Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes.
This crisis is challenging conservatism. Jeremy Corbyn’s parting remark, that finally his programme of massive state spending and government control of the economy has been vindicated, is not as stupid as it seems. Socialism may not just be for the time of coronavirus. In the 1940s, the wartime nationalisation of munitions production and the conscription of manpower morphed, after the war, into the welfare state, into the nationalisation of industry and the empowerment of trade unions.
So the crisis forces a question for Conservatives: were we wrong all along? And partly I think we were. Since the 1990s our default position – rarely plainly spoken but the basis of our groupthink, from which any departure is risky and difficult – has become a sort of reductive Thatcherism, far from what Mrs T believed but a boiled-down essence of her most doctrinaire advisers.
We see the individual as sovereign, the state as neutral, and society – the dependencies and relationships, the affections and allegiances of ordinary people to their families and communities – as irrelevant to politics. Business is king, and the shareholder is the king of kings, in whom and through whom all social good (though ‘social’ is a bogus word in the creed of Hayek, Friedman and co) is contained and distributed.
Wealth has grown and, arguably, spread; but we are lonely, unwell, and sad; we have lost a sense of common culture; our once-proud towns and regions are depressed, and we tell young people that success means getting out, getting to London and never coming back.
But that doesn’t mean Corbyn was right. The alternative to reductive Thatcherism is not socialism, but conservatism properly understood. This crisis creates an imperative to consider the kind of country we want to be, and to shape the society that will emerge on the other side.
Already some good thinking has gone into this, particularly David Skelton and Nick Timothy’s new books, which both provide a muscular version of the One Nation tradition. And yesterday we heard from the Government the first hints of thinking about the future, at which Skelton and Timothy should rejoice.
Very naturally, the focus of government attention since Covid-19 struck has been the state (in the form of the NHS), businesses, and individual workers. But just as crucial to our future are the institutions in between these classic pillars of politics: the charities and community groups, the faith groups and social enterprises that deliver crucial support to vulnerable people and also act as the glue of society at a local level.
In the Government’s daily briefing yesterday, Rishi Sunak set out a programme of support for charities which will help them rise to the terrible challenge of the time. Worth £750 million, this package comes on top of £300 million that the National Lottery Community Fund has brought forward, and I’m hopeful more will be forthcoming in future.
But the money itself, though urgently necessary, is less important than the direction of travel the announcement indicates, and the words the Chancellor used in the announcement.
“We all depend on each other,” he said, “[and] I don’t just mean the relationship between individuals, businesses and the state. One of our greatest strengths as a country is our civil society… those small charities in our villages, our market towns, in pockets of our cities: the unsung heroes looking after the vulnerable and holding together our social fabric.”
We have seen in the upsurge of voluntary effort the latent capacity of British society, the immense resources of the community to address its own needs. The state is crucial to this – but as partner, not as replacement, for what society can do for itself.
Here in Wiltshire, the county, town and parish councils have quietly and efficiently stepped up to coordinate the spontaneous offers of neighbourliness. The decision of the Treasury to play its part – to ‘build on our plan for the economy with a plan to support our social fabric’, as the Chancellor put it yesterday – is a vital moment in the battle against coronavirus and in the emerging consensus about the country we want to be in future.
“The normally invisible connections between us have, in recent weeks, become more apparent,” said Rishi. The old Conservative identification with the infrastructure of neighbourhoods – the organisations that connect individuals, give them identity, and tell a story about us that goes beyond commerce and citizenship (both vital but insufficient) – is emerging once more. This, not Corbynite nationalisation, is the real vindication this crisis provides.