Fit for purpose conservatism


Jun 20, 2024By Pete North

On brink of a Tory wipeout, I’ve been out in London, having discussions with conservative thinkers about how we rebuild conservatism. As discussed previously, this is difficult when we have a basic definition problem. Conservatism has become synonymous with Thatcherism and libertarianism, and the elements of the Tory party are still wedded to these radical economic doctrines. 

Everyone on the right agrees that if we are to build a fit-for-purpose conservative party we have to rid it of the liberal internationalists who prize the international rules based order over national sovereignty, but as I keep pointing out, there is little remaining that’s worth salvaging. The free trade fundamentalists of the ERG are not “proper conservatives” and “PopCons” aren’t either. The very last thing we need is MAGA-infused, reheated

hatcherism. Thatcherism was very much of its time. The right ideas at the right point in history - but it has nothing to offer present day Britain. People younger than me have no inclination of what it was like before Thatcherism. We didn’t have anything like the choices we have today. In a material sense, everything is better now. Ordinary people can have nicer things when markets are allowed to do what they are good at.

Under socialism, much about British life was drab. Particularly the food - especially anywhere near the transport network (road and rail). I’m not at all nostalgic for it. These were the days were the only type of coffee you could get was scalding hot coffee coloured hot water in a polystyrene cup.

When government runs things, what you get is what you’re given. The unleashing of capitalism was transformative for Britain. It was timely, necessary and welcome.

But looking at the world as we now find it, with consumer capitalism taken to the extreme, we find that you can have too much of a good thing.

Our appetite for labour saving devices and instant gratification purchases has lessened us somehow. It has contributed to a broader spiritual crisis. We are an unhappy people. Our day to day material needs are generally met, but we are more isolated from each other. Somewhere along the line we lost any sense of place, community and belonging. At the end of this economic experiment, everything we value is falling apart. 

We can quibble over the causes here, but we can all agree that something has gone awry. Mass immigration and unfettered globalisation (the extremes of liberal economics) are certainly major factors. What we know is that this is not how things are supposed to be. Our collective instincts tell us this. The people want change and they can all agree they are not well served by the parties of the status quo. The fragmentation we see in politics is certainly unprecedented in my lifetime.

Our task, then, is to define a new model of conservatism that speaks to the economic and social malaise we find ourselves in. 

The left would have it that the answer is to revert to socialism. The centrists want to preserve the status quo. Neither of these approaches addresses the root causes.

Renationalising energy won’t make the wind blow. Further immigration will not fix our productivity crisis. A greater infusion of cash into a dysfunctional NHS will not improve health outcomes. Net Zero won’t reindustrialise Britain. Quite the opposite, in fact. The state assuming more responsibility for our welfare will not solve the cost of living crisis. 

Certainly, our economy lacks dynamism. Supply-side reforms are needed. Strategic deregulation can reboot housebuilding and infrastructure renewal. But after three decades of corrupt neoliberalism, deregulation has become a dirty word. Moreover, deregulation means abandoning the ill-conceived climate treaties, which is anathema to the ruling elite. Much rests on winning the argument that there is no climate emergency and the drive to reach Net Zero will make us poorer to no useful purpose. The right will continue to lose as long as it surrenders to dogmatic green ideology.

In fact, green ideology underpins the entire basis for modern day left wing authoritarianism. Saving the planet is the pretext for enslaving us and dismantling democracy. Democracy is the greatest threat to the established order. 

As such, it is for conservatives to make a full throated case for real democracy, nationally and locally. What ails Britain is the gradual, almost imperceptible abolition of democracy. We still engage in the performative voting rituals of democracy, but the vote has no real power, and the ruling class is moving into endgame. 

This is what makes Starmer’s Labour so dangerous. Labour seeks to eradicate what’s left of parliamentary sovereignty and make it all but impossible to implement conservative policies.

To a point, this was already the case through membership of the EU, which we sought to remedy by leaving the EU. But the premise we fought on was faulty. Restoring parliamentary sovereignty overlooks that parliament did all this to us in the first place, and now that we have left the EU, that same parliament will again display its contempt for democracy by rubber-stamping Gordon Brown’s constitutional reforms.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but parliamentary sovereignty seems to be part of the problem. Parliament enjoys the right to give away powers and mess with our constitution without our consent. Every major piece of constitutional vandalism of the last four decades was done on the sly, with no meaningful public debate. There is no constitutional constraint on what it may do, and indeed there is nothing stopping it putting us on a trajectory to rejoin the EU by stealth. In theory, general elections are our means of holding parliament to account, but it’s not working.

Conservative luminaries tell us that all that’s required is a restoration, by way of unpicking the Blair regime, but Britain’s archaic system of “democracy” is a relic of a bygone era. Parliament worked in conjunction with the Crown and the Church, but the monarch no longer wants the job of defending the faith or the powers of the Crown, and the Church has all but abandoned Christianity.

As such, a restoration would be rolling back to a pre-internet, pre-secularisation model, from a time when our elites were generally better educated than the voters, and bound by a vague sense of patriotism and loyalty (which is clearly no longer the case). The world has evolved, and British democracy must evolve with it.

I’m not one who would abolish the monarchy as it still has a ceremonial role to play, and gives the public a sense of continuity, but if the Crown no longer plays a role in the defence of sovereign powers, then the people themselves have to provide the oversight. Direct democracy is the only true form of democracy. 

For conservatism to thrive, it needs to make a better counter-offer that puts people in charge of their own affairs. Conservatism recognises that the bedrock of a functioning society is community, but community cannot exist as remotely managed abstract provinces concocted by bureaucrats. There is no national democracy without local democracy, and there is no economic dynamism or justice unless government is responsive to democracy. 

The lesson we should have learned from the last fifty years is that the politicians cannot be trusted, and they’re not fit to be in charge. So how about we put the people in charge, and give them the ultimate veto over what is done to them?

© 2024 Pete North
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