the policies that can persuade people that there is more to conservatism than “Tory cuts”.