‘We have never aimed to be popular, and we have been very successful at times in being unpopular.’ Thus wrote the chair of the long-standing Conservative thinktank, The Bow Group, as the institution marked its 60th birthday over the summer. The group’s new president, John Major, addressed its annual summer reception on the Palace of Westminster terrace, and Tory grandees aplenty feature among its set of patrons, from Geoffrey Howe to Michael Howard.
These are not the only Tories happy to make themselves unpopular on occasion. Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, Conservative members of the 2010 intake, are set to release a new book, Britannia Unchained. It has already hit the headlines thanks to their view that ‘once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.’ About his own group, Kwarteng reportedly declared that, ‘here is definitely a new right which is much more international in its focus. The old Tory right are a busted flush.’ While The Bow Group have sometimes mistakenly been thought of as representing the left of the Conservative party, mostly by virtue of not being the Monday Club, is it the latter that the MP for Spelthorne has in his sights? In his address, The Bow Group’s chair added that, ‘Sixty years into its history, in the battle of ideas, we trust the Bow Group is only beginning.’ With such views being voiced by new Tory parliamentarians, he may well be right.
Raab has been busy of late, penning a pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies entitled Unleashing the British Underdog: 10 Bets on the Little Guy. Two of his 10 ideas are proposals to ‘extend Open Access, the scheme that sponsors talented children from all backgrounds to go to independent schools’, and to ‘reinstate young apprenticeships, so that non-academic children have a better range of vocational options’. The beneficiaries of such schemes are not intended to be those slackers Raab and his colleagues believe to be lazing about workplaces across Britain. Instead, they are, he writes, those who ‘prize the work ethic’ and who ‘overcome vested interests and succeed against the odds’. Raab may well be sincere enough in his aims, but the upshot of Tory governments past and present is invariably an entrenchment of those vested interests and a life made harder for the less privileged.
There is more to be concerned about in new research from The King’s Fund, which has found that the proportion of people engaging in four unhealthy behaviours – smoking, drinking, poor diet, lack of exercise – fell from a third to a quarter from 2003-8, but that the relative inequality between the lowest and highest socioeconomic groups grew as the health of those on low incomes stayed more or less static. The current situation will lead to ‘widening inequalities and avoidable pressure on the NHS’. This is to be deplored in itself, but there is a further danger here as emphasis is, rightly, increasingly placed on public health and on citizens’ taking responsibility for their own health. With money tight and the task of looking after oneself shared more between health service and individual, could the universalism of even the NHS eventually come under pressure? Just as ‘benefits’ – furnished under the banner of the welfare state – have over time become a dirty word in the mainstream because of the supposed fecklessness of their recipients, health provision for those suffering ‘lifestyle’ diseases and paid for out of the public purse could be the next target.
With the devious use of the label of ‘deficit reduction in one parliament’ already in place as a cover to shrink the state, there is every reason to anticipate the new Tory right chipping away at public support for universal healthcare. As the Bow Group claims to know from experience, unpopularity can come easily enough, even for 60-year-old institutions.
Bow Group, Centre for Policy Studies, Chris Skidmore, Conservatives, Dominic Raab, Geoffrey Howe, health, John Major, Kwasi Kwarteng, Liz Truss, Michael Howard, Priti Patel, The King's Fund, thinktanks