The 2017 Conservative Manifesto - the new and the old

The general election manifesto, published on 18 May, breaks with Tory tradition in at least two major respects. First, one of its central pledges is to create a Great Meritocracy, a term repeated many times and spelt throughout with capital letters for no obvious reason (like the promised Great Repeal Bill dealing with EU law). No previous Tory manifesto had that concept at its heart.

Second, as has been widely noted, it is more of a personal than a party document. “I launch today my manifesto for Britain’s future”, Mrs May said in Halifax (commendably breaking tradition in another important respect, all previous manifestos having been launched in London or the South). Each chapter of the manifesto opens with a summary of what “Theresa May’s Conservatives” will deliver in a particular area of policy. No previous party leader placed such a firm individual stamp on an election maniifesto. Margaret Thatcher, for example, contented herself with  a personal foreword. There were no references to Thatcher’s Conservatives.

At the start of the campaign there was speculation that the manifesto might be considerably shorter than those seen at recent elections, perhaps resembling the slim pamphlet produced for Margaret Thatcher’s first election in 1979. In fact at 84 pages it rejected brevity as firmly as other recent manifestos have done.

In one hugely important respect, however, the manifesto does mark a return to older days. It carries the full name of the party—the Conservative and Unionist party—not seen on a manifesto for nearly sixty years. It was last used by Harold Macmillan in 1959 when the manifesto cost one (old) penny.

The reversion to earlier practice should be widely noted. It underlines Mrs May’s strong commitment to  “ our precious union of nations”, as she frequently describes it. The links between them, weakened by devolution, need to be reinforced. Mrs May promises action. This very personal manifesto states that “the United Kingdom Government has in the past tended to ‘devolve and forget’. This Conservative government will put that right. We want the UK Government to be a force for good across the whole country”. The unionist tradition within conservatism has not been asserted so strongly for many years.

Alistair Lexden
19 May 2017