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British Conservatism Is Doomed

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“To put it simply, if one cannot accumulate capital, he will not support capitalism; and if one has no solid basis for conserving one’s family and community, which property provides, then he will not become a conservative.”

We, in Britain, are currently going through another Conservative Party leadership contest, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was ejected for behaving as he did before he was in office after he assumed said office. The campaign has seen the highest proportion of women and ethnic minority candidates in British political history, with the most popular candidate with the party membership being the British-Nigerian woman Kemi Badenoch. For me, Badenoch offered the one slim chance to save the country, as well as the prospect of a functional and effective Conservative Party. But because she was an actual conservative, she had to go and so failed before the final three candidates were selected. Now, we are down to the last two: former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Neither represents the kind of Conservative politics equal to the dire moment in which Britain finds itself, and the contest now embodies how and why British small-c and big-C conservatism are both doomed.

Where Are We?

Considering where Britain currently is means surveying a blasted landscape akin to a Paul Nash painting of a World War I battlefield. As I wrote recently:

“Inflation is at 9%, the highest for forty years. Energy prices are already a disaster, and are set to become truly catastrophic in the autumn and next winter. Productivity, bumping along for decades like a sea slug on the ocean floor, is falling into the Mariana Trench. Our levels of private debt are rocketing into the stratosphere. Our public debt is in orbit after the COVID-19 spend binge. Poverty rates are climbing and set to go even higher. The consequences in learning loss from COVID-19 school closures for hundreds of thousands of children [amount to] an absolute disaster. A million immigrants settled here last year. Five million people have simply dropped out of the workforce and now subsist on benefits. Thousands of children have been abused, trafficked, raped, and even killed by grooming gangs. We lag behind other European nations for going back into the office. Quality of service from companies in the private sector and public services in the state sector have thudded face-first into the earth as a result. Our sainted health service is performing the worst it ever has and is a black-hole of funding. The organs of the state have ceased to function: Passport and driving licences are apparently a luxury rather than a necessity, while the main goal seems to be implementing ever more diversity and gender quotas. Our state capacity is, therefore, that of a poor south European country without the compensation of a pleasant climate.”

As Melanie Phillips writes, in the face of this devastation, the main remedy the two candidates have turned to is that favorite of those with no ideas: tax cuts. Sunak has announced his plan to cut income tax to 16% by 2029, which no one (not even on the libertarian “I hate government” right) thinks is anywhere near feasible. People forget that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government raised taxes until 1985, and only once the economy was on more solid foundations did the cuts start. Truss meanwhile promises to reverse the tax rises Sunak put in place, like the rise in National Insurance contributions. There is something to these pledges, given that the British tax burden is the highest it has been since World War II, but the fact that Conservatism has been reduced to cutting taxes shows the depth of the problem. If there is nothing else to what Conservatism has to offer, then we might as well just give up. This is the feeling that hangs over everything in these torrid days before the darkness falls in winter when people have to choose between eating and heating their homes.

Why Are We Here?

If we are honest, none of the gestures at sound policy and good government from the two candidates matter. The Conservatives are set to lose the next general election in 2024 according to the polling, consistently polling around ten points behind Labour, with the most recent poll showing a fourteen point lead for Labour. And this is before the coming disaster this autumn and next winter. The Conservative Party has nothing to offer because it is the one that has been in power for the last twelve years and has allowed this situation to come to pass. To say that the economy has grown at an anemic rate since the Conservative came to power would be an overstatement. Truss even admitted that the Conservatives’ own policies “choked growth.” As a result, we still are not doing any better than before the financial crisis of 2008.

As Sam Ashworth-Hayes writes, “If the UK continues with the same level of growth it has seen for the last decade, Poland will be richer than Britain in about 12 years’ time.” This reflects a long term trend: “From 1950 to 2007, the British economy grew about 2.8[%] each year.” Furthermore, “Between the financial crisis and the Covid pandemic, Britain managed to grow at 1.3[%] each year. Cutting out the 2007-08 recession boosts this figure to just about 2[%]. In per person terms, this performance has been even worse; a growth rate of 0.6[%] per year. To put this into context, it took until 2014 for the UK to get back to where it was in 2007. Wages in 2022 are slightly below where they were in 2008.” In sum, “If the United Kingdom was a US state, it wouldn’t quite be the poorest, but only just. We’d be $400 per person better off than Mississippi. Everywhere else–from Arkansas to Washington–would earn anywhere between several thousand to several tens of thousands more than us.”

One could raise the feeble excuse that for the first two years after the 2019 election win, we experienced the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and all that went with that. As such, the party was not able to implement Prime Minister Johnson’s pledge to “level up” the more investment and infrastructure deprived areas of Britain, where regional inequalities have been a significant problem since de-industrialization in the 1980s and 1990s. Then again, as former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, “events, dear boy.” Things happen and the mettle of a government and the party behind it is how they navigate and traverse such events. Both in the short term with COVID-19 and the longer term of the last twelve years, the Conservatives have been found wanting.

Rachel Wolf, former Downing Street advisor and co-author of the 2019 Conservative party manifesto, argues convincingly that while Prime Minister Johnson was a major reason for the huge 80-seat majority win, he had to have something to sell with his personality, and people actually found the manifesto pledges on Brexit, taxes, National Health Service funding, policing, and immigration appealing. The manifesto walked the narrow ridge between overbearing statism and small-state dogma, and it succeeded as a result. But, of course, neither Truss nor Sunak want to reprise the themes of that manifesto because they both want to move away from Prime Minister Johnson’s platform and his legacy. Never mind that 81% of the public, according to polling by the Onward think tank, still broadly supports the “left on economics, right on culture” approach of 2019. Now each candidate is offering the opposite of what people want. Sunak is parroting the neoliberal Conservatism of former Prime Minister David Cameron and former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, repudiated in the Brexit vote, while Truss is perpetuating her Thatcher LARP as she has no ideas of her own and is a Cromwell-idolizing liberal at heart.

Neither candidate wishes to confront the fact that relying on an ever-aging boomer demographic for votes is neither a sustainable electoral strategy, nor is it conservative in that it ignores the interests and problems of the younger generations, who vote for Labour in droves and hate the Conservative platform of shoring up the secure positions of Britain’s gerontocracy. This is laid out in remorseless detail by James Sean Dickson, according to whom the Conservative Party loses the big cities, while winning small town provincial Britain, not just because of cultural divergence but also because of generational divides. This is epitomized by the housing catastrophe for the young and the entrenching of economic and social policies that protect the party’s older voters, whose incomes are larger than working-age incomes for the first time ever. The upshot of this is that the Conservatives won just about a fifth of the vote from 18-29 year olds. As he writes, “what is rarely accounted for is the wholesale fiscal and monetary contempt the modern Tory Party has for anyone who isn’t a home-owning pensioner. Faced with the highest tax burden since the war, the highest inflation in decades, and ever-shifting student loan repayment terms—faced with plummeting rates of homeownership and sky-high house prices that have more than sextupled the time it takes for someone in their late-twenties to save a deposit—why should anyone under-40 vote for the Conservative Party?”

Housing is a running sore at the heart of British politics and society, one of the main reasons why the young do not vote Conservative. According to Dickson, “Astonishingly, property listing website Zoopla found last year that one in five homes ‘earned’ more in a year than the average UK salary. So much for the dignity of work.” From The Sunday Times, we learn that “‘From 2000 to 2020 average property prices soared by nearly 300[%] to £248,000, while median salaries have only risen 70[%] to £31,500, pricing millions out of the housing market.” London house prices are now fourteen times the median income, while between World War II and 2000 prices never rose above six times median income. Meanwhile, as Dickson writes, “In Oxford and Cambridge, home to countless high-productivity businesses associated with the crown jewels of British higher education, the multiple exceeds 12.” Joseph Elliott, senior analyst at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, tweeted about the upshot of skyrocketing housing prices driven by lack of construction, mortgage prices, and multiple ownership for rental: “In the last 20 years the proportion of adults owning multiple homes doubled, the [percentage] of 16-34 y/os buying a home almost halved.”

The lack of affordable housing has played a part in throttling the economic growth discussed earlier, with economist John Myers arguing that “the housing crisis has caused more damage to GDP than any event since the Black Death.” In the United States, Enrico Moretti at the University of California, Berkeley and Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that a lack of housing had retarded American Gross domestic product (GDP) between 9.5% and 13.5%. In a follow-up paper, “they estimate that the US economy would have been 74[%] larger in 2009, if enough housing had been built in the right places.”

Myers calculates that “if we were simply to be conservative and take half of the damage that the second Moretti and Hsieh paper estimates for the US economy (even though comparisons of the two balance sheets—40-50[%] versus 12.5[%]—implies that the UK problem may be, not half as bad, but three or four times worse), we would conclude that the UK impairment [from lack of housing] is on the order of 32[%].” Alternatively, “using the relative distortions of the balance sheets as a proxy but taking only the original Moretti/Hsieh estimate of a 9.5-13.5[%] impairment, a rough estimate for the UK would be that the damage to the economy caused by these restrictions is over three times the level in the US–perhaps not as high as 39.5[%] of GDP, but it could certainly be in the region of 25-30[%].” As Myers summarizes, “To put that in context, 30[%] of GDP is about £600 billion, or roughly what central government spends in a year. Or to put it another way, if this rough calculation is even remotely accurate, our current housing crisis represents one of the most incredible pieces of self-inflicted economic harm in UK history.”

The Conservatives are unlikely to reverse course and plan to build more houses. Every time there is even a whiff of reform of the impossibly restrictive Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, which basically blocks building anywhere, the party faces electoral revolt so pulls its head back into its shell and stops any attempts to grapple with this existential problem. To put it simply, if one cannot accumulate capital, he will not support capitalism; and if one has no solid basis for conserving one’s family and community, which property provides, then he will not become a conservative.

In 1957, Prime Minister Macmillan quoted another British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who said that “We must be conservative to conserve all that is good and radical to uproot all that is bad.” This is exactly the spirit in which the Conservative Party should face the problems before it today. The housing crisis is the issue that has stored up the biggest electoral and national calamity, but the fact that the Conservatives have failed to get a handle on immigration, one of the contributing factors to the crisis, speaks volumes about their lack of seriousness as a governing force. The journalist Ed West writes that “Immigration since the late 1990s has increased housing costs by 21% in real terms, and that’s across the UK; in London it will be higher,” which is not surprising given that “Population growth in London has increased by 7.7% in a decade, while the number of households has risen by 4.7%. And even ‘household’ does not quite accurately explain how bad the situation is, because of overcrowding. We have Dickensian conditions with groups of [up to 25] Romanian workers staying in grossly overcrowded properties in east London. We have people living in sheds.”

To repeat, one million people settled in Britain last year. Since former Prime Minister Tony Blair came to power in 1997, as Douglas Murray points out, Britain has seen an equal number of immigrants to the 50,000 Huguenots who arrived over five decades arriving every couple of months. Konstantin Kisin sums it up well: “more people settled in England during the height of…New Labour…than had arrived between 1066 and 1950. Let me say that again: more people came in a decade than had come in nine hundred years.” As a result, Britain’s population is expected to grow by around three million over the coming decade, with 73% of the growth coming directly from immigration.

And why do we need this immigration? It is because Britain is becoming old, sclerotic, and needs new workers to maintain what economic growth we have left. Ignore the fact that immigration contributes to the housing crisis, which is itself responsible for a fertility crisis that is leading Britain into a demographic winter. West sums up the consequences of this: “Each 10% increase in house price reduces the birth rate by 1.3%, and runaway housing costs in Britain have prevented hundreds of thousands of children being born. We can see that the shortage of children is especially acute in those most expensive cities, where NIMBYism is preventing expansion. While NIMBYs are very influential in the Conservative Party, rising house prices are associated with the electorate becoming more Left-wing as well as less fecund.” So we need more immigration to fix the baby bust caused by the housing crisis, which is worsened by more immigration. According to Truss, a million people moving to Britain is apparently still insufficient for the agricultural workforce, so we need to make it even easier to recruit foreign workers to pick our fruit, be preyed upon by labor gangs, and be paid just enough to survive.

What Might Be, But Will Not

It was for these precise reasons that the Conservative Party of former Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Prime Minister Macmillan, former Deputy Prime Minister R.A. “Rab” Butler, and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Iain Macleod were so invested in providing homes for the people; and if the state had to enable this or even provide them directly, so be it. In 1951, as Aris Roussinos writes in Unherd, the party manifesto proclaimed housing as “the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by crowded houses. Therefore, a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence.” Prime Minister Macmillan presided over the building of millions of affordable homes, “reorganis[ing] his ministry on a war footing…Red tape was cut to the minimum and brick-making mobilised on a massive scale. Macmillan had no truck with excuses,” according to his biographer, D.R. Thorpe.

The liberal, laissez-faire small state tradition is certainly part of the Conservative Party coalition, but it is neither the whole of its history nor the sum-total of its tradition. Deputy Prime Minister Butler was correct when he said in 1947  that “the term ‘planning’ is a new word for coherent and positive policy. The conception of strong government policy in economic matters is, I believe, the very centre of the Conservative tradition. We have never been a party of laissez-faire. Conservatives were planning before the word entered the vocabulary of political jargon.” Roussinos further quotes Deputy Prime Minister Butler, who argued that “Tories and others set about the task of dealing with the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution by calling upon the power of government to redress injustice…[The State] assumed the functions of protecting the common interest and safeguarding the interests of the weaker members of society,” and that he had “derived from Bolingbroke an assurance that the majesty of the State might be used in the interests of the many, from Burke a belief in seeking patterns of improvement by balancing diverse interests, and from Disraeli an insistence that the two nations must become one.”

Britain is faced with political midgets whose minds are colonized either by the small state virus or a degraded neoliberal technocratic centrism. Instead of this, men like the above-mentioned past British leaders and their Edwardian predecessors were giants who saw the value in using the state to govern in service of the common good and preserving the means to the good life (lived in common)—all while defusing divisive issues that could turn the fact of different social classes into a battlefield. All of this was the job of the Conservative Party when elected to govern through the offices of state.

This was a truly national conservative vision that reached back through the Edwardian Conservatism of social reform to the vision of Prime Minister Disraeli that constituted the true One Nation tradition: reconciling Britain’s social and economic tribes into a cohesive whole for the good of both the nation and its members, a reciprocal relationship mutually enriching both. This is the vision we must recover in our own way for the dire situation facing Britain today: to reconcile young and old by building homes; to integrate newcomers and old-timers into a cohesive, stable nation bonded by national solidarity; to reignite the growth and prosperity that saw Britain reach the heights it did during the Victorian and Edwardian eras for the next industrial revolution. Of course, none of this will happen with the current candidates.

The simple fact is that, at the moment, British Conservatism is doomed: doomed to lose the next general election and doomed as a serious electoral force capable of steering the ship of state with the seriousness it deserves and requires. Maybe out of the ashes of defeat something will grow that will be justified in governing, but unfortunately I cannot see that happening.

Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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