Contours of a new Conservatism


With media attention so focused on the Labour leadership race, something interesting is happening to Conservative politics at the moment. I think the contours of a new Conservatism are emerging, based on two main ingredients: just deserts and compassion. The two are not necessarily in tension with each other and it’s possible to see leading Conservatives representing both strands of thought.

The ‘just deserts’ strand has been developing since the financial crisis and is essentially about reciprocity. Market economics is based on the idea that people become rich by producing products or services that are useful for others. This branch of Conservatism wants to make sure the practice lives up to the theory.

‘Just deserts’ conservatism therefore wants to make sure that companies are making money by serving consumers, not at the expense of consumers. This makes it particularly watchful of competition as the best guarantor of consumers’ interests, though it is also open to some intervention, such as the recent cap on interest rates for lenders.

I trace this strand of thought through Dave Skelton on cartel busting, Dominic Raab, Jesse Norman and David Davis on ‘crony capitalism’ and Steve Hilton in his book. Tim Montgomerie has been exploring these ideas at the Legatum Institute. Michael Gove talked of ‘the undeserving rich’ in his speech there in March.

‘Just deserts’ conservatism also emphasises equal opportunity. Not only should people become rich only through serving others, but this opportunity should be as open as possible to everyone. People should be able to earn it. In his speech this week Boris Johnson argued that this is essential if big income inequalities are to be justified.

Compassionate conservatism is the other ingredient. This is essentially about the obligations that people have to those who are less well off, by virtue of being part of the same community. It is framed not simply as making markets work as they ought to, but rather in terms of justice and fairness. There is an economic strand to this, exemplified by Conservative support for the living wage. See, for example, David Skelton, Robert Halfon, Ian Birrell, and Ryan Shorthouse.

There is also a social strand to Compassionate conservatism. This can be summarised as reducing the demand for State support by equipping people to live more independently. Compassionate conservatives look to strengthen families in order to achieve this. Danny Kruger explores what it might mean for public service in his recent Demos essay. Michael Gove’s recent speech on a One Nation justice system is another example.

Perhaps inevitably, the Coalition’s agenda was defined largely by the big debate between fiscal stimulus and austerity. The Conservatives won that political argument and won the Election as a result. But in this Parliament, something more nuanced and interesting is taking shape. Its proponents are pragmatic, rather than ideological – about both the market and the State. This may, of course, be drowned out by rows over budget cuts and fiscal choices, but the combination of ‘Just Deserts’ Conservatism and Compassionate Conservatism is one to watch.