The Conservative party today lies in tatters. A leader that has lost the support of the public and her party. A party that is seen as out of touch, ruthless and clueless by the British public and nations afar. A government that has no vision and an opponent that offers hope, change and momentum. A momentum towards a past that the Conservative party and its leaders have spent nearly 40 years fighting. Perhaps the only saving grace is that the Conservative party is not alone in its struggles.
Today we see in America, in France, in Italy and across the Western World, that the old political systems and their parties are collapsing. Some are being replaced by new liberal structures. Many are not. During the Cold War the terms of debate were clear and the enemy was clearer. With the end of the Cold War, liberal parties rejoiced in their hard one victory. But they got complacent. They ignored the people and they forgot that Liberalism is not a finite end in and of itself. Rather, it is a mechanism for helping those who govern to make choices for the future. But there was no plan for the future. No dream end game or envisaged utopia. In short, they forgot the most human of all things. They forgot that people need hope of a brighter and better tomorrow.
The problem of the Conservative party today is less the methods by which it governs, than it is about the vision and ideology which it has governed by. In 2010 the British public understood that sacrifices needed to be made under the banner of “Austerity”, but what no-one understood was what was supposed to come after Austerity. What was the reward at the end of the march? It is on this charge that the Conservatives failed to win a majority in 2010 and it is for this reason why the party is so rudderless today.
More than anything what Conservatives of all colours need to show is humility. We underestimated the deep sense of injustice and inequality within society and we did too little to address it. We let our overwhelming desire to replace New Labour cloud our vision of what our party stood for and its principles. As a party we lost track of the fundamental tenants of Liberalism, that a belief in the inherent good of human nature and freedom, requires us to do good to others with that freedom. The free market, if it ever can be said to exist, is not a thing of emotions. The free market is a mechanism that allocates resources to where their perceived value is highest. It does not exercise compassion, fairness, tolerance or diversity. It does not support those who fall or offer a hand to those who need a boost to get started. If Conservatism is to return to its values and principles it must start by recognising that the free market may create wealth but it is people who distribute it. If the wealth creators in society do not see the value in distributing wealth and in helping those less fortunate, then the system will not fix the problem. It was never designed to do so.
Despite her many failings as a leadership figure, Theresa May knew this. As did David Cameron’s team, with their talk of the “Big Society” and Ian Duncan-Smith’s work on benefit reform. Like many problems, it seems less an issue that the sickness hasn’t been diagnosed than a question of how to solve the ailment. It is precisely the failure of the Conservatives to find an answer, while Jeremy Corbyn does offer a solution, that may be the hammer blow for Britain. But all is not lost and the party that led us through our darkest hours in WW2, the financial crash of 1979, the Falklands war in 1992 and one of the strongest G7 recoveries after 2010 is not finished yet.
The Conservative party needs to start by being brave and being honest. It needs a full public confession and admission that it got things wrong. When you have wronged a friend, you do not explain to them your reasoning for why you behaved wrong before you apologise. You apologise first. The British public want and need that apology first.
Further, we need to recognise that if there is no single leader in the Conservative party today that can represent the party as a united body, then we should govern as a party and present ourselves to the people as a party. The Conservatives may not represent the nation perfectly, but there are MPs that represent women, ethnic minorities, different religious groups and sexual orientations. They need to be heard and they need to be seen. Rather than worrying about threats to the leadership, the Tory party needs to show that it is a party that is focused on delivering a better life and better opportunities for the people of the UK before the personal career interests of its own members.
Today the Conservative party must answer two questions: firstly, how would a Conservative government make the country happier and wealthier for all. Secondly the party must explain why Liberalism must be the guiding set of principles to achieve that end and not Socialism. In the UK we have the ability to choose where our children study, where we want to live, for whom we want to work, the type of car we want to buy and how we want to allocate our pay check across these things at the end of each month. That is the freedom of choice which Liberalism gives us. The freedom to make decisions, both good and bad. But it also requires us to be responsible for the failures which we create ourselves.
The world is not fair, nor equal and in the absence of intervention these market failures will not be improved. Liberalism in the 21st century must begin with this realisation that the public will no longer accept the trade-off of total freedom of choice in exchange for personal accountability of all outcomes. Instead, people believe there are some things that they will always need help to protect themselves against. Modern psychology seems to agree. Study after study shows that life in poverty reduces the most intelligent people into making seemingly irrational decisions, as people are forced to make decisions to live day by day. The ability to plan for the future is a luxury for those starving today. Society needs a basic safety net of human decency and when over 2,000 food banks exist in one of the world’s richest nations, we can safely say that the basic net is not being provided. A new compassionate Liberalism needs to start by understanding that for people to make rational choices they have to be in a position to think rationally.
The Conservatives have always been called the “nasty party” because they have never been afraid to let people fail. But the biggest problem has been that not enough are succeeding. A Conservative party that can breathe life into the promise of Liberalism, with an understanding that no society can be called rich when its poorest must rely on charity to eat, has a chance to turn the tables on the false promises of Labour today.
Make no mistake, today Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is a populist one and it will not be beaten by patronising it or dismissing its central arguments alone. Instead the Conservatives must show the British public once again that they are the only adults in political room that can deliver a better Britain for all. Showing more humility, compassion and humanity would be a welcome place to start.