One of the greatest obstacles to meaningful change in Britain is the belief that the two main political parties are separated by an ideological gulf. The idea that the Tories are positioned far to the right of Labour sets a boundary for mainstream conservatism, beyond which everything is considered extremist. Thus, George Osborne’s tax and spending plans are deemed to be the acme of banker-friendly, prole-bashing Toryism, despite them being less conservative than most of Gordon Brown’s budgets under New Labour. Any opinion to the Right of the government’s position, meanwhile, is automatically the stuff of swivel-eyed lunacy.
This is caused, in part, by a media which is naturally disdainful of do-nothing governments that refuse to dance to the tune of opinionated hacks. Most journalists think of politics as a game, wherein they set increasingly difficult hurdles for the authorities to jump (the public is not invited to play). The practical effect of this is that poll-watching politicians commit themselves to ever more spending and regulation, meaning the status quo drifts inexorably to the Left. What constitutes the centre ground nowadays would be recognised by Thatcher-era Conservatives as resolutely left-wing.
For all their failings, the Tories are still preferable to Labour; but that’s like saying that arsenic is better for you than cyanide. Both parties are largely committed to maintaining the state at its current Brobdignagian size, and both place too much faith in the redemptive power of government. No doubt the supporters of both parties would cry foul at this accusation, but until David Cameron is ready to slash public spending, take a wrecking ball to the civil service, reform the NHS, abolish the licence fee, repeal about five thousand laws, and get us out of the EU, he can’t be described as a friend of small government. Within the narrow isthmus of modern political debate, perhaps Cameron is right-wing, but Milton Friedman he ain’t.
It’s easy, under the circumstances, for proper right-wingers to feel like they’re shouting into the wind – to believe that their concerns count for nothing, and that there’s no way of stopping the gradual calcification of the nation into an over-taxed, over-regulated municipal death-maze. And maybe there isn’t. Once the consumers of tax start out-voting its creators, very little can be done to reverse the slide. The productive members of society become a meal ticket for a self-replicating bureaucracy and the burgeoning constituency it serves. The theories and prejudices of the big state crew achieve common sense status, and, before you know it, the idea of managing one’s own affairs appears primitive and barbaric, like having to hunt for your dinner.
That’s the doomsday scenario for the Right: a public so infantilised that it simply cannot contemplate life without the government sugar daddy feeding it lollipops. The likelihood of this outcome is what makes it so easy for gloom-merchants like me to wander the internet, banging the black drum of pessimism. In fact, we’re already a long way down this path, with so-called conservatives recycling arguments that were once the preserve of leftists. Only the other day, a Tory voter told me he was concerned about the gap between rich and poor. I pointed out that a proper conservative would be more interested in helping people improve their lot, than with changing their position relative to others, but this argument was lost on him. When the zero-sum logic of the Left is the default assumption of self-styled right-wingers, significant reform seems a long way away.
But what are the other, more optimistic scenarios that might play out? Scenario 1 is that the Tories win the next general election with a small majority. An emboldened Cameron, finally rid of the dead weight of the Lib-Dems, is able to show his true blue colours, and ushers in a raft of far-reaching reforms.
Scenario 2 is that Cameron loses the next election and is replaced by a leader who recognises the popularity of key Ukip policies, and understands that Cameron’s Labour-lite formula has run its course. He or she leads the Conservatives recovery and wins the subsequent election, ushering in a raft of far-reaching reforms.
I don’t find either of these possibilities likely – the first, because Cameron has never done anything to suggest he has a radical bone in his body; and the second, because Britain is too hooked on the drug of government, and too flushed in the currency of liberal compassion, to embrace a libertarian revolution.
In the face of this entrenched antipathy, I don’t think any political party will be successful in simply foisting right-wing policies on the public. Before they had a chance to be successful, that party would be out of power, and it would be back to big state business as usual. If change is to take place, it has to come from the electorate itself.
Rather than making sweeping reforms, a conservative government could maintain existing state services, but allow the public to cash in their chips and take a private alternative. For instance, rather than contributing towards the NHS, individuals could pay less National Insurance and use that money to go private.
I suspect that many people would take this option, and that healthcare companies would rush to meet the ensuing demand. If, as a result of this, NHS usage was reduced, that would be to its benefit and to that of the people who stood by it. But it would soon become apparent that those who made the switch were getting a better deal, hastening the move away from the state. Faith in the market would grow, until there would be little resistance to further scaling back of government.
For want of a better analogy, it’s like replacing a rickety old toll bridge by allowing a new one to be built alongside it, and letting motorists choose between the two. Those who would have people use the old bridge, whether they want to or not, would be rendered impotent. The choice would with the individual, and the benefits of choice would become evident to all.
Admittedly, this is a sketchy idea, no doubt fraught with problems. But making the decision to scale back the state that of the public is a good one, I think. When people choose to take control of their lives, the arguments in favour of collectivism, and the opportunities to vote yourself someone else’s money, begin to disappear. To anyone who believes in the sanctity of freedom, this is more than just a practical solution; it is a moral imperative. As Margaret Thatcher put it: “Every family should have the right to spend their money as they wish, and not as the government dictates. Let us extend choice, extend the will to choose and the chance to choose.”