We kick off Conservative week with a post exploring what it divergences free market doctrines tell us about the party.
“If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom, then he had better become a socialist and have done with it.” Margaret Thatcher
The Conservative Party is about free markets right? Actually I’d argue not.
I’m not trying to make a purist case you’ll sometimes hear from the right that the Tories are not truly free marketeers because they don’t pursue the agenda with sufficient gusto. Rather I’d suggest that under certain circumstances you can predict that it is the Conservatives rather than people on the left who will take on the statist position.
Here are some examples:
- PLANNING – want to annoy a Conservative? Suggest building something near their village. The Conservatives have positioned themselves as the defenders off the Green Belt despite many free marketeers considering planning to be “one of the most resilient pillars of the post-war command-and-control state.”
- ROAD USER CHARGING – this was a policy originally devised by Milton Friedman and has found advocates amongst American libertarians. The last government proposed a revenue neutral scheme for national road pricing. At which point, the Conservative party and its allies in the press discovered that contrary to appearances they did actually like universal taxpayer-funded public services after all.
- IMMIGRATION – We all know that Conservatives think you should get on your bike and look for work. Unless your journey involves crossing national boundaries in which case you should stay where you are.
The easiest allegation to construct here would be one of inconsistency but I for one don’t really care about that. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and it is unlikely that something as complicated as our society could be explained by a single idea. Rather, my complaint is what these apparent inconsistencies reveal about the underlying ideology of the Tories.
They all benefit what Margaret Thatcher called “Our People.” Planning pits the young, poor and urban against their elder, wealthier and more rural and suburban compatriots. Road pricing benefits those who use public transport rather than (presumably more Tory) drivers. And immigration is perceived to be about the competing interests of Britons and foreigners.
Thus while the Tories are prepared to be free marketeers when it means say cutting housing benefit because – in their minds at least – that’s something paid for by their “people.” By contrast, they’ll come out in favour of state spending or regulation for if they think their “people” will benefit. This may well explain why the party is so reluctant to cut benefits for pensioners: they are not perceived as scroungers like others who claim benefits.
I don’t know to what extent this bias is shaped by psychology, how far by electoral self interest and how far by the kind of areas Tories represent. However, where it leads is not pretty. It is not possible for governments to split people into hardworking, decent, older, British ‘sheep’ and feckless, metropolitan, disrespectful, foreign ‘goats.’ So the effort to look after “our people” winds up hurting people acting in a ‘respectable’ way.For example, they try to cut the benefits for ‘scroungers’ but those cuts also bite those recieving in work benefits or who are simply unable to find work.
I would therefore suggest the Conservative party should be categorised not as an ideological outfit but a sectarian one, albeit one fighting on behalf of an imagined tribe.