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Book Review: Remaking One Nation by Nick Timothy

Nick Timothy’s new book opens and ends with a sense of tragedy.


The opening chapter considering his time as Chief of Staff to Theresa May and the 2017 General Election defeat is deeply moving. Timothy comes across as a man with sincere desire to reform the country but sadly placed in the middle of a process, Brexit, which frustrates efforts at reform. The tragedy is that Timothy (and his boss) is destined never to be in a position to end that process so that he can implement his ideas.


The ending is tragic because although there is much to welcome in the book, this reader is left wondering whether the ideas articulated within it will ever be realised. Timothy’s sharp analysis of the ideological forces which grip the Conservative Party beg the question, will it ever truly move on from ‘free market’ fundamentalism?


There is a chink of light, however, in the sense that Timothy himself and Boris Johnson’s election victory indicate that there are alternative ideas capable of motivating the Conservative Party. The challenge is to boldly follow them whilst avoiding the Party’s natural tendency to fall back on hollow “pragmatism” which essentially means reinforcing the status quo.


Can the Conservatives reform our economy?


Before considering Timothy’s ideas, it is worth quickly referencing what he was up against in government. Although we have a new team in Downing Street and the Treasury, Timothy’s relationship with Philip Hammond is just an example of a wider ideological rift. On the one hand are those like Timothy believe that we cannot stick to business as usual because we risk endangering the whole system. On the other are those typified by Hammond who see our current system incapable of reform and an inevitability.

“Throughout my time in Downing Street…we neglected economic policy. In our defence, this was partly down to the personality of the Chancellor. Philip Hammond lacked an economic policy beyond the need to keep on cutting spending.”

One passage sticks in the mind, early in the book, where Timothy says:


“Throughout my time in Downing Street…we neglected economic policy. In our defence, this was partly down to the personality of the Chancellor. Philip Hammond lacked an economic policy beyond the need to keep on cutting spending.”


This blog and others have noted repeatedly the death of economic thinking in the Conservative Party. This book appears to confirm that suspicion. In another section, Timothy recounts how it was hard to shake the Cameron legacy. Speaking about corporate governance reform and competition policy, issues close to the heart of this reader, Timothy says:


“Theresa’s Chancellor, Philip Hammond, refused to change fiscal policy and opposed reforms to corporate governance and competition policy. ‘You don’t need to actually do any of this stuff’, he once said with a trademark smirk, ‘you’re miles ahead in the polls just talking about it.’”


This attitude is deeply engrained in large parts of the party. It is unsurprising that a party which often picks it MPs from amongst the economic “winners” thinks that the system is broadly working. But beyond this is a managerial mindset that just thinks the aim of governing is to keep the show on the road. At worst, as noted above, some in the Party merely see ideas of reform as tools to shape public opinion and give the impression of energy.


Although sceptical of the Cameron leadership, Timothy shares that analysis with the former Conservative Prime Minister. In his autobiography “For The Record”, Cameron expresses his frustration at what he says his wife, Samantha, calls the Conservative Party’s ‘man under the car bonnet’ syndrome.


“We approached every problem or issue with a mechanical, process-driven response rather than a more emotional, values-driven answer about the ends we were aiming to achieve.”


“The Conservative Party”, Cameron says, “in my view, had got into a rut of tired and easy thinking. We had a tendency to trot out the same old answers. Want social mobility? Open more grammar schools. Want lower crime? Put more bobbies on the beat. Want a more competitive economy? Just cut taxes.”

At the moment, this crisis looks like to sink the ideas articulated by Timothy. Johnson’s team should draw on thinkers like Timothy, and others with radical instincts, if they want to have any hope of achieving their ambitions to level up the country. ‘One Nation’ Conservatives will have to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere.

Breaking this tendency is the key challenge facing the Johnson Ministry. As documented on this website, the natural instincts of the Conservative Party to be against courageous economic reforms combined with Treasury narrowmindedness are huge obstacles. At the moment, this crisis looks like to sink the ideas articulated by Timothy. Johnson’s team should draw on thinkers like Timothy, and others with radical instincts, if they want to have any hope of achieving their ambitions to level up the country. ‘One Nation’ Conservatives will have to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere.


Getting comfortable with ideology


If there is one major criticism of this book, it is the efforts that Timothy goes to in order to appear ‘unideological’, as if being unideological is a badge of honour. This is frustrating because Timothy himself diagnoses the fallacy of this position in the opening pages of the book. It is worth quoting his insight fully:


“But many politicians – and almost all civil servants and technocratic experts called upon to shape policy – deny any kind of ideology. They say they believe in ‘what works’. This is a nice line, but it is untrue. They are shaped and conditioned by the assumptions of liberal philosophy, and increasingly extreme forms of ultra-liberalism that span left and right. Some politicians understand these influences on their beliefs and attitudes, but for many, the effects are less considered and more subconscious. We are governed by a political class that manages at once to be ideological yet uninterested in ideas.”


Timothy is dead on target, but then undermines his critical insight later by trying to say that whilst others are ideological, he is not. Painting conservatism as a uniquely unideological enterprise he says that ideologists “are engaged in rebellion against human nature. They want to make the world something it is not, and something it can never be.” Conservatism is about understanding the relational and cultural embeddedness of people. Liberalism, socialism and communism are examples of universalism that want to create a single pathway for humanity which is unattainable.


But Timothy does not appear to appreciate that having a position against universalism, is an ideology in itself. Timothy may hide behind “it simply won’t work” argument, but there are examples of human history where universalism has been a powerful driver of action and have seen sustained change. The Roman Empire is an example that immediate springs to mind. The Catholic Church during the Middle Ages is another.


The truth is likely that not only does Timothy simply not believe that universalism can’t work, he also doesn’t want them to work. That is perfectly acceptable. He believes in a world of interconnected independent nations which through their own pathways drive forward humanity spiritually, technologically and economically. This is a position similar to that outlined by the German Idealist, Hegel. It is a valuable philosophical tradition.


Having a particular view of human nature is to have an ideological position. To deny that one is possible is also an ideological position. There is no shame in it. There is no “empirical” way to prove what human nature is or is not. Liberals can point to evidence that we are rational individuals trying to maximise our utility or that it would be better if we were. Socialists can point to human beings natural desire for collective action and the utopia that could be achieved through it. Conservatives can document the power of institutions such as family, church, charity and the nation-state and paint a warm picture of what society can look like if we all loved and respected our communities. As Timothy himself says, these values and insights do battle in a pluralist society.

Conservatives need to get comfortable with ideology otherwise they are doomed to become mere managers, always responding to the whims of others.

Conservatives need to get comfortable with ideology otherwise they are doomed to become mere managers, always responding to the whims of others. Timothy outlines a number of policies which he would like to pursue, but why pursue them at all? Because they work, Timothy may say. But they “work” to create what? A particular vision of a society that Timothy and Conservatives, including this reader, have. You can only develop the courage to act when you know what it is you want to achieve.

The problem with the Conservative Party is that by rejecting “ideology” as Timothy does and as Cameron also did you are not able to reshape your own Party or even the State. Ideology animates people, movements and society as a whole. We need a sense of what we are aiming to achieve and what the “sunny uplands” will look like. Accepting that you have a vision and that you are in battle to defend it/advance it, provides policy impetus and also justification for policies to be implemented.

Politicians and civil servants thrive on “evidence-based” policy making because it enables them to constantly throw spanners in the works. Ideology provides a way of breaking through the logjam of empiricism, where everything is constantly debated but nothing is ever done because the evidential standard can never be achieved.


It is acceptable to say that this is what we want to achieve, that there is uncertainty but we believe that the sacrifice is worthwhile. It is up to the public, through a democracy, to decide on the basis of debate which appeals to both head and heart.

There is always a danger that ideology becomes a dogma, as Timothy highlights for liberals of the left and right. But fear of dogma should not prevent politicians from embracing their own ideologies and be honest in their communication of them. This is the heart of a good functioning politics.

There is always a danger that ideology becomes a dogma, as Timothy highlights for liberals of the left and right. But fear of dogma should not prevent politicians from embracing their own ideologies and be honest in their communication of them. This is the heart of a good functioning politics.


‘Enterprise’ Conservatism – a new direction?


Unsurprising for a man that was at the heart of government for many years, he has a lot of ideas for how to improve the country. As this blog is mostly focused on economic debate, this review will consider his proposals through that lens. But the whole book is worth reading for all the many proposals that Timothy put forwards for Conservatives.

Timothy embraces the idea that you need a strong state, a strong civil society and a strong private sector working in collaboration. Undermining one, undermines the others. This might seem obvious but many on the right would argue that a booming private sector is all that counts and that the advantages of businesses ‘trickle down’ through the system. What Timothy demonstrates in his book is why this won’t work.

Timothy encapsulates his ideas through the concept of “enterprise conservatism”. It is about reforming the private sector, the state and civil society to create a dynamic economy which is still bounded by social responsibility. Unlike most modern Conservatives, Timothy embraces the idea that you need a strong state, a strong civil society and a strong private sector working in collaboration. Undermining one, undermines the others. This might seem obvious but many on the right would argue that a booming private sector is all that counts and that the advantages of businesses ‘trickle down’ through the system. What Timothy demonstrates in his book is why this won’t work.


To achieve a better functioning economy we need to reform business so that we encourage investment in places and people, giving workers a greater say through distributing shares to them and giving them more of a role on boards. Civil society needs to be invested in as well to replenish and expand social and cultural capital which are critical to growth. New institutions will need to be built to reflect our changing values. Finally the state needs to be properly invested in through high quality public services, although Timothy is right to say that we need to consider reforming delivery through greater involvement of “social enterprises” (by which he means organisations such as the New Schools Network, of which he was once a Director) which can deliver better results.

If companies are not paying their taxes or investing in their workers, we cannot have an effective system. Similarly, if governments are not prepared to be long term in their vision and undermine social responsibility through their policies, how can civil society and companies perform effectively?

Timothy’s overall analysis is correct and his vision of an ‘enterprise conservatism’ is a powerful one. Running through all his ideas is an implicit understanding that you cannot achieve anything if different parts of our economic system are undermining other parts. If companies are not paying their taxes or investing in their workers, we cannot have an effective system. Similarly, if governments are not prepared to be long term in their vision and undermine social responsibility through their policies, how can civil society and companies perform effectively?


If we want to achieve a situation where we have a competitive economy, that invests in people and places whilst supporting communities through change, then we need to design all our institutions to achieve that. It will not happen by accident, particularly given decades of damage done through carelessly considered policies and inaction. For some institutions what is needed t is little more than updating and better understanding between participants. There is a great untapped potential in our civil society, for example, but it has been ignored for years. For other institutions, such as British business, we need more fundamental reforms to governance and direction. Incentives, whether they are financial or emotional, need to be designed to encourage the right behaviours. It is a shame that Timothy wasn’t able to carry through his ideas when in government.


Timothy’s recognition of the critical role of institutions in shaping our lives is what makes him one of our best current ‘One Nation’ thinkers. Ignoring institutions and focusing on individuals or communities in isolation is what has got us into our current mess. Politicians, advisors, and commentators within the Conservative family would do well to read this book to get a better understanding of what needs to be done.

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