Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.
The local elections and the Queen’s Speech are a moment to reflect where Conservatism is going. Conservatism is not a narrow doctrine. There is no founding canonical text or statement of principles.
Instead, political practice came first, and conservatism emerged as a distillation of it. Reflecting on what Conservatives have done over our history, this gives us a wide range. We have been free traders and advocates of tariffs. We took Britain into the EU and then out. We increased taxes when we had to – such as in 1979 and 2010 – and cut them when we could.
Commentators talk about Boris Johnson creating a conservative coalition. And conservatism has been good at creating internal coalitions, bringing other groups into the party. After all, an earlier coalition was the crucial moment when modern conservatism was created.
Conservatism had retreated to its rural fastnesses during the high point of Liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century, from which we attacked Liberal mill-owners for unleashing market forces and destroying communities. Then the Liberals split on Ireland. The Liberal Unionists brought over business leaders and the City of London. We merged with them, and became the Conservative and Unionist Party.
Many continental European countries had two separate parties – a rural traditionalist communitarian church party and a separate urban liberal anti-clerical pro-business party. British conservatism combined them in a Coalition more than a century ago. That distinctive combination helps the sustain the party’s ideological flexibility – depending on circumstances, conservatives can appeal either to the dynamism of freedom, choice, mobility and the market or the rootedness of history, tradition, belonging and obligations which may not be chosen.
Those two different instincts are both within each one of us, and so conservatism reflects deep truths. That provides all the materials to weave together a narrative of optimism for the future and pride in our past.
This flexibility is why we should be wary of arguments in which arguments are denounced as un-conservative. That underestimates the flexibility of the Conservative traditions. After our 1997 landslide defeat I asked the late, great Denis Thatcher what he thought we should do. He replied “Get back to basic Conservative principles – but don’t ask me what they are.” So we have a lot of options to choose from.
That is why the Conservative retreat from London is so disappointing. London is big, diverse, and liberal and full of young people. It would be very dangerous to get into a mind-set that such a list means it has nothing to do with conservatism, or even worse getting into the Trumpian position of “I love the poorly educated”.
We need to understand what has gone wrong. The graduate issue is largely a red herring. Many young people are graduates – so if we have a problem with young people it shows as a problem with graduates. We should not be surprised that young people are turning away from conservatism. We have made it harder for them to get started on the housing ladder.
Boomers did something very similar to pensions – regulating them more strictly to boost the value and protections of their own occupational pensions, but making it much harder and expensive for employers to offer decent pensions to the next generation. This is building up pensions through auto-enrolment, though these are tiny compared with what the pension rights their parents have.
So the two main routes to property ownership are far more difficult for them than any generation since the War. And if parents just overcome the problem by helping their own children, this will create a society where what you inherit matters more than what you earn. Housing and pensions are the two main assets people build up during their lives, so we betrayed the Tory vision of the property-owning democracy and are then surprised that we lose the support of young people and become the party of the old.
The Queen’s Speech is the opportunity to do something to tackle this. There are signs of a fresh approach from Michael Gove. We have tended to focus on the supply side, but developers are now sitting on significant numbers of sites, many of them with planning permission.
There is also a problem on the demand side which has had less attention. We have made it much harder for younger people to take out a mortgage than it used to be. Many Boomers got on the housing ladder with a nearly 100 per cent mortgage, interest only and a generous interpretation of their likely earnings.
But as Boomers moved from borrowers to savers whose pensions needed to be protected, they demanded new regulations, so banks were not allowed to take any risks with their loans. So Boomers made it impossible for their kids to borrow in the way they had.
Boomers, however, exempted buy to let mortgages from many of these regulation – so it was easier for the older generation to buy a second property and boost their incomes by letting it out to the younger generation who were being excluding from home ownership. That is a key reason for the surge in private renting. It looks as though Gove is the first Secretary of State to be willing to grasp the perverse effects of over-regulation of mortgages, and to do something about it.
There really is a contract between the generations, and it is urgent to do something about it. I hope and expect today’s Queens’ speech is the start.