Peter Franklin is Associate Editor at UnHerd.com.
What are the most depressing words in the English language? ‘Human resources’ has got to be a candidate, as does ‘celebrity activism.’ Or how about the soul-crushingly grim ‘vape juice’?
Worthy contenders all, but to my mind the crown belongs to ‘new think tank’.
The trouble with new think tanks is that they look and sound much the same as old think tanks: the cramped Westminster offices; the endless struggle for funding; the pamphlets on the UK widget industry (sponsored by the UK Widget Industry Federation); the warm white wine ‘receptions’; the all-male panels; the questions from the floor – “actually, this is more of a statement than a question…”
I’m being very unfair, of course. Think tanks are staffed, as you’d hope, by some of the most thoughtful people in politics – and they at least try to do what the party spin doctors and civil service panjandrums wouldn’t even think to do i.e. feed genuinely challenging ideas into the policy making process.
The brighter fraction of the Tory backbenches understand the urgent need for intellectual renewal in the Conservative Party – which is every bit as pressing now as it would be had we just suffered a crushing electoral defeat. However, seeing as we have years of government still ahead of us, the party needs to master the art of what I’ve called GovOpposition.
With government departments and the party leadership not in the business of thinking afresh, the default outlet for restless Tory minds is the new think tank, of which two have sprung up recently: Freer for socially liberal Thatcherites and Onward, for the neo-Cameroon tendency. We’re also seeing some of the established think tanks raising their profile, perhaps in response to the upstarts.
Only yesterday, Policy Exchange hosted a landmark speech from Michael Gove – one of the few senior government ministers with something to say and the willingness to say it. Leaving aside his rather whiggish account of the history of capitalism, his diagnosis of its present day crisis was spot-on. Unfortunately, the depth, brilliance and urgency of his words are all but unmatched by the actions of the government of which he’s part (though his own department, Defra, provides a rare if very welcome exception).
If his Cabinet colleagues won’t join him in thinking aloud, then the think tanks, both new and old, must fill the gap. In doing so, my advice to them is this: before trying to re-invent conservatism, re-invent the think tank. If the established policy-making structures were providing everything that the party needs to rediscover its purpose, then new ones wouldn’t be required. But obviously they’re not, so don’t do the same thing again expecting different results – because we all know what that’s the definition of.
What, then, can the think tanks do differently?
Searing honesty would be a good start. So, seek out the most penetrating critiques of the current state of the Conservative Party – and tackle the hardest, least comfortable, questions thus presented.
A recent piece by Rafael Behr in the Guardian provides an excellent example. Behr is a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Brexiteer, but his argument is that the Tory “civil war” is about much more than Brexit:
“[Theresa] May worries about people who voted leave because they wanted respite from globalisation. A bunch of her MPs voted leave because they think Britain isn’t globalised enough.
“That difference expresses a profound dilemma for conservatism. It is an argument about the relationship between economic liberalism and social cohesion that has been brewing since the Tories were expelled from power in 1997. It contains a dispute over Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, made more acute by the financial crisis and its ongoing social repercussions.”
In other words the Conservative Party is riven by two fundamental splits – ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ on Brexit and ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ on globalisation, immigration etc.
In my view, the open versus closed terminology is self-serving hypocrisy on the part of the open side. So I’ll talk about globalism versus nationalism instead – a very approximate shorthand, but which will have to do for now.
As Behr suggests, the globalist / nationalist divide doesn’t map neatly onto the hard Brexit / soft Brexit divide. In fact, the two divisions intersect at right angles to one another giving a four-way split between the following:
- Hard Brexit globalists, like the trade secretary Liam Fox;
- Hard Brexit nationalists, like Theresa May’s former advisor Nick Timothy;
- Soft Brexit globalists, like the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson;
- Soft Brexit nationalists are thin on the ground, but they do exist – Phillip Blond, director of the ResPublica think tank, being an example.
I suspect that Theresa May leans toward this last position, but she’s been pulled this way and that by the other three positions. Currently, the soft Brexit globalists are winning the tug of war.
Onward appears to straddle the Brexit divisions – claiming Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson as key supporters. But as for the other great divide, Onward’s direction of travel looks distinctly globalist. Freer has a more Brexity flavour, though it does have supporters who campaigned for remain. Like Onward, it is focused on the future of the party beyond Brexit. And, significantly, it too is globalist in its inclinations.
Therefore, looking at where the new thinking is coming from so far, one might conclude that the struggle for the soul of the Conservative Party is between the liberal (Onward) and libertarian (Freer) versions of the globalist agenda.
The trouble with that, however, is that anti-globalist voters are now a significant part of the Conservative coalition. I’m pretty sure the people who pushed the 2017 Conservative vote share up to levels not seen since the 1980s, and who turned seats like Mansfield and Copeland blue, do not see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’.
We forget that Theresa May’s promise of an “economy that works for everyone” – i.e. not just those best-positioned to benefit from globalisation was hugely popular. Even after last year’s snap election had been called, Conservatives were pulling-off unexpected victories such as the election of metro mayors in the West Midlands and Teesside. It was only when May stood on a platform of fox hunting, property-based death taxes and not turning-up for election debates that it all went wrong. It turns out that promising an economy that works for everyone, but doing nothing about it, is a formula for disappointment. “Nothing has changed,” she said, and the voters realised she was right.
The danger now is that the thinking part of the parliamentary party will look for change in the wrong places. Here’s Rafael Behr on the mission of the new Tory think tanks: “The aim is to develop ideas that will attract younger, socially liberal voters who currently recoil from the Tories. The party’s poll share is propped up by ex-Ukippers and pensioners.”
“Propped up” suggests there’s something temporary about the current Conservative coalition. If so, we’re stuffed. Unless Labour drops back down to Brown / Miliband levels of support, the party needs its traditional supporters and the UKIP returnees and the culturally conservative ex-Labour vote and more support from younger, metropolitan voters. To defeat Corbynism, we need a much higher share of the vote than Dave ‘n’ George ever achieved.
Even if it were possible post-Brexit, the idea of returning to a Cameron-style Conservative Party is delusional. The choice between the seats and voters we gained and those we lost is a false one. We need both.
But how? How do we reconcile seemingly irreconcilable values and interests? Looking to Britain’s post-Brexit future, how do we bridge the chasm between the globalists and the nationalists, the ‘anywheres’ and ‘somewheres’, the young and the old, the ‘snowflakes’ and the ‘gammons‘?
We need to recognise that their interests aren’t quite as opposed as they might seem. On issues like immigration, housing and the financing of tertiary education there are grand bargains to be struck: for instance, greater openness to global talent in return for strict controls on the import of wage-depressing low-skilled labour; beautiful new garden cities (on green belt land, if necessary) in return for an end to low quality, poorly designed ‘sequential development’; radical reform of the student loan system in return for a major shift in resources from pseudo-academic to technical education.
These are win-win scenarios, but to make them real the vested interests have to lose – for instance, the low productivity business models that depend on an unlimited supply of cheap foreign labour; the speculators who rake it in from expensive land and ugly development; the greedy, complacent higher education establishment.
The new think tanks that we need are places where these grand bargains can be hammered out and rent-seeking vested interests fearlessly exposed.
They should be judged on the audacity of their proposals and the quality of their foes.