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Common-Good Conservatism for the British Isles

Nick Timothy's latest book reckons with the failure of Theresa May, and argues for moving past right-wing as well as left-wing liberalism

Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism, by Nick Timothy, Polity, 2020, 224 pages

John Cleese shocked Britain’s bien-pensant establishment in May last year when he said, “London wasn’t really an English city anymore.” His tweet would never have made it into a New York Times headline but for the actor’s erstwhile sympathy for the eminently Popperian Liberal Democrats. Taking the tweet along with his Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum, a Twitter mob arose blasting Cleese’s marked change of heart as the degeneration of a grumpy old white male—including London mayor and the “face of multicultural Britain” Sadiq Khan.

As an EU undergraduate at London’s self-proclaimed “global university,” I myself volunteered for a local campaigner-turned-Lib Dem life peer standing for Parliament in the upscale borough of Wimbledon, so I would have likely joined the pile-on at the time. In hindsight, however, the London I called home for three years not only strikes me as detached from the rest of Britain, but also as a microcosm of the country’s many economic and societal dysfunctions. With Remaking One Nation, former Downing Street svengali Nick Timothy takes aim at the market-fundamentalist ethos of many in his Conservative Party, but the policy failures diagnosed in it aren’t the Tories’ alone and should concern anyone with an interest in Britain’s prosperity.

To start with economics, Britain’s productivity has stubbornly failed to pick up since 2008, thanks in part to the real economic impact of migration into the UK. Richard Blundell, my department’s chair, came just short of winning the Nobel in 2015 for his work on the so-called “productivity puzzle,” while his colleague Christian Dustmann juggled lectures with near-daily BBC hits where he preached the supposedly unambiguous fiscal boon of large-scale immigration. My cohort of go-getters from the world over was too busy chasing their dream jobs in banking or consulting to pay much attention, but these two issues will shape the economy they compete in, one that Timothy defines as “low-productivity, low-wage, high-immigration.”

Their path wasn’t my own, but I couldn’t blame my classmates for being ready to sacrifice their 20s for a City of London six-figure salary—particularly not the Brits, who were likelier to face steep interest on their student loans or hoped to raise a family in London. Incomes lower than that can less comfortably afford the city’s exorbitant housing and living costs, jacked up by a combination of speculation by foreign oligarchs and Britain’s own chronic failure to increase housing supply. Most were actually drawn into this rat race from the Midlands and Northern England by default, fleeing decaying towns left struggling even more by their own brain drain and by the clustering of wealth and dynamism around London. Millions emigrate into the city from the passport-free Schengen area and beyond too. But more often than to attend Britain’s world-class universities, they come to join the ranks of the city’s swelling precariat—the netherworld of low-skilled, insecure tertiary jobs that are the flipside of London’s competitiveness in high-end professional services.

Enter Brexit, voted for by Britain’s largest electoral majority ever—17 million—in the summer of 2016. There’s little doubt that a profound malaise over the sum total of these economic dynamics weighed as heavily in the minds of Brexiteers as the country’s membership in the EU. But something else has become equally clear in the three years since—breaking free from the bloc doesn’t equate to the kind of hoped-for change, not any more than staying in the EU fully tied the hands of UK leaders from bringing it about. In other words—sovereignty, to do what?

Britain’s economic ills are in fact largely unrelated to the country’s statutory entanglement in the EU. But when given a voice on such a disruptive choice as “leaving Europe,” a disgruntled majority took it as an opportunity to shake the two major parties awake from an economic consensus that had failed them. Whether their gambit succeeds or not depends on where the UK heads with its newfound sovereignty. The three years since the referendum have, if anything, further antagonized two distinct camps who coalesced around Brexit but hold vastly different worldviews. On one hand, those who resist any kind of profound economic change like to reduce Brexit to the possibility of slashing regulations, striking new trade deals and replacing EU migrants with ones from the Commonwealth. On the other lie those who hope to seize on Brexit as an opportunity to change course. The irony is that to the latter, the former’s agenda would seem like no change at all.

Timothy has lived at the heart of that tussle. He became co-chief of staff in Theresa May’s post-referendum government after working his way up across various special adviser roles—SpAd in Westminster jargon—across Whitehall, Tory-aligned non-profits and Conservative Party HQs. His journey with May began as she was appointed Home Secretary in a Tory-Lib Dem coalition government that’d set out to redress Labour’s mismanagement of the 2008 crash under PM Gordon Brown. This it achieved stellarly—Britain grew faster than any other European economy between 2010 and 2015 while markedly cutting its debt and deficit. Yet for all of PM Cameron’s claim to lead “a government for the working people,” its success at balancing the books and restoring British competitiveness remains tainted by the austerity it imposed on public services and the rise in inequality it oversaw. The insistence to “make work pay”—championed by the benefit-slashing Ian Duncan Smith MP—rang hollow in areas of the post-industrial heartland where finding work in the first place had become harder than ever due to a chronic lack of vocational training, decaying infrastructure and poor public services.

Thankfully for the Tories, the recent memory of Labour’s economic blunders sapped the credibility of Cameron’s adversary, Ed Miliband. Though there may have been something to his routine lambasting of the Conservative Party as an entre-soi of Tory Boys—as a working-class Brummie transplant, Timothy may testify—Labour’s multiculturalist creed sharply undercut the party’s claim to stand for the vulnerable. Championing openness to cultural difference as the only distinct form of Britishness conflicted with the deep sense of cultural resentment among the very working class that Labour so claimed to defend. Miliband’s successor, Jeremy Corbyn, sank the party’s electoral fortunes deeper by further erring in both directions—with a neo-socialist agenda that shattered any remnants of the party’s economic credibility, along with the cultural progressivism that Timothy calls the “ultra-liberal cultural agenda.”

Each of the two major parties was out of step with the electorate in its own way, but their distinct orthodoxies, when combined into a partisan duopoly of policy, yielded the single agenda that Timothy aptly terms the “ultra-liberal ratchet.” Conservatives’ libertarian aversion to state action blinded them to the scourges of widening inequality, decaying public services and regional inequities. Meanwhile, the culturally insecure majority was let down too by the left’s pro-immigration stance and its embrace of identity politics. Each party held out one end of the answer to reconnecting politics with the electorate, but their successive turns at governing had yielded a composite program of market fundamentalism and cultural progressivism that favored a minority of thriving urbanites at the expense of the silent majority.

Timothy has dedicated much of his career to weaning the Tories off the ultra-liberal ratchet—and has found stern opposition. Thankfully, electoral shocks come to the rescue when party elites aren’t responsive to new ideas. In America, it took Trump’s takeover of the GOP in 2016 for a similar realignment to begin taking place among Republicans. If Brexit succeeds as the kind of wake-up call to the Tory establishment that Trump’s election was to the GOP, it’ll be in no small part because a Timothean turn was already in the works. In this way, Timothy is akin to the reformicons, who ascribed Romney’s loss in 2012 to the GOP’s disconnect from the working-class—only with a better shot at lasting success. When May promised hers would be “a government for the forgotten people” after taking over from Cameron, many in the commentariat brushed her pledge off as an opportunistic attempt to save face ahead the nightmarish negotiations that loomed with the EU over triggering the so-called Article 50. The move now seems more consolidated than ever with Boris Johnson’s rather statist response to COVID, but it is likely to remain so when the virus recedes. The PM marked Britain’s official exit from the EU with a speech on sharing prosperity more evenly with poorer regions by “levelling up”.

The realignment under way in the UK and the U.S. is thus similar in many ways, but it has greater chances of enduring under Boris than under the irredeemably erratic Trump. Not only is Boris more cogent on policy, his “levelling up” agenda has also found a friendlier political groundwork laid by Timothy before him, routinely relayed from inside Downing St. by the press and now published in book form. This agenda benefits from one more advantage that Cass’s lacks—Timothy isn’t so much in rupture with Toryism as urging a return to its “One Nation” roots, the philosophy practiced by PM Disraeli to alleviate the inequalities of Victorian Britain in the 1870s. American Compass recently published a similar case to rediscover America’s tradition of industrial policy and economic statecraft, but the libertarian hold over the GOP has undoubtedly been firmer than over the Conservative Party.

Readers will be drawn in by Timothy’s fine blending of policy wonk with intellectual depth. Many of the ills he diagnoses stem from reducing society to a contiguity between state and market, a conceptual flaw he ascribes to “liberalism’s overreach.” The “communitarian correction” he advocates in response is about restoring the role of community as the web of mediating institutions that would give both state and market its proper, limited role. In this, Timothy parts ways with other pro-realignment thinkers such as Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen who all but reject the core tenets of liberalism. Instead, Timothy is inspired by an earlier version of it, traceable to some of Adam Smith’s own writings, that reckons with the primal need for trust-building institutions to enable free markets and societal cohesion to advance together.

Still, Timothy’s ideas are sure to get pushback from the Tories’ Thatcherite wing, similar to the opprobrium heaped on Cass by the likes of Nikki HaleyGeorge Will and Bill McGurn. It will only be further proof that the same old economic consensus is breaking apart on both sides of the Atlantic, while a hopeful alternative emerges.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is a writer in Madrid and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.