Conservatism is about recognising the world for what it is, not what we wish it were. To be a conservative is to be an idealist without illusions, a believer in real-world solutions to real-world problems. Conservatives should believe in the free market, and in its extraordinary ability to transform the lives of people all over the world. We should never underestimate the importance of established institutions, or the reality that change works best when enacted through a framework of tradition.
This inherent pragmatism that is deeply rooted within conservatism can be off-putting to some. But conservatism, and politics for that matter, has no purpose if it is not to make people’s lives better. We espouse conservative ideas because we believe they are the best, most humane way of organising a society.
Perhaps more than anything else, conservatism should be about principled flexibility. As I said, the free market has incredible value, both intrinsically and instrumentally. But it does not hold the solution to every social or economic problem. Conservatives should be willing, and in most cases are willing, to use the powers of the state to find solutions to these problems.
When Theresa May became Prime Minister five years ago she set forth a bold new agenda, both for Britain at large and for the cause of conservatism. She pledged to solve the ‘burning injustices’ within society: racism within the criminal justice system, a lack of opportunity for those born into poverty, the housing crisis and the lack of adequate mental health provision.
Theresa May’s time in office may have been entirely dominated by Brexit, but the problems she identified have not gone away. In fact, many have worsened. While the government’s new laws may improve the supply of housing in the long term, as of now we are still building far below the necessary target of 345 000 a year in England alone. Addressing racial inequities within the criminal justice system and improving mental health provision also requires far more focus from the government.
Yet I would also expand Theresa May’s list of injustices. Inequality of opportunity is in part a symptom of poverty, yet the existence of dire poverty in a country as rich as ours is wrong in itself. A recent report found that in 2019, 550 000 children experienced destitution – defined as being unable to afford the basic necessities (e.g. food, housing, utilities and basic clothing).
Our lack of social housing has created a crisis where families are forced to remain in often inadequate temporary accommodation sometimes indefinitely. This frequently takes the form of converted B&Bs, where families are crammed into single rooms with no space for kids to play or study, commonly in the same building as alcoholics and drug addicts. Often shared facilities such as bathrooms are rarely cleaned. It is estimated that 250 000 people live in such accommodation including 115 000 children. Unless more social housing is built, more and more children will spend their formative years in these conditions.
While inequalities of wealth are an inevitable part of a productive and prosperous society, severe inequalities of health and educational outcomes are something we should take far more seriously. A child born into a severely deprived region of the UK can expect to live 8 years less than one born into a rich area. A traveller child will have a life expectancy that is 12 years shorter. Poorer children will on average attend far worse schools and will be far less likely to go on to higher education.
The treatment of women in many sectors of society is still an overlooked issue. In Britain today more than 90% of women will suffer sexual harassment and only 4% have the confidence to report it. More than 20% of women in London have experienced assault on the tube alone and over 60% are scared to travel home on public transport. To have to condition one’s behaviour to such a great extent out of fear of violence is not to live in freedom.
This is not to dismiss the great many benefits that 11 years of Conservative rule has brought to Britain. A far more vibrant economy, record low unemployment, a higher minimum wage and effective leadership are just a few of the many successes that Conservative rule has delivered at a time of global economic and political uncertainty.
Without a doubt, the reconciliation of the Conservative Party with an active state is hugely positive in this regard. While in practise Boris Johnsons ‘levelling up agenda’ seems to be largely an exercise in pork-barrel politics, it will still bring enormous benefits to long-neglected parts of the country. Similarly, the national retraining scheme is poised to extend opportunity across society to a greater extent than ever before.
Yet, we should not sit back and relax in view of these successes. A great many people are suffering in Britain today, whether that be from crime, poverty, sexism or a plethora of other inequities. Conservatives should be ready and willing to use the powers of the state to solve the ‘burning injustices’ of our time. Not all of these issues can be completely solved by the state, but it can undoubtedly play a role in finding and implementing the necessary solutions.