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Thinking about conservatism in Britain, without thinking about Brexit, is becoming ever harder. The spring has been poisoned. This leaves those of us sympathetic to a gently-sceptical, generously-patriotic, largely-tolerant political force in favour of liberty with a problem.

Our state of permanent national anxiety does not have to be the new normal. But large parts of the Conservative party have gone mad, seeming to prefer a diet of nationalist revolution, pretending that the impossible is possible, and doing so in opposition to the instincts which have so often led Conservatives: respect for Parliament and the legal process, support for the principle of the market and the concerns of business, doubt about the politics of agitation.

We complain, as we should, that there is nothing conservative about the manic pursuit of an imagined claim to enforce the will of the people. But saying this over and over again, while therapeutic, will get the rest of us nowhere. As grim as the glazed-eyed Brexiteers may be, at least they are doing what they believe.

What, though, are we hearing from those who disagree? Able younger Conservatives with generous views and talent – the sort of people who actually wanted the Big Society and were disappointed with Cameron when he grew bored with it – seem silent, with the exception, in Scotland, of Ruth Davidson, and in London, of George Osborne, whose bitterness goes beyond the personal and who reminds us of a time when liberal Tories stood up for themselves.

These people did not join the Conservative party to defend the narrow values of a declining sect. But they fear becoming part of one now.

Maybe some of them are preparing their assault, developing ideas, finding allies, refinding a robust case for liberal conservatism. Bright Blue do good work on this, but does it resonate, these days, within the wider party? If it is happening among English Conservatives beyond the offices of think-tanks, I see little sign of it.

What is being done to bring in support and interest from beyond the confines of the old, the angry and the frightened who backed the Conservatives in 2017? Where is the intelligence, the decency, the realism, the internationalism which, at its best, trimmed the party’s excesses? The appeal to the young, the tolerant and the positive?

What kind of rogue Tory antibodies are driving them from the bloodstream?

Perhaps this will continue. Perhaps the Conservative Party is now driven by some inner urge to be, and be considered, a party of reaction. Such a strand of thinking always existed within the party. It has a right to, in a democracy of many shades but few routes to power. But seldom has it come this close to capturing the citadel.

What a surrender that would be to both political extremes for this to happen now. What a misrepresentation of the gentle conservatism that can also encompass a generous, liberal worldview. There are, as the chancellor-turned-editor says, millions of people out there hoping for something better and in Parliament a majority of Conservative MPs surely still want to offer it.

So how do they do this? The usual wallpaper of conference speeches will be pasted up this week in Manchester and perhaps somewhere there will be kind thoughts. But for the most part tactical positioning is the limit of debate: cutting student fees here and promising a wheeze to build new homes there, in the hope it will make some voters happy.

Those old tricks have had their day. What is needed is a basic explanation of motives and ideas. Call this a vision if you like, but when offering a vision you need an explanation of where it comes from and how you think you can make it real.

So optimists in the party should tell their story. They should describe how many of the best things in society – from good music to good housing, good jobs and good food – are the result of a freedom to make choices, spend and earn, protected by government but not directed by it.

They should tackle head on the canard that all the ills in the world can be solved by government. This means retreating from the lazy habit – which David Cameron indulged more than anyone – of sending out ministers to make claims which start ‘today I can announce’, setting targets, as if these could ever be real or the job of government was just to boss people around.

But it also means something more: offering a positive view of a free society which accepts that trust in market economics was damaged badly both by the 2008 crash and the lack of consequences for those who caused it and who have benefited since.

People tell pollsters they want the railways nationalised, for instance, not because they think socialism works but because they think competition and the profit motive are not being made to work for them. They think the world has become less fair. This leaves Labour looking like the only party with alternative ideas.

Well-run, well-regulated and well-defended independent organisations working for individual gain are the best route to a better, happier country.

This doesn’t mean profit should always be the goal: the Big Society was an awkward phrase but at its core there was a truth. Good public services and a free economy are not contradictions, but you can’t have everything everyone wants free forever on credit, and the only way you can say this without appearing callous is to show other ways in which things can be done.

Nor should this just be a cover for cuts as it sometimes seemed in the past. Doing some things outside government is simply the best way. The National Trust saved the British coastline from development, for instance, not local government planning officers. The Canals and Rivers Trust – one of the coalition’s less controversial creations – does a better job than the old state system.

So do the best private bus companies, or shops: almost any example, in any sector, can provide it. Parents like private charitable schools because they work.

Yet no one now trusts the market to do the right thing, or tries to explain why and when it works, or sets out the case for managing it properly or punishing those who exploit it.

Theresa May made a powerful claim in her conference speech last year for the good that government can do. But where, next, is the Conservative case for the good that government can’t do?

Yes, government can and should beat up cheating businesses such as mobile phone companies who hide their monthly charges behind a mass of add ons and impossible-to-navigate websites. But the Conservative voice in politics should also be encouraging not repelling investment in businesses, such as utilities, from pension funds who take a return to pay back the workers who have funded them.

Liberals should be rushing, as they are not, to encourage open competition by breaking up monopolies of power. They should welcome, for instance, the European Union’s stance on Google, just as they ought to remind us that Margaret Thatcher’s support for the single market was right, and dependent on the proper, trans-national enforcement of fair rules to facilitate trade. Where do we hear Conservative support for that principle?

They should also defend the idea that a free society requires relatively loose limits on the movement of people. They could speak out, for instance, on the obvious benefits of welcoming students who want to come to Britain to study – and perhaps settle, with their skills – but in return make immigration checks real.

Why, after years in which the Home Office has apparently been trying to crack down on migration, do we still have a border-control regime in which no border official checks passports when people leave the country?

At home there is scope to be bolder about what is known, feebly, as public sector reform but which has become stuck. Unexpected progress was made up to 2016 with devolution, which did start to challenge some centres of power and produced Andy Street as Mayor of the West Midlands, but where next? Who is thinking about this?

Even the obvious need to coordinate London’s suburban rail system under Transport for London has been rebuffed by those who want to keep the levers of power in Whitehall. And what is being done to free up the centre, which now has more departments with longer names than ever operating in even more ossified ways?

This is not a call to let the market rip, but to pull the state back in order to strengthen it in places, and direct its capabilities where it can actually do things no one else can. The environment is one example on which the party seems to have been silent for years but clean air and conservatism should not be contradictions – and nor should ecological diversity be associated as a cause with the left.

The current rush to build houses would meet less resistance if more respect was given to the sorts of places that are being built and how they look and will evolve. As it is, objectors are often right to fear that fields will give way to soul-less red brick.

In such things there needs to be a revolution not only in action but in thinking. What is missing is an optimistic decency, a confidence in confronting those who want to narrow the world down.

Liberty can be threatened from the right as much as by the left. Conservatives seem, at the moment, to be basing their claim to power on the horror that Labour would be even more damaging to Britain. Under Corbyn this may be true, but what have has the party come to if the first defence of Conservatism is the horror of the alternative?

Julian Glover was previously chief speechwriter to Prime Minister David Cameron. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. This article first appeared in Conservatism refresh.