AS I watched Sky News over breakfast yesterday, the discussion turned to a new venture from Prince Charles, dubbed a charity to help charities. As the discussants outlined the idea’s potential merits, presenter Eamonn Holmes wryly asked: “What was that similar thing David Cameron was pushing before the last election? The Big Society or something?”
That brief exchange sums up the state of the overall Tory modernisation agenda – now largely forgotten. It fell terminally ill in the aftermath of the financial crisis, when the economic assumptions it was predicated on were observed to be false. It suffered a severe setback after the Tories’ failure to win an outright majority in 2010. It withered as support for Ukip rose. And last week’s deleting of pre-election speeches online by CCHQ amounted to the spreading of the ashes.
This is not to say that everything that happened between 2005 and 2008 has gone. But the central planks and emphasis have changed. In 2005, while David Cameron spoke of an ambition to make Britain the best place in the world to do business, there was more emphasis on addressing global challenges via government action, from climate change to world poverty. The EU and immigration were then thought to be fringe issues, which toxified the party’s brand. They now form a central plank of the Tory offer to voters. Concerns about civil liberties once proliferated. The government is now buckling under pressure from socially-conservative web campaigners.
The modernisers seemed to think that the Tories had been unsuccessful in previous elections because they had been too conservative. They therefore had to publicly repudiate some of their old ideas to win over sceptical voters, in the same way Tony Blair had done with the Labour Left. This led to the disastrous move of agreeing to match Gordon Brown’s spending plans prior to the crisis, and committing to “share the proceeds of growth” between tax cuts and more public spending. Those pointing out that public spending and borrowing were already too high, like Howard Flight and the CPS, were largely ignored.
Modernisers also thought the Tories were seen as obsessed with economics, and so should talk about social issues. If you assumed Brown had abolished boom and bust, it was understandable. The Big Society social agenda was at least a conservative idea of how the state crowded out civil institutions, and the welfare state failed the most vulnerable. But making it the centre-piece in a period of economic distress, when competence on the economy was paramount, doomed it to failure.
All these themes have now been abandoned. Conservatives once more advocate tax cuts and public spending restraint. The EU and immigration are stock issues. Civil liberties, climate change and world poverty have taken a back seat. The Big Society appears largely forgotten. Both its most vocal critics and most strident supporters agree the modernisation agenda is over.
It’s an open question whether it failed due to a desire to see off Ukip, or because it was intellectually lacking and allowed Ukip’s success in the first place. But the key take-home should be this: Conservatism is strong when it provides substantial thinking about the pressing problems Britain (as opposed to the party) faces and presents practicable solutions. This, rather than obsessing about perceptions, should always guide the party’s thinking.
Ryan Bourne is head of economic research at the Centre for Policy Studies. @RyanCPS