The Conservative Party is not about free markets

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:

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.

Reforming the Greenbelt

Paul Cheshire, emeritus professor of economic geography, writes convincingly about the need for the Greenbelt to evolve to make more housing available:

As proposed by the original visionaries of town planning – most notably Ebenezer Howard – greenbelts would be an extensive ring of parkland surrounding towns in which citizens could walk their dogs, stroll with their children and exchange civilised gossip in the shade of handsome trees. What they have turned into is a combination of sacred cow and juggernaut: unstoppable in the damage they do to the housing market and beyond criticism in the popular media. They cover half again as much land as all towns and cities put together – about 15% of the surface of England – and have become a peculiarly English form of exclusionary zoning to keep unwashed urbanites corralled in their cities.

Of course parts of the greenbelts are real environmental and amenity treasures, such as the beautiful bits of rolling Hertfordshire, the Chilterns or the North Downs. Most…Greenbelt land, however, is intensively farmed with limited rights of access and has no amenity value at all. Recent studies have shown that its value is captured only by those who own houses within it, and that intensively farmed land has a negative environmental value. Apart from its value for producing food (and much greater value for dodging inheritance tax) the UK National Ecosystem Assessment in 2011 found that intensively farmed land generates more environmental costs than benefits. Yet whenever there is some public debate about reforming the planning system or building a few desperately needed houses on Greenbelt land, the bits we see on TV belong in some romanticised English Tourist Board poster. They are not representative of the reality of most greenbelt land.

So rather than building on school playing fields (can’t be done in my borough – they’ve all been built on already) or brownfield land such as on the Hoo Peninsula, where the largest concentration of Nightingales in the British Isles survive, there should be selective building on the least attractiveand lowest amenity parts of greenbelts.

Hat Tip: Duncan Stott