At some point, this Brexit nonsense must end. Reason, though seemingly in short supply nowadays, demands it. Any transition period will come to an end. Any backstop will be withdrawn from and a new norm for the country will arrive, however uneasily. The question is whether this new norm will arrive for the Tories. Once known for their ruthless pragmatism the Conservative party has served as the ‘safe pair of hands’ ever since Disraeli. His phrase ‘One nation conservatism’, meant the protection of all classes through measures to reduce class differences and improve the lot of the common man through sensible, paternalistic policy that is at its heart non-ideological. This manifested itself most strongly in support for Labour’s National Health Service and the Welfare state. This support was not just an electoral necessity but instead an alignment of ideology characteristic of the post-war consensus, the period between 1945 and Thatcher defined by nationalisation, strong trade unions, strong regulation, high taxes, and a generous welfare state. Universities were built, a national curriculum devised and economic integration with Europe and the capitalist world was encouraged. The state was recognised as being vital to maintaining a functioning society and a mixed economy was the norm.
Then in the 70’s with Friedman, the Laffer curve and Thatcher, the Tory party made a sudden about turn. Suddenly, the old Keynesian attitude that government intervention to inject money into an economy was necessary to fight a recession was cast out and the country changed as a result. The message became one of tax cuts and money trickling down. Thatcher worked hard to cut and scrimp and save and young Tories coming up the ranks at the time took her message to heart, gold plated it and made of it an ideology. To them regulation was restrictive, tariffs abhorrent and quotas the work of hell, meant only to stifle an economy. This, not anger over loss of control, fuels the Hard Brexiteers of the Economic Research Group (ERG) Reese-Moggs’ personal mouthpiece. The belief that once freed from the shackles of super-governmental control, Britain will be able to become a new Singapore, a haven for international business.
I personally don’t think that it is likely. When parroting the fact that Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy, the ERG forgets what the world in fact looks like. Both the US and China have the might to demand such concessions from Britain that any agreement would likely look more like patronage rather than partnership. Japan may be won around but Germany will certainly not. This leaves Britain scrabbling around to form a patchwork of deals with countries smaller and less significant than itself.
I do not believe that Brexit will deliver an economic bounty and neither does the House of Commons Exiting the European Union Committee. This will be punished by voters. I hate to be the one to say ‘It’s the economy stupid’ but it is in fact the economy. Stooopid.
The only way that the Tories can hope to remain a relevant political force is to acknowledge the mistakes that they have made and to regain the centre ground that they seceded. Voters are worried about Corbyn and his ability to lead the country but his message, however garbled and unclear, resonates. People want to feel that the government stands with them against exploitative businesses not against them. Citizens of this country have the right to be protected, not preached to about how, in the long term, cutting and austerity will bring them greater fortune.
A new ‘one nation’ policy platform might look something like this; a massive investment of money into schools nationwide. The bringing of academies under far closer government control and being quicker to move in when standards fall. Education is the best way of levelling the socio-economic playing field. Success will be when private schools close because parents recognise the world class level of our state system; rail nationalisation and the building of a trans-Pennine service. If Brexit brings with it a compulsory period of withdrawal from the world stage then rather than focusing on London, money must be found to balance out the North-South divide. A recent study has found that the North has suffered a brain drain going back 200 years. This is unacceptable and could be challenged by supporting urban regeneration and house building schemes in Northern cities; an expansion of social care to include prevention of diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular disease and geriatric care. These are time bombs that have been shamefully ignored in the name of individual freedom and must be acted against; Finally, Britain must act independently of America on the world stage, projecting power via the Royal Navy and building a new consensus of how a major economy can take care of its people.
These are the values that must be regained if the Tories hope to remain relevant and why I despite setbacks call myself a (small c) conservative.