How conservatism must change
Introducing the Future of Conservatism project; a fairer state; assessing the Northern Ireland deal; woke business; Britain's "blasphemy laws"; Gove's big speech; David Trimble and the peace process
Welcome to the Conservative Reader, the meeting place for conservatives who want to think, debate and make a difference.
It’s been a big week for us. Gavin has left the Centre for Social Justice to join Onward as the programme Director for the Future of Conservatism project - which Nick is chairing. Along with the brilliant Onward team led by Seb Payne and Adam Hawksbee, and working with a steering group chaired by Michael Gove, we will produce three reports - intellectual, economic, cultural - over the next year on the renewal of conservatism for the decade ahead.
You can find more about what we think on Twitter here and here.
Best wishes, Nick and Gavin
Launching the Future of Conservatism project, we write in the Daily Telegraph that the conservative mission must be the restoration of national community:
Our starting point is that in this world of rapid change, and noting the economic, social and cultural strengths and weaknesses of our country today, our mission must be the restoration of national community – a politics based on the pursuit of the common good. To achieve that, we need a stronger shared identity and revitalisation made possible by a completely different economic model.
Our existing model – which has survived our whole lifetimes – has simply run out of road. Supported by all parties, it has prized wafer-thin efficiency over solid resilience, market ideology over state capacity, financial services over a balanced economy, imported goods over domestic production, foreign ownership over strategic capabilities and globalisation over the national interest. Put simply, we do not make, do or sell enough of what the world needs and wants, leaving Britain lagging behind competitors and with crippling inequalities at home. Its failures are growing more obvious…
And so we need to answer honestly how we bring back together a society that often feels like it is coming apart. That surely requires an intellectually sound rejection of the militant identity politics that infect our universities, public services and even company boardrooms. But it also demands a positive programme: encouraging family formation, restoring institutions, re-establishing norms and customs, returning to the responsibilities and not just rights of citizenship – recognising that the common good means putting others before ourselves.
And on his Substack, Tom Jones says Tories must be prepared to embrace a more active state if younger generations are to benefit from capitalism:
In order to be electable amongst those below retirement age, Conservatives will need to allow the next generations to have the same participatory role in capitalism that their parents enjoyed under Thatcher by enabling wealth accrual amongst today’s workers.
But there are not many assets left to privatise to enable mass share owning, so the government must look to other means. This can start with a reduction of the tax burden on working age people through cuts on universal welfare spending on richer, older generations, redressing the imbalance bought in under Cameron.
But a programme of government-delivered or government-enabled housebuilding will be essential too. Home ownership is not just an economic and political necessity, but a moral imperative; I’ve always seen it as a major step towards responsibility, family and independence, and a physical representation of someone’s stake in society - in the same way Eden did, as ‘a reward, a right and a responsibility that must be shared’.
On Unherd, Tom McTague says the PM’s deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol has given the unionists the upper hand:
From the perspective of nationalist parties, the Alliance, or, indeed, the Irish government, the Stormont Brake looks less anything but a powerless sop to unionism. If anything, the brake looks too powerful, the bar for using it too low — and with potentially far-reaching consequences.
To understand why, one has to dig into the details a little further. In the UK Government’s command paper, Sunak is offering to go much further than the brake itself. He is proposing a guarantee that the UK Government will use its veto after a petition of concern unless cross-community consent is found not to. The effect of this, of course, is that unionism would get a kind of double veto — or, at least, the power to press a brake on new EU laws and the power to then lock that brake in place.
The effect of this double guarantee is to increase the likelihood that the UK government will veto EU laws from applying in Northern Ireland. This in turn increases the risk of divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic with potentially retaliatory measures from the EU.
But in the Daily Telegraph, David Frost says while the deal is worth having, it does not solve the fundamental problems:
The deal leaves a slightly amended Protocol and EU law in place in Northern Ireland and the EU has agreed to change its own laws so that they bite less tightly. That is worth having, but it isn’t taking back control. Indeed, it may entrench the Protocol superstructure rather than weaken it.
Most of our political class is choosing not to look too closely at any of this because they are tired of the whole problem. Some even argue, as the Prime Minister did yesterday, that it is actually better for Northern Ireland to be subject to the Protocol than fully part of the UK. But just as some overclaiming by Boris Johnson in 2019 came back to haunt him, so it will for Rishi Sunak in 2023, because moving goods to Belfast will still not really be like moving goods to Birmingham.
A fairer statement of the position would be “this deal softens the application of the Protocol, but does not remove it. It’s the best we could persuade the EU to do because we weren’t prepared to use the Protocol Bill and the EU knew it”. That doesn’t mean the deal shouldn’t go ahead. It will help. But it won’t remove the underlying tensions, even if the DUP does decide to go back into Stormont. It leaves the Government still only partly sovereign over all its territory. Just as in 2019, that is a bitter pill to swallow.
In the Wall Street Journal, Ron DeSantis says the Left has hijacked big business, and explains how he is fighting back:
As a basic matter, the fiduciary duty that the CEO and board of a publicly traded corporation owe to shareholders is inconsistent with allowing the company to be turned into a partisan political fighting machine. Fiduciary duty aside, most CEOs and directors understand that as a matter of prudence, big companies seldom benefit from taking positions on contentious political issues, particularly those unrelated to their businesses.
In recent years, two factors have altered this calculation. First, groups of employees at some corporations want their employer to reflect their own political values. Such employees aren’t a majority, but they are loud and militant. Executives often try to placate these employees, without success. Instead, such gestures embolden the entitled employees to presume that their employer will fall into line in the next political battle. The inmates soon run the asylum.
The second factor is power. A traditional corporate executive may have power within the company, but a woke CEO can use the corporate bully pulpit to exert influence over society. This is especially true amid the push for environmental, social, and governance responsibility in corporate America. ESG provides a pretext for CEOs to use shareholder assets on issues like reducing the use of fossil fuels. ESG is a way for the left to achieve through corporate power what it can’t get at the ballot box.
In The Critic, Ben Sixsmith says the punishment of schoolboys for slight damage to a copy of the Quran shows Britain has a de facto blasphemy law:
I think that Mr Akbar is doing the right thing according to his values. But we should not accept a preposterous situation in which a child handling a book with some degree of carelessness is framed as a more grave misdeed than sending death threats. That Muslims view the Quran with great reverence is entirely their right. But in a secular society they cannot expect everyone else to do the same.
The school, meanwhile, has betrayed its students — hanging them out to dry to appease hair trigger sensitivities. That at least one of them was heavily autistic rubs home the base cowardice and irresponsibility of adults who should have been standing up for kids.
Somehow, Britain has adopted de facto blasphemy laws. They don’t even have to be formalised. In one town, a teacher had to flee for his life for the crime of showing a picture. In another, just down the road, four kids were kicked out of school and showered with death threats for the crime of dropping a book. This cannot be allowed to continue.
At the launch of the Future of Conservatism project, Michael Gove gave a keynote speech in which he said the common factor in the problems we confront is a “quest for community” - a quest, he said, that “goes to the heart of what conservatism, alone, offers”:
No durable answer to our economic problems is possible unless we learn all the lessons of this moment. Our economic security, the insulation of our citizens from future cost of living shocks, the protection of their jobs, the growth in their living standards, depends on recognising we cannot rely on the kindness of strangers. We need to build our own, more resilient, national economy. And that depends on developing a national economic strategy. One which avoids an over-reliance on fragile supply chains, an over-concentration on a limited number of sectors, such as financial services, for growth, and an overly naive trust in the intentions of others.
At its base, that national economic strategy rests on proper fiscal conservatism. We cannot sustainably spend what we have not earned. And that is why the Prime Minister’s emphasis on reducing the national debt is so important. But it means more, too. It means enhancing the productive capacity of the economy, diversifying the sectors upon which we rely, providing productive work across all of our country for all our citizens, embedding resilience in our economic life.
That means recognising that a ‘butler’ economy which attracts international capital by serving it, through the provision of financial and business services, no-questions-asked property transactions and a bias towards rentiers can never be truly resilient. Rather than being an entrepôt, a bazaar and a duty-free exchange, a strong economy must also make, manufacture, create, innovate and shape.
We should have a bias towards putting capital to work rather than working to serve the needs of those already with capital. A bias towards investment in production. The Chancellor has already outlined those areas where we can attract more productive investment – sectors where we have strengths on which we can build: Digital Technology, Green Industries, Life Sciences, Advanced Manufacturing and Creative Industries. We need to ensure that the steps we have already taken as a nation to lead in these sectors are followed through.
We need to reform to ensure our national regulators, from Ofcom to Ofgem, Ofwat to Natural England, have an imperative to put growth first. We must commit to ensure we integrate domestic supply chains in areas such as renewables and electric vehicles. That also means thinking hard about not just capital investment and formulation but also how we use another factor of production – land. We need to consider how the incentives in our land and property markets work. We need further reform of our planning system so it operates in a more geographically thoughtful way to foster innovation and encourage scientific endeavour.
And, above all, we need to use the planning system and other tools to help communities grow. Because the economy of our shared British home will only be resilient if more people have the chance to live in, and ideally own, a decent home of their own. The quality of your home should not depend on the goodwill of your landlord or the conscience of your developer; and owning a home should be an attainable aspiration for many, many more than is the case today.
Book of the week
Our recommended book this week is Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism, written by Dean Godson, who this week also endorsed Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal. In the book, Godson writes:
Trimble’s calculations were not always those ascribed to him by his critics nor were they ever necessarily those of his ardent supporters… Rather, he was motivated by a belief that an excellent opportunity would be lost to bring back provincial self-government. This might not arise again for another decade. He was driven by his sense of dissatisfaction both with the ‘democratic deficit’ inherent in the direct rule system - of mainland politicians who were not accountable to the local electorate making decisions with viceregal impunity - and the futility of AIA-style protest politics. Both led to a sense of helplessness which, he believed, had profoundly demoralising effects.
Trimble’s decision to sign up to the Belfast Agreement was not much motivated by worries about the sectarian head-count. According to this clichéd analysis, which sometimes surfaced in the nationalist press, Unionists had to cut the best deal now (with appropriate guarantees for the Province’s minority-in-waiting) before a new political dispensation was imposed upon them by the force majeure of demographic change. Certainly, Trimble - like everyone else - was conscious that the demographic balance was far from being around two-thirds-to-one-third in the Protestants’ favour. Indeed, he hold the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on 15 November 2022 that “if you are going to have a stable political structure, then you are going to have some way in which that 30-40% [of the population which is nationalist] becomes involved and participant. You can tolerate a situation where a small percentage completely withdraws from participation in society, but when you get to that sort of percentage, if they wish to disrupt and cause problems, they can do so. It is much better to have a decent structure within society, to find some way of ameliorating and encouraging people to participate. So it was in our interest - and we keep saying that in meetings - to make Northern Ireland work. It is not in our interest for Northern Ireland to appear to be a
failed political entity, or something that does not work.” He genuinely believed that if Sinn Fein were sucked into Stormont, they would be operating British institutions and would thus become ‘structural’ as opposed, obviously, to ‘ideological’ unionists… Trimble believed that republicans could be integrated into existing, albeit reformed, state structures because the traditional ideology that drove them was dead or dying; in so far as it still existed, he believed that it was an embarrassment for the likes of Gerry Adams…
In one way or another, the UUP had engaged since 1972 in a form of protest politics which Trimble believed had run its course. It was now pointless to vote for a party which could change nothing - which could not hold office, nor offer patronage… nor pass laws, nor direct spending priorities.
The inquiry into the Manchester Arena bombing found that the perpetrator, Salman Abedi, was radicalised by his own extremist family.
The FBI says a lab leak is the mostly likely explanation for the Covid-19 pandemic.
North Korean hackers stole $1.7 billion in crypto-currency last year.
Six of the world’s dirtiest steel exporters have squeezed cleaner rivals out of the EU market.
New analysis of official statistics suggests the police are giving up on low-level crime.
1 in 11 adults say they have sometimes run out of food and could not afford to buy more in the past month.
American research shows young people with liberal values are more likely to suffer depression.
Boris Johnson opposes the corporation tax rise he introduced, and has attacked the PM’s Northern Ireland deal.
The former civil service head of propriety and ethics is going to work for Keir Starmer.
And you can read all of Matt Hancock’s Whatsapp messages in the Daily Telegraph.