In 1979, after two decades of incompetent state socialism and cynical trade union rapacity, the Tory Party spotted a winner in the theory of small states, free markets and privatisation. It worked brilliantly. But times have changed. Further privatisations are now unnecessary and unpopular, as witness this week’s Learndirect debacle (David Lidington at Justice, please also note regarding the misguided scheme to privatise the collection of court fines, which has all the makings of a PR disaster). And the small state and the free market have, to put it mildly, taken a knock since Grenfell.
Whether they like it or not, complacent Tory MPs can no longer blandly reassure business pals in the Strangers’ Bar that the people are happy for them to sit back and let God and the magic of the market sort things out. They aren’t, and they won’t: and anyone who assumes differently will have his work cut out to avoid handing over his plush office to some mendacious but plausible Corbynista upstart.
A depressing scenario? Certainly not. The Tories have a golden opportunity simultaneously to realign themselves, publicly sideline free market fundamentalism, become enormously popular and leave Labour floundering. Think now. What now gets the goat of their target voters – the little guy on the Hinckley housing estate, or the ambitious young man in the Bermondsey bedsit? Certainly not state socialism: rather, it’s petty interferences with his private life or property, whether coming from faceless companies, employers or state agencies. The Conservatives can, without much trouble, take on the guilty parties. Here is a suggestion for a three-pronged attack on three high-profile targets.
First, the scandal of ever-rising ground rents on residential properties, something that predominantly affects lower-price houses occupied by the “just-about-managing”. The Government rightly stepped in fast with promised legislation to stop this racket for the future. But those already trapped in these contracts also have votes (probably over 100,000 of them, which is a tidy figure). Legislation to allow these rents to be compulsorily bought out for a modest capital sum would be an easy way to garner them. Yes, technically this interferes with business. But it’s not the sort of investment we need to encourage: one need have no great sympathy for nameless investors and hedge funds looking for high guaranteed returns in what most see as a nasty part of rip-off Britain. If the Tories can face these down, it will do wonders for their image.
Secondly, dictation by employers, predominantly but not exclusively public sector, over what ordinary people can say outside the workplace. The London Ambulance Service, Derbyshire County Council and Oxford Brookes University, for example, all have published policies forbidding their employees, even in an entirely private capacity, to disagree on social media with vague corporate values such as inclusivity. It means many views found on TCW, on (for example) fundamentalist Islam or LGBT rights, are placed off-limits for large numbers of people on the basis or corporate fiat. And if you think this isn’t to be taken seriously, or only affects Google employees, just recall the case of the Kent & Medway NHS Trust Director recently fired for admitting that he thought a child best raised by a mother and a father (absolutely necessary to protect sensitive LGBT employees, you’ll appreciate, albeit though most of them probably never encountered him or probably never heard of him anyway).
The Tories could gain approval alike from the young and idealistic, and the middle-aged and principled, were they very publicly to legislate forbidding employers from disciplining employees for opinions expressed in an unofficial capacity, subject to narrow exceptions where there was a genuine conflict (for instance, strong party political opinions from civil servants, or church employees publicly advocating devil-worship). Why not make the Conservatives the party of freedom of cyber-opinion?
Third, protection for conscientious objection in the face or corporate bullying. Despite the climbdown by the RCOG over scruples about abortion, there still remains the case of the Belfast baker held liable for large damages for refusing on conscientious grounds to inscribe “Support Gay Marriage” in pretty icing on a cake (it’s due in the Supreme Court this autumn, but don’t hold your breath). This is, of course, scandalous – is a devoutly Christian jobbing printer really now bound to print advertisements for a festival of Satanism? But it’s not just TCW readers: public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side.
A commitment to change the law, and to provide that the right not to have to say something against one’s conscience overrode discrimination law would, it seems, have no ill-effects and be highly popular. Were it then to become apparent that EU law forbade such a change (which may well be the case as regards the “gay cake” affair), a better case for supporting the Government’s attitude to Brexit would be difficult to imagine.
Just think of it: the Conservative Party dedicated to rooting for the rights of the little man against the leviathans of impersonal business, the equality establishment and the EU. There’s a prospect worth fighting for.
(Image: Alisdaire Hickson)