On Friday the BBC Proms began. BBC2 relayed to us Verdi’s operatic oratorio, his Requiem. Four soloists, two massive choirs and a huge orchestra told us about the ‘Day of Wrath’ from which we needed to be delivered:

That day will dissolve the world in glowing ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.
How great will be the terror,
when the Judge comes
to give strict justice....
A written book will be brought forth,
which contains everything
for which the world will be judged.
Therefore when the Judge takes His seat,
whatever is hidden will be revealed:
nothing shall go unpunished.

At the same time, on Channel 4, we had the Conservative leadership hustings, with four out of the five people trying to explain why, having served as ministers in the government of an inveterate liar for so long, they were nonetheless themselves trustworthy. Was this juxtaposition just a coincidence? Art shines a searchlight on life, both private and public. So far God has not struck him down, but let us at least hope that the reign of Boris the tousle-haired, loose-trousered and fork-tongued is coming to an end. Although his time in office only lasted for 3 years, it feels like an eternity.

So what set of opinions and character in a leader do the party faithful think will win our votes at the next election? There seems to be very little agreement. The Conservative grandee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, however, recently wrote an opinion piece in ‘Prospect’ which attempted to say what Conservatism was all about.

He reminded us that the Conservative party is the longest running party of government in the world. It started in 1783, with Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister. The party has been in power for 32 of the last 50 years. His surprising explanation for its success is that it has never been burdened with an ideology - ideas and beliefs as to how the world should be made to work.

“Socialism, fascism and communism are - or were - attempts to shape society into a particular mould. The political ends were often used to try to justify the means, with terrible consequences. Ideologies tend to be the product of a particular period of history, or of industrial and technological development: communism and Marxism-Leninism developed out of the Industrial Revolution and the creation of a mass urban working class. As the world changes, ideologies more often than not become redundant. So do the political parties associated with them.”

In contrast, we are told that Tories have never had rigid beliefs as to how the state and society should be governed. Instead, they have had ‘values and principles’ that have remained constant throughout the years.

These values have included patriotism, personal liberty, the rule of law, a free parliament - and a government dependent on that parliament - as well as an acceptance of the responsibility to improve the economic and social well-being of the people as a whole.

But does his explanation make any sense? As I see it, the Tory party most certainly has ideologies. The ‘values’ recited by Sir Malcolm are indistinguishable from ideologies. And is Brexit not the leading Conservative ideology of our time?

But an equally important ideology, particularly amongst those who do not want Rishi in power, is their long-standing creed that the Conservative Party is ‘the party of low taxes’. Sunak’s plans to increase corporation tax to 25%, as well as the other tax hikes we have seen to try to rebuild our very damaged economy, have many Conservatives foaming at the mouth.

A part of that ideology is the belief that lowering taxes produces growth in output because it encourages people to work and invest in business which, In turn, means a higher tax revenue for the treasury. So then, tax cuts are self-financing! And pigs can be seen flying overhead. They base this on the myth of the ‘Laffer curve’. The economist Laffer in fact only told us that both 0% and 100% taxation will produce no revenue at all and speculated that somewhere between there might be a sweet spot. If you tax people too highly, then there may be some reduction in their willingness to work or create businesses. There is, however, no actual evidence to show us where, or if, there is a predictable, optimum point between those two extremes which can enable us to maximise revenue. People and society are far too complicated.

But it is nonetheless a Conservative article of faith, even though German productivity is higher than ours, and this despite a corporation tax rate of 30%.

Likewise, we see another ideology in calls for a ‘smaller state’. We are not told which parts of the state can be excised, sorry, privatised. There is an unstated assumption that the private sector will step in and be more efficient in providing whatever it is that the state was doing.

However, our recent experience of entrusting Covid testing to the private sector is hardly encouraging. Delegating enforcement of building regulations to the private sector, which led to the disaster of Grenfell Tower, is not exactly encouraging either. And the (Labour) Private Finance Initiative for building hospitals has not exactly been a resounding success. It has left us with huge, unjustifiable payments to the private sector.

It is similar in soundness to another self-serving right-wing ideology, the ‘trickle-down effect’. Tax breaks and benefits for corporations and the wealthy will mean more money will ultimately ‘trickle down’ to everyone else. As the rich do in fact spend some of their wealth, this is true - to some extent - but we can also see income and capital inequality growing around the world as a result of an international tax system biased towards the rich.

But surely their name is also an ideology, an integral part of who they are.

As I have remarked before though, I suppose that we have to accept that most of us are conservative in our ways. Even changing the colour of the paint on our walls is not something we want to do too often; we often cite the maxim ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ to justify inaction in all walks of life.

And the sad truth is that all political parties suffer from conservatism, which is perhaps why we tend to get stuck with ideologies of both left and right which are no longer fit for purpose. We have a zombified political system, one where parties always turn inwards for solutions, when better answers have long been available, both here and in other countries. What that would require, however, is clear thinking and cooperation between politicians. Some hope!

Paul Buckingham

18 July 2022

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