Lessons for conservatives
By the time Liz Truss realised she was close to being outpolled by inflation, the public was already weighing up Rishi versus Bojo. The UK has had more prime ministers in the past 55 days than Briscoes has had sales.
Truss and her chancellor Kwasi
Kwarteng were brought down by a minibudget that was the latest example of punk libertarian conservatives and populist nationalists taking over the right. They tried to cut tax for the most wealthy, without paying for the lost revenue. But cutting taxes for the rich does not a Tory party make.
Commentator Daniel Finkelstein has been an adviser to several Tory leaders and prime ministers and a major figure in UK think-tanks and media. He wrote that two wrong and destructive ideas seem to have taken hold on the right of politics.
The first is that tax cuts are always the appropriate Conservative response to any challenge. The second is worse – that tax cuts are the only thing that gives meaning to the Conservative Party.
Authentic conservatism, he writes, is about stability, protecting liberty and democracy at home, defending institutions and shaping national identity. That may or may not involve tax cuts. Just as Labour does not exist to make the state bigger, the Tories do not exist to cut taxes.
The definition of the ‘‘right’’ of politics has its origins in the French Revolution of 1789. The National Assembly met to draw up a new constitution. Those who thought the king should have an absolute veto over policy sat on the right; those who didn’t sat on the left. Put another way, those who wanted stability, tradition and incremental change were ‘‘right’’. Those wanting radical change quickly were ‘‘left’’.
Ever since, the right has stood for institutions and order, the left for change.
I’m not a Tory, but I recognise that if conservative values did not have profound appeal, the political movement could not have been so successful and lasted so long.
The ideology of profligate unfunded tax cuts is relatively new. It took root on the right when Ronald Reagan was US president.
His budget director, David Stockman, later conceded that they knew tax cuts would not pay for themselves. The point was to bring pressure to cut social services because cutting ‘‘entitlements’’ would never be popular. As the deficit grew, so would pressure to cut spending.
In the UK, Margaret Thatcher began her government by increasing taxes, but the Thatcher-reagan governments came to be remembered by conservatives for cuts to top tax rates. Cynically, the tax cuts are remembered as more politically successful than the traditional conservative values of prudence and incremental change.
Once the right abandoned conservative values, democratic values began to go as well. The US ended up with Trump’s electoral vandalism. In the UK, Brexit was an act of constitutional radicalism. Boris Johnson’s government subverted institutions, including Parliament and the judicial system. These trends will continue because political alignments have loosened.
Polling by Yonder for the Tony Blair Institute this year shows that support for conservatives around the world is increasingly coming from a less economically secure base. Austerity-practising libertarians, populists and nationalist culture warriors don’t leave much room for traditional conservatives who believe that tradition is a source of wisdom, while change, if needed, should be careful.
Classical conservatives believed in a transcendent morality represented in a stable and predictable social order, backed by customs and bolstered by institutions like the rule of law and nationhood.
The new conservative voter is less likely to believe that private property is inseparable from freedom and must be protected, and less likely to be mistrustful of concentrated power, whether in government, business, church or unions.
As the UK Conservative Party has become unmoored from traditional conservative values, it’s become unstable and incoherent. That’s why the party has been churning through leaders.
Meanwhile, Yonder found that around the world Labour parties are no longer the parties of working-class manual labour. The middle-class Labour voter is different to the middle-class voter of the past. They are more likely to be university educated, more likely to work in the public sector and have a liberal, internationalist outlook.
The conservative voters (lower case c) are left with few options. Neither side of politics is home for them.
The lesson for other conservative parties should be clear. Values drive policy, not the other way around, because values endure.
Evidence around the world is that rightwing parties are learning the wrong lessons from populism. Some may outlast the shelf life of a lettuce. But they risk disappearing faster than that packet of mixed spice that’s been sitting in your cupboard for years.