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Tory managerialism is wrecking conservatism. - By Lord David Frost - for The Telegraph - 10.11.22

The outcome of socialist policies remains the same, even if a Conservative is implementing them.

Might Jacob Rees-Mogg have been right after all when he suggested that Rishi Sunak's policies would be socialist?

It’s often said that the Conservative Party is about power, and staying in power above anything else. It has often achieved this by recognising and accepting broader social and political change rather than resisting it. But does this mean there are no limits to the policies the Conservative Party, and Conservative governments, can pursue? Just as Herbert Morrison famously said “socialism is what a Labour government does”, is it also true that if a Conservative government does it, it’s conservative?

The question is posed by this week’s paper, The Road to Credibility, from the think tank Onward by Tim Pitt, a former Treasury adviser. The document has attracted much comment, possibly because Onward’s director, Will Tanner, has just become Rishi Sunak’s deputy chief of staff.

It is worth a proper read. It begins by claiming that Conservatism is inherently pragmatic and non-ideological, that economic change must take place “gradually and sensitively”, that prosperity should be shared broadly (though who would disagree with that?) and that the state should be “empowering not interventionist”.

This version of Conservatism was forged in the 19th and early 20th centuries when Britain was the richest country in the world and when it was easy to be complacent. It sustained itself into modern Britain primarily as a way for the old Conservative establishment and ruling class to try to retain something of what they had in the new socialist order. It was not particularly successful in avoiding social conflict or economic decline.

The modern version of this accommodationist policy is based on the belief, as the paper sets out, that for structural reasons Western societies are heading for durably lower growth, that tackling inequality should be a priority, and that an ageing population and rising public spending commitments mean the increasing tax burden is not an aberration but a permanent reality.

The only sensible way forward, then, is to tinker with policy in the hope of getting a bit more growth, and meanwhile concentrate on finding ways to make big government palatable to enough of the electorate to enable re-election. As Mr Pitt says: “The Chancellor should consign to the history books the Trussonomic nonsense that raising taxes is un-Conservative.”

It will not surprise readers to hear that I profoundly disagree with this accommodationist vision. Its supporters will argue that I’m simply denying reality. I say that they are wrongly taking the current state of affairs to be permanent. It is not.

There is nothing immutable about the way we do things today. We have low growth and high tax and spend because we have actively chosen certain things: high regulation and huge importation of low-productivity labour, expensive in-work benefits that keep wages low, a pension system that actively encourages many people to leave the labour market and a state pension that is paid only barely later than in the 1950s, while life expectancy has gone up by 10 years.

Then we have Soviet-style public services, funded out of taxation and with no incentives on either customers or providers to change their behaviour, and a planning system that puts housing out of reach for many, produces a massive benefit bill, and discourages family formation.

We don’t have to choose these things. Indeed, we should not. This system requires fundamental change.

But it is not just about economics. We dislike these policies because they are ultimately antithetical to a free society. We believe, or at least I thought we believed, that it is better if government and politics have a smaller role in our lives, giving us more space for the things we really care about – family, friends, free time, community, religion, charity. The better off we are, the faster the economy is growing, the easier this becomes.

When we seem to support the opposite, making it harder for people to keep what they earn, telling people how to spend what they have, or taking it and spending it for them, we are conceding the principle that “the government knows best what is good for you”. That is a fundamentally socialist, or at least social democrat, principle. It doesn’t stop being so just because a Conservative government implements it.

Of course, sometimes the situation requires unpalatable measures. Conservative governments have sometimes raised taxes. Conservative governments have in the past introduced food rationing and may yet have to do the same for energy. That does not make them desirable things to do. If necessity requires us to do such things, temporarily, it is all the more important to be clear at the same time about our underlying principles.

The Thatcher government could raise taxes because no one could seriously think they liked doing so. But if people come to think we do, or worse, if we start actively trying to convince people that socialism is really conservatism, we might find – indeed, we are already beginning to find – that a lot of people prefer socialism because they have never heard the case for anything else. Then we really are in for collectivism.

Tory managerialism is wrecking conservatism - by Lord David Frost - for The Telegraph - 10
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Lord David Frost is a British former diplomat, civil servant and politician who briefly served as a Minister of State at the Cabinet Office between March and December 2021. Frost was Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe from January 2020 until his resignation in December 2021.

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