CCHQ Should Not Automatically Protect Tory MPs From Deselection

Conservatives Tories start candidate selection process early - mandatory reselection - deselection of rebels

A seat in the House of Commons is not a job for life. And just as the Parliamentary Labour Party should not be encumbered with MPs increasingly at odds with their local constituency parties, so Tory MPs should not be immune from deselection if they repeatedly ignore the priorities and concerns of grassroots Conservative Party members

Try as I might, I simply cannot get myself worked up about the government’s “shock” defeat over the amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. While the legislative drama seems to have Hard Brexiteers up in arms and Remainers parading their newfound (and one suspects rather less than genuine) love and respect for Parliamentary sovereignty, I don’t see that these machinations will have any real bearing on the eventual outcome.

So Parliament gets to have a “meaningful” vote on the terms of the UK-EU agreement? Fine, so be it – though I have always held that the people, not Parliament, should be sovereign, and that no government should be able to divest itself of fundamentally important powers or seek to repatriate such powers without an explicit and specific mandate from the people. Of course, if we had a written constitution then such things would likely be enshrined automatically rather than be up for furious debate as new issues and obstacles are encountered along the road. But then if we had a written constitution we likely would never have ceded so much sovereignty to the European Union in the first place and would not now be in this position, making it all a rather moot point.

Of far more interest to me is the fact that talk of deselection of MPs has bubbled up again. We saw this last year as Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters sought to cement their control of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and for democratic reasons I supported the idea of mandatory reselection in principle. And now there are new calls to deselect sitting MPs, this time from Conservative politicians and activists angry at what they see as the Tory rebels’ deliberate undermining of the prime minister and the country’s negotiating position with the EU:

On this occasion I do not share the Tory Brexiteer outrage, but their case is every bit as compelling as was that of the Corbynite leftists who wanted to rid their party of centrist MPs who do not reflect the values and priorities of their local associations. While I personally find it hard to work myself into a spittle-flecked fury at the antics of Dominic Grieve or Heidi Allen, if it is the case that these MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies and a majority of local party activists find their voting record objectionable then I see no reason why they should be protected and continually re-imposed on an unwilling local party organisation.

Of course, CCHQ and the Tory Party machinery vehemently disagrees. Reflexively opposed to any notion that grassroots activists or local constituency associations should have any input as to the direction, policies or running of the party, CCHQ sees individual conservatives as little more than indentured servants campaign material distributors at election time, to be put to work when necessary and then roundly ignored the rest of the cycle.

Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s intellectual bloodbank-in-exile, makes it perfectly clear that the present Conservative leadership remains determined to run the party (if not the entire country) as their personal private fiefdom, and that local constituency associations should shut up and do as they are told, whether they like the candidate or MP chosen for them or not. Timothy unapologetically and shamelessly spelled out as much on Twitter today:

This is an open admission that Theresa May, the prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, saw fit to interfere in local constituency business and keep an unwanted MP foisted on an unwilling local party.

But what the hell business should it be of the prime minister who gets to stand as a Conservative candidate in a local constituency? This is everything that is wrong with the current Tory party – overcentralised and overbearing, with CCHQ pig-headedly declaring that it knows best while confidently marching us all to ruin. Given the litany of gaffes, unforced errors, scandals and bad judgements which have emanated from Theresa May’s cabinet, I would sooner entrust a panel of ten individuals randomly selected from the phone book to choose good Tory candidates than I would have Theresa May make the judgement call.

Of course, there is a counter-argument to all this, as a reader pointed out on Twitter:

We certainly don’t want a situation where conscientious, independent-minded MPs are peremptorily driven from office or from their political party because they fail to toe the hardest of hard lines demanded by their activists. We have recently witnessed just such a phenomenon lead the Republican Party to ruin (at best Pyrrhic victory) in America, where a succession of primary challenges and forced retirements saw an influx of ideologically uncompromising Tea Party politicians into Congress, hard-liners who thwarted any attempt at sane governance in the second term of Barack Obama, rendered the Republican congressional caucus unmanageable and ineffective and set the stage for Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP.

In actual fact we need both of these opposing forces – greater responsiveness to grassroots opinion and a cool, dispassionate process to adjudicate in the event of rogue or underperforming MPs – to be in balance. We need a far greater measure of accountability of MPs to their local party associations, and a more meritocratic system of selection (preferably primaries) which draws more people into the political process and prevents the mediocre-but-well-connected from leveraging their connection to CCHQ to be shortlisted or ultimately foisted on a constituency.

But we also need to build safeguards into the system so that the bar for triggering deselection is high but achievable – the recourseshould only become available at the time of a general election or by-election, so that MPs are judged on the body of their work and their voting record throughout a Parliament and not on the basis of any one single contentious vote.

Ultimately, the resurgent argument about deselection of MPs reminds us that Brexit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for meaningful democratic renewal in Britain. Brexit was never going to be a cure-all no matter what some cynical Brexiteers may have implied, and we must all now recognise this fact. Achieving Brexit only to return power to the hands of the same MPs who negligently frittered it away in the first place, and who think so little of the people who campaign to put them in office that they seek to be made immune from their judgement, will not solve anything.

To this extent, the worries of Hard Brexiteers that the EFTA/EEA route may be used as cover by some Remainers in order to thwart Brexit entirely are quite valid. When there are so few penalties or recourses available to voters when politicians betray their own supporters, the trust required to sustain a well-functioning democracy is inevitably corroded.

But the real tragedy is that when we should be discussing how to respond to the period of disruption and discontinuity facing Britain, developing bold new mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle 21st century challenges, instead the Conservative Party is bickering about process and thwarting any attempts to clear out the intellectual deadwood and bring in some new ideas and personalities. Constitutional and electoral reform is important and eventually necessary, but there are pressing issues facing Britain which cannot be put on the back burner while we argue about the rules of play. Unfortunately, we seem less interested in these big debates and more interested in arguing about process stories.

When the Conservative Party fails to stand for anything – and Lord knows that under the rootless leadership of Theresa May, the Tories stand for little more than surviving the day at hand – it has plenty of time to devote to juvenile, internecine spats like the one playing out over the EU Withdrawal Bill rebels.

This is highly entertaining for the political media and a gift for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, but very bad indeed for everyone else.

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Upset An MP On Social Media? Prepare To Lose Your Voting Rights

Intimidation in Public Life report - Committee on Standards in Public life - Parliament - Britain - UK - online social media abuse

Hurt an MP’s feelings and lose your civil rights. This could be a reality in the prissy, authoritarian, neo-puritanical Britain we inhabit

Having learned nothing from the past three years of populist insurgency, rather than facing up to their shortcomings and accepting the validity of justified criticism (and the inevitability of unjustified criticism) the political class is instead preparing to further insulate itself from public accountability.

A new report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposes punishments such as barring people from voting or removing them from the electoral register as suitable punishments for the “new electoral offence of intimidating
Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election” – which if enforced with the same arbitrary capriciousness as all other UK speech laws would inevitably see many people unjustly stripped of their basic civil rights while other, worse “offenders” who happen to hold officially sanctioned opinions go unmolested.

We in Britain now have a government which would give convicted prisoners the right to vote while stripping the franchise from certain free citizens who commit vague and loosely-defined acts of speechcrime – including hurting the feelings of an MP or Parliamentary candidate.

The report (prefaced with a quote from the late Jo Cox MP, so as to imbue the document with an air of incontestable wisdom and grace) graciously concedes that the existing restrictive framework of draconian anti-free speech laws does not need augmenting to protect the feelings of MPs at this time, but then immediately ventures the possibility of unprecedented new punishments for those accused of speechcrime:

Electoral law can overlap with and complement the criminal law, such that offences with criminal sanctions can also involve sanctions under electoral law. These sanctions are specific to the election process, such as being barred from voting for a certain period, or removal from the electoral register. Such sanctions recognise that these offences, such as undue influence or electoral fraud, are offences against the integrity of the electoral process, and that it is therefore appropriate that individuals face sanctions relating to their own privileges within that process.

[…] However, the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

During an election period, it would therefore be appropriate to have specific electoral sanctions that reflect the threat that intimidation of Parliamentary candidates and their supporters poses to the integrity of elections. Any such offence in electoral law should be tightly defined, to capture intimidatory behaviour that is directed towards an individual specifically in their capacity as a Parliamentary candidate or party campaigner, which intends unduly to influence the result of the election (for example, by affecting their candidature or inhibiting their campaigning).

[..] the introduction of a distinct electoral offence will serve to highlight the seriousness of the threat of intimidation of Parliamentary candidates to the integrity of public life and of the electoral process, and will result in more appropriate sanctions. We believe that specific electoral offences will also serve as an effective deterrent to those who are specifically targeting Parliamentary candidates and their supporters.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, a body whose intended purpose was to ensure that elected and non-elected officials uphold standards of behaviour appropriate to those who serve the public in high office, now seems far more interested in passing haughty judgment on whether members of the public are abiding by the new speech codes dictated by our puritanical, thin-skinned rulers.

I would be interested to know which of the Seven Principles of Public Life the committee believes it is defending by proposing new speechcrime punishments which attack so fundamental a civic right as voting – particularly as each of these principles sets a standard specifically for “holders of public office” and not private citizens. The only tenuous link offered in the entire report is this throwaway sentence:

[..] the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

Ah, that’s okay then. So because the rowdy public is supposedly threatening “the integrity of public service” (presumably by scaring people away from getting involved in politics, because those who are already inclined to get involved in politics of course tend to be shy fauns who take fright at verbal hostility) the Committee on Standards in Public Life can use this as an excuse to regulate the behaviour not of people in positions of power, but of those who seek to express their feelings about people in power.

Of course, MPs are not the only people to find themselves at the receiving end of vitriol on social media, as anybody with even a semi-public profile or the desire to talk about politics on Facebook or Twitter can attest. Twice in recent months I have been at the receiving end of such a barrage, first when a “comedian” chose to misrepresent one of my tweets to his baying audience of pro-EU Remain supporters and again when an SNP MP sicced his Twitter supporters on me for daring to write about the office of Scottish First Minister in less than worshipful terms. None of the hate I received (on those occasions) amounted to the level of death threats, but other private citizens have suffered far worse.

Yet the political class seem to want to carve out a special protection in terms of exempting themselves from harsh criticism while doing nothing for anybody else. As Members of Parliament they already occupy a high-status, well-remunerated position in society, are generally endowed with a level of intelligence which enables them to articulate their priorities and concerns and be taken seriously, and make laws and decisions which impact our present reality and future happiness. Yet many of these same people now seem determined to portray themselves as shrinking violets, vulnerable victims-in-waiting, a discriminated against minority group who require the special and proactive additional protection of the law. This is absurd and insulting to the citizenry they notionally represent.

But in addition to protecting the powerful from the masses, these puritanical proposals also fundamentally misunderstand the problem. As even many victims of social media harassment would likely agree, the really damaging part of online abuse is not the individual insults but their combined, collective effect. One person insulting or mocking you can be laughed off or brushed aside, but this is not so easily done when one’s notifications fill up with a constant wall of such derogatory, negative messages. Indeed, when under attack on social media, at times it can be difficult to step back and remember that the strident opinions of social media moralisers is not reflective of the feelings of the country or society as a whole. At times, I myself have momentarily allowed hate and derision on social media to interfere with my self-esteem, despite my fairly thick skin.

The answer to online trolling and abuse (whether directed at politicians or private citizens) is not to criminalise individual acts of strident, unpleasant or insulting speech, let alone to curtail the fundamental civil rights of individual citizens as punishment for (or deterrence of) something which is in large part a swarm effect, an unpleasant but distastefully necessarily defensible part of our society’s commitment to free speech.

To do so would be akin to criminalising the act of gathering together in crowds because of the risk that somebody might be crushed or trampled, punishing individuals for what in itself is often a very small contribution to a larger group effect. No single individual is usually responsible for a stampede, just as very few individuals commit specific acts on social media which alone trigger substantial distress, and barring such people from voting (one wonders what offence merits losing the franchise while retaining one’s liberty) will not deal with the vast bulk of abuse on social media and consequently the vast bulk of suffering resulting from it.

The issues addressed by the report are real, worthy of discussion, and are already being debated at length. There is no lack of editorialising or scholarship on the impact of social media on public political discourse, and the way in which the semi-anonymity of interacting online brings out a far more vicious side of human nature than is usually visible during face-to-face interactions. These are problems which we need to face up to as a society at a time when we are learning on the go. But the solution is not to announce further new restrictions on freedom of expression, as though filling in gaps in the statute books will in any way compensate for filling in the mental and spiritual void which turns some people (including the highly educated and outwardly successful) into social media trolls.

Furthermore, at a time when the yawning disconnect between the ruling class and many of the people they represent is growing wider and fuelling all kind of populist outbursts (some welcome and others far less so) it is the height of irresponsibility for those in power to publicly toy with the notion of punishing the plebs for insulting their masters by stripping them of their voting rights.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life should cast their haughty, disapproving gaze back where it belongs – on those who debase their political offices or abuse the public trust. Now more than ever is a time for humility and introspection from the ruling class, not a whinnying list of grievances about those who fail to sing their praises.

 

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Happy Thanksgiving – Here’s Why We Urgently Need A Similar Holiday Of Our Own In Britain

The first Thanksgiving

Most Brits probably do not know or care that Thursday 23rd November is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States of America. Yet many of us are getting ready to hunt for bargains and pre-Christmas deals on Black Friday.

Take a trip to your local big box superstore – or virtually anywhere online – in the next day or so and you will be treated to wall-to-wall promotions about the upcoming Black Friday sales. “Get ready for Black Friday!” scream the advertisements, as one company after another tempts you with sweet promises of unbelievable savings. Yes, Black Friday is coming to Britain – again.

And so it has been for the past few years now. We in Britain have successfully imported the commercially lucrative, post-coital rump of a cherished American national holiday – Thanksgiving – while neatly skipping over all the pesky fundamentals that give it real meaning: you know, those pesky things like love, family, gratitude and patriotism, tiresome distractions that don’t give us an excuse to shop and which will never generate a good Return On Investment.

This is as strong a contender for Tasteless Corporate Act of the Year (Large Retailer category) as we are likely to witness this side of Christmas. And we Brits have certainly thrown ourselves into the spirit, crushing one another in the stampede for discounted TVs and getting into fights which have to be broken up by the police.

But apparently – and rather gratifyingly – a number of Brits have started to recognise Thanksgiving too, in our own semi-comprehending way (I’ve seen Yorkshire pudding and roast beef being served at some British Thanksgiving dinners, which is definitely cultural appropriation gone wrong), with retailers now stocking up with pumpkin pie and other traditional Thanksgiving fare in time for the holiday.

Full disclosure: I’m married to a Texan girl, so our household observes both British and American holidays – which means that Jenny gains Boxing Day while I gain Thanksgiving. And for the past five years we have held a Thanksgiving dinner the weekend closest to the day itself, and invited as many friends as we’ve been able to squeeze into our succession of tiny shoebox apartments. I’m responsible for the turkey, Jenny takes charge of the stuffing and the sweet potato casserole (you mock the idea of marshmallows on top of sugared, spiced sweet potato until you’ve tried it) and we split everything else between us with our flatmate.

And if I may say so myself, this annual event has become roaringly popular, to the extent that who gets invited and who doesn’t quite make the cut has become a rather delicate political dance. This year there will be fourteen of us squeezed into an improbably small space, and all fourteen places were snapped up as soon as my wife sent the Facebook invite back in April.

But not everybody is happy that Thanksgiving is gaining a foothold in Britain, including Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn who argues that just like American GIs after the Second World War, Thanksgiving has outstayed its welcome on our shores:

Yet until about five minutes ago, none of this madness existed. Like Halloween, another tacky American import which has hijacked Guy Fawkes Night, and about which I wrote recently, both Thanksgiving and Black Friday are now fixtures in our calendars.

Supermarkets tempt us with ‘traditional’ Thanksgiving treats. Colour supplements carry recipes for Thanksgiving dinners. The Sunday Times Magazine this weekend devoted several pages to telling readers how to prepare mouth-watering delights such as pumpkin pie, candied sweet potatoes and green chilli cornbread.

Why? Do the editors imagine that out there in Middle England, people are thinking to themselves: ‘I could murder a slice of green chilli cornbread’?

He goes on to rant:

We don’t celebrate France’s Bastille Day, or Canada Day, or Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). So why the hell should we adopt U.S. holidays?

Apparently it does not occur to Littlejohn that the British may be increasingly curious about Thanksgiving because the very idea of a unifying, non-commercialised national holiday which binds us together as a United Kingdom and calls on us to be thankful rather than petulantly self-entitled is so curiously alien to this country – especially the contemporary Britain of 2017.

A couple of years ago I took part in a TV debate on London Live, arguing that we should absolutely not make the festivals of Eid and Diwali UK public holidays, for fear of muddying the cloudy waters between religion and state yet further:

 

I was outnumbered, but I made the case as strongly as I could that what Britain desperately needs is a unifying, secular public holiday that can bring us all together as one people – not another cynical, politically correct and divisive nod to multiculturalism.

The intervening years have only proved my point, with ISIS flags flying from London housing estates, disaffected young Muslim teens stealing away from the country which gave them life and liberty to join the Islamic State and deadly terror attacks in London and Manchester. On the domestic front things are little better, with a painfully wide chasm emerging between those of us who voted to leave the European Union and those who wanted us to Remain, those who think that Jeremy Corbyn is a living saint while the Tories are evil on the one hand and people who think the exact opposite on the other.

Meanwhile, increasingly everything is being politicised and dragged into the gravity of our culture war. Only this week greeting card firm Paperchase was in the news after they were bullied by left-wing activists into a grovelling public apology for having dared to advertise in the Daily Mail, thereby prompting an equal (and deserved) reaction against the company from people who are not leftist ideologues.

In short, we in Britain are in desperate need of a reminder that we still have an awful lot in common with our neighbours, even if we vote or worship differently. But the ties that bind us together – frayed for so long by successive referenda, general elections, the culture wars and the toxic swamp that is political social media – need to be continually renewed, even if some of us do find patriotism “problematic“. And what better way to do so than with a national holiday which celebrates something in our rich, shared history of which we can all be proud?

There is no shortage of possibilities. While some seem to enjoy talking down Britain and our substantial contributions to world commerce, art, science and culture, I’m sure that if we put our heads together we might find something in the last few centuries of our national story worth elevating as an occasion of which all Britons can be proud (but please, just not the Fifth of July).

Magna Carta Day (15th June), Trafalgar Day (21st October), VE Day (8th May) or Commonwealth Day (second Monday in March) are just a few possible candidates which are existing days that could be “upgraded” to a UK-wide celebration of quiet patriotism, community service and thanksgiving, and which already have some historic resonance.

Such resonance is important. In the United States, President’s DayIndependence Day and Thanksgiving have meaning for all Americans because they are rooted in shared history and not political views, ancestry or sadly-waning Christian faith. The newly arrived immigrant can take up these celebrations immediately upon arrival at no cost to their existing traditions and without any potential religious conflict. And that is exactly what Britain needs right now.

So before you scoff at the idea of our American cousins eating themselves into a stupor for seemingly no good reason, I would ask you to do two things — firstly, spare a thought for me as I try to avoid burning a massive turkey that barely fits inside our oven while also cooking it sufficiently well that I don’t send fourteen angry people to the hospital with food poisoning. But secondly and more importantly, take some time to reflect on the reasons that you – and that we all – have for being thankful this year, and on the many traits and aspirations which we still have in common, even amidst Brexit, the culture war and the politicisation of everything.

As Abraham Lincoln – the president who in 1863 fixed the observance of Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday in November – implored in his first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

After another year in which the idea of what it means to be British has become increasingly muddled and uncertain, let’s humble ourselves and dare to take a lesson from our former American colonies. Let us find inspiration in our storied history, our rich culture and also from within our own hearts. Let us find that elusive common thread of Britishness that should unite us all, transcending race and religion and politics.

I would argue that maybe some of the reason that more British people are starting to notice and observe Thanksgiving as well as the Black Friday sales we have imported from America is that deep down we subconsciously yearn for the sense of gratitude, social solidarity and civic-mindedness which Thanksgiving brings, and acutely feel the lack anything similar in our own national life.

So let’s change that.

Thanksgiving Proclamation - President Abraham Lincoln - 1863

Happy Thanksgiving

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Budget 2017 Reaction

Homer Simpson - George Osborne - Budget - Annual Statement

This was a holding budget designed to buy the government some political breathing room, and so Philip Hammond kicked the can down the road on nearly all of the major fiscal and structural issues facing Britain

I intended this piece to be just a few disjointed thoughts reflecting on Philip Hammond’s Budget Statement and the boldness or cowardice of the Tories, but it gradually expanded to touch on issues of federalism and local government, and the counterproductive nature of the annual “Budget Theatre” itself.

A one-way ratchet to Bigger Government?

As Budgets go, this one was fairly bland and non-offensive. Contrary to the justified fears that Theresa May’s administration would be a one-way ratchet to Bigger Government, such ominous moves were largely missing from today’s statement – though of course we still have the highly un-conservative “Industrial Strategy” to come.

Equal to the challenges facing Britain?

It is hard to argue that this Budget in any way acknowledges the scale of the challenges facing post-Brexit Britain. A serious Budget which attempted to do so would have included a lot more on education and proposed a means to help re-train the many workers who will find their jobs outsourced or automated in the coming decades. £40 million to train new maths teachers is good, and any steps to improve Britain’s STEM output are welcome, but this does nothing to disarm the time bomb which will affect many of those already in the workforce.

A serious Budget would have done more than take tentative steps around the housing crisis, firmly addressing the supply issue now rather than tinkering with demand by abolishing stamp duty on properties under £500,000. It would have touched the third rail of British politics and defied the doctrine of NHS non tangere to meaningfully reform British healthcare and the way it is funded. It would have grappled with social care and the need to ensure that those who can afford to bear more of the cost of any care they require in old age.

But of course we got none of those things. And the great danger is that we will now never see these problems meaningfully addressed in the lifespan of this government. One can appreciate that Brexit is currently sucking much of the oxygen which might otherwise fuel other policymaking, but we should not have to choose between managing Brexit (which this government is also failing to do) and dealing with other long-term problems. It should not be too much to ask for the UK government to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Short-term thinking over long-term need?

A government’s first budget is normally a place where bad news gets dumped and difficult decisions made, the idea being that it is better to absorb public anger now and then win back favour with giveaways in the final budget(s) before a general election than have to anger people with harsh corrective measures later in the term. David Cameron’s government followed this approach, with Chancellor George Osborne doling out the harsher medicine (or plain confusion, in the case of the Omnishambles budget) in early years and then sweetening the deal prior to the 2015 election by pretending that he had solved all of Britain’s fiscal challenges and therefore had spare cash to throw around.

The fact that Theresa May’s government is not following this well-worn path is not a sign of some innovative new strategy – it is a sign of clear political weakness. The current Conservative government is already teetering on the brink, without a majority in the House of Commons and kept afloat in the polls only because of fear of Jeremy Corbyn. Philip Hammond therefore had no political capital to spend by irritating the electorate any further, or asking anything more of them; instead he was forced to try to accrue some political capital with a giveaway.

As I previously wrote:

Twice a year – once in the annual Budget and once in the Autumn Statement – the Chancellor of the Exchequer gets to his feet and delivers a refreshed set of economic policies in a big, set piece speech where he is essentially forced to favour tomorrow’s headlines over optimal long or even medium term decision making.

Nationally significant policies from every government ministry live or die by the concessions that their ministers are able to wrangle from a Chancellor who is forced by political reality to be more concerned with tomorrow’s Daily Mail headline than the state of our public finances in a year’s time.

Thus the annual Budget Theatre encourages short-term thinking. Whether one takes the Osborne approach or the Hammond approach, Budgets are as much about chasing favourable headlines and dominating the news cycle with positive coverage for a few days than they are about serious long-term strategic thinking.

Budget Theatre is a bad way of governing

This blog has long complained that this annual Budget Theatre, with all the speculation and press coverage surrounding it, is a really bad way to run a modern democracy. Why? Well, there are a number of reasons.

First of all,  as already discussed, the Budget spectacle encourages short-term thinking. Budget 2017 is something of a “giveaway” budget, with the government making concessions and seeking to tamp down public anger rather than taking difficult decisions in the long term. In short, it prioritises the political and tactical over the strategic.

Secondly, the Budget spectacle directly feeds into the Politics of Me Me Me, far more so than any other event, even general elections. During the build-up to Budget Day, the day itself and the immediate aftermath, we are encouraged by the media to think only about how the budget affects us and our wallets. This is understandable, since the Chancellor has the power to inflict severe pain or lavish great rewards on favoured groups. But it is also therefore an incentive for us to “ask not what we can do for our country, ask what our country can do for us”, to reverse John F. Kennedy’s exhortation.

As I wrote at the time of George Osborne’s 2015 Budget:

Having two occasions each year when an already-powerful chancellor in an already-centralised country like the United Kingdom gets to play with nearly all of the controls and levers which influence our economy – as though he were Homer Simpson at the controls of Springfield Nuclear Plant – only encourages meddling and tweaking of things that should properly be left to local government and individuals.

When you have direct, ultimate control over which families deserve help buying a house, which people should keep or lose their benefits or how much a person pays in sin taxes for their guilty pleasure, the temptation to use those powers is irresistible. And because of the ratchet effect, it is the easiest thing in the world to give away new perks to favoured interest groups, but nearly impossible to ever claw them back without being exposed to political attack. Even under this nominally conservative government, budgets and autumn statements have often been a one-way ticket to bigger government – or at least more activist state.

Unfortunately, Budget Theatre is inevitable when so many decisions affecting so many people are made centrally rather than locally, and applied at a national level rather than taking into account the specific and varying needs of different regions (or between the cities and the countryside).

And this leads on to my next point…

Britain’s overcentralisation disease

I continue to find it vaguely ludicrous that decisions about how much tax should be applied to a pint of beer or a litre of gasoline are set nationally in Westminster, and that we all have to tune in to the Budget Statement every year to find out what tweaks and incentives the Chancellor has seen fit to impose on our lives at the behest of the public health or environmental lobby.

Britain is a ridiculously over-centralised country in terms of governance. Devolution is a good thing in principle (though I would argue that we should move toward a federal UK with the same powers devolved to each home nation) but the net result of current devolution is that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have rightly floated off to do their own thing in terms of domestic policy while England remains overcentralised.

We need to move to a place where local authorities, ideally county councils, take over some of the tax-raising powers from Westminster and gain more control over spending in areas such health, transport and education. We need to stop fearing the “postcode lottery” and start welcoming it as a petri dish for testing new policies and encouraging healthy rivalry between regions. More decentralised taxation and spending would force local politicians to put their money – or their electorate’s money – where their mouths are. If leftist politicians want to hike sales taxes or fritter money away on white elephants they should be free to do so, and then answer to voters.

Finally, enhancing the powers of local government in England would increase the current woeful levels of participation in local democracy as the decisions made locally suddenly started to matter a lot more. And this in turn would see an improvement in the calibre of people running for local office, and serve as an incubator for political talent outside Westminster.

Of course, some of the blame for the current situation rests with the Thatcher government, which felt it necessary to de-fang many local authorities since they represented such an impediment to the government’s turnaround strategy. One can argue whether or not this was justified, but certainly the end result is a country where far too many decisions and policies rest with the Westminster government when they should really sit much closer to the people.

Conclusion

This year’s Budget could have been a hell of a lot worse, given Theresa May’s interventionist instincts and tolerance for Big Government. Fortunately, Philip Hammond seems to have resisted such pressures and delivered a Budget which – if Britain were operating in steady-state with no major challenges on the horizon – would have been largely inoffensive.

Unfortunately, Britain is not in a period of steady-state operation, where domestic and international issues are stable and a technocracy is more than capable of fiddling with the switches and dials to keep things running smoothly. On the contrary, we have entered a period of discontinuity, an abrupt departure from our previous national trajectory, when the old political consensus is revealed to have frayed to the point of uselessness and bold new policymaking is required.

As I recently wrote, a bold new programme of coherent, mutually-supporting policies is required to equip Britain to face these oncoming challenges. The Tories now have the slogan, but it remains painfully clear that they do not yet have the solutions, though various initiatives are now underway to come up with some original new policies.

But it will take their time for these policy groups – notably George Freeman’s Big Tent and Nick Boles’ Square Deal schemes – to come to full fruition and develop workable policies. And even then there is no guarantee that Theresa May or the next Conservative leader will approve of these policies and work them into their programme for government.

Unfortunately, as a nation we are treading water at the moment, neither swimming toward the oncoming wave or swimming away from it as it threatens to break over us. This was a holding budget designed to buy the Tories some political breathing room and perhaps signal that they are starting to comprehend  public dissatisfaction with the status quo, particularly on housing.

But without some kind of joined-up, comprehensive plan – and a coherent message with which to sell it to the public – it is hard to see the Tories winning the kind of electoral mandate or public support they need to be anything more than a caretaker government.

 

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The Battle For British Conservatism: Should The Tories Be Ideological?

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Some say that it is not the job of conservatives to think big or be ideological – but in a period of discontinuity such as this, being ideological and ambitious is exactly what conservatives must do

My interest was piqued recently by a Philip Collins column in the Times, in which Collins argues for pragmatic conservatism over idealistic conservatism, and chastises Brexit-supporting conservatives in particular for supposedly putting adventurism and ideology over the cautious stability which ought to flow from the conservative worldview.

Collins makes some interesting points, beginning with his conception of the differing roles of Britain’s two main political parties:

The electorate selects a Labour government to push the nation down the road of progress. That effort inevitably leads to an excess of public spending and too great a faith in the capacity of the state to improve the lot of the people. Much good gets done along the way but the temperature gauge of the British people is so attuned that, once spending starts to spiral, they call on the Conservative Party to tidy up. The whole point of the Conservatives, the absolute raison d’être of Tory government, is to provide sound money and solid competence, unburdened by too much radical belief.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this. Over the course of both short and medium-term timeframes one can witness this phenomenon in action, from the pivot away from New Labour in 2010 as a short-term correction by an electorate in search of economic competence, and on a longer-term macro level the big swings from pre-war government to Attlee’s post-war socialism followed by a Thatcherite rollback of the post-war consensus.

(Of course, one can also argue the opposite – that the 1979 and 1983 Conservative governments were a deeply ideological monetarist reaction against the managed decline wrought by Keynesian economics and the socialist mixed economy. But while I fully agree that these were very ideological movements on the inside, I must also concede that they came to power not because the British people suddenly bought into a particularly individualistic mindset but rather because the people knew that the Tories were delivering strong, necessary dose of needed medicine).

But it is when Collins applies this same thinking to the European Union and the question of Brexit, though, where I really take issue with his argument:

But the issue of Europe, alas, pricks Conservatives into believing things. Suddenly, all the errors of the left, which the right exists to correct, are being committed by the Conservative Party. The usual conservative view is risk-averse and frightened of grands projets by their sheer complexity and by the low capacity of the state to administer them. The true conservative, who is not a reactionary in thrall to the past, is also not a radical excited by a better tomorrow. He or she instead makes a fetish of the present. Better not to risk change for fear it will be worse than what we have. The caution and the complacency can be infuriating but it is a fool who sees no wisdom in the position.

Where are these conservatives today? Can you name a single one? Who is the person who holds the quintessentially conservative view, which is that the EU is a bit of a mess for which no affection can really be mustered but who thinks that leaving is really not worth the candle? The process of leaving, thinks the historical conservative, is just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother. To attempt the most complex administrative task that the British state has undertaken since the conduct of the Second World War is just a profoundly unconservative thing to do.

This, to me, seems a rather glib analysis. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union for slightly more than four decades. This is but a blip in the very long history of our country, and certainly an aberration in comparison to the independent course we charted before joining the EEC in 1973. To say that remaining in the European Union is the conservative option is to apply an exceedingly narrow temporal window in determining whether the “natural” state of being to which conservatives should naturally gravitate should be the status quo, or what existed for centuries up until forty years ago.

Collins would be aided in his argument that the EU represents the “new normal” if there were any other examples elsewhere in the world of nations voluntarily creating supranational governments to sit above their own courts and legislatures, cheered on at every stage by their citizens. But of course there are no such examples. The people of Canada, Mexico and the United States do not clamour to form an ever-closer union of their own, let alone one which includes central America (the equivalent of the European Union’s continual eastward expansion). Nor would the citizens of, say, Canada, tolerate the idea of a supranational court and legislature in Mexico City setting an ever-wider range of social, trade and foreign policy.

In other words, it seems clear that the European Union is the historical aberration, not Brexit. The EU is an anachronistic relic borne of a time when the world was divided into a few major international blocs. It is a solution to a problem which no longer exists, and while international cooperation is more important than ever, EU-based cooperation has conspicuously failed to live up to the challenges of our time, from the self-inflicted euro crisis to the great migration crisis. And given that EU membership represents such a narrow slice of our history, it seems clear to me that the conservative position is one which advocates a calm, orderly and pragmatic Brexit (probably of the kind which I and other members of the Leave Alliance campaigned, namely a phased exit from the EU via EFTA/EEA in order to avoid undue disruption to trade and economic links).

Also concerning is Collins’ assertion that Brexit is “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. He seems to wilfully ignore the fact that the Conservatives are also traditionally the party of patriotism and the robust, self-confident defence of national integrity (the clue is in the name Conservative and Unionist Party). While conservatism may often mean cautious pragmatism in terms of domestic policy (which admittedly has sometimes needed to be disrupted by Labour’s progressivism to advance the social good) it has never meant timidity or a lack of faith in Britain’s ability to act and defend our interests on the world stage. Collins seems to equate natural conservative caution with a necessary lack of ambition, but I do not consider these one and the same thing at all.

And then Collins really loses me with this:

Britain feels very different from the glorious summer of 2012 when Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the Olympics was a paean to British culture that had spanned the world and to British institutions that had stood the toughest test of all, the test of time. In the distant past five years ago, it was an easy nation to be proud of. Boyle’s was a conservative vision of Britain, which the Tory party has thrown by the wayside.

I’m sorry, but this is balderdash. Prior to his career in journalism Philip Collins was speechwriter to Tony Blair, so his proclivities are very much of the centre-left. And while parts of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics might be said to be rooted loosely in conservatism, the part which most people remember is the bizarre open-air Mass in praise of the NHS and socialised healthcare.

(It is telling, too, how many of those on the left and centre-left almost seemed to discover patriotism for the first time back in 2012 while watching hundreds of actors in nurse costumes prance around a huge stadium pushing hospital beds and wheelchairs).

An all-singing, all-dancing Rite of Spring in worship of the National Health Service is not conservative in nature. In fact, its emphasis on uniformity, collective endeavour, equality of outcome and dependency on government is about the most un-conservative spectacle one can think of. The fact that it took a rather gaudy homage to that most socialist of socialist institutions to evoke feelings of patriotism in some on the Left shows that this was very much a leftist moment, not a conservative one – and in my opinion also shows that the same argument that EU membership is too new to fall under the protective umbrella of conservatism also applies to the NHS.

So should conservatives believe in anything, or should they be the timid, pragmatic and unambitious party of technocrats and fixers who are called in once in awhile to clear up the mess caused by an over-zealous Labour Party? I think this is where we need to be very clear about our meanings. It may absolutely be the case that most of the British public never see the conservative worldview and resulting policies in terms of an inspiring, coherent story. We may always be seen as the fixers. But that does not mean that we can get away without having a story to motivate and guide us, even if this remains largely internal.

Remember: British politics has now entered a period of discontinuity (as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) in which people have increasingly become dissatisfied with the previous Cameron-Blairite centrist, pro-EU political settlement and are demanding something new, something which addresses the unique challenges we face as a nation in 2017. This cannot be done without first diagnosing these challenges, understanding where they are interlinked, and then devising a set of mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle them.

We saw the same thing in 1977, when the influential Stepping Stones report (no, I’m not going to stop talking about it anytime soon) provided a blueprint which Margaret Thatcher then took to Downing Street and started implementing in 1979. The Thatcher government did not save Britain from inexorable national decline by conceding that reversing years of state ownership of industry and tackling the over-powerful trades union was “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. On the contrary, the Conservative Party of 1979 was forced to accept that discontinuity had to be met by new and previously unthinkable policies, just as the idea of leaving the EU remains unthinkable to so many within the political class today.

Believing in nothing and playing the role of the calm technocrat is all very well when times are good, when society and the economy are in steady-state and there are no urgent or existential challenges to be addressed. In such times, the Conservative Party is very welcome to play the tedious but necessary role of fixer. Unfortunately, we live in rather more interesting times which require inspired and often disruptively innovative policymaking rather than the usual government painting by numbers.

I can understand why this scares people like Philip Collins. The last time it was incumbent upon the Tories to be truly ideological, in 1979, they ended up remaking the country (and together with America, the world) and stamped a new political settlement on Britain which even now has not been fully rolled back. It is therefore natural, if a little cynical, that he now counsels the Tories to think small, to “keep their senses” and throw their arms around the status quo. The alternative must be terrifying to contemplate.

The last thing that the guardians of the current, fraying political consensus want is for conservatives to come up with an ambitious, ideologically coherent new internal narrative and then remake the country anew all over again.

And that is precisely why we must do it.

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