Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He grew up in Madrid.
“Libertad” – Freedom – was the single word on the posters that brought Isabel Diaz Ayuso a landslide victory in Madrid last week. Her campaign won all across the city-region, even in the so called “red belt” in the former industrial south of the city. She benefited from the left’s division, the collapse of the right-liberal Ciudadanos party, and the autotoxification of the hard-right Vox, Spain’s version of UKIP.
Her victory, however ,points to something more profound in successful conservative movements: liberty. Despite Covid, Ayuso kept the bars, restaurants, theatres and music venues open, and their owners and workers rewarded her with their vote.
In a city where people live in small houses, but will often have two if not three meals out every day; and where the metro, even when on strike, is said to be forced to run an essential peak service at 4am to help people get home from nightclubs, this was of overwhelming importance.
Yet her message ran deeper, and has implications for the not dissimilar strategy being pursued by Boris Johnson (a man at least as Bacchanalian as the average Madrileño). It works on two psychological vulnerabilities of leftism that conservatives can exploit if they suppress their own authoritarian and miserly instincts.
The first has to do with how fashionable health authoritarianism has become on the left, partly as an import from the US culture wars (If Donald Trump is against it, it must be a good idea), but also out of the greater sense of interdependence that goes with being left wing.
Modern egalitarian arguments owe a lot to this idea: our actions affect others in many ways, and our own situation is the result of others’ actions. The objective is to try and minimise how much our chances in life are affected by these, from industrial accidents caused by unscrupulous employers, to the consequences of being born to rich or poor parents.
These arguments only half-convince in normal times, because we recognise that while our actions indeed have consequences, it’s not reasonable to hold us account for all of them. We mock a strict-liability world (think of those American coffee cups that warn about the drink they contain being hot) and expect people to take their own responsibility for many of the risks of living in a free society. We distinguish between risks it is the duty of the state to mitigate, like murder and robbery, and risks people should assume themselves, like riding a motorbike.
A pandemic is different, however. Until vaccination programmes got going, it was as though each of us walked around carrying a gun that had a small chance of shooting people who happened to be nearby. It may seem strange to many readers of this site, but that’s not too different from the mindset of parts of the left: of course our actions all affect each other — but they see injustice by the powerful, where we see liberty.
It’s an echo of the postwar argument for maintaining rationing because it improved the quality of food (and health outcomes) for the poorest. What it did not do was improve their freedom, and the desire to regain it, now that the war was long over ,contributed to the Tory election victory in 1951.
Similar arguments persist. Here’s the Guardian extolling the benefits of a “lockdown day”, or as Methodists might have called it a “sabbath”. In contrast, Ayuso’s and Johnson’s evident desire to allow people to get on with their lives brought voters out in their support.
If that is an uncomplicated lesson for the freedom-loving Tory, the second argument has a sting in the tail. By keeping as much of the economy open as possible, Ayuso didn’t so much help her electorate, as allowed them to help themselves.
Because though it should be obvious to everyone that people don’t like to be abandoned, and prefer to be helped than left to suffer misfortune on their own, they would rather, if at all possible, overcome adversity through their own efforts, and if they must be helped, feel that the assistance has come to boost their own work, not to replace it.
So as the levelling up strategy comes to be implemented, the government needs to remember to do it in a way that increases the agency people in those communities come to feel and aims for self-generating economic growth rather than largesse dispensed from the state. Rachel Wolf had a good list of specific policies on this site earlier this week.
The result in Madrid shows the importance of the political emotions behind these good technocratic ideas. People need to feel in control of their lives and communities again, and this need is now at its strongest after a year of repression and enforced passivity. Doing so will require considerable discipline to suppress the centralising, risk-minimising instincts of Whitehall, but the rewards for the Conservative Party, could be as great as they were for Ayuso.