As the old proverb reminds us, this too shall pass. It may be hard to believe today, but in the not-too-distant future, Brexit, however it is resolved, will be in our political rear-view mirror, and the Conservative Party will need to offer a coherent vision for Britain in the run-up to the next general election.
But how should we govern? Since the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn on the national scene, and the disappointing 2017 General Election result, combined with party in-fighting and uncertainty over Brexit, the Conservative Party seems adrift.
Some have called into question the future of conservatism, as well as the relevance of our past beliefs. They seek a more “managerial” approach, devoid of values and purpose – apart from a bureaucrat’s desire for a tidy balance between budget inputs and outputs. Others seek to play the populist card, and somehow tax and spend our way into the hearts of the young, or wavering Corbyn supporters.
The challenges that face our country will not be met by some half-hearted or diluted version of conservatism. Nor will achieving a prosperous future for Britain be delivered by “eye-catching initiatives” leavened by socialist-style spending.
We need to reflect on our core values and adapt them to a modern context if we are to lead our country to a bright future after Brexit. But just how did we lose our way?
In the 1980s, the Conservative Party unleashed a wave of liberal reforms which transformed Britain. It is difficult for those who weren’t alive in the 1970s to appreciate how far the country had fallen. It was a time of rampant labour strife, a bloated public sector, high taxes, failing nationalised industries, high inflation and a Labour government going cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for help. Britain’s prospects looked grim, and politicians appeared helpless to do anything about it.
Enter Margaret Thatcher.
At the heart of the Thatcher revolution was a return to fundamental conservative values which promoted economic and individual freedom: free enterprise, low taxes, streamlined regulation, incentives to reward hard work and a rolling back of the frontiers of the state. These changes ushered in a new era of rapid economic expansion, greater social mobility, the birth of widespread share ownership and a sharp increase in home ownership. The post-war consensus of simply tinkering with the accepted slow growth and high-debt welfare state model was truly over.
But the 1980s was not a capitalist free-for-all when the state was somehow left to die – the low-tax economic expansion triggered a sharp rise in revenue, which enabled the government to spend more on its critical social programmes. Indeed, from 1979 to 1997, funding for the NHS increased by 84% in real terms. Because the larger the economic pie, the more there was to go around. The key was “grow and spend”, not “tax and spend”.
The public recognised and supported our commitment to economic and individual freedom, with an unprecedented string of four consecutive majority governments.
Thatcher’s core values and beliefs were cohesive and self-supporting. They provided a comprehensive framework by which solutions to new problems and challenges were founded. As she declared in 1989: “We in the Conservative Party are conviction politicians. We know what we believe. We hold fast to our beliefs. And when elected, we put them into practice.”
Even the Labour Party recognised that the political world had changed, and initially they pledged to continue many Conservative policies – believing this to be the only way they could return to power. Yet, under the guise of New Labour, Blair and Brown edged the country back towards the failed interventionist policies of the past. New taxes crept in, dependency on benefits increased and became ingrained, and politicians became ever more reckless with taxpayers’ money.
For every problem, the solution was more state intervention, as Labour tried to micro-manage the economy. This inevitably led to more regulation, and an ever-larger civil service requiring increasing amounts of taxpayers’ money. Little thought was given to how spending would be paid for and whether it was sustainable. Pumping in money – paid by increasing the tax burden and then by huge levels of borrowing – was not seen as a problem, even in the aftermath of the financial crisis when the dangers of the accumulation of massive public debt were so shockingly exposed.
Since the financial crisis, the Conservative Party has worked hard to get the economy back on track and to stabilise public finances. While the budget deficit has been greatly reduced, we still have some way to go before we can say we are truly living within our means. Unemployment has fallen to record lows since 2010, and the number of people working has never been higher, yet the fundamentals of our economy and fiscal policy still need strengthening.
For those of us who believe in sound financial management, it is concerning to see some Cabinet ministers in an apparent game of one-upmanship in favour of higher public spending, perhaps lulled into a false sense of fiscal security. They demand more money for their departments, with little thought or concern about where the money’s coming from – other than the knee-jerk response of introducing higher taxes. All we have gained since 2010 could be lost in a new wave of rash profligacy for short-term political point scoring.
That is not to say that we should starve public services of cash, but additional investment must be accompanied by reform in order to meet demand and reflect the changing nature of the challenges Britain faces. We need to accept that the way to raise revenue for the Treasury is not by increasing the tax burden, but by introducing policies that incentivise investment, and in doing so, growing the economy.
We have already seen that lower corporation tax rates lead to higher tax revenues. That means encouraging wealth creation which leads to more money for businesses to invest in jobs and technology, while also bringing in more revenue for vital public services.
These are the arguments that must be made. Because the truth is that we stand at a crossroads. Just as Brexit is a fight to regain our economic and political freedom, the post-Brexit period is an unprecedented opportunity to shape our future. If we do not seize the chance to re-establish Conservative values, we will jeopardise the gains we could make from Brexit and the potential our country has to succeed. Worse, we risk the very real chance of a hard-left Corbyn government turning us into Venezuela upon Thames.
The very ethos of our party is to act as a liberating force to create a free economy and a free society. We believe in personal freedom and free markets precisely because we know that freeing people from the control of the state delivers wealth and opportunity to individuals, their families and the surrounding community. And I believe that the Conservative Party is at its strongest when we have that sense of purpose, that sense of who we are and what we want to achieve for Britain. Because when conservatism is strong, Britain is strong. Conservative values are British values. It’s time we argued for them with conviction and pride, and it’s time we delivered on them in government.
Priti Patel is a Conservative MP. She has served as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Employment Minister and Secretary of State for International Development.