Ryan Shorthouse is the Founder and Chief Executive of Bright Blue.
After Brexit – and trust me, that glorious day must one day come – the Centre-Right will face another blistering battle. Between two camps fighting for their philosophy to be prevalent in the Conservative Party’s domestic policymaking and public offer: freedom-fighting liberals versus socially-conscious communitarians.
This tension has been simmering for some time, especially since the 1990s when Conservative politicians and thinkers sought to challenge the caricature of Thatcherism, which had been adopted by opponents, even members, of the Conservative Party: of excessive individualism, of just leaving people and businesses to get on with it. They instead championed a civic conservatism, which DavId Cameron rebranded ‘the Big Society’, that sought to emphasise and nurture what lay between the individual and the state: family, charity, community.
The Cameron years managed to unite both camps. Deep fiscal retrenchment, necessitated by the financial crash of the late noughties, saw a shrinking of the state that appealed to the libertarians. But there was cuddlier conservatism too: think same-sex marriage, the increase in the minimum wage, the sugar tax, and the Troubled Families programme.
Then Theresa May ended the truce, foolishly and unnecessarily picking a fight with both libertarians and liberals within the centre-right movement. Right at the start of her 2017 general election manifesto, she declared: “We must reject the ideological templates by…the libertarian right and embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do.”
This was a political mistake. Instead of uniting the Right against a straightforwardly socialist threat, she and her coterie indulged in the stuff of student seminars and sought to settle scores. It’s too early to tell which direction Boris Johnson will head on domestic policymaking. He’s keen on a quirky but vague philosophy of ‘boosterism’. And he’s surrounded himself – both around the Cabinet table and in Number 10 – with folks in both camps.
He’d be wise to not pick sides, but instead draw on both traditions. Not just for political reasons, but philosophical ones too. The ideas of liberals and communitarians are not necessarily conflicting – in fact, they can be complementary.
Communitarians will often criticise modern liberalism for going too far, of prizing geographic and social mobility that has wrenched people from family and community life, which is good for their wellbeing. This is a peculiar argument. If people have been pushed into a life that is miserable, then it cannot really be said that they are free. It seems nonsensical to me to suggest that liberalism – a philosophy with individual decision-making at its heart – can force people into a way of living.
A lot of this is lifecycle stuff, to be honest. As people become older, settle down and have kids, familial and civic life understandably matters more. But when you do grow up, there’s no need to be so guilty about your carefree, hedonistic youth. And suddenly sermonising to twentysomethings about their supposed narcissism makes you not only a tad hypocritical, but a needless killjoy.
Young people who leave the place they grew up in to chase their dreams and some fun, typically in London, should not be made to feel they have abandoned their families or communities. Such an argument, which has become increasingly commonplace, is rooted in envy. It is judgementalism fuelled by stereotypes not facts. It echoes what used to be said, sometimes still is sadly, about mothers who go back to work. Just because you’re ambitious professionally, doesn’t mean you don’t talk to and support your family and friends, even when they’re miles away. There are enough hours in the day to do both. In fact, there’s lots of evidence showing people in the UK today are managing to work more and spend more time with their families in a typical day than previous decades.
This notion that there is a whole class of people – university-educated professionals living in big cities – that have no time for civil life and are rootless ‘anywheres’, as the thinker David Goodhart puts it, is baloney. Communitarians are right: nearly all of us are social animals, craving connections and community. But people should have the freedom to find communities they’d like to join – which match their interests and outlook – rather than having to settle for only what they were born into. And if communities are to survive and thrive, they need to be inviting of people from different backgrounds. These are foundational principles for a modern, ethnical and popular philosophy: liberal communitarianism.
The Conservative Party should stand for both the liberal stress on independence and the communitarian emphasis on interdependence. They need each other. The goals of liberalism—individual flourishing, power and respect—can only emerge through the support and guidance of others. Conversely, the interdependency communitarians care about most can only truly be realised if we respect the liberal insight that all and different individuals are equally worthy.
A One Nation party needs to represent people all of ages, from young adults who want the freedom to spread their wings to those who seek stronger roots when they get older.
This article is taken from the autumn edition of Centre Write, Bright Blue’s Magazine.