Robert Buckland is MP for South Swindon, and is a former Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor.
Politics in recent years has seemed to be all unprecedented challenges. This is undeniably true, but in many ways, history continues to repeat itself. Once upon a general election, an old Etonian Prime Minister with more than a touch of showman about him and who campaigned with a heavy dose of optimism, support for public services, an unapologetic appeal beyond strong cultural divisions and a distinct sense that our best days lay ahead won 365 seats right across our nation from Hartlepool to Swansea West. I am of course talking about 1959.
For Tory leaders from the 19th century onwards, the strong sense that we are the “national” party has been the golden thread linking everything together. It was of course Disraeli who famously said that the “Tory Party is a national party or it is nothing”. As Tory Unionism grew stronger in the ensuring years, this concept of the party representing all parts of the Kingdom and not just England became stronger too.
All true Conservatives would have shared a sense a pride and excitement as we captured Scottish seats in 2017 and then made huge advances in Wales and the North of England in 2019, which is why any sense of confusion or uneasiness about the party’s current configuration of Parliamentary seats and support is not just misplaced, but bizarre and contrary to our traditions.
Understanding the world as it is, not as we would ideally like it to be, is a fundamental tenant of practical Conservatism. Will Tanner from Onward was correct in a recent article in which he highlighted that the existing coalition of likely Tory voters are to the right on culture and the left marginally on economic issues. They want toughness on crime and illegal immigration, whilst also expecting greater investment into our public services and local communities.
As we embark upon the new year, it is worth reflecting upon the pools of ink that have been spilt by commentators, either lamenting about or salivating over seemingly irreconcilable divisions between the apparent ideology of the Conservative Party and the voters that we now represent. We are solemnly told that Boris Johnson faces an impossible task in trying to reconcile the two.
This thesis is based upon two fundamental flaws. First, it makes the assumption that Toryism is frozen in some sort of mid-1980s state, and that it is driven by nothing more than free markets and shrinking the size of the state. Second, it makes the assumption that voters in different parts of the country are entirely separate species, as detached from each other as if they come from Venus and Mars respectively.
Fortunately for the Conservatives, neither assumption is true. To suggest, as was done after the Chesham and Amersham by-election, that voters in the South of England are somehow more “sophisticated” than voters elsewhere was not only insulting, but just plain wrong. This year, as we turn our focus increasingly towards the next general election, we need clarity of leadership and seriousness of purpose to reject this notion and refocus our collective efforts on appealing to our new coalition of voters.
Up and down our country, people are looking out for the delivery of promises made, so it is sensible to look again at what was written in the 2019 manifesto. Already, we are delivering on many of the key pledges, such as record-breaking NHS funding, 50,000 more nurses, 20,000 more police officers and tougher sentencing. Major immigration reforms are going through Parliament, and as promised we are seeing millions more per week being invested in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure.
Even before the onset of Covid-19, the Conservatives were warming up for a degree of state intervention that had not been contemplated for a generation. The unprecedented set of measures taken by this government during the pandemic was an eloquent demonstration of the death of ideology and its replacement with the politics of practical action.
When it comes to the clear manifesto pledge to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050, what unites voters in all corners of the country is the need to create more secure and sustainable sources of energy than fossil fuels whose supplies can be turned on and off by the likes of Russia. Greener energy sources mean greater energy security and self-sufficiency too, which is an aim that I believe is very much shared by the new coalition of Conservative suppporters.
The fact that millions of jobs and thousands of businesses survived, together with the NHS and our other public services, should be our message to voters that in extremely large measure, we were there for them in their time of greatest need. As a result, there can be no doubt about the Tory commitment to our public services.
Our opponents are fighting the battles of the past on this, whilst ignoring the real task, which has to be a relentless focus on value for money, particularly in the NHS. We have grasped the nettle of social care reform, but if the National Insurance rise this Spring is to mean anything, we have to see hard evidence that these funds will be used for social care once the Covid-19 health backlog has been dealt with. This is what voters will be looking for come the next election, and rightly so too.
A more unwelcome parallel with that historic 1959 win was that the Government was eventually laid low by a series of scandals that demonstrated a sense that it was no longer in touch with the people it was serving. With seriousness of purpose and a strong commitment to competent delivery, we can learn from history, maintain our great coalition and go on to even greater things as the 2020’s march forward. Less hand-wringing and more elbow grease is what is needed now.