In the space of a week predictions about the number of seats the Conservative Party will win at the next General Election have moved from 84 to 69. Such projections at this stage have to be taken with a very considerable degree of caution, but nevertheless should serve to focus the minds of all those, of whatever political party, involved in thinking about the future of the government of the country. Opposition parties cannot afford to be complacent or careless and the Conservative Party needs to think hard about its future.
The Prime Minister, reasonably, might feel that he is in the process of writing his party’s future but the last few days have shown how difficult it is for someone who arrives in No 10 mid-term to shift the focus from the past to the future. It is not a surprise then, with less than two years to go until the next General Election, to see Conservative politicians and their favoured Westminster-based think-tanks start publishing their thoughts about “the future of Conservatism”. So far there is a startling lack of originality or fresh thinking.
“People are not dominated by material things,” Winston Churchill said, “but by ideas, for which they are willing to give their life’s work.” Conservatism, at its best, is not a set of dogmas or doctrines but an idea. It is a hope. It captures and enables the best of people’s aspirations and the country’s ambition. The themes are familiar and enduring – freedom, liberty, efficient and effective running of vital public services, a respect for but not subservience to institutions, a willingness to put the country’s interests ahead of constituency concerns, a determination to manage the nation’s finances responsibly, to ensure our Armed Forces are kept in good order, a desire to nurture individual and community cohesion and enterprise, and to be a party for and of the whole country – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland as well as England. With a record of a long period in government voters will be thinking about how the Conservatives have done in these respects and listening carefully to what it is saying about the future.
Levelling up is a catchy slogan but has it been delivered in a way that those who need it most can feel it? Localism is a worthy and correct ambition but do we feel we have better local government than we did? More fundamentally the standard election question, “are you better off than you were when they started?” is the one everyone will be asking themselves and reflecting on.
For Conservatism to successfully and constructively chart its next phase it is going to have to reflect hard on some of its recent thinking and move on from the slogans of fallen leaders. This new thinking should revolve around five themes:
– A confidence to talk about and develop plans that lead to lower personal and business taxation, to deliver reform to vital state services to improve higher standards and improved value for money.
– To develop policies and ambition that can appeal across and to the whole country and not just parts of England, seductive as that has proven to be in recent times.
– To be confident and comfortable about working with organisations and institutions at national and local level, and to implement well thought out and explained reform where necessary.
– That levelling up, increased productivity, a more cohesive society, and increasing innovation and enterprise can only be achieved through the endless and determined drive to improve education and training. Teachers and tutors need better training, pay, and respect. Schools and colleges need better and continuous investment. We need to stop treating our universities as wealth generators but as temples of learning, growth and preparation.
– To make the future a confident, comfortable and appealing place to go to with the Conservative Party – if you care about the economy, your future, the environment, and above all your country.
The future of Conservatism must resist the temptation to stoke up the so-called culture wars and become the forgers of a stronger sense of national community. The country is changing. It always has and it always will. It is unsettling now, as it has always been, and it’s up to a successful Conservative future to explain how this never ending process can be managed well. A successful Conservative future will have to involve a compelling appeal to people’s best hopes and ambitions and to reject the politics of a Trumpian fanning of fears and stoking division.
The next phase of the future of Conservatism must see a return to truly national politics. It needs to be the politics where the partnership of Britain’s constituent nations becomes once again the strength of the Conservative prospectus at a General Election.
Group think is incredibly powerful at Westminster and across Whitehall. If you disagree with the prevailing wisdom you are often ignored or thought not quite au fait with the realities. Think Winston Churchill warning about the threat of Germany for years before the Second World War. Think Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph suggesting the country could be run differently to the way it had been, under both major political parties, for the preceding forty years. A successful future for Conservatism requires starting from first principles and demands new and original thinking.