Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.
Are free markets and social conservatism friends, or enemies? For most of the 20th century it seemed obvious: the two were allies, up against the same common foes.
The Soviet Union and China were command economies but also command societies. They attacked private property, but also religion and tradition. If you didn’t starve in the Great Leap Forward, you could be shot in the Cultural Revolution.
By contrast, the good guys were fighting on both fronts: Solidarity trade unionists pinned to the gates of Gdansk shipyard not just their industrial demands, but pictures of the Pope. Later that decade, the Berlin wall fell and Stalin’s mocking question about how many divisions the Pope had was answered definitively: “more than you, mate”.
Today, although the Conservative Party remains the home of both social and economic conservatism, the two can have a somewhat scratchy relationship. Most Conservatives are a bit of both, though of course there are libertarian types who want to legalise drugs and tear up red tape on the one hand, and on the other there are “post liberal” types, more interested in fighting social breakdown than shrinking the state.
Where do social conservatives differ from free marketeers? They want to reduce immigration, not have free movement.
They worry that other aspects of globalisation undermine the nation state, democracy and even our security.
They worry that market forces are taking their toll on family life. People work so hard they don’t see their kids, and work email intrudes at home. That in the name of social mobility and a dynamic economy kids end up living a long way from their family.
They hate Treasury attempts to force up the number of double earner households at the expense of individual choice – whether it is the UK’s highly individualistic tax system, or childcare vouchers that don’t help stay at home parents.
They hate unbridled commercial culture. Why so many adverts pushing gambling at us? Wasn’t sport better before it go so commercial? Can’t we stop big tech firms trying to hook our kids’ eyeballs all the time? Although they hate the BBC’s left-wing bias, in theory they quite like the idea of a non-commercial British broadcaster if it could be made more neutral.
What to make of these arguments?
On migration there is some tension. My view is that we can have a lively free market with a lower level of migration. Yes, we need some people coming in and out, but the levels we have been running at really are unprecedented, and we had higher rates of growth in periods when it was much lower.
You don’t have to be super socially conservative to think that 642,000 people a year arriving over the last year (240,000 more than left) is really quite a lot.
On globalisation and trade, discovering that we have to rely on Huawei for 5G technology has spooked many people. On that very specific argument, I’m prepared to trust the Prime Minister and the security services when they say they can control any risk.
But more generally, I think we need to retain certain national capabilities: I’m concerned that we now live in a country that has to beg the French, Chinese or Koreans to build us a nuclear power station: Gordon Brown was wrong to sell off Westinghouse.
But we need to be clear about what capabilities we need to hold onto as a nation without falling into the French trap of declaring a “strategic yoghurt policy” and intervening all over the place.
On family life, I’m not so sure of the social conservative argument. The average employee works substantially fewer hours than we used to, so there’s more scope for family life, albeit that work does intrude at home more for professionals.
Though family life has changed a lot, it’s not obvious that free market economics is mainly responsible.
There’s no doubt that more secure work and higher employment is generally good for family life: its easier not to fall out with your husband/wife/children if you are not desperately stressed. I also want more secure work, but the balancing act is to avoid regulating the labour market so much that you end up with fewer jobs and less security.
When it comes to vouchers and other tied support for childcare, I actually see both libertarians and social conservatives making the case for just putting the money in people’s hands: having a tax allowance for children rather than support tied to formal childcare (the 30 free hours, tax free childcare) would give people more freedom to arrange their own affairs.
Yes, there would be “deadweight”, and pound for pound the response in terms of employment and GDP would be lower than with policies which incentivise dual earning. But if you choose to stay home, or use the money to pay for granny’s petrol so that she can pop over, then why should the state object? Perhaps both libertarians and social conservatives are really fighting fiscal conservatives here.
Some similar arguments might apply to individual versus family taxation. Just the other day CARE published a report pointing out that one-earner couples face much higher marginal tax rates in the UK than most other developed countries because our tax system doesn’t recognise children. But that’s a political choice, not the free market.
On the argument about market forces taking children away from parents – well, much of that is not about the free market, but about the UK state funding a huge expansion of residential higher education. Thanks to Tony Blair nearly half of young people move away at 18, and lots won’t ever go back. Other countries have local community colleges and put more emphasis on technical education.
Courtesy of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, we now know that for nearly half of university students taxpayer subsidy for their course will be a net negative for the exchequer. If we rebalance resources towards technical education that would make sense in itself, but also level up poorer places and also keep extended families together more.
When it comes to the commercialisation of culture, my sympathies are with social conservatives. And I’ve met too many young people who have been sucked into problem gambling. If there is one good thing the BBC does, it is CBeebies, the one part of kids’ TV that has some sort of values, and doesn’t overtly or covertly try to turn your children into agents of “pester power”.
Against that, free marketeers might reply that a big state, institutions like the BBC and public sector trade unions tend to be the bulwarks of social liberalism: and state employees are more likely to get sent on hopelessly flawed schemes like “unconscious bias” training than people who work in your local chippy.
Does reducing state power help social conservatism? It depends. On the one hand, where the state has loosened the leash a bit in schools with academy schools, it has generally allowed (more effective) small-c conservative methods to come back. On the other hand, the US has private universities, and despite being free of the state they are hardly hotbeds of conservatism.
Across the world, there’s been a shift in the voters who support parties of the Right. In general, the balance of the Republican and Conservative voter coalitions has shifted a little from economic to social conservatives. We lost Putney, but gained loads of poorer seats in the north and midlands.
That’s highlighted the tensions. For me, social and economic conservatism still mainly belong together. But where the two do conflict, the balance of power may be shifting. In the years since 1979, economic conservatism has more progress while for much of the time social conservatives have been fighting a rearguard action. Could a revitalised social conservatism finally be coming off the back foot? Only time will really tell.