The Tories risk forgetting a rich tradition of economic thinking
The writer, a former senior adviser to UK chancellors Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid, is a partner at Flint Global; he writes in a personal capacity
Boris Johnson’s government has been fundamentally “un-Conservative”. That has been the impression given by the Tory leadership contest so far. Inevitably, the debate has been dominated by the modern Conservative party’s most successful leader, Margaret Thatcher.
What we have heard is at best only a partial reflection of her philosophy: Tory grandees have lined up to remind the contenders of her aversion to unfunded tax cuts when inflation is spiralling. Moreover, the debate ignores a much richer history of Conservative economic thinking.
Conservative economics has ebbed and flowed over the last two hundred years. Robert Peel’s liberalising agenda in the mid-19th century was followed by a period of scepticism towards laissez-faire. With Labour’s rise the party shifted to define itself against socialism, but the period after 1945 nevertheless saw the Tories make peace with the welfare state and preside over a mixed economy. It was only under Thatcher that rolling back the state became central.
This evolution should not be confused with a lack of principles, however. Throughout, four basic tenets of Conservative economic thinking have endured. First, Conservative economics has tended to be pragmatic, sceptical of ideology and grounded in realism. Conservatism has rejected intellectual rigidity, instead adapting to address the issues of the day.
Second, it has welcomed economic change, both for the progress it can deliver and as necessary to ensure political and social stability. The task is to manage change carefully, with proper appreciation of how people and communities must be protected.
The third key principle is a belief in the need for prosperity and opportunity to be shared broadly. This thread runs from Benjamin Disraeli’s recognition of the dangers of there being “two nations”, rich and poor, to Harold Macmillan’s acknowledgment of Conservatism’s “clear duty” to those sections of society not sharing in economic progress.
Finally, there is the role of the state. Yes, Conservatives have always looked warily at over-mighty government — but this should not be confused with small state libertarianism. The Conservative approach has been to see the state as an enabler, rather than controller, of economic activity.
It is these principles that must now be applied to the challenges ahead. In the short-term that means managing the massive spike in inflation and the downturn it may bring. Beyond that, the next prime minister must set his or her eyes to the longer-term challenges. Given recent anaemic growth, a plan to maximise it must be an absolute priority. But a proper Conservative is a realist and must acknowledge that even the most brilliant execution might nevertheless see the economy grow more slowly than it used to, held back by unavoidable structural factors: an ageing population, the inexorable shift towards more services, and retreating globalisation. The pursuit of growth cannot, therefore, be used as cover to avoid difficult decisions elsewhere.
Specifically, lower growth means two further challenges the UK already faced are likely to intensify. Levels of income and regional inequality in Britain are high by both historic and international standards. History tells us low growth tends to see more intense fights over the distribution, adding urgency to the issue. Lower growth also means structural pressures on the public finances cannot be ignored.
To address the growth, inequality and fiscal challenges ahead, today’s Conservatism must adapt once more; but it must be grounded in longstanding Conservative principles, not in the vacuous promises of a partial imitation of Thatcherism.