Once upon a time, conservatives thought that family life was important. The opportunity for a parent to stay at home with infants, the obligation to care for the elderly, the benefits to children of spending time with their parents and extended family. If this sounds nice and pleasant, it also seems very distant from the modern Right — the sort of language unlikely to be articulated by any senior Conservative figure.
All political philosophies come with sacred ideas, for which all else must be sacrificed. The Left uses accusations of -ism or -phobia to wall off areas it considers beyond the pale, and while the Right likes to imagine it is above such repressive strictures on debate, this is not quite true. For conservatives, ‘growth’ is a sacred idea, in much the same way as racism and other forms of prejudice are for the Left, and the result has been a steady shrinking of acceptable policy space, with social conservatism giving ground at every turn.
Since Thatcher broke the unions, and started the long march of privatisation through the utilities, conservatism and the free market have been treated as essentially the same thing. In mainstream political discourse, the accepted proxy for a healthy free market is GDP growth. In popular terms, to be conservative is to be for growth. Anything that might impede growth is therefore not conservative.
A prime example would be policies that encouraged — or at least didn’t financially penalise — parents to stay at home with their children. This is off-limits for modern conservatives, because it would incentivise millions of people to spend their days doing ‘economically inactive’ things like caring for the old and young and not contributing to GDP. Instead, modern conservatives mumble about feminism and the ‘gender pay gap’, and implement policies to get all those layabouts out earning and spending.
Today, three-quarters of mothers with dependent children work, and only 1.8 million women under 65 are ‘economically inactive’. But now the decades-long growth bonanza triggered by the movement of women from the home to the workplace is tapering off. So Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice has set its sights on the retired, no doubt hoping for another growth boost from swelling the ranks of the employed, as well as the savings on state pension payouts.
But who will replace all those older people caring for their grandchildren while both parents work? Modern conservatives can add the cost of all that paid childcare to the growth figures, and congratulate themselves on their stewardship of the country, even as the reciprocal obligations and benefits of family life attenuate ever further.
Once upon a time, conservatism valued home ownership as a way to help young people plan for the future, put down roots, start families and play a full part in the social fabric. But in the interests of growth modern conservatives have encouraged us to treat housing as an asset class, leveraged for loan collateral or snapped up by overseas buyers for investment. Those who can buy move house every few years to ‘climb the housing ladder’, meaning they never put down roots or participate in local civic life. Prices have skyrocketed, closing out the young.
Over 40% of the social housing flogged at a discount under Right to Buy is now in the hands of rent-seeking landlords. Build more social housing? No, conservatives now argue, the free market should sort it out, driving jobs and growth. Chalk up all the money borrowed and spent against rising homeowner equity to growth, along with rising rental spending and of course house prices themselves. Meanwhile, a generation of young people gives up on home ownership, moulders in grim flat-shares, and vows never to vote Conservative. Who can blame them?
Once upon a time, conservatives saw us as custodians of the landscape and rural ways of life. After all, what could be more conservative than conservation? But for farms to become efficient, drive down prices and contribute to growth they must agglomerate into ever larger agribusinesses with minimal staff, using methods that decimate wildlife, degrade millennia of topsoil and turn varied, life-filled rural vistas into monoculture tundras. Laid-off farm workers can get zero hours jobs in Amazon warehouses, farm cottages can be sold for bankers’ second homes. We can import seasonal fruit pickers. When even that stops being economical, modern conservatives can loosen planning regulations and create jobs and growth concreting over the fields to house all the people they imported to bypass flatlining productivity and drive consumption and growth.
Once upon a time, conservatives thought that government should be democratically accountable to the electorate, and that a nation-state was the largest scale at which a legitimate demos could be convened. But as we are witnessing more or less in real time, when faced with the unenviable task of choosing between growth and democratic accountability or the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, a significant number of modern conservatives now prioritise growth.
Tories get caricatured as heartless, punitive plutocrats fixated on crime, cuts and the wealthy, and it is easy to see why, since more or less every other aspect of conservatism is hamstrung by being subordinate to growth. Modern conservatives can’t even touch the classic conservative topic of immigration because reducing the flow will harm growth. The result, as exhibited by every Tory Home Secretary in recent history, is a policy of holding the door open with one hand while making rude gestures with the other.
Immigrants, it is implied, should move here en masse, to plump our consumption figures and wipe the backsides of all the old people whose offspring can’t afford time off work to care for them. But those useful growth-boosters should all also feel jolly grateful and possibly a bit guilty about being graciously permitted to do so. It is an incoherent position, not to mention insulting to immigrants, who must find the doublethink bewildering.
There is a great deal of merit in the argument that free markets and economic growth have overall been a force for good in the world. But today, the benefits of growth accrue to an ever smaller proportion of the population. And while Thatcherism bet on the persistence of ‘traditional moral values’ to provide a bulwark against the disruptive power of markets, the decades since her accession have shown Thatcherite market reforms to be increasingly in conflict with Thatcherite morals.
Nowhere has this battle for the soul of conservatism been clearer than in the Brexit referendum. Led by Conservatives, the Remain campaign hectored the masses about the risk to growth and the economy, and ended up losing to millions who have not benefited from growth for some time, and to whom social and cultural matters are now more important than the economy.
Once upon a time, conservatism appealed to the majority. But modern conservatism’s sine qua non — a commitment to growth at all costs — benefits an ever-smaller proportion of the population, undermines the environment, impoverishes rural life, picks at the social fabric, erodes family life and threatens the foundations of democracy and the nation-state. The Conservative Party’s erstwhile base values all these things, and is beginning to realise modern conservatives do not share this view.
Conservatism must choose. It must either call itself something other than conservative, or it must de-prioritise growth. The alternative is that there will soon not be a great deal left worth conserving, not least of conservatism itself.