[As I continue to wend my way through Southeast Asia en route from London to my new home in the United States, below are some reflections on leaving Britain which have been percolating in my mind. Regular political commentary to resume once our travel itinerary calms down a bit and I reach a country with more reliable internet connectivity.]
I’d like to say that it has been a pleasure…
Britain will always be home to me. I will never renounce my citizenship, even though I will proudly take American citizenship and become a joint citizen of the other country to which I feel love and loyalty when I become eligible to do so. But speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who thinks about policy and writes about politics more than is probably healthy, I’m very glad to be escaping Britain for America at this particular juncture.
Not because of Brexit. I hear the keyboards of fifty Twitter wags clattering to life in my mind right now: “Ha, look at this die-hard Brexiteer who wanted out of the EU so badly but now won’t live in the apocalyptic hellscape he has bequeathed us”. Save the wisecracks, this has nothing to do with Brexit (though Brexit certainly shines an unforgiving light on the institutional and intellectual rot which makes me glad to move across the Atlantic).
I’m happy to be leaving Britain because we have become a small, petty and insular country. Not because of Brexit; we have been gradually becoming so for years prior, helped in large part by our EU membership, the stultifying centrist Westminster consensus and decades of bland technocratic government. The smallness I refer to has nothing to do with military or diplomatic power, though there are certainly warning signs in both these areas. It has nothing to do with our immediate economic prospects, since growth continues and the fundamentals of our economy are no more or less wobbly than they were prior to the EU referendum. It has nothing to do with the rise of other powerful countries or Britain’s supposed isolation outside the comforting embrace of supranational European political union.
The smallness afflicting Britain is a smallness of aspiration, of confidence, of purpose. It is the gradual draining away of any self-belief among those who run, report or comment on this country that decisions made here could actually matter, or influence human events and progress in a significantly beneficial way. It is the even more alarming realisation that the people with the potential intelligence and vision to help Britain recover our place as a visionary leader among countries increasingly self-select out of political life for reasons which are as obvious as they are tragic.
Why climb the greasy pole in a broken party system which rewards group conformity over ideological consistency or necessary pragmatism? Why inch one’s way up from town councillor to county councillor to MP’s bag carrier to ministerial SpAd to junior MP to parliamentary private secretary to junior minister to Cabinet minister to prime minister, compromising one’s ideas every step of the way, when one can have a far more fulfilling career in every respect working in the private sector, and have a more lasting and profound influence on humanity in the process?
For a couple of years now I have been writing about the great challenges facing Britain and the world in the new period of discontinuity which we are entering – an era when the old political settlement with its associated policies neither solve the new challenges we face nor command widespread public support any longer. The last such period of discontinuity in British politics took place in the late 1970s, when a sclerotic economy and over-powerful vested interests (particularly the trades union) were gradually choking the life out of Britain. Back then, we responded with the Thatcherite revolution, which for all its faults (and yes, those faults were real) revitalised our economy and rolled back the worst excesses of the socialist post-war consensus.
This new period of discontinuity is different, with new challenges in the form of globalisation, outsourcing, automation, mass migration and uncertainty over the role and long-term survival prospects for the nation state. These are problems which affect nearly every advanced economy, and which most countries are currently sidestepping or delaying their day of reckoning to some extent. Brexit offered Britain the golden opportunity to be not a helpless canary in the coalmine but rather an innovative testing laboratory and beacon to the world, confronting some of these challenges head on, breaking open political taboos and experimenting with heretofore unconsidered policy alternatives to meet the challenges we face. Britain could have seized this opportunity to genuinely lead the way for the first time in the post-war era, certainly in my lifetime.
This opportunity has been squandered, and the squandering is both tragic and unforgivable. In the 1970s there was enough intellectual life left in Britain for new policy ideas to germinate in places like the Centre for Policy Studies, then-revolutionary think tanks who brought in outside talent and evaluated ideas based on their innate worth rather than the connectedness or insider reputation of the individual putting them forward. That’s how the famous Stepping Stones Report came to be written in 1977, which Margaret Thatcher then took with her into Downing Street in 1979 and used as a blueprint for many of the policies and reforms which ultimately saved Britain from seemingly inevitable national decline.
In 2018, there is nobody left to do this kind of radical, disruptive work. Some of the same think tanks and organisations still exist (in name), but to a large extent they are rusted out old shells of their former selves, living on past glories and eking an existence by flattering government ministers or acting as a mouthpiece for existing party policymaking theatre rather than doing anything genuinely revolutionary or independent.
When I proposed a new Stepping Stones Report for 2022, a document which would seek to identify and classify all of the issues and threats facing modern Britain in order to discover their interlinkages and arrive at a suite of mutually-supporting policies to tackle and overcome them, I received a few polite and non-committal words or emails from various MPs and think tanks, and then no more. On one occasion I was cordially thanked and then told that there is “nothing in particular for you to do at this time”. You see, I am from outside the inner Westminster bubble so it is inconceivable that I might have stumbled upon a good idea or have anything whatsoever to contribute to government policy.
A few fruitless efforts at gaining the attention of influential figures within the Conservative Party made it abundantly clear that while normal people like me are good for stuffing envelopes or knocking doors to get out the Tory vote, best leave the policymaking and strategic thinking to those inside the bubble. And so the Conservative Party’s effort to make policy continues to throw up random half-baked ideas to solve the housing crisis, the productivity crisis, the migration crisis, the healthcare crisis, the education crisis and the so-called crisis of capitalism (many of these ideas lifted straight from the Miliband playbook) without any attempt to consider how these challenges might be linked or best be solved in conjunction with one another. A few genuinely heroic Tory MPs – George Freeman, Nick Boles and Robert Halfon, to name the most active – are engaged in serious work attempting to reimagine conservative policy for the 21st century, but they are receiving precious little air cover from CCHQ or Downing Street.
Things are no better on the other side of the aisle, where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is permanently one anti-Semitic tweet away from total self-destruction. This blog celebrated Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, not out of any admiration for or agreement with his policies but because he represented a bold step away from the suffocating centrist consensus whose policies overlook so many Britons and which has been hugely resistant to change. And there have on occasions been genuinely encouraging signs of intellectual life within Labour, such as with Corbyn’s proposed National Education Service – a horribly statist idea, but one which at least sought to recognise the limitations of our present system and try something different rather than continuing to shoot for the middle.
However, much of the political backing behind Jeremy Corbyn – Momentum in particular – is anything but modern or forward thinking, offering nothing so much as reheated 1970s statism. Worse, it comes infected with rabid and widespread anti-Semitism which the leadership ignores in order to avoid offending certain other fellow ideological travellers at home and abroad. Such has been the infighting that one can scarcely discern a Corbynite platform more nuanced than raising taxes and renationalising industry. Meanwhile, the displaced Labour centrists, full of entitlement and utterly lacking in introspection as to how their moral and intellectual failures led to this nadir, have done precious little policy thinking of their own and when given the chance to displace Corbyn in 2016 were so concerned for their own precious political careers that none of the remaining big beasts would stand, leaving it to the malodorous Owen Smith.
Ah, but what about the smaller parties? Well, UKIP has collapsed into now inevitable (if once avoidable) irrelevance, the Green Party continue to wage their ostentatiously anti-prosperity agenda and the Liberal Democrats have become nothing more than a futile Stop Brexit Party (and even on this ground they are challenged by new upstart anti-Brexit parties such as Renew). If there are signs of intellectual life or political courage to be found on the political periphery they have escaped my attention.
Look at education, healthcare, housing, automation and AI. Britain isn’t even currently aspiring to emulate best practice in (or achieve parity with) other countries, let alone pioneer new policy solutions which might see us leapfrog our competition and point the way for other nations. Take just education as an example, where technology could be revolutionising our current conception of school, opening up new possibilities for remote learning and real-time interaction with experts and other classes across distance and borders, and research in the social sciences has long hammered home the importance of proactive parental involvement in order to inculcate success at an early age. Where is the new technology in our classrooms? Where is the digital learning strategy? Where is the government promoting more responsible parenting?
Instead of these necessary endeavours to face up to policy failure and change direction, we either indulge in vainglorious British exceptionalism and imagine that the world has nothing to teach us (see the Tory Right’s insistence on a hard Brexit and our national obsession with the NHS, according to its hagiographers the world’s only compassionate universal healthcare service) or else resignedly believe that we are so feeble a country that there can be no hope in striking out on our own to road-test new ideas. How pathetic. How cowardly. What a betrayal of the next generation. How utterly, utterly small.
None of this is to say that things are significantly better in the United States. Lord knows that my new adopted home has not got everything all figured out just yet; America is also idling in neutral to a large degree, an unpredictable and vastly underqualified new president at the helm, his own worst enemy, and an opposition party which has sold its soul to the false god of identity politics rather than offering any uniting, uplifting alternate platform. But at least the big issues are still debated in America, however crudely may sometimes be the case.
As I wrote last year when lamenting the decline in British political rhetoric:
Maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world.
Despite having every opportunity to take the lead, Britain seems determined to be a follower – either cowering fearfully within the EU or attempting to roll back the clock to a time when economic integration, regulatory alignment and international just-in-time supply chains didn’t make a mockery of the Tory Right’s hard Brexit fantasies. We even import our social movements these days, with British universities racing to copy their American counterparts in capitulating to the censorious cult of identity politics and organisations like Black Lives Matter UK springing up despite lacking any of the context or triggers which prompted the formation of the original.
I have very little desire to spend my time engaged in the minutiae of political debate in a country which stubbornly refuses to lift its gaze above its own navel, whose activists have enough spare time on their hands to worry about non-issues or capriciously import social movements from abroad yet no time to agitate for universal reform, true egalitarianism or issues which do not immediately benefit their own wallets. America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.
Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.
Only on the question of national identity and societal cohesiveness is the political debate more interesting and pressing in the UK and Europe than in the United States, and even then only because years of bad and arrogantly-imposed policy have bequeathed Europe with significant subpopulations which feel little loyalty to or affinity with the countries which give them life and liberty, thus making it an existential issue. It is now fashionable among many elites to bemoan the decline of liberal democratic values, yet there is precious little introspection as to how policies which deliberately undermine the nation state and erode a common sense of identity accepting of liberal values might have played a part in their demise.
America is presently less far down this destructive path, and thus freer from the risk of the kind of societal unrest and breakdown which would make other policy experimentation impossible. In other words, if you don’t have to continually fight to justify your country’s existence (either from plotting euro-federalists on one side or unintegrated subpopulations and post-patriotic citizens of the world on the other) then one can comfortably think about other policy concerns, but if national survival underpinning essential liberal values is not assured then everything else becomes largely irrelevant.
So why this long, somewhat bitter screed as I depart the United Kingdom? After all, in the grand scheme of things I don’t matter at all. I’m not a genius, a policy wunderkind or a charismatic future political leader, so me quitting these shores to make my mark in the United States is no great loss for Britain. But if even people like me survey the state of British politics and civic life and feel overwhelmed by a feeling of resigned ennui, how must those individuals blessed with real talent and inspiration feel? You think they are going to stick around to watch Owen Jones, Ian Dunt and EU Supergirl slog it out with Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox, or feel compelled to step forward and offer their leadership skills to a country which itself has no desire to lead?
Britain can survive me flouncing off across the Atlantic; indeed, the country may well be much the better for it. But the pathetic state of British politics and civic life that I have described here is not only repulsive to me; it alienates talent and discourages innovation at nearly every level.
When British politics becomes little more than a technocratic debate about making the trains run on time or ensuring by national decree that hospital waiting times hit a certain target, we are thinking far too small.
When British political debate is more about desperately ignoring obvious truths (the unsustainability of the NHS, the failure of unmitigated multiculturalism, our broken welfare state) than tackling those problems head-on, we are being far too cowardly.
And when the desire and capacity of British elites to confront and overcome 21st century challenges gives way to a sense of resigned powerlessness and a petulant impatience for somebody else to do the difficult work, I can’t muster much sorrow to be taking a step away from that dismal stage.
I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.
But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.
And Lord knows I am looking forward to that change of scenery.
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