When Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke to my university Conservative Association, I got the chance to ask him a question that I had been thinking about for some time. It seemed to me that some party members were social conservatives, and others were economic conservatives, and that the two approaches couldn’t be reconciled on a number of issues. Jacob Rees-Mogg didn’t agree with my analysis; he maintained that the majority of conservatives are both socially and economically conservative. After all, isn’t it perfectly possible to be socially conservative in your own life, but a liberal when it comes to government policy?
Increasingly, I think the answer is ‘no,’ because the Conservative Party seems increasingly divided along these lines. The question of social care was always going to be a problem, because it divides the social conservatives and the free-marketeers. The thought of old people, who have worked hard and done their bit, facing financial ruin in old age is repugnant to social conservatives. It contradicts their recognition that the family home is in some sense sacred, and that having to sell it off is an indignity. For free marketeers the problem is framed differently; the social care system needs £10 billion pounds, and hiking taxes will seriously damage the economy. This is not to mention the fact that a public care system is less effective than the private sector at providing care anyway. All in all, for a free-marketeer, bailing out the elderly in this way seems ludicrous.
The care crisis could spell disaster for the Conservative Party, because on top of all this, there are two complicating factors: first, a manifesto promise not to raise national insurance, and secondly, a rising anger at intergenerational injustice. Of course, it isn’t unheard of for parties to break election promises. But when a promise is deemed to have been a cornerstone of a party’s election bid, breaking it under any circumstances can make that party unelectable for decades. Remember Nick Clegg, and his promise not to raise tuition fees? This is the case for the Conservatives, because they appealed to democratic principles constantly in the last election; the idea that the government was duty-bound to implement the will of the people on Brexit informed the entire campaign. Surely Boris will not survive breaking his promise not to raise taxes in this context?
Similarly, intergenerational injustice simply can’t be swept under the rug. Covid-19 has exacerbated a sense amongst young people that the Conservative Party is the party of the elderly. Lockdowns, school closures, and orders to ‘stay at home’ have affected young people the most and have largely been to the benefit of the elderly. After all, the average age of a Covid-19 fatality is greater than the average life expectancy in the UK. Add to this a tremendous debt that it will fall to younger people to pay off (for their entire working lives) and tensions reach breaking point. As a young person facing a housing shortage, it feels utterly unfair that I should be taxed to prevent elderly people selling their houses… to people like me, who are desperate to get on the property ladder. It doesn’t help that media outlets talk about elderly homeowners as though we ought to have pity for them selling their property; where is the pity for us, who never had a chance of owning property in the first place?
To begin with, it ought to recognise more explicitly its internal divisions. Compared to the Labour Party, Conservatives of different stripes are remarkably good at ignoring their ideological differences and putting on a united front for election. Occasionally, however, an issue does come along that divides the party, and accepting this is vital to preventing these divisions swelling into crises. Ultimately, it is a good thing that the Conservative Party finds itself torn between different loyalties. This shows that it is attempting to govern in the interests of everyone, rather than certain prioritised groups. It also shows that Conservatives govern pragmatically. Ideologues have no problem resolving difficult issues, because they are happy to ignore the context of their decisions and the effects of their favoured course of action. But ideologues make terrible decisions, and we shouldn’t seek to imitate them.
Additionally, the Conservative Party should recognise that resolving intergenerational injustice is perfectly in keeping with socially conservative ideals. One of the most famous and beautiful expressions of conservative thought is that conservatives seek to create a community of the living, the dead, and the yet to be born. If conservatives are serious about this, they really ought to begin by creating a community of the living; and they need to recognise that young people won’t feel community with people who are screwing them over at every turn. Part of the issue at the moment is that a National Insurance hike feels like the latest in a long string of policies designed to benefit the elderly at the cost of the young. If conservatives recognised that intergenerational injustice is a genuine threat to the kind of society they want to create, they might start addressing this systematically. This would mean that in future, when young people genuinely need to make sacrifices, it won’t tip them over the edge.
Finally, the Conservatives could learn from the last time an internally divisive issue became a crisis. This happened last summer, when the question of whether to extend free-school meals divided social and economic conservatives within the party. The party panicked, sided with the free-marketeers, and took a major hit as backbenchers rebelled against ‘the nasty party’. Marcus Rashford led a grassroots campaign opposing the bill, and the Tories had to backtrack. The debacle showed that despite a weak opposition, the Conservatives are still being rigorously scrutinised. It also showed that people are taking their promise to ‘level up’ (read: address inequality) very seriously. This should weigh on the Conservatives now. Finally, I would suggest the Conservatives adopt a very simple rule. Alistair Campbell made use of numerous acronyms in politics, going so far as to place a placard reading ‘S.I.G.’ on his desk – ‘Strategy is God’. Here’s an acronym for the Tories that might just prevent a crisis: DMRAA, meaning ‘Don’t Make Rashford Angry Again.’