Sandhurst sits at the corner of three counties, Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire, and has an impressive number of large supermarkets with substantial car parks. The largest is a 24-hour Tesco. A few minutes’ drive down the A331 there is a large Sainsbury’s.
A few years ago, the Tesco was consumed by a fire that closed it for several months. During this time, the Sainsbury’s store opened for 24 hours instead of closing at 10pm. Once Tesco re-opened their doors with a newer, slightly larger store, Sainsbury’s reverted to their original opening times.
Sainsbury had exploited a gap in the market for as long as they could. Once competition resumed for 24-hour shopping, they decided to let their larger competitor take the advantage.
This is the context that Mrs May’s bid for the centre ground can be interpreted. There is a gap in the political marketplace as Labour shifts to the hard left. The Conservatives are filling it.
Conservatives do not tie themselves to a rigid political dogma. There is no equivalent of The Red Flag sung at the party conference. Conservatives do not, nor have they ever had, any kind of raised-arm political salute of the type that socialists of all kinds display. Only socialism uses the politics of hate. The Conservatives by contrast are a party that operates pragmatically in the national interest. They also exist to win elections. They are the most successful political party in history.
But what do people raised on the politics of Hayek, Friedman and the advocacy of the Adam Smith Institute and the IEA make of Mrs May’s announcements? They do not like them. Conservatism has appeared, for the last forty years, to be about reducing the state, promoting private enterprise and generally ‘getting out of the way’ of transactions and relations between individuals and corporate bodies in the private sector. It has not been about interfering in markets.
Or has it?
Margaret Thatcher’s privatisations were an extreme form of market interference. Liberalising commerce by removing state monopolies is a fundamental market intervention by creating the markets in the first place.
Markets are now not a dirty word. Mrs May’s words did not amount to a repudiation of Thatcherism. Thatcherism can be regarded as a corrective to the economic dictatorship imposed on the country by the Atlee government of 1945, then a necessity to help the country recover from a nation-bankrupting world war while avoid political dislocation. By the 1960s, the State needed to let go of several parts of the economy. Even the trades unions objected to statutory incomes policies and were willing to topple governments to get their way in the 1970s.
The UK electorate’s rejection of the EU was a commentary on the current political and economic settlement. Advocates of the status quo appeared to be exclusively people who had benefited from it. This is what Michael Gove meant when he complained that voters had had enough of being lectured by experts, who tend to be well-paid. It is common knowledge that some of the annual multi-billion EU budget is spent on handsomely rewarding promotion of its existence in not-so-obvious ways.
The referendum was a ‘Summer of Discontent’, but does not appear to be leading to an economic winter. At present the only economic meltdown on the horizon is the German banking system. But something has to change.
The Conservative Party is in the market for votes. Unlike Labour, it does not believe in ‘no compromise with the electorate’. If there are votes to be had from former Labour or Liberal Democrat voters, the Conservatives would be foolhardy to turn them down. This is not political prostitution. It is called democracy.
Mrs May follows David Cameron by making a ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’, not to another party, but to the entire country, including people who did not vote Conservative. This is a Conservative social democracy she is offering, redressing some of the excesses of market capitalism and the gaming of the tax system, while introducing more opportunities for people willing to take them. This will always be better than Labour’s democratic socialism, kow-towing to the unions by approving overmanning and unrealistic wage rises.
Her support for an expanded role for the State may also include reform of state services, reducing the stranglehold of unionisation. A party of the centre, governing for all the people and enjoying high poll ratings, will have greater legitimacy to dismantle the statist socialism imposed on the British people irrespective of electoral outcomes by a permanent threat of industrial action from the soviet-style unions we reluctantly endure.
Instead of taking conservatism out of the party, Mrs May brings it to more people than ever before. Conservative social democracy has the potential to eradicate extremist socialism and the divisive politics of identity from our shores within a generation. Free-marketers may object, but these are not the first steps on the road to serfdom.