Andrew Mitchell: The Future of Liberal Conservatives?

Lewis Thomas 1 February 2018

If Andrew Mitchell is one of the standard bearers of liberal conservatism, then liberal conservatism is in very deep trouble indeed.

This is not due to Mitchell’s policies or ideas- they are often moderate and, while dealing more in the abstract than the real, are extremely appealing- Government should engage with the left behind; it should seek to restate the case for free markets and liberal societies. Instead, they are due to his seeming inability to articulate solutions beyond the abstract.

A central part of Mitchell’s address was the need for the advocates of free markets and liberal societies to make the case for their ideas, instead of assuming that people will see the merits of their ideas (or at least the problems of their opponents’). Talking about the position of Capitalism in the UK, he argued that a Corbyn led government would lead to “a massive hike in income tax; a massive hike in borrowing, a massive hike in debt… after eighteen months of ushering in the New Jerusalem we would revert to an old fashioned Sterling crisis, and the eternal verities about government, politics and economics will be reasserted.” In this, he echoes the current line of attack from the government- justified criticism of Corbyn’s economic model.

By way of remedy, he argues for the “Conservative party and Government to renew itself and make the case once again for free markets. For liberal economies that conservative governments around the world champion, with such remarkable effect over the last fifty years. At the moment, we are on the back foot on this. We, as a party, need to reassert the importance of those eternal truths which bind us together- bind us together as a party, and bind us to the public.” This is good rhetoric, and it is correct- the liberal economic consensus that emerged after the Second World War produced the fastest growth in living standards in history, and their advocates do not stress that enough. But rhetoric is not policy. The case for capitalism will not be made with rhetoric, but with concerted political action aimed at addressing people’s concerns- helping those left behind.

Sitting down with TCS after his address, he remains unclear on how to address these concerns. Asked how to make the case for capitalism in concrete terms, and on appealing to voters in those communities which feel abandoned by the government and economic system, he passes the buck and fails to offer a concrete solution. “You offer a community in Fife [as an example of a community which feels left behind]- they look first and foremost to the Scottish government. They must look to the Scottish government… many of the decisions that they want to be made will be made by the Scottish government”- this is technically true; in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, devolution has created a role for the devolved administrations in economic policy, but it sidesteps the need to make the same statements in those communities. The case for capitalism does not stop at Gretna Green or the Severn, and nor does the interest of the Conservative Party.

For English communities, Mitchell offers a roadmap- “there are a range of things we can do to speak to communities of the dispossessed- communities that feel that they’ve missed out. It is our duty to make Brexit a success for them, because these communities fear that their jobs may be taken by uncontrolled migration, and that they lose out from globalisation, which means that their wages are undercut.” People feel left out by globalisation. They are being paid less. These are problems, not solutions.

Does he have a solution? In a way, yes. “We need to demonstrate that Conservative economic management will grow the economy. We have more people in work than we have ever had before, unemployment is lower than at any time since I was at Cambridge, forty years ago. We are running an economy which does deliver, and which Labour would damage by policies which I do not think would work.” Again, Mitchell falls back on abstraction- saying “we need to demonstrate that Conservative economic management will grow the economy” without offering ways to do that is like a hiker pointing at a map and saying “I need to get there”, then refusing to plan a route; it is a good aim, but is nothing but prattle without saying how to do so.

“They recognise that Theresa May is doing something to curb the abuses [of capitalism], and that is something she has spoken about in terms of boardroom pay, proper reflection on boards of the whole community of interests in a business. These are important ways of asserting the values that we hold, and the successes which capitalism can deliver.” To listen to Mitchell, the case for an entire economic system- an entire way of structuring society- can be made by putting the office janitor on the company board. The sheer lack of policy would be comic if the implications were not so serious.

There’s a verse in Frank Turner’s song 1933- “be suspicious of simple answers/ that shit’s for fascists and maybe teenagers/ you can’t fix the world with only a hammer.” It is clear that Mitchell (rightfully) shares that distaste for simple answers. The problem is, he seems unable to articulate a remedy in anything beyond abstract theorising and broad brush statements.

This may be the instinct of a lifetime politician, congenitally unable to give a straight answer, or it may be indicative of a deeper absence of concrete policy. Regardless, one thing is clear- there is a culture war going on, and so long as the advocates of liberal societies and free markets fall into Mitchell’s trap of offering pleasing abstraction in the face of simple answers, they will be on the losing side.

And we’ll be all the poorer for it.