It is time for Con­ser­va­tives to stand up and say what they re­ally be­lieve in

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - Kwasi Kwarteng

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

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