Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.
“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.
Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.
Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.
Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).
But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.
The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.
A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.
This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.
There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.
Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).
This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.
Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.
Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.
That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.
The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.
The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.
The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.