Politics is becoming a battle of ideas again, but the Tories look a spent force
The Herald, October 4th 2017
The Conservative Party love to tell themselves they are one of the most successful parties electorally in the Western world. Chancellor Philip Hammond was giving Tories this reassuring message on Monday.
But this conference does not feel like that of a party in good health, spirits or much energy. Instead, despite being in government, it feels like a party lost and almost pre-preparing for opposition.
There is the leadership issue. Theresa May’s lost majority saw her stitch-up a deal with the Democratic Unionists – with them not having to power share in Northern Ireland, because they can do so with the Tories. Why does either need to bother with democracy, when they can short circuit the verdict of voters?
There is the continual jockeying for position for the next Tory leadership race which has gone into hyper-drive since June. There are the numerous articles and pronouncements from Boris Johnson, each of which has to be deciphered Kremlin like for his intentions. Then there are the fantasy candidates who have never held government office: Ruth Davidson because she has never been a MP, and conference fringe favourite Jacob Rees-Mogg. Whatever their respective merits, they reveal how lost the Tories really are and bereft of other talent.
This is a pretend conference. A Potemkin village which is only about providing the governing classes a platform for making their announcements and spreading some goodies. Trouble is in these difficult times they have little in goodies to distribute.
Tory membership is vanishing. A party which once had three million members is now down to 100,000, an average age of 72, and half of constituency parties with fewer than 100 members. The governing party of the UK is now the fourth party in members: not just massively behind Corbyn’s energised Labour, but the SNP (the second biggest in the UK) and Lib Dems as well.
The party is slipping into oblivion. Its obsessions are not those of most voters as it lectures the public on the disasters of Labour in the 1970s from the 1976 IMF crisis to the winter of discontent. This makes as much sense as invoking ‘the Dunkirk spirit’; 1979 is now closer to 1945 than it is to the present day. Imagine what younger voters in their twenties make of what is basically a biased history lesson.
The Tories have for forty years believed their own hype on the economy. That they Trump-like ‘put the Great back into Great Britain’ and presided over an ‘economic miracle’. Trouble is they didn’t address the fundamentals in investment, skills and productivity. Instead, they sold off state assets and opened the floodgates to foreign ownership of key parts of the economy.
Underlying this is the political battle of ideas. For the last forty years the forces of the right have been ascendant, preaching the virtues of unrestrained free market capitalism. Even thirteen years of New Labour government under Blair and Brown didn’t challenge these assumptions.
Now politics are very different. The Thatcherite revolution has exhausted itself and left a trail of problems including generational gridlock, young people locked out of the housing market, and 76% support for rail nationalisation. The Economist magazine believes that the Corbyn insurgency is a deep-seated reaction to this and that ‘the 1980s will repeat itself: this time with the boot on the other foot’, meaning towards the state and collectivist solutions.
This is one of the most significant political shifts in our lives and has huge consequences for Scotland. Despite our rhetoric, politics here have been shaped by a timid, defensive social democracy – whether led by Labour or the SNP.
With the tectonic plates shifting the realm of Scottish politics will move too. What answer does the SNP and independence have when the economic make-belief of recent decades has exploded? Where does that leave Ruth Davidson and her new found popularity as the Tories lose the battle of ideas? And can Scottish Labour ever find an insurgent role against the new establishment of the SNP?
Come back to Manchester. The Tories are in a different planet. Boris Johnson’s speech was titled ‘Let the Lion Roar’ with all the echoes of the Britain of the past. Tory MP Phillip Lee compared the NHS and welfare state to ‘a Ponzi scheme’. Craig Mackinlay (of South Thanet fame) invoked Norman Tebbit and told the unemployed to ‘get on your bike’ and Glaswegian youngsters to travel south to work on farms with ‘gorgeous EU women’. That will be the same workers who the Tories refuse to guarantee the right to stay in the UK post-Brexit.
Strange thing is Theresa May, or more accurately her ex-advisers, understood some of this in the ill-fated June Tory manifesto which railed against ‘selfish individualism’. They didn’t reflect that such a credo has run through the Tories these last forty years, didn’t win the political argument in the party, or come up with the right policies.
That agenda is now stillborn in the Tories. There is no raison d’etre in the Tories beyond positioning for the leadership. This isn’t a politics about ‘us’ or facing the future. Instead, it is focused on the self-interest of our present governing classes. It isn’t very edifying or convincing. Old style Toryism of the Churchill and Macmillan type is long dead. Newer, brash Conservatism of the Thatcherite variety is now equally moribund.
This is a spent party with a discredited ideology which is away to preside over the greatest political challenge the UK has faced in decades: Brexit. Part of the Tory Party sees this as an opportunity to unleash yet more Thatcherism, free market capitalism and deregulation, setting us free from the dead hand of Brussels.
It is the only mantra some of these Tory dogmatists know. But people have had enough. The political pendulum of ideas has swung away from such beliefs. To the incomprehension of the Tory leadership, for now, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour stands as the force which articulates the new political zeitgeist. The world has, as the old revolutionary slogan says, been literally, turned upside down.