Monday, 22 May 2017

A small 'c' conservative manifesto

Previously, I wrote that Theresa May’s political instincts are ‘deeply conservative’, even if they don’t resonate with all of her colleagues in the Conservative Party .  The snap general election provides an early, rather unexpected opportunity for the prime minister to articulate her beliefs in a manifesto for government.

The document confirms that Mrs May thinks of herself as a ‘one nation’ Tory, rather than identifying with the more libertarian strain of thinking that animates many modern Conservatives.  Labour and other critics will dispute how specific policies might work in the real world, but we can tell from the tone of the manifesto how the prime minister wants the public to view her party.

At the last general election, Ed Miliband pinched the ‘one nation’ label for the Labour Party, and rather than stealing it back, Theresa May chooses to talk about “mainstream government” and “mainstream Britain”.  The language is different, but the sentiment is the same.  The PM is expressing her desire to bring people together and govern in the interests of a broad section of society.   

That means talking about the power of government to make a difference, rather than assuming that interference and regulation are always negative.  Mrs May expresses the belief that markets should be controlled and she has pledged, for example, that energy prices will be capped, which is a departure from recent Conservative orthodoxy.

The most controversial part of the manifesto deals with social care and it has already prompted a partial rethink.  The idea that people’s ability to pay should be assessed with reference to their total wealth, including their ownership of property, is something that left-wing parties have called for as a matter of principle.  That is the essence of the Tories’ plans, which suggest that costs could be recouped from anyone who owns a house valued at more than £100,000.

The threshold is rather low and the policy does mean that people who don’t save and invest for their old age are rewarded with free care.  That is the difficulty at the heart of any means test.  The fact that the total cost is now likely to be capped merely means that those with modest savings and property are likely to be hit hardest.  

Still, no other party has yet made a credible attempt to solve the problems presented by an ageing population.  At the moment, the NHS is asked to accommodate older people in hospitals who should be in their own homes or in other facilities, because care packages are not available.        

You can call it ‘red Toryism’, ‘one nation Conservatism’ or ‘mainstream government’, but Theresa May’s scepticism about immigration and willingness to interfere in markets is a deeply conservative (small ‘c’) set of ideas. Her care policy is controversial and may even be wrong, but there are mounting problems in this area for which no political party has yet devised a convincing answer.  

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