Conservatism has changed face, meaning, and context in every stage of its evolution in British public life. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government has taken steps to solidify the party as a party of government, a far cry from its divisions over Europe just under a year ago. However, in the midst of a clearly different political environment, questions are being raised about the kind of vision and principles that underlie this government's policies, particularly in terms of responding to the pandemic, whether it is health-wise or in terms of the economy.
The Prime Minister is proud of his 'People's' Government' and describes it as the kind of conservatism this government supports and the reasoning behind its policy. We all know what it means to be a conservative, but what should it become and evolve into? Moreover, how exactly should the government respond with these principles in mind?
To explore what conservatism means today, we must acknowledge that conservatism is a global concept with differing values and policy perspectives. It is hence in this spirit that we look to Australia for the future of the conservative movement, in the form of Robert Gordon Menzies, a politician whose impact on the Conservative Party, in my view, ought to be on par with Thatcher and Disraeli. Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest-serving Prime Minister, is credited with rebuilding Australia's post-war economy and enhancing its role on the world stage. Just as importantly, he is also the founder of the conservative Liberal Party of Australia, now the senior party in coalition government. The Liberal Party was built from the ashes of the United Australia Party (UAP) – a party closer to 'grouse moor' Tories than a populist, middle-class party. Yet, Menzies was able to successfully build the Liberals up into the conservative party which governs today. Menzies' vision was summed up in his most famous address 'The Forgotten People', which set the stage for what the Liberal Party stood for.
The new order of conservatism should take inspiration from Menzies' speech, which proscribed Australia's ails. He lamented "the disease of thinking that the community is divided" between rich and poor, and advocated on the behalf of the 'middle-class', describing them as the 'backbone of this country'. Menzies described those who cannot protect themselves for lack of resources (not having great wealth) and also are not sufficiently well-organised enough (not having a trade union). Menzies' point remains evermore relevant today, amidst serious questions about how to continue re-opening the economy, and the policy priorities in the process of controlling the spread of the virus. Interest groups, whether it be business associations or trade unions, have made their voices heard loud and clear, as they should be. From large businesses to national institutions, their place in British society means their voice is heard the loudest, allowing them to write the agenda or make their protestations loud and clear. However, the forgotten people remain forgotten. From the effects of school closures and the A-Levels debacle, as one example, the clear lack of consultation highlights the need for government to pursue anti-Covid policies that can maintain the quality of life for ordinary citizens. The 'work from home' revolution, for example, poses the greatest and most unprecedented risk to social mobility for anybody looking to build a career or get promoted. Home-based schooling, as said before, runs the risk of widening educational inequalities in our society. So, how does the government seek to make the forgotten people heard?
'The Forgotten People' remains relevant today and its point is evermore prescient precisely because of the crisis we face. The huge long-term problems caused as a result of the virus response need to be mitigated, and it's with the 'forgotten people' in mind that this should happen. We need a government that is able to stand up for those suffering the most from its Covid response, with those people at the front and centre of the new agenda. It is along these lines that the new conservatism of this decade, of this government, in the face of new enemies and new threats, must be determined and defined. The current Conservative leadership had the mandate and trust of so many Menzies described as 'The Forgotten People' and now needs to use it.
Menzies derided the dominance of "the petty gossip" of fashionable suburbs and "the officialdom of the organised masses", instead focusing on the power of the 'unadvertised'. It is precisely these people who need to be writing the agenda, as it is them who will be suffering disproportionately.
Menzies spoke of the importance of both frugality as a way of life and education as a means of acquiring power. The use of the analogy of 'the home' may seem old-fashioned, but its principles remain: the concrete expression of human frugality, as well as the value of intergenerational social mobility. These are mainstream conservative values that should be taking centre stage.
The order of conservatism should seek a break from class distinctions and, instead of taking a more leftward tact and engaging in what seems to be class and race warfare, return to the roots of one-nation conservatism and reconnect with the sentiments of patriotic obligation and independence. However, as Menzies importantly points out, conservatism needs to become the vehicle and the ideology for 'the forgotten people'.