Michael Gove: conservatives must satisfy our quest for community
Michael Gove writes exclusively for The Conservative Reader, launching a new series of original articles
To find a new direction for conservative politics, we are pleased to be launching original articles from a committed group of writers. Together, we hope to restore an authentically ‘one nation’ tradition inherited from Benjamin Disraeli, Joseph Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin, and Winston Churchill. We believe that democracy and Toryism are the best antidotes to the overreach of elites and ultra-liberalism in modern Britain.
Poppy Coburn and David Cowan have joined us as editor and deputy editor of this new series. The Conservative Reader will be a place where conservatives from all walks of life can find sharp and insightful analysis of today’s challenges. The articles will be published every Monday in addition to our regular Friday round-up.
Writing exclusively for The Conservative Reader, leading Tory reformer and Levelling Up Secretary of State Michael Gove is launching the new series with his reflections on the future of conservatism and a bold rallying call to modernise the centre-right.
Best wishes, Nick and Gavin
Underlying all the problems and challenges we face today is a quest for community. And a question of authority. This goes to the heart of what conservatism, alone, offers.
Conservatives believe in the human, the organic. The ties that bind. Reciprocity and solidarity; obligation and duty; prudence in economy and realism in policy. We feel the responsibility of stewardship; the need to cherish what we have inherited and pass it on, enhanced, to the next generation. We recognise that out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing is ever made; that there is no enduring joy in happiness that cannot be shared; that every soul is precious but that it is in communion we are made whole.
There has been a strain of thinking on the right, popular recently, that departs from these principles. It has seen citizens as consumers, government as a problem not a guardian and – while talking of merit and reward – has seen them as commercial indices and not moral values.
It has placed the abstract goal of global free trade ahead of the economic welfare of all citizens; and the principle of radical individual freedom, and self-realisation, ahead of the other goods that promote human flourishing. It has encouraged a culture of dutiless rights and commercial calculation. Laissez-faire and enrichissez-vous.
This right liberalism, or libertarianism, has a simple, heady, appeal. And its advocates can sometimes bring a necessary, if bracing, challenge to complacency and vested interests. But recent events have shown both the limitations of its appeal and its effectiveness. And it is particularly ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of our time.
First, the economy. 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. 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.
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. We need to ensure more productive investment in sectors where we have strengths on which we can build: digital technology, green industries, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and creative industries.
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.
We also need a labour strategy. For we surrender too much of value if we import skills from abroad at the expense of training people at home. Our experience of free movement was that while it provided opportunity for some, many communities were left behind while net inflows of often low skilled workers put downward pressure on wages while increasing demand for local housing, GP services and schools. Rather than investing in skills here at home, businesses would too often hire from abroad.
The second big challenge of our time is sharpening inequality. Successive governments have wrestled with the economic inequalities which make our Kingdom less united. At their root lies the uncomfortable fact that high-paying jobs, productive enterprises and investment are concentrated disproportionately in the south and east of the nations of the UK. And it is in those communities which were less prosperous that the demand for change – not least in the Brexit referendum – has been loudest.
Addressing that challenge, levelling-up, is an economic imperative – we cannot succeed in a world of even greater national economic rivalry unless we marshal the talents of all our people – but it is also for conservatives a social imperative. We cannot allow so many of our fellow citizens to lead lives less fulfilling: we are a national party or we are nothing.
The Levelling Up White Paper we published last year lays out a diagnosis of our ills and steps to national renewal. Enduring economic growth depends on irrigating the soil in every part of the United Kingdom to enable the private sector to invest and create jobs and growth.
It rejects the regional policies of the second half of the last century which involved Whitehall directing capital and labour to economically under-powered parts of the country without putting in place the social, educational, cultural, political and financial infrastructure to ensure that investment would be resilient to shocks.
And it also moves beyond the approach of the first years of this century, which expected talent to move south if it was to prosper, and kept economically-underpowered areas afloat through welfare and other transfers from more prosperous communities.
Instead we need to build up the ability of all communities to retain talent and attract investment. That involves improving educational attainment, reflecting the pride citizens have in their communities by tackling high street decay and civic dilapidation, distributing cultural opportunity and excellence more widely, ensuring research and development investment can secure a return everywhere and – critical to the success of all of the above – devolving power to local people.
The third challenge we face is polarisation in our cultural and social life. I want conservatives to bring peace to our cultural war. That requires an acknowledgment that there has been and still is injustice in our society. We need to exercise thought and care in reflecting on the experience of others, value different perspectives and practice empathy. We should be alert to the pain and disadvantage endured by individuals and those within particular communities.
There is, however, a danger in considering every difficulty endured by fellow citizens through the prism of group identity, framed by a narrative of struggle and oppression. It robs individuals of agency, and the dignity that brings. It encourages resentment towards others, and the shrinking of the space of empathy. It makes the allocation of resources a competition between groups each trying to outbid each other in an auction of grievance. Community is about both loyalty and reciprocity, attachment and obligation; and setting groups against each other is not the route to stronger communities, but the path to their dissolution.
Involvement in the movement can be intoxicating – being able to take on the mantle of civil rights activist and feel you are on the right side of history against the oppressors is alluring. But seeing the world in such Manichean, binary, ways is a recipe for further division and conflict, not progress and understanding. If those with whom you disagree are not just wrong but evil, then the social bonds which unite us snap.
We need to be clear that Enlightenment values have to be defended. We need to be clear about objective scientific truth in human biology. Emotion can’t change your chromosomes. Any examination of the historical record should be based on a balanced assessment of the evidence. No cause is so noble that you can manufacture the evidence. The authority of reason and the integrity of truth must be upheld.
Because it is precisely those values, and traditions, that have made the United Kingdom such a success. We are a multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-faith state with perhaps the most plural parliament and almost certainly one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse governments of any country. These are strengths, strengths rooted in our common law, parliamentary and free speech traditions. It is by upholding, and renovating, these traditions that we ensure the United Kingdom remains a warm, welcoming and stable home for Britons old and new.
The fourth and final challenge is patriotic renewal. Conservatives know that the strength of a society depends on the strength of its institutions. The happiest and most prosperous nations are those with high levels of trust. And that trust should exist not just between citizens but in institutions.
In a world where change is accelerating there is a need for trust in those bodies and organisations which provide security and authority. Parliament, the police, our national broadcasters, our National Health Service, the military, our universities, our cultural institutions, our great charities and civil society institutions.
Trust in all of these has been eroded, or challenged, over recent decades. Parliament has suffered because of the expenses scandal, and its failure to recognise for too long the democratic imperative of Brexit. The police, in many areas, have been less visible on our streets and more visible in championing fashionable social causes. Broadcasters have sometimes paid more attention to the milieux in which their leaders socialise than the society that pays their licence fee.
Perhaps the most important institution of all, in all our lives, is the family. And here, like many politicians, I fear to tread. Venturing into any discussion of family policy risks appearing judgmental and opens the speaker up to looking hypocritical.
But family is so important to the happiness of individuals and the health of our society that we cannot be neutral. We know that stronger families mean better mental health, better educational outcomes for children, happier lives and more secure communities.
Strengthening families should not be about moralising – but about thoughtful tax policy. About providing the decent – and spacious – homes in which they can grow and about interventions in the early years: those vital first thousand days where family hubs, affordable childcare and responsive children’s services matter so much.
Our times are challenging, certainly. But at times of challenge in the past it has been the conservative tradition – pragmatic, empirical, rooted in reason and respectful of human nature – which has helped us to meet and master turbulence and change.
As we consider how to make our country more resilient, more prosperous, more equal, more united, more trusted – warmer, kinder, more secure and more successful – it will be conservative answers that we find are the right ones.
The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP is Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations.