By Joe Jones
The EU referendum revealed something that all on the right should be worried about: a serious class divide. It’s hard to think when a vote could be so easily divided along the lines of wage inequality, job prospects and class. This should be a massive concern for those in the centre-right of our politics. A class divide must be something that we should always campaign against especially if we are to embrace the mantra of the ladder for meritocratic justice. The forgotten many found a voice rallying against what they viewed as an uncaring establishment. An establishment who no longer cared about increasing inequality, the worrying reduction of the middle class and collapse of social mobility in this country.
Of course inequality is not something I believe should be entirely eradicated, I am not about to call to arms and fight for equality (I sincerely apologise to the leftie luvvies) – it is a necessary spur to economic development. However, I do think there is a need to reduce it by increasing the ability to rise to the top. The quest of fixing the increasingly large cracks that divide our society should not belong uniquely under a socialist or liberal umbrella and we should be very careful not to fall into the trap of Andrew Bonar-Law who recoiled from social policy, believing it to be liberal party territory.
Instead, we should look to the inspiration of Lord Salisbury – an incredibly underrated Prime Minister. In 1883 he wrote in the National Review of the awful conditions that the working classes had to endure, both in the workplace and at home. He wrote of the need for Laissez Faire to be applied ‘both ways’, benefitting the worker and the consumers. Throughout his three premierships there was a raft of social legislation, covering housing, re-enforcing the right for compensation in the workplace and the establishment of the county councils and boroughs to which he devolved local powers and controls. The work was carried on by his successor, Arthur Balfour, who allowed businesses to tap into government loans to hire more staff and increased the number of schools (including a large boost for girl’s schools) as well as raising the school leaving age.
Brexit has demonstrated that class lines once against divide us, we should never stand back and allow this to continue. It is an awful fact that by Tuesday 5th January this year the top FTSE 100 chief executives earnt more than the ‘average workers’ (£27,645) entire yearly package. As Theresa May highlighted in her first Prime Ministerial address to the country: ‘If you’re born poor you will die on average nine years earlier than others If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.’
It is not ‘un-conservative’ to pay attention to these issues. It does not make you ‘a wet’, nor a socialist. What it adheres to is the oldest strand of the oldest and most successful political force in the world – the Conservative and Unionist Party. In a party broadcast, Rab Butler (the greatest education secretary) said that ‘we conservatives stand for the unity of the nation. Of all classes and all interests.’ This is what is at the heart of how conservatives should act. We should stand for all classes and interests, we should embrace the legacy of Salisbury and Balfour: invest in tackling inequality from the bottom up through affordable housing, security in your work, localism and education. It is not a quest to slay the great, beastly evil dragon of the FTSE 100, but more one to raise up those underneath it.
The rift exposed by the Brexit vote is one that needs to be healed, the country desperately needs unifying. Those forgotten many have made their voices heard, and we ignore it at our own peril. A class divided politics and society is not a healthy one, and conservatives should work against it, both in the political sphere and out of it. We should encourage security in work, a living wage paid voluntarily by employers, equal workplace treatment for all, greater autonomy and power for local councils and communities and, most importantly, a local revolution in schooling. Governments that put inequality first have too often been centrally bureaucratic, but as Salisbury and Balfour show, it is possible to enact from the centre and hand the baton of control to local areas and communities to fight inequality, poverty and push for a more meritocratic society.