Which Way’s Up? The long-term future of the coalition

The rapid appearance since the formation of the Coalition of Conservative MP Nick Boles’s book Which Way’s Up? is a tribute to the speed with which Biteback turns round books – recognising that the previous slothful pace of much political publishing meant books were no longer able to capture the political weather. Boles’s book, by contrast, certainly does that and attracted immediate headlines about his support for a two-term coalition and for an electoral pact.

The heart of the book, however, is about policy rather than political tactics. Boles himself has long been a Conservative moderniser – “a Cameroon before anyone had heard of David Cameron” in Jonathan Freedland’s words – and was a founder of Policy Exchange. In this book he sets out five areas where he believes Liberal Democrats and modernised Conservatives share policy objectives and so can forge a long-term political arrangement.

Nick Boles Which Way Is Up book coverIntriguingly, the five are areas which many of the left also use to talk about the prospects of centre-left or progressive political agreement. The importance of personal freedom, offering more opportunities to those born into poverty or other disadvantage, the need to protect our environment, a desire to give local communities more power  and a belief in the importance of restoring Britain’s finances based on cutting the deficit and reviving both investment and exports are five themes that could just as well come from a new Progress pamphlet or an Evan Harris speech.

That Boles contrasts his economic policies with those of Communists gives the book a rather 1950s air at times rather than showing a Conservative/Lib Dem common ground that is different from that of other parties.

On immigration Boles does present a set of policy ideas – including ways round EU rules and introducing an equivalent of the American daily pledge of allegiance in schools – which are distinctive – but then they are also ones that many Liberal Democrats abhor.

Yet in most areas what Boles paints as grounds for Conservative-Lib Dem coalition could also be the grounds for other cross-party agreements, if Parliamentary arithmetic (either in Westminster or in devolved bodies) allows or requires it. His vision is certainly one of a much different Conservative Party from that of the past, but he fails to present a compelling case as to why it must be the Conservatives that the Liberal Democrats agree with in future.

His belief in the need for Conservatives to be different from their past comes out particularly strongly when he argues that modern Conservatism must be concerned with social outcomes in a way that 1980s Thatcherism was not. Nor is Boles’s description of markets a traditional right-wing one – “free markets are neither God given nor the inevitable product of evolution. They are institutions, created by man, and based on a wide range of artificial interventions in the natural way of doing things”.

On public services, Boles argues that, “The key distinction is between those responsibilities that involve services delivered to a whole community and those that involve services delivered to individuals or households. Where a service is delivered to an individual or a family, we should strengthen the relationship between them and the institution that serves them, giving them the power to choose and the institution the freedom to compete.”

The implication of this approach in areas such as health and education is one that many Liberal Democrats disagree with (think free schools) – though the unspoken challenge in Boles’s book is to come up with a better alternative vision than simply one of ‘if a Tory is saying it, it must be wrong’ or ‘the answer to everything is to give more powers to councils’. Similarly, Boles’s praising of the government’s plans to cut corporation tax year on year will jar with many Liberal Democrats but a wise response requires an alternative strategy for supporting British firms.

Boles looks to appropriate William Gladstone as a common heir for both Conservatives and liberals, quoting Mrs Thatcher as saying, “I would not mind betting that if Mr Gladstone were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative Party” – a view that Chris Huhne has strongly disagreed with.

Boles lays out clearly why the government has set off at such a pace on major reforms, retelling the story of Blair’s early years in the now widely accepted terms of large majority and favourable economic circumstances wasted for want of urgency. The jibe at New Labour for being too focused on wanting to win an historic second term to get its policy right comes oddly from a Conservative moderniser, given how much difficulty they have had in deciding quite what a modern Conservative Party should be, other than one clearly different from the previous election losing one.

Overall, although Boles’s book is about a future of Conservative-Liberal Democrat cooperation, in many ways its most important message is how even Conservatives now want to be judged on levels of social equality and mobility. It is not a Labour or a Liberal Democrat MP but a Conservative one who writes in this book,

There are parts of Glasgow in which nearly 40 per cent of children grow up in homes where there is no adult in paid employment and male life expectancy is lower than in Gaza. When you consider this and set it against the life on display in the streets of Notting Hill and Alderley Edge, it isn’t surprising to learn that income inequality in Britain is at its highest level since comparable statistics began in 1961. But that doesn’t make it any the less shocking.

The debate over methods for and success at tackling this state of our country has been and will continue to be fierce, but that Conservatives such as Boles willingly offer up this area as a major criteria for judging the government is in itself a success of sorts.

You can buy Which Way’s Up? by Nick Boles from Amazon here.

A shorter version of this book review first appeared in Liberal Democrat News, the party’s newspaper. You can get a subscription to Liberal Democrat News here.

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13 Comments

  • How appropriate that the front cover should depict a road leading over Beachy Head, for that is where Clegg is taking our party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jan '11 - 11:49am

    The books sounds like a tired old repetition of what has become conventional wisdom amongst the smart set over the past three decades. It hasn’t worked, our society, and particularly this country which has so absorbed this conventional wisdom, is in a mess because it hasn’t worked.

    The article about the rise in mental illness on today’s from page of the Guardian is telling. Why, when society has been doing all the things which conventional wisdom tell us it should do, are people getting more unhappy and more depressed? What happened to that wonderful leisure-filled society we were supposed to be getting where we would all need to work far fewer hours due to modern technology?

    Something fundamentally has gone wrong, and it is quite clear people like Boles just haven’t got it.

    Boles may mention social equality and mobility, but the reason that message has come through even to Tories is that it’s become a hugely bigger issue since 1979 – and the fact that year marks the point where the the growth in social equality and mobility turned round and became shrinkage is no coincidence. However, they are not prepared to admit that it’s the dominance of big business and remote to the exclusion and winding down of all other forms of social interaction which is one of the biggest causes of the malaise. Instead they want to go onwards and upwards with more of the same commercialisation of our lives.

    Boles and his like are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  • “His vision is certainly one of a much different Conservative Party from that of the past, but he fails to present a compelling case as to why it must be the Conservatives that the Liberal Democrats agree with in future.”

    The reason he fails to make the case isn’t his want of erudition, but the fact that there is no such case to be made!

    If the LD’s want to retain the allegiance of left of centre voters and supporters, attempting to position yourselves as neither of left or the right condemns you to an electoral cul-de-sac. If you are sanguine about what has been happening to your party in the past 6 months, and the prospect of the LD’s increasingly being regarded as simply the old Liberal Party writ large.

    Bear in mind however that in this context “large” will hardly be the appropriate adjective for a party which will struggle to attain double figures in % of national support, or a handful of seats). By all means continue your attempts to sup with the devil….. as all the current evidence shows however, the lack of a long spoon to do it with is rendering your party as toxic in its own way as New Labour became under Blair and Brown. That’s a pretty impressive downfall in the months since the General Election.

    Exactly what is it going to take fro you to realise that huge sections of your corse support (indeed, the very section which rendered you a mass party rather than a Liberal rump) will not support you moving to the right, or attempting to develop some long term understanding with the Tories? Defeat at Oldham & Saddleworth? In the Welsh, Scottish and local elections? In the AV referendum?

    A one-term Coalition with the Tories is bad enough; anyone in your Party who seriously believes a two term coalition is a good idea, still less a formal pact, is simply adding their signature to its death warrant.

  • richard heathcote 11th Jan '11 - 4:12pm

    and how exactly have the tories changed since the 1980’s? if you have a read of some of the right wing blog’s conservativehome etc. i think you will find they are exactly the same. all i can see that has changed is the attitude of the lib dem party in embracing the new tory attitudes.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jan '11 - 4:26pm

    The Conservatives have ditched those elements of old-style Conservatism which were not primarily about preserving the wealth of the international money set. This means old-style “Queen and country” patriotism has been replaced by anti-EU ranting, and they aren’t so bothered about things like gay rights as they were. In effect this means that once there was a distinction between Tory idelogy and neo-liberalism, now there isn’t.

  • @ Oranjepan

    The lionising of US models in everything from economic policy, defence and security, to health care and education has always been evident amongst section of the political right in the UK, hence the nod towards the laughable concept of a daily oath of allegiance referred to above. I for one would never participate, and suspect many others would share the view.

    As you say, recent experience of all the parties suggests we are right to apply the Paxman test to everything they utter. Perhaps they aren’t ALL congenital lying products of unmarried mothers…. but enough of them are to make it the correct default response 😉

  • Patrick Smith 11th Jan '11 - 5:58pm

    I would take issue with Nick Boles, that were Gladstone alive today he would have remained a sworn Liberal with `Peace,Retrenchment and Reform’ as his aims in Government.

    For it is well known that Gladstone and Disraeli shared a mutual detestation and lived out an embittered rivralry.

    When Gladstone went to the North he was the object of attention from thousands of workingmen who came running from the mines,mills and factrories to be in thrall of their `Peoples William’ and so to tell their granchilden that they had seen the `Grand Old Man’ , had pased Budgets with `natural liberty,laissez -faire and fair trade’ for them at their core.

    When Disraeli died, Gladstone said of him, with clear contempt’ `Disraeli died as Disraeli lived-all display and no reality and without genuiness’. Disralie had said of `Gladstone that he was `God`s only mistake’.

    Gladstone`s liberalism was underwritten many times as Prime Minister and Chancellor 4 times each but perhaps one good example of his social conscience, was the passage of the Coalwhippers Act 1843,done out of his concern for the coal whippers in the London Docks and their closeness with a hard life of alcohol.

    Gladstone today would have cared about the 30% more premature deaths in Glasgow than Manchester and Liverpool and the low life expectaion due to the unexplained `Glasgow Effect’.

    Gladstone would also have taken action in government on the plight of teenager unemployment In Glasgow where 18% 16-19 year olds are not in school or work.

  • I’m going to apologise if I’m missing something obvious here, but surely this quote is a contradition in terms.

    “Where a service is delivered to an individual or a family, we should strengthen the relationship between them and the institution that serves them, giving them the power to choose and the institution the freedom to compete.”

    How can one strengthen the relationship between the individial and an institution, yet at the same time expect market forces to dictate that that individual moves to a competing provider as a rational step? Surely that demands a very weak relationship between individual and institution.

    And this is before we get to the cosy assumptions here that markets can necessarily be created in all areas that will work in the interests of citizens. I’m not saying that everything should be provided by the state, but surely this quote has a hole in it?

    What this Coalition want is a pay and go society. I’m sure that if you can afford it that society will be big – but for everyone else well services for the poor are poor services.

  • I’ve almost finished reading this book too and I’m suprised how much I agree with. I’m sure right-wing Tories will dislike many parts of it, and it confirms my view that Cameron has moved to the centre ground. It is good and noteworthy to see a Conservative MP challenge the charity status of private schools, suggesting that either they are forced to assist the state sector and share skills/amenities or they should lose their charitable status and be run as the businesses they really are. It was also noticeable that several Lib Dem policies originate from the Policy Exchange think tank, explaining the convergence between the two parties.

    Another plus for this book is that it explains clearly why the coalition is in favour of free schools. On paper, the idea that adding competition and allowing freedom for parents/groups to set up new schools where there are failing schools seems a good idea. The difficulty is that we all suspsect that the only people who will take advantage of this are the “sharp elbowed” middle classes – the same group who do OK in most schools. But this book at least makes it clear that it isn’t a policy designed solely for the middle classes, they really do believe that it will help social mobility.

    A thought-provoking book, and like Oranjepan, I’d like to see us respond in the form of Orange Book Mk II.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Jan '11 - 12:33pm


    Another plus for this book is that it explains clearly why the coalition is in favour of free schools. On paper, the idea that adding competition and allowing freedom for parents/groups to set up new schools where there are failing schools seems a good idea.

    We already have a mechanisms for parents etc to run schools. The mechanism is called “school governors”. The whole school system in England is set up so that the schools are run by local people through local democratic mechanisms. We also have a mechanism by which organised groups can set up schools. It is called “Voluntary Aided schools”, although when you use the alternative name for them which tends to be used, “faith schools”, most LibDems have a knee-jerk reaction against. As I argued at length some time ago in these columns (and finally saw some triumph when someone who’d been arguing vigorously against what they thought I’d been saying wrote “You seem to have changed your view” when actually they’d finally cottoned on to what I meant in the first place) the checks and balances given by the system of Voluntary Aided Schools incorporated into the Local Education Authority system seem to me to be the best way of meeting the liberal arguments on both sides of this issue.

    What seems to be happening here us that Tories and Labour have co-operated since 1979 in smashing up the local democratic mechanisms under which our schools were part of the community and had a great deal of autonomy, turning them instead into pieces of clockwork run by the central state, and then instead of just admitting “we were wrong” attempted in a cack-handed way to introduce special schools which have the autonomy which all schools used to have. The Tories in particular at one time used to say the problem with schools was all these teachers and school governors doing their own thing, so it needed all this national curriculum and league tables to put them in order, now they say the problem is teachers and parents not allowed to do their own thing so we have to have these free schools etc to allow it.

    I’ve been a university lecturer for 22 years now. The students I taught when I first started would have started their schooling under the Callaghan government. And you know what – after all this time, the kids now when they come to us are no better educated than they were then. If anything, they are worse.

    Wasn’t it a classic yesterday to read about the teachers going “Wah, wah, you’ve changed the criteria used to order the league tables, that’s SO unfair”? That’s a bit like those students who moan when you change the format of the exam and they go “Wah, wah, it doesn’t have the same sort of question as in the past papers, that’s SO unfair”.

    As I say to the students, “life is not about siting exams, exams are just there to try and measure something more basic and important”, so the same applies to the teachers “education is not about league tables, league tables are just there to try and measure something more basic and important”. Those students who put all their effort into surface attempts at “exam techniques” never really learn properly, so those schools who put all their efforts into surface attempts at rising in the league tables never really educate properly.

    And there’s your problem, that’s why all this competition and dog-eat-dog mentality isn’t actually working. It encourages surface tactics to beat the competition in looking good rather than real dedication to real quality.

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