It is easy — and just — to mock Angela Merkel for her years of reckless misgovernance; thanks to her, Germany is now beginning to ration street lighting and heating, and rushing to install “warmth hubs” so her once-adoring voters don’t freeze to death over the winter. But we should go easy on the schadenfreude: we have all been governed by Merkels over the past four decades, and the same hard collision with reality is coming for us, too.
What is euphemistically termed the “cost of living crisis” is simply the first ripples of the historic shift of wealth and power from Europe and North America to the great Asian power blocs. The rising costs of energy and food resulting from the war in Ukraine will be dwarfed by the plummeting living standards that the great confrontation with China will usher in. The basic underpinnings of middle-class consumption in the West will go, and we will not see them again in our lifetimes. Britain is no more prepared for this cataclysmic correction of the global economy than Germany is: indeed, by many important metrics, our state capacity is already significantly worse.
As the sociologist and political theorist Paolo Gerbaudo observes, the result of the economic consensus of the past four decades is already such that “the remaining members of the middle class in the West, what we could refer to as the ‘middling class’ due to the precarity of their position, are facing the prospect of proletarianisation, or déclassement — being progressively stripped of the traditional tokens of middle-class status, such as home ownership, savings and a good salary following a good education.”
This has brought us the Right-wing populist upsurge of the past decade, and the parallel drive towards “millennial socialism” among newly-proletarianised university graduates, with all the cultural pathologies their distress carries with it. Yet in their “war on woke”, the Conservative party is campaigning against the morbid symptoms while refusing to treat the cause.
It is beyond dispiriting, then, that the candidates displaying themselves in the Conservative leadership contest not only have no meaningful solutions to offer for the hard years ahead, but do not even seem to discern the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Instead, all the potential successors scrabbling around their podiums for Johnson’s crown have retreated to the safe space of Thatcherite dogma, promising to shrink the state just when the state’s protective hand will be needed more than ever.
How much state is even left to shrink? Try to get a GP appointment; try to get the police to attend an incident of crime, let alone provide justice. Crime is rampant, incomes are shrinking and education is worthless. Our external borders are now purely notional, and the union’s survival is doubtful. We already pay Scandinavian taxes for Mediterranean public services, and all the candidates are offering is a further diminution of state capacity. If Conservatives do not relearn how to run it, then the state will collapse, and deservedly so. As Hobbes wrote: “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them.” To see Britain through the hard years ahead, we need a leader able to harness the protective power of Leviathan.
Yet instead, all we have seen from the hustings are the last dying rituals of Thatcher’s cargo cult, as the candidates rattle through the empty mantras of the old religion, desperately trying to placate the unquiet ghost of a woman born a century ago. Look at Truss, literally cosplaying Thatcher in Moscow; listen to Sunak promising a “grown up conversation”, when it’s the consensus of the sensible grownups that has given us decades of stagnation and decline. Where even the supposed “last neoliberal” Emmanuel Macron has nationalised France’s energy giant EDF to see his country securely through the near future, our own Penny Mordaunt signed away 5% of Britain’s electricity capacity to avoid ruining the view from just one affluent constituent’s seaside cottage. None of these people even understands the turbulent future ahead of us, let alone presents a plan to seize it for the nation’s good. No wonder None of the Above is still the best-polling candidate: the party’s future is still imprisoned by its recent past.
But the old gods have no power in the world ahead of us. We have entered a new era, in which only the strongest and most capable states will survive. As Gerbaudo notes, “many leaders have come to see the neoliberal state as a rudderless vessel, incapable of weathering coming global storms. The issue that divides them is what new course should be set by the ship of state.” If Conservatives do not meet this challenge, then their political enemies will, using the state to cement into law all the arcane and pernicious maladies of late-stage liberalism they already display.
It didn’t have to come to this. There are other Tory traditions, other Conservative modernities which the party could draw on in an age of permanent crisis. Instead of its shrunken historical memory that goes no further back than the oldest millennials, the Conservative party has a strong culture of capable leadership fit to guide the nation through a period of crisis and decline, and to transmute the coming years of lead into gold. Instead of competing to dress up in Thatcher’s mothballed clothes, we need a candidate who can bring the vision and good governance of Britain’s postwar leadership: we need a new Harold Macmillan.
It was Macmillan, as his biographer D.R. Thorpe observes, who led Britain from the “immediate post-war world of deprivation to the years of plenty”, writing in his diary: “We must be bold; caution is no good. All our political future depends on whether we can combine prosperity with stability.” Drawing on his experience heading the Ministry of Supply during the darkest wartime years, Macmillan “understood the machinery of government and knew… how to crank it into action.” Deployed by Churchill as housing minister, with a mission to build 300,000 new houses every year, Macmillan exceeded his quota, crushing Labour in the process.
The party then understood, as it declared in its 1951 manifesto, that “Housing is 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.” Back then, the central plank of Conservative messaging, shown regularly in the newspapers and the cinema newsreels, was Macmillan “handing the key to a semi-detached house to a grateful married couple with young children”. A party that stood on this pledge today, and delivered, would win a landslide: it really is that simple. Yet instead, held captive by boomer NIMBY interests, the best offer that the most ambitious Conservative contenders are making today is the weak nudge of “street votes”, the chosen gimmick of thinktankers ideologically fearful of the state’s slumbering power.
Compare this timidity and intellectual bankruptcy with the vigour and ambition of Britain’s postwar leadership. Ordered to provide homes, Macmillan built millions of them. As Thorpe records, “Macmillan reorganised his ministry on a war footing — Action This Day… Red tape was cut to the minimum and brick-making mobilised on a massive scale. Macmillan had no truck with excuses.” The result was a happy, prosperous and secure electorate, with the middle- and working-classes united in support for a Conservative government that gave them security and the opportunity for family formation, the basic building blocks of a conservative worldview.
The party, then, was led by giants: but more, it was led by conservatives, and not by Manchester Liberals in conservative clothing. Which candidate today would declare, as Anthony Eden did to a roaring crowd at the 1947 conference, that “We are not a Party of unbridled, brutal capitalism, and never have been. Although we believe in personal responsibility and personal initiative in business, we are not the political children of the ‘laissez-faire’ school. We opposed them decade after decade.” As Eden observed, “Conservatism regards the family as the basic social unit — and the sanctity of family life as vital to the health of the State.” The reverse was true then, as it is now: the state is integral to the health of the family, and without a capable state willing and able to nurture stable, prosperous and content family life, there is no future for either the party or the nation.
To achieve this requires the state’s intervention in the market, and not just fearful sacrifices to the fickle gods of free trade. As another giant of postwar Toryism, Rab Butler, declared in 1947: “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.”
Rooting Conservative interventionism in the deepest, paternalist origins of the Tory tradition, Butler noted 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.” In his 1971 memoirs, Butler observed that “I 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.” That belief in the majesty of the state, and its unique capacity to improve the lives of the British people, is the very heart of the Tory tradition, and it is to that tradition the Conservatives must return.
On his triumphant accession to the Conservative leadership in 1957, Macmillan quoted Disraeli by saying: “We must be conservative to conserve all that is good and radical to uproot all that is bad.” Yet the party that now exists has conserved nothing of value: for it to survive now, Thatcher’s baneful legacy must finally be uprooted. Seeking to guide Britain’s threatened democracy between the twin hazards of Fascism and Communism, Macmillan — long MP for the mining town of Stockton, and the publisher of Keynes — observed, in 1936, that “Toryism has always been a form of paternal socialism”. The party of today cannot shy from this vision: better a protective father, stern in defence of his sacred duty, than Thatcher’s feckless mother, of whom Macmillan sadly observed in 1984 that “First the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go…’”
The roots of Britain’s precipitous decline lie in the chronic under-investment in scientific research, state capacity and basic living standards that Thatcher’s revolution brought in tow. The supposedly drab and dreary Britain of the postwar era was far more vigorous, creative and prosperous than the ruin we currently inhabit. Instead of shrinking the state, the state’s budgets have ballooned beneath the costs of PFI contracts and outsourcing to companies parasitic on the nation’s wealth, even as its capacity has withered to almost nothing.
This isn’t just a Tory failing. As the political theorists Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri observed in 2020, “even if the Labour Party had won the 2019 elections, it would have inherited a regulatory state apparatus that was both intensely bloated, in terms of sheer bureaucratic size and complexity, yet substantively weak, with the ostensible ‘levers of power’ in central government scarcely connected to hollowed-out front-line services. Moreover, this was a state that both main parties had a hand in creating, both under the Conservatives (1979–97, 2010–) and New Labour (1997–2010), reflecting their convergence around a neoliberal policy set.” The Thatcher revolution promised a path out of national decline, but the cure turned out far worse than the disease: the result is that my generation is poorer than my parents’, and my children will be poorer still.
Soon Britain will just be a gloomy Italy, halfway between museum and nursing home, with nothing to offer the young but emigration, helplessly buffeted by the storms ahead. For us to survive the coming trial, as dramatic and treacherous as the hard years of the Thirties, the ruling party must finally lay Thatcher’s spirit to rest, sealing her tomb beneath the foundations of a new era of security and, in time, prosperity which only a strong and capable state can nurture. The platforms Johnson’s aspiring successors have offered us so far are unfit for the pressures of today, let alone the trials of tomorrow. As the Conservative party proclaimed in 1947, “The world is topsy-turvy. Raw materials are scarce. Stormy weather must be foreseen. There must be a hand on the helm.” The era of the Thatchers, Blairs, Clintons and Merkels is already crumbling into dust: to lead us through a future whose first ripples are already causing crisis, the Tories must reclaim their strong, paternal role as the party of the state.