Despite the mutation of the 'New Right' from Thatcherism to its contemporary variants, the ideas within remain an influential force in British politics. The parliamentary reshuffle might not mark the dawn of a new political era but the movements of ‘The Free Enterprise Group’ are worth serious attention.
The Great Moving Right Show was the title of Stuart Hall’s celebrated essay on the rise of the radical New Right, published in January 1979 as Britain’s post-war settlement began finally to collapse and Thatcherism emerged as a potent new political force. Hall’s essay was remarkably prescient. It engaged at close quarters with the nascent New Right project, seeking to understand its popular appeal, the bloc of interests it drew together, and why mainstream social democracy was incapable of answering the challenges it posed. Many of its themes – on how Thatcherism reframed the trade unions, education, the welfare state and law and order as problems to which it had radical, popular solutions – remain strikingly relevant today. It is hard to think of anything of comparable depth and political insight that has been written by anyone on the British Left about contemporary conservatism.
That is unfortunate, to say the least, because as Tuesday's reshuffle made clear, a new generation of right-wing conservatives is coming to the fore in British politics. This (new) New Right - exemplified by the Free Enterprise Group MPs Liz Truss, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab – differs from the Thatcherites of the 1980s in some key respects. It is mostly liberal on social issues, largely uncluttered with baggage on family and faith, and interested in policy issues that concern modern parents, like childcare. It is more ethnically diverse and only intermittently concerned with the politics of race and culture (usually where these arise at the intersection of multiculturalism with foreign and security policy). It is self-consciously cosmopolitan and draws inspiration from countries previously considered off-limits to the Right, such as Germany and Sweden. While it believes the Eurozone is in terminal decline, it is not noisily obsessive in its Euro-scepticism.
The new New Right are unmistakeably Thatcher’s children, however. They are bone dry on the economy. While they owe their patronage to George Osborne, there is no mistaking their desire to cut taxes and public spending more radically, reduce the size of the state, and deregulate the labour market. They routinely apply text book free market prescriptions to social policy issues. They seek the commodification of those parts of the public sector that remained sheltered from private capital, with schools at the top of the list. They are supply-siders who want to insert British workers more forcibly into global wage competition and reduce the welfare state for working age people to a minimum. They increasingly regard environmentalism with scepticism or disdain.
Because of their cosmopolitanism, the new New Right wear the face of Cameron’s modernisation project, and they are mainstream enough to keep a respectful distance from the libertarian right-wing think-tanks and its associated Austro-Gingrich factions. But they also sharply mark the limits of the Cameron agenda. They may address centre-ground political issues but they do not advance centrist political positions, and they owe nothing to the intellectual and political traditions of the Conservative left. Their political ascent bears witness to the terminal decline of the One Nation tradition of Macmillan and Heath, whose sole remaining flag bearers are grandees, not rising stars. As Ken Clarke shuffles off the stage of British political history, he takes that tradition with him.
The rise of the new New Right has important consequences for British politics. They have given the broad Conservative right even greater gravitational pull by endowing it with the modernising energy it lacked. Although they resist incorporation into the core politics of this wider right, they have strengthened it by intellectual and political association. No equivalent force is pulling the Conservative Party across to the Liberal Democrats.
But herein lies their political weakness. A wider space is now opening up for an alternative progressive Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, intellectually and politically, while the opportunity for a centre-right realignment of British politics has been decisively lost. The Conservative Party has missed a major historical moment in which it could conceivably have cemented a new political hegemony.
By consolidating itself around a new right wing centre of gravity, the Conservative Party is also being forced back onto its own depleted political resources. Rather than expand out of the political core to which had been reduced after the waning of Thatcherism to forge a new set of alliances, it has remained stuck within the contradictions and constraints it inherited from that era. Thatcher took over a party who leadership had tried unsuccessfully to craft a new post-Imperial identity for conservatism as a modern European social market political force. She repositioned it as an English, Atlanticist and neo-liberal party, for whom whole swathes of Britain were opponents who had to be confronted and reformed: the trade unions, nationalised industries, local government, the BBC, the universities, and so on. She was remarkably successful in this project but it came with a price. The decline of conservatism in Scotland and Northern England was accelerated, not reversed. The destruction of British manufacturing removed the key institutional pillar of an industrial business class from the Conservative bloc, rendering it more dependent financially and politically on City interests and the rising service sectors of Southern England. The professional classes in the public sector and key institutions in civil society became increasingly devoid of conservative allegiances. And those sections of the working class that saw their communities and ways of life broken up nurtured deep, unrepentant hostility to the Conservative Party.
So-called “Blue Collar Modernisation” does not address these fundamental weaknesses in the post-Thatcherite Conservative Party. It skates on the surface of politics, looking at polling evidence and personalities, without digging any deeper into the social, economic and cultural forces shaping Britain. It asks what policies might appeal to Northern and Scottish voters, without pausing to examine why almost all of the institutional embodiments of conservatism fall away the further North you go. Disdaining the post-war era, it has no grasp of the popular national appeal once achieved by Macmillan’s party. Dismissive of the state, it has no champions of active government intervention like Michael Heseltine. Lacking reach into the working class, it cannot trace a thread back to the Tory Radical traditions of Oastler and his ilk.
Unlike 1979, then, when Hall’s essay prefigured a period of Conservative dominance, the new New right are not harbingers of a new political era. But they are reshaping British politics nonetheless. And for that, they are worthy of more serious attention that they are currently getting from the British left.