In his Christmas Day column, Dan Hodges invites us to look out of our nearest window and tell him what we see. He isn’t doing this out of voyeuristic curiosity, of course, but rather to make a point:
We see what we choose to see when we look outside. And at the moment, when we look out the window, we are choosing to see a world that scares us. Collectively. As a country. As a people.
This was the year that we become an agoraphobic nation. The year that the trembling upper lip officially replaced the stiff upper lip. The year that fear became our constant companion; paranoia our trusted friend.
Hodges goes on to argue that on a whole range of fronts – terrorism, immigration, Ebola, Evil Corporations, Westminster Elites, paedophile grooming gangs and crazy, swivel-eyed Ukippers – the British people are retreating in the face of difficulty, burying our heads in the sand and failing to confront pressing problems or take positive steps to secure our future. And he is right, up to a certain point – numerous difficult issues have swirled around us during the hectic political year of 2014, and yet we have made precious little progress in dealing with any of them.
We have commenced a new, open-ended military commitment in Iraq to combat ISIS, without stepping back to understand what makes people embrace fundamentalism in the first place, busily treating the latest symptom while still doing nothing to cure the disease itself. As net migration into the United Kingdom reaches a record high, we still talk past each other on the subject of immigration, accusing one another of either wanting a Fortress Britain or secretly working to completely dissolve our country into the cold bureaucratic arms of the European Union. As ever more beloved celebrities, esteemed public figures and even serving politicians are implicated in cases of historic sexual abuse, the establishment seems incapable of getting a proper public enquiry up and running – both candidates nominated by Theresa May thus far have had to withdraw their names after being deemed too close to the establishment that they were supposed to investigate. Both main political parties are fighting each other to a stalemate on the subject of austerity, with the Conservatives promising fiscal responsibility while delivering nothing of the kind, and Labour lambasting coalition spending cuts while being too timid to say where they would massively increase spending (and the tax burden).
So Dan Hodges is correct to note that we British are currently at an impasse on many of the major issues of the day. But is this really so unusual? We are, after all, four and a half years into a hastily patched-together coalition government and a fixed term Parliament. Which other recent administration has been a bubbling pool of energy and innovation so near to the end of its term and so close to facing voters at a general election? It must also be remembered that the two main political parties are almost evenly split in terms of support, with neither attracting much more than thirty per cent (or under a third) full-throated support from the electorate, with the remainder embracing the insurgent parties (namely UKIP and the Greens) or disappearing into the politically disengaged blob. With the country divided almost equally between those who think that austerity is the epitomy of class warfare against the most vulnerable in society and those who are tired of being told that more taxation and government spending are the answer to every problem, it is difficult to see how any bold policies could be proposed at this late hour, especially with the main parties running to the centre rather than embracing any ideological vision.
This is where Dan Hodges’ Christmas column comes a bit unstuck. He is looking out of his window (one with a very nice view of London’s Blackheath, apparently) and seeing partisan gridlock and a refusal to tackle the difficult questions, but still daring to imagine – contrary to all of the opinion polls and statements from the party leaders – that 2015 will bring anything remotely better with our current political leaders in place:
This year, let’s be brave enough to make a choice on immigration. Let’s have the courage to say: “Sorry, that’s enough. We’re full. We’re shutting the door”. Or, let’s have the courage to say: “Welcome. We need you”. And then let’s all get on with our lives, without this rubbish about migrants causing traffic jams, or people on the train speaking in funny voices.
Let’s be brave enough to make a choice on terror. Let’s have the courage to say: “We need to stop these lunatics. So if it means giving some guy in MI5 the right to look through all our Facebook pages if he wants, he can look”. Or, let’s have the courage to say: “We’re not giving up any our of rights or freedoms. Let off your bombs if you want. But you’ll never win”. And then let’s stop pretending were slipping towards Big Brother totalitarianism, or being corralled towards a Muslim caliphate.
Let’s be brave enough to say: “No, we don’t need tax cuts at the moment. We need to spend something extra on those who have fallen on hard times”. Or, let’s be brave enough to say: “I’m sorry, but no one owes anyone else a living. I work hard. I need to take home a little bit more of what I earn”. And then let’s stop pretending we are a country regressing towards Dickensian squalor, or a nation of benefit scrounging chancers.
Your blogger is a natural optimist, but to even hope that any of these issues will be resolved in the coming year, particularly with the current party leaders and their teams in place, is wishful thinking in the extreme.
The British people will not make a choice on immigration in 2015, because our political parties will not allow us to do so. All three main parties are perfectly fine with unlimited inward immigration from the EU, because they and their primary support bases (Labour’s seat of power now being in north west London rather than northern England) all benefit handsomely from the current arrangement. They may poke their heads above the parapet and say something about immigration when public rage absolutely compels them to do so, but even then it is only to propose a ludicrous and unworkable policy or to say nothing at all, so that they can receive the media praise for having “discussed immigration” while having done nothing of the kind.
There is even less chance of resolving the safety-security tradeoff, because Britain has no constitution endowing her people with inalienable rights, meaning that our civil liberties will always be sacrificed on the altar of national security to whatever level the serving prime minister (and heads of the security services) feel comfortable with.
There is hope yet that we may be able to resolve the ongoing debate about government spending and the size of the state, or at least forge a new consensus to last for the next couple of decades, but it remains a long shot. There are interesting conversations and policies being mooted on the margins – from the Centre for Policy Studies and their recent Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty on one hand to radical ideas such as universal basic income on the other – but again, none of these ideas will see the light of day so long as the inherent conservatism and risk aversion of the main political parties leads them to promise sweeping change while only tinkering around the edges in practice.
All in all, the prospects for 2015 look rather bleak when seen through Dan Hodges’ window. And yet it is curious that Hodges seems more impatient with the British people (always using “we” and suggesting that it is us who must change) than our political leaders. It is certainly not as though David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are perfect manifestations of what the British people want in a current or future leader – their universally dismal personal poll ratings testify to that much at least. And so can it really be the fault of the British people, who did not choose and do not like their political leaders, that the main political issues of the day go unresolved thanks to those leaders’ intransigence and lack of vision?
Here’s what I see when I look out of my window on Christmas Day 2014, where the vagaries of life find me unexpectedly spending this Christmas back in my hometown of Harlow, Essex (a scruffy but green and enterprising post-war New Town, and closely fought bellwether constituency in general elections). Looking out of the window from my childhood home at the condemned block of housing association flats opposite, I see thirty-three perfectly serviceable bedsit flats that have been lying empty and exposed to the elements for years, despite a major nationwide housing crisis and great pressure on council housing in the town. I see overgrown foliage and dimmed street lights because too much taxation is still raised centrally, making local authorities answerable to voters for spending decisions compelled by smaller disbursements from central government, rather than having local conversations and making local decisions about local priorities.
Moving beyond my immediate view, I see a town of more than 85,000 people and falling unemployment which can no longer sustain a Marks & Spencer department store (the retailer is quitting the town), and a Labour-controlled council that would rather see one of Britain’s biggest retailers leave Harlow entirely (and take up to seventy jobs with it) than allow M&S to build a smaller, more profitable store elsewhere in the town, just because it doesn’t fit with their big government centralised development master plan.
I see a town where Polish and Italian and locally born people toil and laugh and socialise together in the office where I work, with absolutely no racist resentment or fearmongering, but where there is nonetheless a widespread and inchoate anger at the inability of politicians to get to grips with immigration at a national level. I see a town where office-based firms offering professional and clerical work and career advancement prospects are closing and being replaced with large distribution centres and warehouses which offer minimum wage jobs, zero hour contracts and zero hope for anything better in the future. I see a hospital whose new (supposedly temporary but suspiciously permanent-looking) wards are creaking prefab structures built by Portakabin.
A country with no discernible housing policy whatsoever, beyond restricting supply to keep older, voting homeowners happy with their rising house prices at the expense of the politically disengaged young and the poor. Britain’s lack of a constitutional settlement percolating down to impact on areas as hyper-local as gardening and street lighting. An anti-business and anti-success climate that still holds back entrepreneurs and even large businesses (despite the tireless efforts of the local MP to make Harlow a thriving business hub). Good quality entry-level jobs being replaced by tedious McJobs with little hope of advancement. A town of good people with no racist tendencies at all, but with very real anger at the lack of a controlled immigration policy.
Crucially, none of these symptoms of stagnation and lack of direction would be any any better were Labour in power and Ed Miliband prime minister, however much they may strut and preen and pretend to offer an alternative – this article is not intended as a criticism of David Cameron or the coalition government specifically, but rather as a frank and only semi-partisan view of the current state of Britain. It is a snapshot of what happens when politicians of all political parties bury their heads in the sand and continue to personally benefit from the status quo whilst ignoring the urgent questions and debates identified by Dan Hodges.
But unlike Hodges, I see the problem not as a fault with myself and my fellow citizens for being scared of our own shadows, but rather as a malaise emanating from our town halls, our county councils and from a self-entitled, thoroughly underwhelming Westminster government. I don’t see a frightened, inward-looking Britain too scared to look out and engage with the world; I see a confident, capable Britain, waiting to be put to work but lacking inspirational leaders to give us direction.
As I wrote following Ed Miliband’s most recent failed attempt to relaunch his leadership (but almost equally applicable to today’s Conservatives):
In an age when inspiration is everywhere; when humankind can cure diseases, land spacecraft on distant asteroids and put portable computing and telecommunication devices into the pockets of all but the poorest among us, it is astounding and shameful that Ed Miliband has no new national goal, no vision of the future, no common endeavour to unite us, save some weasly words about equality that are backed up by absolutely no concrete policies – Zero Zero – that will make a blind bit of difference, save perhaps squeezing the rich a bit more.
Miliband could have used his relaunch speech to ask who among us will invent the next iPod, found the next Microsoft, build a national electric car infrastructure or cure the scourge of cancer, and then call for the British people to rise to the challenge, alongside whatever government help he deemed suitable. But instead he chose to drone on about bankers and public services, yet again. Miliband could issue no cry for us to rise to our national destiny because the world outside of government and public services is completely foreign to him, and although government is New Labour’s answer to everything, patriotism, British exceptionalism and pride in one’s country are seen as embarrassing and gauche.
It’s all very well to sigh impatiently and castigate the British people for failing to resolve the government spending dilemma or renegotiate the free movement of people within Europe on their own initiative, but it is much more useful to ask how and why we are producing another generation of political leaders who believe in nothing, say almost nothing real, and fail time and again to be honest with the British people about the scale of the challenges we face and the best policies with which we should meet them.
Hodges is absolutely right that we should not be afraid. Britain (along with every other Western country) faces great challenges, but they are by no means insurmountable. We do, however, need to take a dispassionate look at the political leadership we currently have in place (and the even less plausible one waiting in the wings should General Election 2015 not go Cameron’s way) and ask whether our politics and politicians are fit for purpose and able to rise to the challenge. Or to put it another way, are the dogmas of the quiet past adequate to Britain’s stormy present? And having quickly acknowledged that they are not, we need to start casting around for alternatives – though it will take more than just gazing out the window to find them.