Leading Article: It's Time to Talk Trade

The Spectator, September 30, 2017 | Go to article overview

Leading Article: It's Time to Talk Trade


Thirty years ago, the Conservatives would have had no problem countering what Jeremy Corbyn had to offer in Brighton. But as they gather in Manchester for their own conference, they know they are going to have to find a new way of appealing to a generation born after the fall of Soviet communism, which has no memory of (or interest in) the 1970s, with its industrial strife and moribund state-run industries.

Socialism, as we found out in June, is this year's surprise hit. For younger voters struggling to find a way on to the property ladder, a bigger, all-embracing state may seem to be the answer. As for financial crises, the only one they have witnessed in their adult lives was one blamed on reckless banks. It is harder for them to appreciate the economic consequences of collectivisation, in spite of the admission by shadow chancellor John McDonnell that his policies might cause a run on the pound. He promises disruption, and there is a market for that. A great many young people have experienced stagnant wages and seen soaring house prices, and feel any other way must be a better way.

The Conservatives find themselves struggling to find a language which connects with voters born after 1973, most of whom opted for Labour at the last election. Indeed, they are struggling to find an agenda more broadly. But there is no shortage of issues to discuss. Labour's decision not to debate Brexit at its conference showed that the party is mute on the single most important issue of the day. There is an opportunity here, if the Tories have the wit to seize it.

Most of those who voted for Remain now think the result of the referendum ought to be respected; slowly the divisions are starting to heal. The Conservatives ought to focus on this reconciliation, rather than pose as a group of crowing Brexiteers. The main concern among those who opposed Brexit is that Britain was turning in on itself, that nativism and populism were in the -ascendant. This seemed to chime with the Prime Minister's often harsh tone, notoriously referring to the 'citizens of nowhere' and, to her shame, refusing to offer immediate assurances to EU nationals, something even Ukip advocated. She has had depressingly few warm words for our European allies, perhaps thinking that a combative stance would serve her well in a general election.

She sought to change the tone in her Florence speech, but far more needs to be done. She needs to talk about the opportunities of Brexit, specifically on opening up Britain's economies in ways that the EU has struggled to do. …

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