I don’t welcome a new majority Tory government in the UK. It doesn’t directly affect me since I live in a politically separate crown dependency, but nevertheless I still consider myself British as much as Guernsey, much of my family live in the UK, and the tone of the mainland does rub off on our culture here in general. I’m a left-leaning liberal and a strong supporter of progressivism, social and otherwise, and I see a pure Tory government as generally regressive, pursuing an ideology that, despite the aspirational rhetoric, largely favours the incumbent wealthy in society.
I say all that having been self-employed for a decade. I’m self-starting and a moderately successful “entrepreneur” (quotes because really, I just like to make stuff); by all rights I should be a heartland Tory, championing the superiority of individual effort, especially growing up in an offshore finance centre which trends more to the right than average. And while the Tory mindset definitely surrounds me here, where most people teach their kids to fear left-leaning politics as dangerous to the economy, I have my own view that a moderately left-leaning government can actually promote more aspiration than a right-leaning one, regardless of what other people claim. Let me explain.
A little history
Once I became aware of politics in my teens I vaguely supported the Tories like a good Guernseyman, for reasons I didn’t really understand other than everyone said we wouldn’t have any jobs if Labour got in (which ended up being proven untrue from 1997, but I digress). I’m not going to go into anything too personal in this post, but my family encountered a few ‘bumps in the road’ when I was younger, the upshot of which being that I grew to understand what being short of money meant – actually a very useful life lesson.
Now, this isn’t a sob story, lots of people had it much harder and my parents did brilliantly in the circumstances and always managed to support us, but there were some tough times – during which they worked extremely hard just to tread water. Bad timing of those ‘bumps’ meant they were trapped in private rented accommodation, paying ever higher rents & could never buy their own place. In the end they found happiness retiring in the UK instead, where costs are lower, healthcare is free (for now, anyway) & there’s more for them to do anyway without paying through the nose for a plane ticket – so it turned out OK in the end. Nevertheless, these experiences would affect my thinking later.
Variability of opportunity
As I grew older, still living the Tory way of ‘head down, work hard and things will be fine’, I started to realise how much opportunity & setback affect people so differently. For some people, a setback can have long term repercussions, while for others it can just be a minor blip. Aspiration doesn’t just mean having dreams and ambitions, it also means having the confidence to go out on the ledge to reach for them, and the resilience & safety net to be able to survive failures along the way. And let’s be clear, there are no successes without failures along the way.
People who have this confidence and these safety nets often don’t realise they have them – some people start with them and don’t realise they’re there, for example if you come from a reasonably comfortable background and you know that at a push you could always lean on your parents for a while, even if it hurts your ego. Other benefits might be a good education, career history, or helpful personal connections you can fall back on if your new venture doesn’t work. Maybe as you were growing up you saw a family member or friend take some business risks and succeed, despite non-fatal failures along the way, opening your mind to the possibilities. Alternatively, maybe you have none of these support structures and failure looks pretty fatal to you, or maybe you saw someone else crash & burn badly in the past. We’re not all on an equal footing when it comes to practical aspiration.
Fear & conservatism
I’m talking about this because fear is a really powerful limiter to opportunity and aspiration, and in my opinion it’s made worse by conservative policy. Leaving aside that conservatism generally implies a fear of change, when conservatives talk about aspiration, they talk about it like it’s a constant for a person, something you have or you don’t. People are either aspirational and should be rewarded and admired, or they’re lazy or lack initiative and should be derided – their failure to achieve is their own fault. However, I think everyone is born aspirational by nature, it’s just that variations in education, environment and background significantly affect how that develops and whether it gets traded or crushed for pragmatism or even fatalism. This varies and the same person could go in completely different ways, depending on their experiences.
I’ve been fortunate that, with the help of others, I’ve been able to overcome the fear of failure and go out on that ledge. But really from where I started I’ve done this despite a highly conservative environment, not because of it – lack of many government safety nets and a laissez-faire housing market that harshly punished any hiatus from the escalator discouraged it, and certainly the message I received from many was that this was dangerous ground & maybe I should think about a safe job in finance instead. I was helped by a natural stubborn streak but even so, to me, conservatism didn’t come across as very aspirational, unless you’re already comfortable. To anyone else the conservative message seemed to be “don’t rock the boat”, or “work hard but within someone else’s framework, it’s scary out there”. In politics, conservative philosophy makes this worse by removing safety nets designed for people who don’t already have them via family or connections, and fewer safety nets mean less chance that those people will make the leaps of faith required to be entrepreneurial.
Is it partially intentional?
Perversely this can be good for some traditional post-industrial style businesses who want to employ workers as cheaply as possible. Workers who are afraid for their prospects, saddled with debt & with low aspirations accept lower wages & make less fuss over terms. It’s not, however, good for the overall economy which benefits long term from a thriving middle class economy with as many entrepreneurs creating new businesses as possible, and not just the usual suspects.
Conservatism might be great at making big businesses bigger, making the already comfortable more comfortable, and keeping everyone else in subsistence employment, but in my opinion it doesn’t offer regular Joes and Janes with little behind them a better environment to be aspirational in. I don’t believe the conservative rhetoric that hard work and diligence always pays off, because I know that although you do need those things, it’s also something of a crapshoot, and you might just end up on a never ending treadmill to no-where despite your efforts. You need some balancing of the scales too to make sure hard work is not eclipsed by other factors for many people.
But what about the USA?
At this point you might be pointing at the USA, which has some of the most conservative and least supportive environments for people, such as expensive healthcare and lack of employee rights, yet entrepreneurship thrives there, right? Well, actually that can be a little misleading – as a result of having a very large population and and a lot of money, America is bound to crop up often in business successes stories, but that’s not the whole story. And in terms of startups per capita, the US is roughly the same as Canada, Australia and the UK – despite different social policies. My theory is that the general attitude and culture of the US, which is very risk-positive and failure-friendly balances out their less supportive social policies, while the UK in the past has had a much less startup-friendly culture but a more supportive environment (you can be indie and not be crippled by health insurance fees and not bankrupted if you get sick).
I think that a country that combines supportive social policy and a can-do, failure-tolerant culture is in the best position of all.
That’s why despite being personally self-sufficient, I’m for a government that frees and empowers all members of society to reach their potential through :
- First class education for all, in a form and at the time which matches each person’s needs
- A healthcare system that means nobody has to worry about finances if they’re sick
- Decent housing for everyone at affordable rates. Scarce property as homes for people first, not investments
- A robust safety net for those who come off the rails for whatever reason. It helps us all in the long run if everyone has a viable route back to aspiration
- Acceptance that everyone has a different story, and those of us whose stories are going well need to give a leg up to those whose aren’t right now
- Investment in the general populace at large, not further concentration of resources in the increasingly mobile few. Spread your bets, localise your investments.
- Investment in future success, not in simply helping the already successful preserve what they have. Change is inevitable, you need a pipeline of new ideas & talent, preservation of the old talent only delays inevitable decay
I don’t feel those principles are reflected by the Tories, and sadly, not by our own Bailiwick government most of the time. I also think they’re essential for a truly healthy, sustainable economy; one where wealth is generated across a broader base and more people have opportunities for success and self-determination, rather than simply becoming ever more interchangeable pawns for faceless big businesses. The Tories claim their economy is ‘healthy’ but I don’t buy it – it’s feeding on itself too often, slowly eroding the wealth and support structures of the majority in favour of minority incumbents. On the surface it might look rosy, but underneath that the foundation is weak.
So that’s why I’m aspirational, a supporter of capitalism and a bit of a leftie at the same time – they’re not incompatible.