The nebulous nature of our political vocabulary is one of my pet themes. ‘Conservatism’ is one of the especially tenuous terms, whether or not spelled with the initial capital.
Lower-case conservatism evades the grasp of precise definition with eel-like agility. But even the upper-case version, meaning simply support for Tory policies, is far from straightforward. Neither are Tory policies, which is of course the nature of the confusion.
Cameron, for example, said that his take on Conservatism could be summed up in three letters: NHS. I’m not going to discuss the merits and demerits of that putative quintessence of conservatism, other than saying that the current Health Secretary has identified the shining ideal he hopes to achieve as patients not having to wait more than a fortnight for a GP appointment (non-British fans of socialised medicine, take note).
However, its efficacy, or rather lack thereof, aside, the NHS is a state-owned, tax-fed Leviathan that is already the biggest employer in Europe – and one of its most socialist institutions. Thus Cameron’s Conservatism could be more profitably summed up not in three letters but in nine: s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-m.
That continued the party’s long tradition (only interrupted for a few years by Margaret Thatcher) of winning elections in the name of conservatism by being as Labour as Labour, and sometimes more so. This political transvestism thrived under the two post-Cameron PMs, who both swore by the NHS, net zero and a big state able to solve all the little problems of life.
The word ‘society’ was bandied about with alacrity, but that term also deviated from its acknowledged semantics. Those Tory PMs were using it in the sense of the welfare state claiming to level up, but in fact guaranteed to level down.
Much as I hate reducing the entire complexity of governance to acronyms, slogans and other shibboleths, one slogan does encapsulate the essence of Toryism exhaustively: ‘God, king and country’ – in that order.
Yet it ought to be plain to anyone with eyes to see that this brand of Conservatism bit the dust a long tome ago. If it survives at all, it’s only as the object of insincere and increasingly rare lip service, mostly at various ceremonial functions.
The only meaningful opposition to Tory socialism is Tory Whiggery. Its most illustrious champion was Margaret Thatcher, and, as her first budget proves, is now Liz Truss.
According to a Number 10 insider, her iconic three letters are ‘GDP’, as in growth thereof. And in the good Whig tradition, with a spoonful of modern libertarianism added for good measure, she seems to realise that economic growth is best achieved by making the state smaller, taxes lower and regulations fewer.
This isn’t alien to the traditional Tories either. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries the differences between them and the Whigs were merely a matter of accent, not irreconcilable, mutually exclusive beliefs.
If the Tories were God, king and country plus free economy and small state; the Whigs were free economy and small state, plus God, king and country.
The notion of individual liberty flows out of the founding tenets of our civilisation as naturally as wine out of a bottle. A Western man weaned on the Judaeo-Christian tradition knows that, whereas he is transcendent, the state is transient. He is the end, the state only the means.
That’s why he finds it hard to accept the diktats of a giant central state that inevitably ends up upholding its own interests at the expense of his own. A Western man is much more comfortable with local associations patterned on his own family: parish, guild, township and so forth.
His intuitive love of, and daily devotion to, tradition remains the primary part of his life. His views on the economy and politics are merely its natural and unavoidable derivatives. The core of his personality is thus more Tory than anything else. But at the periphery his views on the economy and politics aren’t far from the Whigs’.
For them such views are more central than peripheral, and the Whigs have arrived at them by a parallel but different route. Yet the two groups know that what unites them is bigger than what keeps them apart.
Alas, such friendly equanimity went the way of all flesh when the world went ideologically secular and therefore thoroughly, hysterically politicised. At present, the only realistic antidote to Tory socialism isn’t traditional Toryism but traditional Whiggery, brought into modernity by an addition of libertarianism.
This, by the way, is what Americans mean by conservatism. Looking at the traditional Tory triad, they have eliminated ‘king’, downgraded ‘God’ to a marginal private matter and promoted ‘country’ to a deified status.
The economy thus becomes, not to cut too fine a point, the be all and end all. Take care of the economy, and everything else will fall into place – such is the dominant (though not the only) premise of American conservatism.
I call this unswerving faith in the primacy of the economy ‘economic totalitarianism’. The Bible of this creed is Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom, which lays down its commandments with unequivocal clarity.
As Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng prove with their first budget, this is roughly how they see life too. Yes, they will go to the financial markets with their hands outstretched, but they seem to see that as only an emergency, indeed wartime, measure.
At the heart of their policies lies a small (or rather smaller) state, low (or rather lower) taxes and deregulation (or rather less regulation). And they seem intent on going through with all that even though they know that decades of socialism have corrupted the public so much that it’s unlikely to jump up and salute.
Somehow many Britons have been indoctrinated to believe that it’s perfectly fine to remain poor as long as the rich get less rich. The notions of supply side, trickle-down economics grate their thoroughly corrupted sensibilities – as, paradoxically, does the idea of lower tax rates.
It’s a matter of arithmetical fact that lower tax rates are bound to benefit more those in the higher tax brackets. And that’s exactly what our brainwashed masses abhor.
You can explain to them till the economists come home that, when the rich pay less in taxes they invest more in the economy, which ultimately benefits everyone. Recipients of our comprehensive education and watchers of our Leftie television may accept such arguments in their heads but never in their hearts.
And yet, if economic growth is the desired end, then supply side reforms are the means – but not unequivocally so. This may be sound economics, but these days it’s always likely to be defeated by unsound politics.
I wonder if Liz Truss has read the 1986 book The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed. It was written by David Stockman, Reagan’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, called upon to reshape the economy along the supply side lines worshipped by his boss.
However, when it came to the nitty-gritty, Stockman found out that a drastic reduction in taxation didn’t work unless accompanied by a concomitant reduction in public spending. Having realised that, he began to bang his head against the stone wall of departmental fiscal profligacy, only to find that wall impregnable.
I fear that Liz and Kwasi will suffer similar concussions. So far they haven’t uttered a single word about reducing the state’s share of the economy, which is politically wise.
A politician campaigning for a cut in, say, the NHS budget will remain in his job only until the first airing of BBC Morning News – plus the hour or two for the public to start braying for his head and for him to write his resignation letter.
That’s why I don’t have much hope for the Truss administration and especially the next general election, to be held just over two years from now.
I like Liz’s rhetoric, given the impossibility of my ever hearing things I really like. However, unless she does deliver the growth she adores within the risibly short time she has at her disposal, Britain will be cursed with at least a decade of ruinous, unvarnished socialism.
The political pack is stacked against her. She’ll have to keep her budget commitments by increased borrowing, the cost of which is going up steeply. Our political mandarins and other fruits will be fighting her tooth and nail, either by open warfare or underhand sabotage, and they even got Maggie Thatcher in the end.
Still, a Whig Liz Truss may be, but I wish her success. If she succeeds, so shall we.