The rapid appearance since the formation of the Coalition of Conservative MP Nick Boles’s book Which Way’s Up? is a tribute to the speed with which Biteback turns round books – recognising that the previous slothful pace of much political publishing meant books were no longer able to capture the political weather. Boles’s book, by contrast, certainly does that and attracted immediate headlines about his support for a two-term coalition and for an electoral pact.
The heart of the book, however, is about policy rather than political tactics. Boles himself has long been a Conservative moderniser – “a Cameroon before anyone had heard of David Cameron” in Jonathan Freedland’s words – and was a founder of Policy Exchange. In this book he sets out five areas where he believes Liberal Democrats and modernised Conservatives share policy objectives and so can forge a long-term political arrangement.
Intriguingly, the five are areas which many of the left also use to talk about the prospects of centre-left or progressive political agreement. The importance of personal freedom, offering more opportunities to those born into poverty or other disadvantage, the need to protect our environment, a desire to give local communities more power and a belief in the importance of restoring Britain’s finances based on cutting the deficit and reviving both investment and exports are five themes that could just as well come from a new Progress pamphlet or an Evan Harris speech.
That Boles contrasts his economic policies with those of Communists gives the book a rather 1950s air at times rather than showing a Conservative/Lib Dem common ground that is different from that of other parties.
On immigration Boles does present a set of policy ideas – including ways round EU rules and introducing an equivalent of the American daily pledge of allegiance in schools – which are distinctive – but then they are also ones that many Liberal Democrats abhor.
Yet in most areas what Boles paints as grounds for Conservative-Lib Dem coalition could also be the grounds for other cross-party agreements, if Parliamentary arithmetic (either in Westminster or in devolved bodies) allows or requires it. His vision is certainly one of a much different Conservative Party from that of the past, but he fails to present a compelling case as to why it must be the Conservatives that the Liberal Democrats agree with in future.
His belief in the need for Conservatives to be different from their past comes out particularly strongly when he argues that modern Conservatism must be concerned with social outcomes in a way that 1980s Thatcherism was not. Nor is Boles’s description of markets a traditional right-wing one – “free markets are neither God given nor the inevitable product of evolution. They are institutions, created by man, and based on a wide range of artificial interventions in the natural way of doing things”.
On public services, Boles argues that, “The key distinction is between those responsibilities that involve services delivered to a whole community and those that involve services delivered to individuals or households. Where a service is delivered to an individual or a family, we should strengthen the relationship between them and the institution that serves them, giving them the power to choose and the institution the freedom to compete.”
The implication of this approach in areas such as health and education is one that many Liberal Democrats disagree with (think free schools) – though the unspoken challenge in Boles’s book is to come up with a better alternative vision than simply one of ‘if a Tory is saying it, it must be wrong’ or ‘the answer to everything is to give more powers to councils’. Similarly, Boles’s praising of the government’s plans to cut corporation tax year on year will jar with many Liberal Democrats but a wise response requires an alternative strategy for supporting British firms.
Boles looks to appropriate William Gladstone as a common heir for both Conservatives and liberals, quoting Mrs Thatcher as saying, “I would not mind betting that if Mr Gladstone were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative Party” – a view that Chris Huhne has strongly disagreed with.
Boles lays out clearly why the government has set off at such a pace on major reforms, retelling the story of Blair’s early years in the now widely accepted terms of large majority and favourable economic circumstances wasted for want of urgency. The jibe at New Labour for being too focused on wanting to win an historic second term to get its policy right comes oddly from a Conservative moderniser, given how much difficulty they have had in deciding quite what a modern Conservative Party should be, other than one clearly different from the previous election losing one.
Overall, although Boles’s book is about a future of Conservative-Liberal Democrat cooperation, in many ways its most important message is how even Conservatives now want to be judged on levels of social equality and mobility. It is not a Labour or a Liberal Democrat MP but a Conservative one who writes in this book,
There are parts of Glasgow in which nearly 40 per cent of children grow up in homes where there is no adult in paid employment and male life expectancy is lower than in Gaza. When you consider this and set it against the life on display in the streets of Notting Hill and Alderley Edge, it isn’t surprising to learn that income inequality in Britain is at its highest level since comparable statistics began in 1961. But that doesn’t make it any the less shocking.
The debate over methods for and success at tackling this state of our country has been and will continue to be fierce, but that Conservatives such as Boles willingly offer up this area as a major criteria for judging the government is in itself a success of sorts.
A shorter version of this book review first appeared in Liberal Democrat News, the party’s newspaper.