“Building a country that works for everyone”.

That was the slogan of the Conservative Party at their conference last week. During the Prime Minister’s speech, one of its letters fell to the stage.

The bad luck of those for whom everything is going wrong. That was the common diagnosis. I have a yet more supernatural theory. It was caused by the spinning of Edmund Burke in his grave.

The idea that the governing party is in the business of “building a country” is not a conservative idea. It is a socialist or fascist idea.

A conservative believes that the country already exists. It comprises millions of people and social and legal entities: families, churches, golf clubs, schools, banks, supermarkets, courts of law, and so on. The government is just another one of these. It no more builds Britain than the Church of England or Tesco do.

On the conservative vision, a society changes spontaneously – the result not of a politician’s master plan but of the actions of the millions of people in it, acting individually or through their various associations. No one builds the country. People build their own lives, and their own associations, and the country is the result.

Apply this way of thinking to economics and you soon arrive at market liberalism. Apply it to other matters and you arrive at cultural conservatism. This is not what most people think it is. A cultural conservative is wedded to no particular cultural norms, except as an individual. He is wedded to a view about how norms should arise.

David Cameron’s contrasting of a Big Society with a Big State was perfect conservative rhetoric. Alas, he thought he should use the power of the state to build a big society. It cannot be done.

Suppose you try to build a big society by directing taxpayers’ money to private charities, as Cameron did. Obviously, only charities that hold acceptable views and have the right kinds of beneficiaries can be eligible for such help. Will the government give money to a charity that helps people fight sexual harassment prosecutions, or one devoted to restoring the monarchy in France? A politician cannot “build a society” of independent actors. He can only build a society of clients.

Theresa May has continued David Cameron’s unconservative goal of building society. But she has stated it openly. Given the policy direction of the Conservative Party and its admirable new honesty, perhaps the slogan at next year’s conference will go full Mussolini: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”.

Further IEA Reading: Waging the War of Ideas; Taxation, Spending, and Economic Growth

Jamie Whyte is the IEA's Research Director.

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