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?

Tories vision is not optimistic about the future but small mean and nasty - Jon Ashworth MP - Conservatives

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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Building A Britain Fit For The Future

Building a Britain fit for the future - new Conservative Party Tory slogan

Strong and stable, version 2.0

Word on the street is that the Tories have got themselves a shiny new slogan. Guido Fawkes reports:

Here are seven words you can expect to hear a lot more of over the next few weeks and months: Guido understands the new Tory slogan is “Building a Britain fit for the future”. Theresa May used it three times at PMQs on Wednesday, telling the Commons: “this government is building a country fit for the future”, “we are building a Britain fit for the future” and “We in the Conservative Party are building a Britain that is fit for the future”. This morning the CCHQ Twitter account used the same phrase.

As slogans go, I suppose that “Building a Britain fit for the future” could be a hell of a lot worse. It is certainly better than “strong and stable”, though according to Guido it seems as though the Tories are already in danger of wearing out their new slogan through enthusiastic over-use.

BABFFTF has potential because it at least acknowledges that we are entering a period of discontinuity – a time where the current system or political consensus is starting to fray and show signs of fatigue, where new and previously politically unfeasible policies are required to break the impasse or respond to the concerns of the electorate. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the vote for Brexit are just two of the most prominent signs that we have entered such a time of discontinuity, with the pro-EU, centrist consensus adopted by Labour and the Conservatives through 2015 increasingly failing to address the hopes, fears, concerns and priorities of many people.

The problem, though, is that the slogan seems to have been trailed before the necessary supporting ideas – the vital national reboot checklist which can steer Britain through Brexit and on to the other challenges – have been developed. Now, it’s possible that Theresa May has been huddled in Downing Street with her SpAds brainstorming some breathtakingly original new ideas, and that we will all be bowled over when they are announced in the coming weeks – but it seems unlikely. Firstly, she would be breaking the habit of a lifetime (doing something bold and visionary) and secondly it is hard to tell when such inspired policymaking might have taken place given all of the shenanigans going on in her Cabinet.

While we can finally detect a few faint signs of new intellectual life in the Tories – notably the Big Tent programme launched by George Freeman, and the Square Deal initiative led by Nick Boles – these groups are barely getting formed, and are months away (if not more) from reaching full fruition. And as I have previously written (and will continue to expand upon in coming days and weeks), we are still missing anything like an overarching framework to diagnose the issues facing Britain, draw out the links between them and produce an electorally viable set of policies to tackle them. Discontinuity requires policymaking through extraordinary means; the same old processes tend to yield the same old solutions.

That being said, the Tories cannot remain silent altogether while they try to get their act together. It is good, in a way, that Brexit is currently consuming most of this government’s energy because that means that they have little time (and even less political capital) to push through some of the authoritarian, statist, anti-market policies which one suspects Theresa May would now be rolling out had she won a thumping majority. A de facto “first, do no harm” doctine has thus been partially imposed on this government, like it or not.

But still the Tories must do something, starting with the Budget next week, to show that they are starting to understand the depth of public dissatisfaction with the old political settlement, particularly on housing (since this is a vital policy area more separated from some of the others). Years of disappointment mean that I have zero positive expectations of Phillip Hammond when he gets to his feet to deliver the Budget next Wednesday. I fear that even if there is noticeable movement on housing, it will be a big sop to Labour by focusing on the building of new council housing rather than the big unleashing/encouraging of private development (upward, not outward) which we need. This is Hammond’s chance to prove me wrong, as well as everybody else who has lost faith in the current government being anything more than a very clumsy caretaker.

The pessimistic part of me still believes that a mid-term rescue for the Tories is simply impossible; that it will take a (hopefully) short, sharp spell in opposition to rid the current Tory frontbench of much of its dead wood and see some new talent push forward – hopefully talent less beholden to the current political consensus, and which wants to do more than simply make a few cosmetic tweaks to win back public opinion. Readers will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot think of one example of a successful political turnaround that was driven by refreshed policies rather than the good fortune of events.

But a Jeremy Corbyn government is not something to be entertained lightly. The next government will likely set the tone and direction of Britain’s immediate post-Brexit years, and so will play a large role in stamping their imprint on whatever the new emerging political consensus or centre of gravity happens to be. After years of leftward drift under both New Labour and Conservative governments, it is important that the next significant course change is to the right. In a world of pure ideology one may well want the Tories decimated at the next election so that they can grow back stronger and with a renewed sense of purpose, just as controlled forest fires can ultimately benefit an ecosystem even as they destroy in the short term. But since we all have to live in this forest for the duration, dropping a match onto dry leaves by ushering Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street really must be an option of last resort.

Therefore let us hope that “Building a Britain fit for the future” and whatever quickly-concocted policies lie beneath it buy the Tories sufficient breathing room to attempt a more fundamental policy review – to create the new Stepping Stones report for 2018 that Britain needs to chart our way from one failed political consensus to a new one which addresses today’s challenges.

Let’s hope that it falls to conservatives to build the Britain of the future, and not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

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Discontinuity, Leadership And Britain’s Place In The World

Stepping Stones Report - Discontinuity and Leadership - Sam Hooper.jpg

We don’t face a Brexit crisis, a migration crisis, a housing crisis, an NHS crisis, a social care crisis, an energy crisis, a productivity crisis, a deficit crisis or an education crisis — there is one universal and interconnected crisis of British politics and government

Yesterday I attended an event held by the Centre for Policy Studies, to launch a new initiative for the renewal of British conservatism. The event promised to elevate the voices of the 2015 and 2017 intakes of Tory MPs and certain “other voices”, though it was never made clear who these other voices would be, and no mention of them was made during the event itself.

The CPS is known as Margaret Thatcher’s think tank – it was founded by Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph in 1977 to promote the cause of economic liberalism and a turn away from the statist post-war consensus. And so far as I could tell, its composition has not changed greatly in that times. Their hair may have greyed and receded, but as I waited for the event to start I saw many of the same figures standing around guzzling wine and congratulating themselves on the glories of past decades.

As I expected, the event itself was largely a waste of time. The guest of honour was Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is hardly the fresh face of bold conservative renewal, and her speech was bland, utterly forgettable and targeted exclusively at the Tory MPs present rather than the wider conservative movement. Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, spoke after Rudd, cementing this occasion as more of a Tory Party pilgrimage to Soho rather than an insurgent attempt to change the course of an ideologically lost political party.

It was sad to see that the Centre for Policy Studies has become in many ways part of the fossilised establishment which they did so much to uproot in the 1970s. When Maurice Saatchi opened proceedings by bragging that Henry Kissinger had given the initiative his personal seal of approval, I abandoned any hope of conservative revival even before the first speaker took the floor.

This is a great pity, because from the CPS came the influential and ultimately transformative Stepping Stones Report, an incredible document which summarised a body of work which sought to classify and diagnose all of Britain’s economic ailments of the 1970s and propose a comprehensive solution and communication strategy which Margaret Thatcher then effectively took with her into 10 Downing Street and started implementing in 1979.

I know I keep banging on about this report, but I can’t encourage people enough to go and read it – the thing is sixty short pages of condensed insight and wisdom. Britain in the 1970s was in a very perilous economic and social position, facing challenges which are entirely different to those we face today, but of similar pressing urgency. The central premise of Stepping Stones was that Britain could not be saved through haphazard and piecemeal efforts to tackle each various problem individually – rather, a coordinated approach would be required.

Back before Thatcher

Back in the 1970s, Britain suffered from a budget deficit problem (called the PSBR back then), high inflationary pressures, uncompetitive nationalised industries, bad management, appalling industrial relations and low productivity. In 2017, some of these problems have been quelled while others remain and have been augmented by the challenges of globalisation, automation, global migration, an acute housing crisis and a terminally broken healthcare model in the sanctified NHS.

Just as it was in the 1970s, the problems of the early 21st century can not be solved in isolation from one another or as a series of individual “damage control” measures by a worn-out and rudderless government desperate to stay in power but totally unsure what to do with it. Today in 2017, we need to bring to bear the same comprehensive (one might even say “intersectional”) style of analysis pioneered in the Stepping Stones Report to arrive at a new, mutually supporting suite of policies which are both politically feasible and equal to the task at hand.

As the preamble to the report plainly states:

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

One of the key concepts discussed in the Stepping Stones Report is that of “discontinuity”, which is described thus:

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

Reading or watching the news today, one observes endless argument over what policies or decisions may be politically feasible (be it in British domestic politics or the EU secession negotiations with Brussels), but scant discussion as to whether those policies actually rise to the challenge of our times – whether they actually solve the very specific and intractable problems at hand. Both sides of the equation must be addressed if good policies and decisions are to be reached, but in nearly all cases our shrunken horizon considers only what is possible, not what is actually needed.

1977 all over again?

Who can argue that Britain in 2017 is not experiencing another such period of discontinuity? The symptoms are everywhere and have been visible for some time, notably in the defection of Tory MPs to UKIP in 2014, Jeremy Corbyn’s humbling of the Labour centrists in the 2015 leadership election (and again in 2016), and Britain’s seminal vote to leave the European Union.

The latter in particular was fuelled by public disgust with a political class who contented themselves to operate within the narrow tramlines of EU rules and social policy without any regard for those voters whose values and priorities fell outside the narrow Overton Window prescribed by Brussels.

But that’s just the start. Automation, outsourcing and globalisation have incrementally, relentlessly eaten away at the idea of a steady, 9-5 factory or retail job being sufficient to raise a family or buy a house. Millions of people who in decades past went through an education system which prepared them for little else now find themselves having to learn new computer or service-based skills from scratch, with almost no support or coordination from local or national government.

Even university graduates find that their degrees are of increasingly dubious value, and are obliged to virtually fight to the death for a coveted place on a corporate graduate scheme. The losers go back to live with their parents or work in minimum wage drudgery, wondering why their BA in critical gender theory hasn’t proven to be the passport to the slick professional city life they crave. Call centres and giant Amazon distribution centres have become the new dark satanic mills of modern Britain. Our present education policy should be focused entirely on this looming precipice, yet we distract ourselves by arguments over grammar schools or whether boys should be allowed to wear tiaras and tutus in class.

Meanwhile, there is a huge global human migration underway, prompted by the fact that countless millions more people are connected to the world through the internet and have the means to move from struggling countries to new lands of perceived opportunity – sometimes legally, usually illegally. Political leaders have openly or tacitly welcomed and even fuelled this flow, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the required housing, infrastructure and services do not smoothly and automatically increase in direct proportion to a rising population. And then they dare to act startled and affronted when the resident population complains about the impact.

At the same time, elites have preached a gospel of absolute tolerance and multiculturalism while refusing to promote British or Western values, or encourage new immigrants to assimilate, and then cry “racism!” when inevitable tensions occurs. They have created a country where some British-born people feel more affinity and allegiance to a barbaric Islamist death cult than the country which gave them life and liberty – and then prove it by stealing away to join ISIS or launching terror attacks which kill and maim their fellow citizens.

And then, of course, there is our national religion, the National Health Service. As surgeons once operated under the dictum cor non tangeredon’t touch the heart – today’s politicians abide by the even stricter rule NHS non tangere, terrified to acknowledge that a nationalised, centralised health system built from the rubble of 1940s war might no longer be the optimal way to deliver healthcare to an advanced, ageing country of 65 million people. And so the fifth largest employer in the world (right behind McDonald’s) is not some world-beating British retail giant or consumer goods company, but a creaking nationalised bureaucracy in perpetual crisis.

A failed centrist consensus

Each one of these issues forms part of a crumbling edifice representing the failed, discredited and obsolete centrist political consensus. Tinkering with the EU – to the limited extent that Britain could ever effect meaningful directional change in Brussels – was never going to happen, despite the constant disgruntled, exculpatory outbursts from Remainers that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!”.

An open migration policy may well be best in raw economic terms, but it should be for the British people to democratically decide whether they want to take the economic pain of slowing immigration, not for politicians who “know better” to overrule them.

Globalisation delivers tangible benefits to many of us and previously unimaginable opportunities to a smaller, highly educated elite, but those at the bottom are tired of being thrown into the furnace to keep the engine running for everyone else.

The NHS model has not been copied anywhere else in the world for a reason, and while it does urgent care fairly well, when overall medical outcomes (notably cancer survival rates) are increasingly falling behind other countries then it should not be off limits to ask whether a nationalised, centralised system is the best way to deliver routine or preventative care to the whole population.

In other words, this is a time of extreme discontinuity in British politics and society. But people do not necessarily recognise discontinuity when it happens, at least not all at the same time. The Stepping Stones Report notes in section 6.1 (addressing the situation in 1977):

Discontinuity may not yet have been recognised by the electorate. In fact, with skilful propaganda and suitably ‘pragmatic’ – not to be cynical – government policies, it need not be recognised until the exhaustion of North Sea oil, by which time our last chance will have gone. Once it is recognised, however, the electorate is unlikely to give a mandate to a political party which has not itself changed sufficiently to match the changed prospects. On the other hand, a party which changes itself, because it fully understands how the rules of the game are changing, is more likely to awaken an electorate to a belated recognition of discontinuity and thus win its confidence.

Here, the situation we face in modern Britain actually differs from that facing the authors of Stepping Stones, because the electorate is increasingly aware that we are in a period of discontinuity. Dissatisfaction with the state of modern Britain is quite widespread, and the people are crying out for change. Rather, today it is centrist politicians (and much of the media) who fail to recognise the discontinuity around them, and often openly yearn to cling on to the failing but familiar consensus.

Opportunity knocks – but it needs leadership

Yet Stepping Stones is clear about the need for political parties to acknowledge discontinuity and to realign their policies and messaging in response to it. As leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has done this incredibly well. One may disagree vehemently with everything Corbyn stands for – this blog certainly does – but his election as leader and conduct since that time reflect a realisation among (at least parts of) the Labour Party that standing for the same old failing political consensus was not just wrong, but bad politics too.

No such reckoning has taken place within the Conservative Party, and despite the emergence of a few green shoots of recovery/new thinking, there are precious few grounds for hope that a sufficient reckoning is imminent. The Tories don’t even have a Jeremy Corbyn of their own. Amber Rudd being invited to speak as guest of honour at an event about conservative renewal is hard evidence that the sense of urgency and horizon of thinking is still not nearly equal to the task at hand.

This is why good, decisive leadership is so incredibly important at a time when Britain is not running in “steady state” but rather entering a period of sharp discontinuity. The report makes this crucial observation:

For at a time of discontinuity, leadership is at a premium. When the future is simply an extrapolation of the past, so that we are all tramping over familiar ground, the choice of someone to lead the procession may not be critical. But if we are setting out on unfamiliar terrain, we look for leaders who, at the very least, appear to have imagined what that terrain would be like in fact.

In discontinuity, conventional wisdom cannot get us out of the problems. Indeed, innovation is almost certainly the best way through discontinuity. Almost any vision, any programme, is better than confusion and uncertainty, for it can at least be modified in the light of experience, once it has broken the paralysing spell of past failure and present pessimism.

It scarcely needs to be said that the Conservative Party is not currently offering the country the kind of ambitious, proactive and visionary leadership which is required in this time of discontinuity. Theresa May was an awful choice for prime minister from Day One, seeing the future of conservatism as occupying traditional Labour territory on state intervention in the economy. Now, in addition to having all the wrong instincts, she is also a political lame duck, shorn of her intellectual brain trust (Nick Timothy) and waking up every day reacting to a new crisis rather than boldly setting the national agenda. Much of this is not her fault, yet it is undeniably true.

Pete North is one of few other thinkers and writers I know who regularly explores the systemic nature of Britain’s problems rather than churning out compartmentalised pieces about the housing crisis, the social care crisis, the obesity epidemic etc. And he is correct when he identifies Brexit as the catalyst which will force all of these other problems out into the open:

I take the view that nothing short of a radical shock to the system will drag our politicians out of their self-indulgent navel gazing. Even now as we coast toward a cliff edge Brexit they are still trapped in the pre-referendum paradigm unable to usefully influence the proceedings and easily distracted by trivia.

[..] In this, the Remainers can’t see the woods for the trees. They point to the dysfunction “unleashed” by Brexit as evidence that Brexit of itself is bad. But this is the dysfunction that has been festering for two decades under a well crafted and stage-managed veneer of competence.

If you are not familiar with Pete’s work then at first it can seem unduly alarmist and pessimistic, but Pete gets the systemic, interconnected nature of these issues and understands that Brexit and the political unpreparedness/incompetence it has exposed are just part of this general discontinuity, all of which must be addressed – including our politics, something the original Stepping Stones report did not have to deeply consider.

A new Stepping Stones Report for post-Brexit Britain

And this leads to my conclusion: we need a new Stepping Stones Report for our times. We need a comprehensive and dispassionate analysis of the problems we face as a country, and understand where and how they are linked together. Having diagnosed these problems (which in the case of many politicians many involve some painful introspection) we must decide where we want to go as a country – what we realistically want Brexit Britain to look like in 2020, 2025, 2030 and beyond – and then devise a programme of mutually supporting, politically feasible policies to get us there, and a way of framing and communicating this programme that can unite a sufficient amount of our fractured country to earn an electoral mandate.

It may be noted that many of the issues we face today – globalisation, automation, migration, terrorism – span national borders and can not be solved by any one country alone. This is not a concession to angry Remainers who naively view the European Union as the ultimate platform for all international cooperation, but it is a statement of fact. This means that for the first time in decades – since the Second World War, really – Britain must lift its eyes above our own domestic concerns and seek to use our position on the world stage to promote and coordinate the adoption of the new solutions we devise. Having voted for Brexit and upended our politics, embracing the discontinuity which most other countries still ignore, we are the canaries in the coal mine and other nations will look to us to see how they might navigate the same issues. For once, rather than lowering our national ambitions and ducking a challenge we must rise to the occasion.

This job is too big for any one person, any one group, and probably any one think tank or political party. It will require people on all sides to let go of long-held articles of political faith and ideological crutches. It will require discipline and commitment, but above all it will require strong leadership to get us there.

I don’t know how we go about doing this, whether it should be an open competition, a more academic exercise, a think tank project, a Parliamentary initiative or a citizen-led effort. But the work needs to be done, and soon, if Britain is to emerge from this period of uncertain discontinuity in an advantageous state.

Of course there is no convenient time for strategic thinking, especially when a party is in government and fending off daily crises. But realistically, if the Conservative Party does not do this then it will be left to Jeremy Corbyn to determine what kind of country emerges from the present discontinuity. Labour’s statist, socialist policies may then quickly become ossified as the new British political consensus, though the rest of the world certainly will not be following us if this transpires.

It has been decades since Britain truly took the lead in influencing world affairs. But having voted for Brexit and thrown into the open many pressing debates which other countries remain desperate to defer or ignore, we can now be both a laboratory and a beacon for the world.

And if we do so, whatever the outcome, when we are called to account for our life’s work at least we can say that we tried to accomplish something more significant, more impactful on the world, than hiring a few extra nurses for the NHS or making the trains run on time.

 

UPDATE – 16 November

It appears that people have been discussing my article and the concept of discontinuity in British politics over on another forum. One user made the comment:

That Hooper bloke makes a lot of sense, in my opinion. Where do I sign, to join his social movement? Oh, I’m instead encouraged to make a Comment or leave a Donation.

Well first of all, thank you for the compliment – nice to know that this Hooper bloke can occasionally still talk sense! And in fact I am actually trying to do something to turn this idea from more than a mere blog post to an actual project or initiative in the real world. We clearly can’t leave it to the usual inhabitants of Westminster to do this on their own – new ideas and fresh faces will be needed, just as they were in 1977.

If anybody else who reads this article feels called to action, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at semipartisansam@gmail.com

Thanks.

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Globalisation

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The Centre Must Not Hold

WTF is Centrism

Calls for the Tories to pursue and embrace the non-existent “radical centre” are a dangerous Siren song for conservatism at a time when the country needs conviction and clarity of purpose

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

– John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, “Stepping Stones Report”, 1977

For over a week now I have not been able to bring myself to write anything new for this blog. Why? Because the patterns of failure in British politics are now tediously familiar beyond all endurance, as are the mistakes, missed opportunities and blunders routinely committed by politicians and thinkers who call themselves “conservative”.

Yes, the past week was a particularly torrid one for Theresa May’s shambolic government, but it did not teach us anything new. So more evidence emerged that Boris Johnson is totally unfit to be Foreign Secretary, the Tories no longer even seek to act like the party of Defence while the prime minister is utterly dependent on her questionable deputy Damian Green – these are not new revelations. They have been relentlessly, depressingly drummed into our consciousness over a matter of months and (in some cases) years.

Besides, even if Theresa May’s Cabinet were a precision-engineered Rolls Royce jet engine operating at maximum power and efficiency it would not matter – we would simply reach the same dismal destination somewhat faster than is currently the case. This is not an ambitious and visionary government let down by flawed execution and unfortunate scandal; it is a government which never had any real purpose to begin with.

Every two-bit conservative commentator is now saying what this blog has been screaming for years – that aimless, centrist government devoid of purpose is a dogma of the quiet past, inadequate to the stormy present; that we may as well not have bothered deposing New Labour in 2010 if we were only going to replace Gordon Brown with a bunch of slavish centre-left devotees wearing blue rosettes instead of red ones.

Well slow hand clap, guys. What do you want, a medal? Some of us have been making this point for years now, back when the well-paid and ubiquitous journalists and TV commentators were purring over David Cameron and Theresa May, predicting an uninterrupted decade of energetic, fruitful Tory rule even as their timidity and incompetence led us ever closer to the abyss.

Already there are a number of travelling quacks offering their own dubious potions and cures for the Tory malaise, most of which are vague at best or completely misguided at worst. A few thoughtful people have genuinely interesting ideas, but many seem to propose a further shift to the left, as though additional concessions to Corbynism will do anything other than validate Labour policies in the eyes of the electorate. Others suggest that “compassionate conservatism“, that hateful, self-sabotaging and worn-out phrase, is the magic solution. But most common are the tedious, meaningless calls for the Tories to recapture the “radical centre” of British politics.

The latest to take up this cry is Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who offers a fairly blistering (and by no means inaccurate) critique of past Conservative failures, taking Theresa May to task for her failures of leadership and the party as a whole to task for their ideological drift.

From the Telegraph:

“It smells of decline, and the people won’t have it” said Mr Mercer, MP for Plymouth Moor View, who bucked the national trend and increased his majority by five-fold at the last election.

“There becomes a cross-over point in seats like mine, it becomes about your personal integrity, about your credibility. You have to step back and question what your party is doing – of course.  Yes we are beginning to get there I fear”.

[..] He went on: “A Corbyn/McDonnell Government would fundamentally change Britain and what it means to be British. We would not be forgiven as a party for 20 years. We must remain, if nothing else at the moment, credible.”

[..] “We have a duty to the Nation to ensure the Cabinet is comprised of the best people in parliament, not the most famous names. Theresa May had to make a decision where she formed her cabinet: whether to select members to manage the fall-out from Brexit or select the best modernisers to bring about social change. She chose the former – I understand that, but now is the time for bold, outward facing leadership in my view.”

But then, just as you are expecting something radical or attention-worthy proposed as an alternative, Johnny Mercer merely proposes a further attempt to “grab the middle ground”.

This is so incredibly disheartening, coming from somebody whose profile and biography would potentially make him a very attractive future leadership candidate. Having diagnosed the problem, where is Mercer’s solution? More grasping for the centre?

People: THE CENTRE IS NOT A FIXED PLACE. It merely describes a point equidistant between two other, polarised positions on the political spectrum – usually the status quo, or today the groupthink of a pro-EU establishment who are becoming increasingly extreme in their contempt for democracy. The centre is not and cannot be a place from which to build effective policy because it is rooted in nothing but triangulation and brazen political calculation as opposed to any kind of firm conviction as to how society should be ordered, or the rights of the people and the role of government set out.

If the last few years in British politics have taught us anything, it is that the people respond surprisingly warmly to sincere politicians who hold clear convictions springing from a coherent and easily explainable worldview. People may not agree with Jeremy Corbyn, but even many of his detractors admire the fact that he has held and advocated for many of his ideas in good times and bad, back when they were on the discredited fringe and now, when they are being taken more seriously once again.

The Tories need a Jeremy Corbyn of their own, but instead they got Theresa May, who frittered away the Conservative majority because she stood for nothing. She is an authoritarian pseudo-traditionalist whose intellectual blood bank (in the form of Nick Timothy) has thankfully been exiled from government, but not replaced by anything better.

May’s risible pitch in the 2017 general election was strength and stability, but these are states of being, not a direction of travel. People jetting off in an aeroplane together would generally prefer less turbulence to a more bumpy flight, but more than anything they care about arriving at the correct destination. Jeremy Corbyn made his flight plan crystal clear to the British electorate. Theresa May didn’t even bother to produce one, preferring to pander to the Politics of Me Me Me.

You don’t win a convincing mandate to govern by chasing the centre. You win such a mandate by coming up with a clear plan of action flowing from a coherent and easily explainable view of the world, one which is so compelling that it makes sense to an election-winning majority of voters, thus causing the floating centre to shift in that direction.

Margaret Thatcher’s government did not rescue Britain from a failing post-war consensus and 1970s national decline by cautiously seeking consensus and the same elusive centre ground fought over by the previous Heath, Wilson and Callaghan administrations. She made her mark on Britain by charting a new course, braving resistance rather than capitulating to it, and dragging the centre to the right so that after the Tories finally lost power, New Labour had neither the ability nor the desire to undo many of the changes she wrought.

That’s how you run a government worthy of the history books. The Tories should stop slavishly chasing the centre, and come up with a new blueprint for Britain – the new Stepping Stones Report which we so desperately need, updated for 2017 – which will shift the centre of British politics back in the direction of liberty underpinned by the autonomous nation state (or some compelling improvement on it).

Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is just noise.

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Things fall apart the centre cannot hold - Yeats quote

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