What is Conservatism actually for? The question is a pressing one, because as Conservative Party activists meet in Birmingham for their first Conference since Britain’s Brexit vote, it seems less than clear. No doubt the near-unprecedented political and strategic upheaval of the last year makes it hard to find your bearing. Let’s face it: none of the other main parties is doing a particularly good job of defining themselves at the moment either, the Liberal Democrats’ understandable (and canny) Europhilia aside. But there’s more to Conservatives’ vast lack of clarity to that. They have, in Theresa May (above), a new and relatively untested leader, and a new Cabinet; eleven years’ ‘decontamination’ and ‘modernisation’ seems to be under the microscope as never before; and, most of all, they seem to lack a guiding philosophy.
You’ll see what we mean when you look back at past Conservative leaders. Stanley Baldwin wanted to hold the country together during an economic and social crisis, partly by adopting some of the interventionist and proto-Keynesian the techniques that one might have associated with his opponents. Winston Churchill, of course, represented in himself a great moral endeavour – victory against fascism – that stood head and shoulders above all other aims. Harold Macmillan wanted to show that the Conservatives had adapted themselves to the welfare state and the mixed economy, and made sure that low unemployment and a huge housing drive backed up his words with deeds. Edward Heath tried to make Britain more corporate, more modern and more efficient – going into Europe being one of the main means by which that would be achieved. Margaret Thatcher also aimed at making Britain more competitive, though her chosen means were much harsher: the shock therapy of very high interest rates, public spending cuts and anti-trade union legislation. John Major thought that he could yoke that tough sense of economic priorities to a softer, kinder emphasis on the quality of public services, while David Cameron sought to rescue the Conservatives’ reputation for civic effort and social liberalism.
Now you can criticise all of those leaders (though Churchill’s image is probably a bit hard to dent). What you can’t do is say that you can’t locate them at all. Sometimes they were a little fuzzy. Macmillan in his brief stint as Chancellor didn’t say much that lived up to his Third Way anti-capitalist rhetoric from the 1930s. John Major was derailed by the great career-crunching issue of ‘Europe’ overall, and the Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle of September 1992 in particular. David Cameron often gave the impression that he was making it all up as he went along. But the image, the point, the direction of travel? All fairly clear.
We haven’t got much of that from Mrs May yet. Yes, we’ve got the idea that Britain will have to face outwards to the world, rather than just Europe, clear in her first leader’s speech to the Conference yesterday. But this seems more like a matter of events’ imperatives. Brexit forces you to make those choices. Elsewhere? Well, a break with a decade or more’s emphasis on Academies as the main vehicle for improving the quality of England’s schools, and new emphasis on grammar schools that is probably as backward-looking as it is politically unwise. That doesn’t seem like much of a step towards a new political philosophy either – at least on its own.
It might all fit into a new vision of post-Brexit: one in which everything’s to look a lot more like an imagined 1950s. One that never did exist and never could exist, of course, but a fantastical past that exerts a powerful sway over many voters, especially older Baby Boomers and Ukippers perhaps now shopping around for a new political home. Consider Mrs May’s emphasis on more government surveillance of the internet and of mobile phones while she was Home Secretary. Take a look at her scepticism about the Hinkley Point nuclear power station deal with the French and the Chinese, held up on what seemed to be national security grounds. Behold her utmost clarity – that immigration should be controlled, that it should come down in terms of raw numbers, and that the level should stay down.
Then listen to her close associate and advisor, her joint chief of staff Nick Timothy, when he muses about a harder, tougher line on economic and national security. That might go together well with a renewed One Nation emphasis on a more active, moralising, solidaristic state that builds more infrastructure and is more relaxed than hitherto about welfare spending – but demands the price of a more moralistic, more intrusive, increasingly strident and bigger Conservative (and conservative) government in return. Yes, you’ll be more secure (at least in theory), in all sorts of ways: but you may not like the hard borders, constant checks, economic direction and scowl-to-the-world that all that safety involves.
In this respect it is perhaps apposite that the Conservatives are meeting in Birmingham, since Mr Timothy has written a book about Joseph Chamberlain, the great leader of that city who started his political life as a Radical before fighting for existence and integrity of the United Kingdom as a Liberal Unionist. And what did Chamberlain think? Well, that you had to do something for working people if you were really serious about defeating socialism. That Britain should be assertive on the world stage, with global ambitions. That the UK was a force for good across the world, not just in a European frame. Mrs May’s emphasis on people who are just about getting by, and her use of the long-abandoned words ‘working class’, are important here. So is her emphasis on Britain’s global destiny, summoned up by necessity as it is.
An agenda is just about struggling to emerge. It’s provincial, anti-metropolitan, conservative, sceptical, nationalistic, focused on continuity and security rather than Blairite change and disruption. It's Birmingham over London. It will probably be very popular. But it’s all very, very early days. An agenda isn’t a philosophy, and nor will such a skeletal sense of priorities survive the next five years’ emphasis on Brexit above pretty much all else. These ideas will need constant attention, continual nurturing, round-the-clock monitoring. Mr Timothy may be kept very busy.
No doubt Mrs May looks at the space where a Labour Opposition ought to be, and she says to herself: ‘I’ll just stroll back to No. 10. No-one will even notice there’s a contest’. And she’s probably right – this time. But it would be most unwise for the Conservatives to rely on the weakness of their opponents for ever and a day. Labour might get its house in order more quickly than most assume, as the Conservatives did between the destruction of Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership and the election of David Cameron as their leader in 2005. They will – at some point – replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader, either with a more voter-friendly figure from the Soft Left (a Sadiq Khan or a Lisa Nandy), or a Left-wing leader with a more compelling life story and bags more charisma (think Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner).
Whatever happens, Labour is not going to remain forever as weak as they are now. Even if Labour were to break up entirely – and that looks unlikely at the moment – something else will happen to fill the space. A new centrist party might emerge, threatening to detach some relatively Euro-friendly Conservative MPs. The Liberal Democrats might enjoy a renaissance. A crisis over Brexit or Scottish independence might split the Conservatives themselves. You get the picture.
If she aspires to govern successfully for a long time – and the opportunity is there – Mrs May needs a lodestar. A set of ideas, principles or even just plausible and targetable futures that she can steer by. Just doing your best won’t cut it. Competence isn’t everything (though it is something). Being a bit nicer on welfare won’t suffice. Conservative leaders with legacies meant something when they spoke. They were going somewhere. They had an idea where it was, however hazy. Our new regime doesn’t have that yet. It needs it – fast.