Ideology matters: It’s time for Conservatives to believe something again

By Sam Betley

The Conservative Party has found itself at a crossroads. The situation is as follows: David Cameron’s neoliberalism died when he sacrificed himself upon the altar of Tory Euroscepticism. Meanwhile, “Mayism” (if such a concept ever existed) has been rejected by the British people. If they are not careful, the Conservative top brass may unwittingly oversee a slow death of the party at the ballot box, as the generational divide becomes ever starker between young idealists and older pragmatists.

The evidence clearly points to this conclusion: firstly, Jeremy Corbyn’s incredible reception at Glastonbury Festival suggests that he could raise the youth vote to a height not witnessed in decades. Furthermore, post-election polling by Lord Ashcroft found that the only age group which decidedly voted Conservative were the over-55s. This data paints a bleak picture for those of us who lean towards the right of the political spectrum – but it may not have to be this way.

Jeremy Corbyn and Labour did not win the general election. But they did perform far, far better than most commentators predicted. A large part of this success was surely due to their ideology – but this did not necessarily rely on the content of Corbyn’s socialist ideology, but rather the fact that he possessed, supported, and vocalised an ideology at all. The same cannot be said for Theresa May (or, indeed, for her predecessor).

For seven years, vacuous soundbites have been enough for the Conservatives to subdue a Labour Party still reeling from the aftermath of the financial crash in 2008. This is no longer possible. Even Theresa May’s former advisor Nick Timothy admitted that voters are “tired of austerity”. But if the Conservatives increase taxes and public spending too much, they will risk their hard-earned reputation for sound economic management.

This dilemma calls for a complete rethink of party policy. The Conservatives must reject the larger state that Corbyn and his colleagues would implement if they gained power. As recently as 9:59pm on the 8th June, this eventuality seemed impossible, but the prospect of yet another general election means the left wing of the Labour Party could obtain the keys to 10 Downing Street at any time over the next couple of years.

There is an imminent need to recognise the historical failures of socialism. As Daniel Hannan rightly stated, we are at risk of surrendering to an ideology that we complacently believed ‘had been buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall’. This ideology, which is causing ongoing damage to states like Cuba and Venezuela, could be victorious in Britain if the Conservatives do not react. They must develop an ideology with substance, to counter the unexpected support for Corbyn’s. For years, the major parties have acted with the conviction that the political centre would succeed. Corbyn has blown this assumption apart and, while the short-term prospects for the Tories seem bleak, their opponent’s success has presented them with an opportunity – and a model – for the reformation of their own ideology.

Their answer should be libertarianism, which above all emphasizes individual responsibility. If one lesson can be identified in both the Conservative election campaign and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it is that office-holders – and -seekers –   routinely exhibit sheer and gross incompetence. This begs the question: can we trust anyone to wield the huge power of the state responsibly?

After their party’s prophesised majority failed to materialise, Conservatives who lean towards libertarianism should trigger a reversal in May’s statist thinking. Before the election, the Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrated that Labour’s manifesto, if enacted, would raise taxes to their highest ever peacetime level. The Tories should propose the direct opposite: a shrinkage of state activity, thus permitting tax reductions and an emphasis on local democracy. Only this libertarian approach would preserve the Conservatives’ sound economic record, precluding a gradual shift towards increased spending and higher taxes. This economic record is essential to their continuing electoral success: as Bill Clinton famously said: “it’s the economy, stupid!”

There is one final piece to this puzzle for the Conservatives. An ideology only prospers if it is put forward by an energising leader. Corbyn is fulfilling that role for Labour and historically, both Thatcher and Cameron breathed fresh life into a faltering Tory cause. Who suits that role now? The older generation should stand aside: Hammond, Davis, and Johnson have nothing new to offer. Dominic Raab and Priti Patel are potential contenders among the younger MPs. If these fresh faces do not step up, the threat of George Osborne’s return looms. Although we have tolerated many failings, Britain would never forgive the Conservative Party for that.

Photograph: David Drexler via Flickr and Creative Commons

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