Imagine that we are in the run up to a General Election in which the public mood is one of disaffection and apathy. Amidst this climate, one party under a charismatic new leader is set to win a strong majority based on a raft of grand promises. They run an active and popular campaign promising a million new houses, “more for the young, the old and the sick”, full employment, the “best ever” pensions and benefits, and to “work for peace”; all this despite massive levels of national debt amounting to several times the annual GDP.
Imagine next that based on these grand promises, they win a landslide majority in the Commons. An income tax rate of over 90% is set on earnings in the highest bracket, while even basic rate payers must pay almost 45%. These same rates are applied also to the profits of corporations. Meanwhile, construction begins on hundreds of thousands of new council houses. Public funds are poured into the development of heavily unionised national industries, while everything from the railways to buses to the NHS are kept entirely under state ownership.
This could well describe a shock victory by Corbynite Labour at some point over the next few years. Imagine the repercussions: the wealthy would flee, the tax base would disappear, all incentives for private enterprise would be destroyed, Britain’s competitiveness would be ruined and the population would lapse into a culture of welfare and dependency.
Or so, at least, we are told, and Corbyn is indeed highly undesirable as a national leader on a number of levels. And yet the above scenario is not about Corbyn, and in fact has already happened, without all the disastrous repercussions. In 1955, the Conservative Party swept to victory on what was then quite a typical Conservative Party platform: one based on social conservatism, social responsibility and a sort of latent patriotism; all features that required in different ways quite substantial levels of state interventionism.
Every promise, tax rate and policy listed above was a Conservative manifesto commitment in that campaign, or in many cases simply an extension of existing policy in place since their victory at the General Election of 1951, when Churchill was elected as Prime Minister. This traditional conservative platform would be quite unrecognisable today, and it is interesting that Conservative posters from the 1955 General Election would seem more at place at a Momentum rally than a modern Conservative one.
Two Conservative posters from the 1955 election
The continuity with past elections here should also be emphasised, and in particular with the Churchill government elected in 1951. One interesting Conservative poster from the 1951 snap election features an industrial worker, and states that Churchill’s Conservatives stand “for fair wages and fair prices, and a house to live in”. They met the promise and built a million houses over their tenure in government.
Conservative election poster, 1951
It goes without saying that Churchill was no soppy liberal, and yet his Conservative Party was clearly prepared to stand up for working people and for the poor and to appeal directly to them in elections. If the above poster might give modern Tory free-marketeers an aneurism, the below poster from the 1950 election a year earlier looks almost like it was deliberately designed to cause maximum distress to a modern liberal:
Conservative election poster, 1950
That these two posters could stand side by side is significant: the traditional conservative platform was socially conservative and patriotic, yet also in many ways social democratic; a combination that is impossible to find today. It was on this platform that the Conservative Party was able to win the 1955 election with a strong majority thanks to 345 seats in the Commons and even a majority of the popular vote, polling 54.8% across the UK. In Scotland, the Unionist Party fought as a sister party to the UK-level Conservatives (they would only merge as the Conservative & Unionist Party a decade later in 1965), and they also won a majority of votes and seats in the 1955 election; they remain the only party in Scotland ever to have achieved this feat.
None of these manifesto commitments were regarded as particularly radical at the time; just as government fulfilling its ordinary functions by actively maintaining domestically-owned core national infrastructure, a serious manufacturing economy and the stability of the family unit. A Conservative campaign fought on issues like pensions, welfare, housing and full employment was also entirely par for the course and had been so largely since the introduction of the popular franchise. It was as such a serious political platform: not one based on the rather soppy ‘nanny state’ mentality of the modern Left, but on the traditional concept that government must have the will and the capacity to govern actively in the national interest.
Another two posters from 1955
The Conservative government largely held to their manifesto pledges, and they worked. Businesses didn’t fold up or outsource, the rich didn’t flee to Europe’s tax havens and the working population, far from sinking into welfarism or dependency, became normalised to a culture of regular, stable employment in a full employment economy that was actively maintained as such by government. This programme of high tax and spend within a socially conservative policy framework led to a period of significant economic growth and significant reduction of the national debt. Consequently, Britain was brought out of the gloom of post-war austerity and into the modern, advanced consumer economy that emerged from the sixties.
All of this is significant amidst talk within conservative circles of the need for revival and for a movement with the intellectual backbone to tackle Corbyn’s highly ideological socialist platform. It is common to hear talk of the need for a revival of Thatcherite, free-market libertarian values: to make the bold case for capitalism, for doing away with regulation and for allowing the movement of capital, goods and people to go about unhindered.
The reality is that these values have already won and are the prevalent philosophy of the Conservatives, the lingering elements of New Labour and of the SNP. Corbyn’s alternative is of course not old-fashioned conservatism but his own strange mix of the old-school Left and the modern fringe cultural Left. Ever since the 80s there has been a general one-way trend of deregulation, lower taxation (even Thatcher taxed the highest income band at 60% in her initial budget, as opposed to Corbyn’s proposed 50%), less progressive taxation and the opening up of our borders to international competition (it was of course Thatcher who brought Britain into the new EU Single Market in 1986). This one-way trend over at least the past half-century is easy to demonstrate:
All this is very obvious and visible if you look around you: the corporate skyscrapers that dominate our city skylines, the international supermarket chains on the edge of town, the transformation of mothers into office workers and the corresponding nationalisation of childcare; the whole corporate, material culture that now pervades modern Britain. We live in a world of open borders, international price competition, multinationals and corporatism. Thatcherism won, it’s the order of the day and has been increasingly so since 1979.
Meanwhile, the old small and local businesses that had once been the bedrock of British prosperity and individual liberty have gradually disappeared, lost to monolithic multinationals and unmatchable foreign price competition. Large numbers of Britons are unemployed or underemployed while cheap imported labour fills our workplaces. The family unit has collapsed due to a mix of economic pressures and changing moral attitudes. There is almost no electoral representation for socially conservative, traditional patriotic values; never mind with a little bit of old-fashioned social democracy attached to appeal to the working-class, which have always been more socially conservative than their middle-class counterparts. If there is a gap for change, if there are conservative values that are not currently represented and need revived, then this is where to look.
What is needed is a traditional conservative economic platform that recognises the role of social democratic principles in maintaining an economy based on free enterprise at the individual and local level; an alternative to the international corporatism of the free-market Right or the state-domination of the socialist Left. Historically, conservatism has always been rooted in the fierce independence of the local shopkeeper; the local tradesman: something that can only be maintained through the effective regulation of the market and in particular of multinationals and large corporations. And we must recognise also the need to actively maintain the integrity of the family unit when economic pressures tend against it: the old Conservative focus on affordable and social housing must be a priority in this regard. Perhaps most importantly of all, we must recognise that these social democratic principles work only in a socially conservative society founded upon the family unit and community life: a culture of personal and social responsibility. Prior to 1979, this is what conservatism was about, as the old posters shown throughout this article emphasise.
This, rather than more corporatism, open borders and deregulation, would be a true revival of conservative principles and a return to the socially-minded conservatism of Churchill or Disraeli. This platform is what allowed the old Unionist Party to win a majority of both votes and seats in Scotland in 1955; perhaps by reviving such principles, conservatism (note the lack of capitalisation) could once again speak to the hopes and fears of ordinary people, and become the dominant political force in Scotland and even throughout the UK.