It is time for Conservatives to stand up and say what they really believe in
One of the big hits in the cinema this summer has been Dunkirk. It is a powerful story, simply told, which ends with the rousing words of Winston Churchill: “We will fight them on the beaches…” Churchill’s rhetoric is always effective in its appeals to dignity, resolve and raw patriotism. The “sunlit uplands”, as he himself called them.
George HW Bush, while still vice president of the United States, was asked to think about his upcoming run for the presidency. “Oh I get it,” he said. “You mean the vision thing.” His son, George W Bush, later came up with his own version of “the vision thing” when he spoke of “compassionate conservatism”. This slogan worked.
It’s clear that the Conservative Party now needs to ponder “the vision thing”, too. Unabashed in his socialism, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has captured the imagination of a large number of voters. Starting on about 25 per cent in the opinion polls when the general election was called in April, Labour managed to get 40 per cent on election day on June 8, winning 12.9 million votes.
Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, famously used to say that politicians should “campaign in poetry and govern in prose”. Given today’s political environment, we should also learn to “govern in poetry” – to deploy the poetry of ideas that inspire and tell a story, not just the prose of managerial and technocratic administration.
Mr Corbyn’s crude socialism should oblige us to promote our contrasting vision. He extols nationalisation and punitive taxation for the rich, defined arbitrarily as people earning more than £70,000 a year, who will be taxed to provide people with “free stuff ”. Of course, all this is a recipe for a fiscal disaster. A country laden with high debts, sustained by enormous borrowing and punitive levels of taxation, would be a nightmare, but it’s certainly a vision for some.
In contrast to Mr Corbyn and the Momentum crowd, Conservatives should celebrate the wealthgenerating potential of free markets and individual enterprise. This has been particularly challenging given the widely acknowledged housing crisis across large parts of the country, and especially in the South East. In my constituency, for example, a two-bedroom flat in Staines can cost about £350,000. This is way beyond the reach of most people without considerable parental help or large savings.
The name Noel Skelton is largely forgotten today, but his legacy in the Conservative Party in the 20th century was enormous. Skelton, a talented journalist, wrote four articles in 1923 for The Spectator.
The title of this series was “Constructive Conservatism”. It was in these articles that he came up with the phrase “a property-owning democracy”. This concept would help to define conservatism for the rest of the century. The four articles were republished in 1924, and had a lasting influence in Conservative circles.
The parallel between British politics today and that of the 1920s is uncanny. The 1920s were striking for the fact that there were three general elections in consecutive years – 1922, 1923, and 1924. It does not take a historian to realise that we have just gone through something similar since the general election of May 2015, even if the referendum in June 2016 was not technically an election.
It was in the middle of this political instability that Skelton’s ideas were first developed. One good outcome of elections is that fresh talent comes into the House of Commons. It was in the early 1920s that Skelton himself, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan were first elected as MPS. Eden and Macmillan became friends of Skelton, and his ideas would shape their political outlook for decades.
After years on the backbenches, Skelton was appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state for Scotland in 1931. He died of cancer in an Edinburgh nursing home in 1935. He was only 55, but his ideas lived on. Eden would revive his key phrase in the 1940s. Macmillan used the concept as an intellectual prop for his ambitious 1950s house-building programme.
Alec Douglas Home, another Conservative prime minister, served as Skelton’s parliamentary private secretary between 1931 and 1935. It is no stretch to see Margaret Thatcher’s popular “right to buy” scheme flowing directly from Skelton’s ideas. Not only did she promote home ownership, but her government actively encouraged shared ownership, particularly among public sector workers.
Those three simple words – property-owning democracy – make the clear connection between political engagement and having a home of one’s own.
One striking statistic from the 2017 election, according to Yougov, was that only 30 per cent of home owners voted Labour. Among renters, meanwhile, only 30 per cent voted Conservative. Nearly 100 years after Skelton’s pamphlet, the concept of a property-owning democracy needs to be re-invigorated for a new generation. Times can change, but ideas have a much longer lifespan.
House building is, of course, central to this. We must recognise that a large degree of immigration and very little supply of new housing, among other reasons, have been important factors in creating this crisis. A Conservative government must, as in the past, address this problem. But Skelton’s vision went further, extending to industry, land reform and a more direct democracy as ways to engage with voters.
People regularly tell me “we know what you Tories are against, but what are you actually for?” We need to be able to explain this simply. We need a “narrative”. Aspiration, opportunity, and a stake in society are things which combine education, decent healthcare and the fruits of a capitalist system where individuals contribute to society, while also pursuing their natural inclination to improve their lot in life.
It’s often been said that conservatism is successful because it chimes with these basic human instincts. It’s time for us to ask fundamental questions about what the Conservative Party is for, and what it actually believes.
Kwasi Kwarteng is MP for Spelthorne