The new radicals

Conservatism is a long-standing political tradition which pre-dates many of its rival worldviews. Notwithstanding the innumerable offshoots and neo-variations, the crux of conservatism is a respect for tradition and order, and a general scepticism of change.

Edmund Burke said that “man’s patience achieves more than his force”; evolution not revolution is the name of this game.

We’ve had a Conservative Prime Minister since 2010 and a full Conservative government since 2015, however there is a noticeable absence of conservatism in many of its policies. Quite the opposite; radical transformation underpins many flagship policies of the past five years and indeed of the five years to come. The spirit of reform is alive within this cabinet.

Head and shoulders above his colleagues stands Michael Gove, who has quickly become David Cameron’s reformer-in-chief. Gove in 2002 co-founded Policy Exchange, a reform-driven intellectual hub which has quickly become the largest and probably most influential Think Tank on the right of British politics. In his first cabinet brief as Secretary of State for Education, Gove pioneered controversial yet undoubtedly radical reforms including Academisation and overhaul of the National Curriculum. In his new brief as Justice Secretary, Gove has already produced a typically radical plan to build nine hyper-modern prisons, in place of the decaying Victorian relics.

Gove’s reforming brief now stretches to one of the most contentious issues in British politics; human rights. Longstanding Conservative policy seeks to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act and replace it with a bespoke British Bill of Rights, and it looks like the Government have deployed Gove to finally finish the job.

The devolution agenda which the Government is also pursuing could constitute the biggest decentralisation of power since the creation of the devolved assemblies in 1999. With the Smith Commission set to be fully implemented in Holyrood, and historic fiscal powers devolved to the Welsh Government, this Government is boldly striding towards a federal United Kingdom. The City Deals and elected Mayors in the nascent Northern Powerhouse will reverse a 70 year tradition and strip Westminster and Whitehall of their administrative imperialism.

Hapless infrastructure planning is deeply entrenched, but this too shows signs of abating too. Rural NIMBY-ists have not held back Crossrail or HS2, with successor projects to the pair already being developed by the National Infrastructure Commission brain trust. With a decision on Britain’s airport expansion imminent, the Government’s reformist mettle will be tested; watch this space.

Of course, not all of the Government’s radical reforms have been so well received. Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt’s popularity has taken a nose-dive in recent weeks; but nobody could accuse his Junior Doctor contract reform or 7-day NHS of lacking bottle. Likewise, universal credit is a long overdue simplification of the smorgasboard of welfare payments currently offered; though it’s often criticised as a smokescreen for cuts and an ideological rollback of the State.

Governments come and go in five short years and often miss their chance to embed substantial change. If this one can wade through austerity to deliver its planned reform agenda, it will be a long overdue and very welcome departure from the patch-and-mend approach of time gone by.


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