August 14, 2019

At last! A clarifying moment in British politics! You may have missed it because it wasn’t about Brexit: it was about the future of the Conservative Party, post-Brexit.

At some point, the debate over who governs Britain will be resolved. We’ll then have to decide what to do with ourselves (assuming Brexit isn’t cancelled, which would put our future in others’ hands).

So, what sort of country do we want to be? Or, to narrow things down, what sort of country does the Conservative Party want Britain to be?

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That has yet to be decided. Indeed, it’s not even being debated – at least not openly. Interrupted by Brexit, the old arguments haven’t been had for years – key protagonists have retired from combat and frozen conflicts have lost their relevance.

Yet, in quiet corners of the Westminster village, there are people thinking about the future and drawing new battle lines in readiness for the world after Brexit.

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Hence last week’s clarifying moment: the publication of The Politics of Belonging by Onward – a Conservative think tank.

The report, which is centred on a Hanbury Strategy opinion poll of 5,000 people, defines the impending struggle for the soul of the Conservative Party: a struggle between those who emphasise security and those who emphasise freedom.

This is how the report’s lead authors, Will Tanner and James O’Shaughnessy, put their case:

“After decades of liberalising politics, from the cultural shifts introduced by Roy Jenkins on divorce and abortion in the 1960s, through the Thatcherite economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, to the social liberalism of the Blair government, the polling reveals a sea change towards a new era in which the politics of security and belonging are becoming more important.

“In fact, it suggests the pendulum of liberty is swinging back the other way and that voters are now looking for a government that will protect them and their families, and provide a greater focus on place, community and security – the ‘politics of belonging’.”

These words are a direct challenge to the Conservative Party’s libertarian tendency. Furthermore, they come from an unexpected quarter.

When it was founded last year, many people (myself included) assumed that the think tank would represent the party’s self-described ‘modernisers’ – who aren’t libertarians, but who are economically and socially liberal. The Chairman of the advisory board is Lord Finkelstein – a moderniser grandee and wise counsellor to David Cameron and George Osborne. Baroness Fall and Neil O’Brien, two other bright lights from the Cameroon golden age, are also on the advisory board.

And yet The Politics of Belonging takes Onward deep into post-liberal territory; and not everyone is pleasantly surprised. For instance, the Guido Fawkes website expressed its consternation at the “remarkable change in Onward’s outlook”. The report is diametrically opposed to the libertarians.

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In effect, the report is a counterblast to Britannia Unchained – a book published in 2012, but newly relevant because four of its five authors are now in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet: Dominic Raab (Foreign Secretary), Priti Patel (Home Secretary), Liz Truss (Trade Secretary) and Kwasi Kwarteng (Energy Minister).

Britannia Unchained is a source text for Boris Johnson’s libertarian-lite ‘Boosterism’, which envisages too big a role for government to count as fully libertarian. However, the sort of state intervention it supports is exemplified by hyper-capitalist Singapore – and contrasts with continental-style social democracy.

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As for the moral values that underpin this vision for humanity? Perhaps those are best encapsulated in the immortal words of Liz Truss:

“This generation are #Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters”

But are they, Liz? Are they really? Let’s take a closer look at the Onward survey results, which are broken down by age group.

The most significant question was a choice between two statements: “I would rather live in a society based on freedom” and “I would rather live in a society that focuses on giving people more security.” Every age group favours security, though the older age groups more so than the younger.

On a number of questions about specific social and economic issues, people were asked to choose between statements associated with the ‘pro-freedom’ and ‘pro-security’ sides of the wider debate.

On most of the social (or cultural) issues – including community integration, urbanisation, marriage and university versus technical education – there was a general preference for the pro-security statements, which is pronounced in the older age groups. On criminal justice, however, the age groups were split – younger people favouring rehabilitation over punishment and older people the opposite. On the issue of equality between the sexes, the generations were united in believing it hadn’t gone far enough.

On economic issues – such as attitudes to technological change, immigration and the privatisation of utilities – there was a clear preference for the pro-security statements, though again it was generally stronger among the older age groups. The main exception was on the issue of ‘flexible working’ – to which there was more openness.

The generation were also united in prioritising the reduction of economic inequality over the maximisation of growth – and in supporting the claim that the wealthy obtain their wealth by exploiting others rather than by working hard. There was similarly strong backing for the proposition that “making a decent living has got harder for people like me” (as opposed to easier).

So while we can discern some comparatively stronger tendencies towards social liberalism and techno-optimism among the young (as one might expect) – there is no groundswell of support for the gung-ho capitalism espoused by Liz Truss and her colleagues – quite the opposite, in fact. On almost every issue people of all ages want more security not more freedom.

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At this point I need to declare my own ideological inclinations. I’m very much at the communitarian (and therefore anti-libertarian) end of the conservative spectrum. Indeed, some might say I’ve fallen off it altogether and should go and join Blue Labour.

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Certainly, I’m delighted by Onward’s turn toward post-liberalism and find a lot of encouragement in The Politics of Belonging. However, it’s when your biases are being most lavishly confirmed that you need to be on your guard. Indeed, one should go out of one’s way to focus on the things that most challenge your beliefs.

For instance, like a lot of people, I was taken aback by the evidence that younger people are less supportive of democracy than older people. There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, let’s not panic – the overwhelming majority (76%) of under-35s support “having a democratic system”. As for the finding that 64% of under-35s “want a strongman leader”, we shouldn’t interpret that as support for dictatorship. If I read it correctly, the survey gauged support for “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament”. Clearly a strong leader is better than the alternative; and effectiveness, not tyranny, is surely what most people have in mind when expressing their approval.

As for “not bothering with parliament” – I’m not sure that this indicates a preference for undiluted executive rule, but rather a reaction to the recent experience of a weak prime minister (Theresa May) frustrated at every turn by the House of Commons. There’s evidence to suggest that voters are heartily fed-up with this cynically obstructive, grandstanding parliament – and just want Westminster to get on with the job of leading the country.

That said, young people do appear to have less patience with the to-ing and fro-ing of representative democracy than older voters do. To me that’s evidence not of latent fascism, but of cosseted individualism – a somewhat solipsistic desire to have everything your way; or, failing that, to detach oneself from the messy give-and-take of the democratic process. Democracy, being a communal activity, doesn’t really fit with youthful self-absorption – but then neither does dictatorship. Rather, what is wished for is a free society that just sort of happens, especially if it comes with various ‘free’ material benefits. Hence the appeal of the EU as a distant, but benign, source of liberal authority.

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The Onward survey therefore reveals a hybrid instinct, especially among the young, for both freedom and security, but without accepting much in the way of personal responsibility. Though this ought to disappoint libertarian hopes, it also presents a challenge to the communitarian position.

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Another challenge arises when the survey asks people to choose between a “society that embraces change” and a “society that preserves tradition”. Most age groups, and especially the younger ones, prefer change to tradition. Of course, a lot depends on wording. A different question asks people to choose between “radical change” and pursuing “gradual change to protect what is important”. In this case, it is the latter – and definitively conservative – option that wins heavily, even among the young.

Breaking down the results another way reveals a crucial difference between how different social classes respond to the freedom-versus-security and change-versus-tradition choices. As mentioned, the survey finds a clear preference for more security over more freedom. This is especially strong among those with fewer qualifications, but present across the entire educational and occupational spectrum.

However, there is much less of a consensus when it comes to the preference for change over tradition. The preference is strong among university-educated professionals – but weakens to the point of disappearing the further one goes down the socio-economic pecking order. To put it another way, the more privileged you are, the easier you find it to reconcile change and security. Almost everyone wants more security, but while some welcome change, others see it as a threat. This, in a nutshell, is the “open versus closed” spectrum currently redefining our politics.

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The libertarian agenda, which embraces radical change and values freedom over security, is doubly out of tune with the spirit of the age, then. It appeals neither to the younger, middle-class remainers who see their security as anchored to internationalist, liberal institutions such as the EU nor to the older, working-class leavers who believe that the forces of globalism (including the EU) have undermined their security in the economic and cultural spheres.

For both groups, Britannia unchained is Britannia adrift. The only way forward, therefore, is the politics of belonging. But belonging to what, exactly?

The future of the Conservative Party depends on finding a credible and unifying answer.