A lot of attention has been given to the new think tank, Onward, that claims it will win back Britain for the Conservative Party by targeting disaffected Blairites and young people. There is, however, one part of society conspicuously missing from its remit: the poorest. The group’s founder, Neil O’Brien MP, claims that Corbyn is ‘crackers’ and his policies, including nationalisation of infrastructure ‘need deleting’.
At no point does Onward – or any of the other right-wing think tanks that have launched – seem to question why Corbyn’s policies are so popular throughout the country. Nor do they wonder whether any Conservative government has made them work before. Has anyone employed by these new think tanks considered challenging the Tory orthodoxy that state-run railways are bad, or wondered if it is in fact such a great idea to sell off Britain’s housing stock without adequately replacing it?
A Conservative government should want to improve the railways and build more homes. It is only when seen through the filter of Thatcherism that the terms ‘nationalised’ or ‘state-led’ seem dirty. These think tanks look to the victories of Margaret Thatcher, when instead they should turn to the Conservative Party that existed before her. Unfortunately, these views now seem to have been discarded as ‘crackers’.
‘[A Conservative Party] dominated by second-class brewers and company promoters – a casino capitalism – is not likely to represent anybody but itself.’ While a little rude, the above statement in response to the government’s programme of punitive austerity still resonates. But it is not recent. It was written in 1936 by a man who later led Britain into one of its most prosperous periods in history: Harold Macmillan. Macmillan championed what he called ‘The Middle Way’ which relies on a principle that stood for many years until the advent of Thatcher – that the Conservative Party is a party of paternal socialism.
In 1951, Macmillan was summoned by Winston Churchill for a meeting. Churchill had just been elected Prime Minister on the promise to the nation that housebuilding would be ‘a priority second only to national defence’. He appointed Macmillan as Housing Minister and warned him: ‘It is a gamble – it will make or mar your political career but every humble home will bless your name if you succeed’. Succeed he did, with the government building 300,000 houses a year. As Prime Minister he continued this, destroying Britain’s final slums and rehousing millions. No modern politician Conservative or otherwise has come close to such an achievement.
Housing supply is now at an all time low, caused in no small part by Thatcherism. Despite such a poisonous legacy, it is almost heretical within the Conservative Party to criticise Thatcher. Believing in what she stood for is in effect the party’s shibboleth. But it is a shibboleth that prevents the Conservatives from examining a crisis that they are set to stumble into, one that will be more catastrophic than Brexit.
The Tories seem blind to the gaping divide between Britain’s property-owning classes and those without. Millions have made asset gains based on the bad policy of Thatcher and her successors, and no Conservative dares challenge this. If groups like Onward and other conservative thinkers do not convince their party to admit these mistakes and return to governing for all, then there is a generation of electoral disaster awaiting the Conservatives. There is only one way Theresa May can defeat Jeremy Corbyn: by recognising that many of his policies are fundamentally conservative.