At the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security, hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies, last June, Henry Kissinger gave a speech during which he briefly recalled a conversation he once had with Mrs Thatcher. At the time, she was a fairly obscure education minister, yet her prudent language foretold the success she was to enjoy. She lectured him on how politics was about shifting the centre; not lurching towards it. Or, in other words, it was about finding an ideology, a principle, and sticking to it. Now, we Tories have a sentimentality that manifests itself in a predilection for comparisons to the ‘good old days’ of the past, and when Theresa May took over from David Cameron in 2016, the delightful thought of ‘Maggie May’ was on everybody’s minds. Here, so the theory went, was the chance to form a genuine Conservative alternative, the type we used to know, to counter the radical socialism of Jeremy Corbyn.
However, subsequent policy decisions by Mrs May in response to Corbyn have made the Thatcher-May comparison seem at best premature; at worst totally misguided. Workers on company boards, capping energy prices, embracing the sugar tax and believing in the ‘good that government can do’ – Theresa May neglected Mrs Thatcher’s words and launched herself towards the centre, rather than grabbing the centre by the scruffs of the neck and shifting it to her beliefs. In one sense, one can understand it. Faced with a far-left ideologue like Corbyn, adopting the middle ground might have seemed the sensible thing to do, but in order to properly confront him, we needed to win the battle of ideas. As Mrs Thatcher said, Marxists wake up early to advance their message and so too must we. However, we never seemed to bother, we simply assumed the electorate was the same that existed in the 1980s.
Nobody can suggest that dealing with someone as unconventional as Corbyn is easy, but the simple reality is that instead of engaging in the war of ideologies, we gave up before the whistle had been blown. We instead adopted so-called centrist policies, much like Ed Miliband’s, which took our own foundation for granted, and unsurprisingly didn’t appeal very much to anybody else. Given Corbyn’s appalling record, we bashed him for his despicable affiliations and speeches in the past, but there is only so much negative campaigning you can do before the electorate grows weary and recoils. There comes a time when you simply have to set out a positive, Conservative vision for government. As Mrs Thatcher said: adopt an ideology, stick to it and shift the centre to where you want to be.
Even now, almost a year after the disastrous election campaign, we still don’t have a core set of principles anyone can identify. We continue to deride past principles and that cannot continue any longer. For too long we have been critical of a market that is no longer ‘free’, but heavily regulated and skewed in favour of big business monopolies – exactly the result of too much government interference. We must re-embrace the free-market, small-state Conservatism that in the past has proved so economically, and indeed electorally, successful; the principles of low taxation, low regulation, property ownership and an enterprise economy centring around the individual.
Whilst we must do more to attract the youth vote, we must not lose sight of people in their twenties, thirties and forties – people who instinctively want a small state that delivers liberty to the individual, or as Liz Truss calls them ‘Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters’! We will not attract these individuals by stealing Corbyn’s ideas on tuition fees or corporate governance. For the reality is that the public doesn’t want to see a party adopting the policies of another to gain power, any more than playground insults traded between politicians on the six o’clock news. Give the British people a little more respect than that. Surely the time has come for a principled Conservative Party that sticks to its guns and fights its corner. I do not believe that the election result last year was a vindication of socialism, but I do believe we allowed the agenda to be dictated by it and his policies to go unchallenged. We didn’t make the positive and hope-filled case for capitalism and freedom. It is now indisputable that the ideals that Corbyn stands for has become the default position of the left, and this presents us with a real opportunity to rediscover our belief in liberty, both economic and individual. Let’s not waste this opportunity – let’s listen to Mrs Thatcher and instead of compromising our policies and relocating to the centre, let’s move the centre ground to us.
Sam Barrett is a Master’s student at the University of Oxford and former president of King’s College London Conservative Association.