Has British Conservatism Lost Its Way?

This is an edited version of a speech the Right Honourable Lord Frost gave at the Danube Institute in Budapest on March 21


IT IS a privilege to give my thoughts about conservatism in a forum with John O’Sullivan, a man who has been at the vanguard of conservative thought and action across the West for so many years, and who continues to argue for freedom and Western civilisation at every opportunity.

I can answer the question in my title straight away. There’s no doubt about it. British conservatism has certainly lost its way. That’s not a value judgment. It’s a judgment based on the polling that shows the party at 20 to 25 per cent of the vote—the worst ranking for many years. As things stand, the party is heading for a very severe defeat at the election later this year. So the question is not have we lost our way, but how and why have we lost our way, and what can be done about it. 

This address appears in May’s Quadrant.
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It is tempting to answer that question by reference to the specific failures of the last few years, in particular the ousting of Boris Johnson, the unsatisfactory Liz Truss interlude, and the installation of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister without any competition within the party or much electoral appeal. Those factors play a part. But they are symptoms of bigger, structural, political problems. They make manifest deeper failings. It is those that I want to dwell on here. But first I want to make a couple of preliminary points.

The first is to note that this lecture is focused on domestic politics because, with the exception of Brexit, foreign policy has not been decisive in what has gone wrong for the party in recent years.

The second is to note that, although I am going to say various difficult things about the UK and the Conservative party, they shouldn’t be taken in isolation and they don’t reflect a total picture. Britain still has important strengths. Crucially, we have restored our democracy and, at least potentially, removed our policy-making from the dead hand of the big-state high-regulation EU model. As a result, we are better positioned than many EU member states, especially those stuck in the rickety and dysfunctional Eurozone, which you in Hungary have been so wise to avoid. All the gloomy predictions about Brexit, still so widely and gleefully repeated by the Financial Times, Bloomberg and others, have proven untrue. There has been no visible or meaningful economic impact from Brexit. We have world-class research, higher education and services sectors and it is worth noting the export boom in services in the last couple of years. We also have remarkable political strengths. Britain was the first country to dig itself out from the pandemic lockdown psychology at the end of 2021—the issue over which I resigned as a minister—and it remains difficult to suppress debate on issues the public wants to discuss. In short, by European standards, Britain remains remarkably successful. It’s just that European standards are not good enough. However, quite a lot has also gone wrong and that is why the UK faces three big challenges as serious as any since the war.

The first is economic and is most starkly illustrated by the decline in per capita GDP over the last fifteen years to, in the last two years, negative levels. It has many causes: the extreme dysfunction of our planning system and the NHS; the regional and sectoral distortions created by the integration of the UK into the EU single market; the pernicious post-2008 consequences of zero interest rates with the resultant collapse in productivity and growth; the growth of a collectivist mindset resulting from the 2008 crash and its consequences, growth- and innovation-destroying net zero policies and the legacy of the lockdowns; the gradual establishment of a benefits culture; and the need for mass immigration as an unsatisfactory palliative for all these strains. The result has been to extinguish growth, to push up the tax and spending burden, and to turn Britain into an inefficient permanent collectivist social democracy. This is the economic problem.

The second set of stresses stems from the importation of broadly European governance methods into Britain’s unwritten and constantly evolving constitution over the last fifty years. Although the underlying causes can be found in membership of the ECHR and then the European Union, and indeed in the deep-rooted declinism of much of the British establishment since the Second World War, the stresses did not develop in earnest until the late 1990s. From that time there has been consistent intrusion into the UK’s system from elements more familiar in European constitutions: a higher so-called “supreme” court which has pretensions to be superior to the national legislature; the restriction in practice of parliamentary sovereignty; the growth of a set of national laws with semi-constitutional status, notably through the incorporation into our domestic law of the ECHR; increasingly intrusive supervision of government actions by the courts; the emergence of a civil service which sees itself not as adviser and implementer, but as a repository of ideological values in its own right; the creation of devolved regions within the UK; and the intrusion of international law into domestic law. We also came to believe that the UK was not the unitary state that we all thought it was but rather a multinational creation of four separate entities, more like a federal state, with every part in principle entitled to secede. In short, confidence in the UK’s traditional ways of doing things has waned, and despite our departure from the EU, many of those who rule us are still mentally in this technocratic world, and lack the confidence or desire to break out from it. This is the governance problem.

The third is the gradual replacement of classically Western values with postmodern “woke” thought, a process which has dramatically accelerated in the last decade. The most visible effects are intrusive constraints on free speech, the decline of the belief in objective truth, the chip on the shoulder about colonialism and Britain’s historical record more broadly, the growth of an actively anti-religious and anti-Christian culture from one that was merely neutral; the focus on group rights, diversity, and what divides us, including through the weaponisation of our Equality Act, rather than individualism, excellence and national cohesion; and the reflex push by all institutions towards progressive societal change. This is the values problem.

The combination of these three problems is why we find ourselves where we are. All Western countries have been subject to these trends, which have played themselves out in different ways, but they have been particularly dramatic in the UK, partly because our constitution was always idiosyncratic by European standards and so European law and foreign courts have had a particularly wrenching effect, and partly because the revolution in British economic prospects under the Thatcher government was so much based on the values of individualism, freedom and free markets, precisely the elements that are now under attack. Altogether this accounts for the sense of something having gone wrong in our political life, and frustration that this all happened under a Conservative government. 

The failure to get to grips with these problems is why so many Brits say “the Tories have been in power for fourteen years and have achieved nothing”. That’s not quite fair, but understandable, and there is no point arguing with the electorate—they are always right. Instead we have to persuade them. Our failure to do that accounts for the political problem we have that nearly two thirds of those who voted for us in 2019 won’t vote for us now. The political task is to bring them back. So far, we have failed.

Why has the party failed to master these challenges? There are five broad problems that got us to where we are: first, the existence of deep ideological confusion in the party; second, the failure to get to grips with the economic problem, not only that economic performance has been poor, but also that we have not explained what is necessary to change it; third, the unwillingness to address the decline in state authority; fourth, our neglect of the changes in values over the last twenty years; and fifth, we have persistently been tempted to pivot back to a narrow and insufficient social and geographical base for our vote that is not wide enough to win elections. Now let’s look at each of those.

First, there is debilitating ideological flabbiness and confusion in the party. This stems ultimately from a lack of hard thinking. It has always been true that the Conservative party is a broad church containing many different opinions—but it can’t contain every opinion. If you picture a graph about free markets versus statism in the economy, there’s an axis that relates to social liberalism versus nationhood, that is a mix of belief in the country, socially conservative ideas and a belief in tradition. While the Conservative party has had a range of views on economics, it has until recently been anchored by a broad belief in the nation and in social conservatism. If you consider where the Labour party has historically tended to be, there has been a clear difference, but all this has changed in recent years because of the Conservative party’s accommodation to the trends of secular progressivism and liberalism, and the changes in the composition of the parliamentary party which have dragged the party to the left. The Conservative party is now all over the political spectrum, socially and economically. Indeed there is almost no proposition that you can’t find someone in the party to support. And there are large areas of overlap with Labour, and hence a problem in Conservatives distinguishing ourselves ideologically in the electoral arena. No wonder strong conservatives are drifting away.

This ideological vacuousness has had major consequences in all areas—notably, the fact that we haven’t got to grips with what’s gone wrong in the country’s economic performance in the last twenty years. Although we may not always have been explicit about it, we took the view that there had been a durable shift to the Washington consensus, that is to the left. We took it for granted that economic growth could always be generated through these means, that the growth problem was essentially solved, and that politics was all about, as it was put at the time, “sharing the proceeds of growth”. We failed to explain that growth doesn’t just appear, but has to be created. And of course it hasn’t just appeared—it has been weakened by global trends but also by our own actions. We went along with the view, a heresy in the Thatcher era but reintroduced into the British body politic under Gordon Brown, that the state had to be deeply involved in the economy and in protecting individuals from risk. And we not only took for granted the society-changing policy of net zero, we chose further to double down on the socialist view that net zero could only be delivered by command and control, not by the market, and by a regression in technology to wind power rather than through advance to modern gas and modern nuclear power.

For all these reasons, we have found ourselves dealing with an increasingly serious economic problem with our opponents’ arguments as the only available tool. Instead of explaining how a modern economy works and why, and the trade-offs, we have accepted unchallenged certain progressive and socialist presumptions about the modern economy and the role of the state within it. Since we have given the impression that growth prospects can be determined by state action, many voters conclude that since the economy is bad it must be the government’s fault. All the pedagogical work that was done in the Thatcher era, which was necessary and which did change attitudes, has been lost, and we have no reservoir of arguments to make to the British people that we face a genuine economic crisis, other than, as Boris Johnson put it, to promise that “the government will put its arms around you”, a promise for which we no longer have the money. Moreover, because in fact many people across the country do not accept those presumptions, and in fact want to see conservative policies, our vote has begun to fray at the edges.

Our third problem is the failure to deal with state and governance weakness. Our ideological feebleness has meant that, to the extent that we appeal to the electorate, it is based on pragmatic administration of a given status quo and is about administrative competence. That is always a risky appeal for a conservative party, especially in a country where the establishment and elites are broadly progressive. And so it has proved for us.

In the UK people frequently say, “it feels like we can’t get anything done any more”. I think it is very true and has a number of causes. One is all those governance weaknesses, the web of treaties and constraints and courts that clog up the business of government and exclude some policy options outright. There’s the refusal to reform our nineteenth-century civil service model, which significantly restricts elected ministers’ ability to control the government machine. There’s the fact that our independent public institutions, the police, universities, are defining their goals and acting as they wish rather than according to what the government wants—as we have seen in the loss of authority in policing the huge demonstrations in London recently. There is the way all infrastructure projects get bogged down in red tape, planning law and process and legal challenge. There is the inability to control our borders, most famously the small boats on the south coast, where we are tied up in international legal commitments. Finally, there is the huge issue of legal migration where successive governments have made the promise to reduce legal migration to under 100,000, yet it is running at six or seven times that level—so whatever the government says or promises, it doesn’t have the power or the will to change the situation. If I had to identify one issue corroding the prospects of the government and the party, it is the inability to control migration and deal with all its economic, social and cultural consequences.

The fourth problem, the failure to engage the changes in values, is related. The Conservative party has always, at least until recently, been the party of the nation and of social conservatism. Until recently too, belief in those two things was so widely and deeply entrenched that we didn’t feel the need to spell them out. For most of the party’s history it has been possible to take as read a belief in Britain as a valuable, successful nation, an understanding that our history was something to be generally proud of that had shaped us, an acceptance that the family was the fundamental basis of a free society, and behind that a view that individuals were expected generally to make their own way in the world and to get on with their own lives, and that the government did not have the right to interfere in certain areas. All that was so taken for granted that we never saw the need to make the case for it. To the extent that we noticed values changing, we saw it as a general social and political modernisation with which we could safely go along, rather than what it is, an ideologically Marxist undermining of the basis of Western society.

So we didn’t make the case for core conservative propositions on nationhood. When we woke up—mainly through Brexit and the connected debate about immigration—we realised that many fewer people believed in them than we thought. We discovered suddenly after our referendum that the German concept of the nation-state—that it was a bad thing—was widely spread in Britain among the young and the progressive establishment. We realised that many people simply did not believe in borders, thought that in principle anyone had the right to come to the UK, and we had no right to stop them. We suddenly discovered that national heroes like Churchill had become controversial figures and that many people had a very partial understanding of the achievements of Britain. All this reached its apogee when we discovered that those responsible for rehanging landscape paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, one of Britain’s greatest museums, thought that appreciating paintings of the British landscape could turn people into far-right activists.

The Conservative party has to be ready to address those issues explicitly, including in setting out the case for Brexit. We can’t assume that people think the British nation-state is a good thing. We have to persuade them. We’ve discovered that even many Conservative parliamentarians are uncomfortable with it and regard it as embarrassing. That’s not going to be good enough. If we can’t do this, who will? 

The final problem is our pivot back to a narrow social and electoral base in our comfort zone. In 2019, the Johnson government won on the back of a very wide coalition. Conservatives defeated Liberals in the south-west, and beat Labour in wide swathes of northern England, in the so-called “Red Wall”. Now, many people in the Conservative party seem to have felt that there was something artificial about this coalition, that voters who weren’t really Conservatives had been drawn by the need to get Brexit over the line and the deep unpopularity of Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn. They concluded that we had involuntarily acquired leftish voters and therefore needed to give them leftish policies to keep them—what I have called the “Red Wall fallacy”. This produced a drift towards unconservative policies such as tax rises, higher public spending on industrial policy, the national health service, renovation of neglected areas and, above all, a neglect of immigration policy, which took us further away from conservative roots.

The tragedy is that this is based on a complete misapprehension. The 2019 coalition was absolutely in line with the tradition of the Conservatives as a national party. If you look back to the early Thatcher years, Margaret Thatcher won votes in exactly the same places in the north as Johnson won in 2019. In fact, right back to the mid-nineteenth century, whenever the Conservative party won elections, it won them by winning in these areas. What happened in 2019 was that, because of Brexit and Corbyn, we finally won over people who were conservatives. By all normal markers of politics—income, lifestyle, family, job, housing—they should have been Conservatives already. But the strength of Labour tradition and the folk memory of hostility to Thatcher had, until that point, kept them Labour. When they finally came over, what they wanted was Conservative policies, not socialist ones.

That is what we failed to deliver. Our unconservative, socially liberal and ideologically flabby approach drove our new voters away, and made it more ideologically and politically congenial to focus on our so-called core vote in southern England. Unfortunately it is precisely these voters who are disproportionately anti-Brexit, culturally and socially liberal, and not attuned to the Conservative party. That had always been true to some extent, but we had kept liberal voters loyal in the privacy of the voting booth by a simple appeal to self-interest—through low tax. Now we are not even doing that. 

In short, a lack of understanding of our new electorate, an intellectual failure to think through strategy, and a failure to deliver core conservative policies, have alienated voters across the country, old and new. No one is getting what they want—and that’s why they aren’t voting for us.

This has one other consequence—it is that we are doing almost nothing for young people. Our voters in southern England are disproportionately elderly, wealthy and hostile to building houses and infrastructure—and our policies reflect that. We are about 4 million houses short for our population, so we have the highest house prices in Europe. Young people are priced out, unable to leave home and start families. The normal shift of young people from youthful leftism to middle-aged conservatism is not happening. We have only 7 per cent of those voters under twenty-four and, extraordinarily, only 14 per cent under fifty. That isn’t sustainable.

In short, we have an older, southern, privileged, property-owning voting base—largely, people who are doing all right despite all the challenges. It’s good that they vote for us, and I don’t want to drive them away, but the problem is there isn’t enough of these people to win an election with. Worse, this perception weakens our national brand. Our opponents have always accused us of being the party of the rich and not caring about the poor. Our actions are making this true once again. So we need to behave like a national party, and we mustn’t retreat to our laager. That way lies strategic defeat.

So what is to be done? The good news is that, in my view anyway, it is not too late to change the policy, change the approach, and bring at least some voters back—just as Boris Johnson did in 2019. If we don’t—and at the moment it seems unlikely—we will have to have the argument after the election, in all likelihood in opposition. But, whenever it happens, various things are a prerequisite.

First, we have to be honest with people. We have to say that we can’t go on as we are, that there is no easy way out of this mess, but failure to tackle it only makes it worse. We have to gird ourselves for the challenge and face it.

We must also tell voters, and believe it, that there is no point in taking measures which may be politically possible but can’t solve our problems. Our task is to make politically possible the measures that will resolve the problems of the country. Those are going to be radical, difficult and far reaching. But there’s no point in doing less because anything less will not solve our problems.

My view is that we need a huge reform program on a scale that is not understood, five to ten years. We should already have been making the case for this, but the best time to start is now. The program involves both less state and more state, and that is one of its political challenges. As regards the economy, we need less state. There is no future for the country as a high-taxing high-spending social democracy. We need to get tax-and-spend down. We need to reform the planning system. We need to reform the health system and we need to remove the crushing burden of net zero on energy costs and bring industry back to the country. We’re going to need a huge program deregulating the labour market, planning and environmental measures, and the business environment. That is the only way we will get growth back and if we don’t get growth back we can’t solve our other problems. At the same time we need a huge improvement in state effectiveness. We need a state that does its job properly, manages institutions, and a system of governance that controls the borders, funds defence, controls the streets, defeats extremism, stands up for the nation and its history, and pushes back against woke ideas in public institutions.

These two things go together. They are not contradictory. You don’t get a successful cohesive nation-state unless you deliver acceptable levels of economic growth; and you don’t get those levels of economic growth—because people will not put up with the churn and change that is necessary in a market economy—if people don’t feel they are part of a cohesive, supportive national project. The two have to go together.

Finally and self-evidently, the Conservative party has got to decide where it stands on these questions and whether it is capable of delivering this program. Before too long it must narrow down the ideological options and decide where it stands. That is going to be painful given the starting point, but we have to get to a point where people understand what you are getting if you vote Conservative.

Every time we have offered a clear right-wing Conservative philosophy at elections, which has happened all too rarely, we have won handsomely—in 1983, in 1987 and in 2019. When we’ve not done that, we have failed to win. This reflects the fact that there are large numbers of British people who still want to see traditional Conservative policies, who still believe in the traditional virtues of conservatism, economic and social cohesion, and want a party that delivers them. If we can persuade people we haven’t given up on that, we still have a chance this year. If we can’t, I very much fear a serious defeat and a lot of recriminations ahead.

8 thoughts on “Has British Conservatism Lost Its Way?

  • Peter Marriott says:

    This is good in my mind and I’ve gone through the hard copy as well, thanking you Lord Frost.

  • padmmdpat says:

    Conservativism? Lost its way? More to the point – it doesn’t even know and is therefore unable even to recognise the road it’s meant to be on.
    From memory, somewhere in the bible it says, ‘Stand at the crossroads and ask for the ancient way. Follow that and you will find peace for your soul.’
    Here in Australia the Liberal Party seems to have forgotten, if they ever knew, the basic principles of Menzies conservative politics.

    • David Isaac says:

      Menzies and Enoch Powell were united in many things, including years spent at Australia’s premier universities, studying law and teaching classics respectively, but the most important was their understanding of race which is at the root of all politics. Conservatism everywhere has been utterly adrift since it lost sight of the the need to preserve and uplift the race. It has accepted the left’s terms of debate and has consequently conserved nothing.

  • DougD says:

    The only good thing about this article is that the UK is in the same mess we are in here. Misery does love company.

  • CarlChapman says:

    My 5 suggestions for the British Conservatives:
    1. Get immigration under control.
    Forget 2 to 5. Until you do (1), you’re irrelevant.

    • Sindri says:

      Sir Keir Starmer, Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, one of his Majesty’s counsel learned in the law, the working man’s friend, is going to be elected in a landslide. He proposes to scrap the one policy that might deter people smugglers. He is making vague and airy promises about cracking down on crime gangs, putting in place agreements with France (yeah, right), “swift and humane” processing of asylum seekers and return of rejected applicants to “safe countries”. You couldn’t make this nonsense up; it’s all been tried and has utterly failed.

  • coggancreek says:

    I haven’t read the article yet, but expect to draw the conclusion that the trouble with British conservatives is that they thought they won the war.

  • coggancreek says:

    You mentioned it negatively but didn’t say it. It is very true that net zero could only be delivered by command and control, not by the market.
    This is because “net zero” is a monstrous scam, founded on bogus science. Carbon Dioxide does more good than harm.
    No free market would entertain this one way track for a moment.
    Now about that stuff that was so taken for granted that we never saw the need to make the case for it. There’s heaps of it, and some basic rules which nobody seems to know.
    I have lived most of my adult life in fair isolation, with less people than most live with. But when a scholar told me: “They say that only 1 in 40 of the population has the mental capacity to initiate new thinking” that fitted right in with my observation from the backblocks.
    That means that the 39 depend on the 1 for their philosophy.
    That seems scary, but somehow we live with it. When it comes to electorates, “the people” are not quite that dopey, but many of them don’t want to have the responsibility of doing their own thinking. They would rather run after the bloke they think is in front. And few if any politicians comprehend this. Somebody has taught them that “the customer is always right”, and to make a positive statement is to invite conflict. In reality a majority of the people are seeking leadership from somebody who knows what he/she is talking about.
    When a politician prefaces a statement with the words “I think” 80% of hearers will have already stopped listening before the third word is uttered, having interpreted the message as “he/she doesn’t know positively “.
    But they all do it.

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