Building A Britain Fit For The Future: Theresa May’s Dismal New Agenda

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Building a Britain fit for the future requires a detailed vision of the desired end state as well as a plausible policy roadmap to reach the promised land. But three months after coining their new slogan, all the Tories have are seven bland and unremarkable aspirations.

Last year, we learned that the Tories had come up with a shiny new slogan – “Building a Britain Fit for the Future”.

Despite my deep cynicism that anything useful could ever emerge from Theresa May’s intellectually moribund leadership team, I said at the time that the slogan had potential because it at least acknowledged that the current state of Britain is in fact unfit for the future – that we have entered a period of discontinuity where old policy solutions neither work nor command popular support, and that new, hitherto unimagined solutions would be required to overcome the challenges now facing our country.

Unfortunately, three months later and it appears that the slogan was no more than window dressing. Having done nothing to flesh out the statement until another rash of negative headlines and outbursts from concerned ministers and MPs last week forced her hand, Theresa May finally revealed the next layer beneath the slogan – a set of seven principles and objectives for government so bland, vague and forgettable that they may as well have been generated by a computer, printed out and put straight in the waste paper bin.

The Times reports:

An internal statement laying out Theresa May’s political strategy has been attacked by ministers as “pathetic” and “anaemic”.

The seven-point summary, called Building a Britain Fit for the Future, was prepared by senior Downing Street aides for ministers and backbenchers to head off accusations of political drift and timidity. For some, however, it has simply deepened concerns that the prime minister lacks a coherent plan to take on Labour.

The document summarises the government’s mission as ensuring the best Brexit deal, balanced government spending, more jobs, more homes and improving educational standards. The two final points are entitled “backing the innovators” and “tackling the injustices”. The environment is not included in the main bullet points but is said to “underpin” all of them.

[..] One of those shown the document — in a presentation by Gavin Barwell, Mrs May’s chief of staff, and Robbie Gibb, the director of communications — was dismissive. “This is just a list of anaemic bromides. It doesn’t amount to a political strategy or a call to arms. If this is supposed to inspire us I despair. It’s pathetic.” Another said: “It’s hardly going to get you all fired up.”

This government does not understand the meaning of ambition, beyond the leadership’s narrow, selfish desire to cling to power and prevent anyone else from having a go. But worse than being cynically without purpose, the government is also incompetent and lacking a functional political radar.

Even a government of chancers and fakers, having been warned numerous times that their lack of a bold and clearly defined positive vision for Britain was alienating voters, would have concocted a plausible fake programme for government by this point, if for no other reason than to keep the newspaper editors of its back. But Theresa May’s rudderless government can’t even fake having an agenda, beyond producing a list of seven wishy-washy bullet points probably cooked up at 3AM by an overworked SpAd:

  1. Getting the best Brexit deal, guaranteeing the greatest possible access to European markets, boosting free trade across the world and delivering control over our borders, laws and money.
  2. Taking a balanced approach to spending, getting debt falling but investing in key public services, like the NHS, and keeping taxes low.
  3. Helping businesses to create better, higher-paying jobs with a modern industrial strategy that invests in the skills, industries and infrastructure of the future.
  4. Building the homes our country needs, so everyone can afford a place to call their own, restoring the dream of home ownership and helping people on to housing ladder.
  5. Improving standards in our schools and colleges, so our young people have the skills they need to get on in life.
  6. Backing the innovators who deliver growth, jobs, lower prices and greater choice for consumers — while stepping in when businesses don’t play by the rules.
  7. Tackling the injustices that hold people back from achieving their true potential.

This would be a worryingly vague list of aspirations if it were presented by the official Opposition, but coming from a government and party which has been in power for the better part of a decade it is unforgivable.

This isn’t the product of a government with a burning vision for Britain – it is the work of a terrified office junior trying to convince an overbearing boss that he is keeping a handle on his workload when in reality it is spinning out of control. Looking at these scattergun solutions to mentally compartmentalised crises, there is no sense that any thought has been put into how the various issues – housing, infrastructure, jobs, education etc. – are interlinked with one another, particularly the crucial link between jobs and education. There is no sense that formulating government policy for the sole purpose of avoiding negative headlines might not be an optimal strategy.

Worse, a number of vital issues are left off this list altogether. At a time when Britain’s armed forces chiefs are making unprecedented public interventions warning that our national defence – already cut to the bone – cannot take another round of cuts or spending freezes, the issue doesn’t even make Theresa May’s Top Seven. And again, this isn’t about having a certain type of armed forces for the sake of it – it is about deciding what we stand for as a country and what kind of footprint we want to have on the world stage, and then working forward to the kind of defence capabilities we need to meet current and anticipated future threats.

And then there are those items such as housing, where the government outlines a bold intent only to underwhelm with the policies which follow the grandiose pledges. The £2bn for social housing pledged by Theresa May during her car crash of a party conference speech last year equates to just 5000 extra homes per year, a puny figure, almost worse than doing nothing at all. And even positive signs such as Housing Secretary Sajid Javid’s plan to encourage homeowners and developments to build upward rather than outward – absolutely the right thing to do – includes a massive sop to the Tory base of existing homeowners by leaving sufficient loopholes for councils and NIMBY protesters to thwart any such developments or at least tie them up in endless appeals.

But worst of all, there is no sense from looking at this wretched list of bullet points that these policies are remotely conservative, or flow from an authentically conservative vision for Britain’s future. There is nothing in this list which would not sound remotely abnormal coming from the mouth of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or David Cameron. Even Jeremy Corbyn would feel comfortable reeling some of them off. And this is the real sign of Tory complacency – at a time when public dissatisfaction with and loss of faith in the frayed centrist consensus has never been greater, Theresa May and her acolytes are still stuck in a dated rhetorical world where bland platitudes about improving public services are all that is needed to win the hearts and minds of voters.

In her incompetence and desperation, Theresa May is trying to work backwards – coming up with a basket of reactive and ill-considered policies designed to placate various stakeholder groups who are causing her government political problems, and then working backwards from these disparate ideas to try to divine an overarching mission for her government. No successful, transformative government in history has succeeded by adopting that approach, and none ever will.

Both for reasons of policy effectiveness and political messaging, you need to start with the big picture. We all know what Labour’s big picture is under Jeremy Corbyn – “For The Many, Not The Few“. It is an explicit call for radical redistribution of wealth and for the full bearing of the state to be deployed in order to encourage equality of outcome. And from this mission statement flow a hundred policies, all in service of that aim, from plans to raise tax to the renationalisation of industry. These policies are alternately naive, coercive, authoritarian and just plain futile, but there are few politically engaged people in the country who could not briefly summarise what Jeremy Corbyn stands for and how he wants to achieve his vision.

Meanwhile, Theresa May offers nothing and remains the most boring enigma in British politics. She was elevated to the Tory leadership despite lacking any discernible vision for Britain besides her trademark authoritarianism, and twenty dismal months later not only are the public none the wiser, her own MPs and ministers lack any sense of real purpose or direction too. Any other Opposition would have wiped the floor with the Tories at this point and dispatched them for a richly deserved spell on the other benches, and right now the only question remaining is whether the Tories are so dismal precisely because they lack a stronger challenge.

This blog has already proposed an alternative approach – the writing and publication of a new Stepping Stones report based on the seminal 1977 report authored by John Hosykns and Norman Strauss during the last period of discontinuity to face this country. Stepping Stones summarised the various problems facing Britain together with their root causes and the ways in which they were interlinked, and then proposed a suite of cohesive, mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle those issues. It was more than a pathetic soundbite backed by a list of seven woolly aspirations – it was was the blueprint taken up and used by the 1979 Thatcher government to rescue Britain from seemingly irreversible national decline. And crucially, it relied on input from people outside the world of politics, people not beholden to existing institutions, centres of power or ways of thinking.

Who within the wider conservative movement will step up and provide the vision and leadership which this government so conspicuously lacks? Who will put this failed prime minister out of her misery, not simply to have her replaced with one of the various grey substitutes in the Cabinet but with someone whose charisma and leadership ability is remotely equal to the task at hand?

It took Theresa May three months to take a vague statement of purpose and flesh it out into a dismally unexciting list of seven banal, obvious and unambitious national aspirations, none of which her government appears remotely capable of delivering. Three whole months.

“Pathetic” is too kind a word.

 

UPDATE – 6 February 2018

If anybody who reads this article feels called to action and could contribute in any way to a potential Stepping Stones 2022 project, 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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Dead In The Water

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Looking for positive signs in this most underwhelming of ‘major’ Cabinet reshuffles

What to make of Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle?

Firstly, one cannot escape how incredibly underwhelming it is. If you are going to let the media run with the story that a “major” Cabinet reshuffle is imminent, better make darn sure that the extent of shuffling lives up to the hype. On this occasion the advertisement was significantly glitzier than the product, which together with the stunningly botched rollout only added to the impression that the Tories are a frightened, disorganised mess.

Following on from that, the limited extent of the reshuffle – with Education being the only really significant department seeing a change – is another depressing reminder that Britain is led by someone without the authority to stamp her will on a party which is crying out for firm direction, let alone on a fractious and divided country.

Thirdly, even if Theresa May had wanted to carry out a wider-ranging reshuffle, what could she possibly have done that would have made the slightest difference to the direction of her party, the ambitions of the government or the fortunes of the nation? Maybe tomorrow we will see some encouraging promotions to the junior ministerial ranks – one might hope that some solid backbenchers with a bit of vision and ideological gumption, people like Kwasi Kwarteng or Chris Philp, might finally be given some executive responsibility and a launchpad to bigger and better things.

But in terms of big-hitters whose appointment or shuffling might make an immediate impact on the overall tone of the government, there was precious little that could be done even if the prime minister had wanted to shake things up. The sickness within the Conservative Party is deep, pervading all the way up from the (dying) grassroots through the activists, prospective parliamentary candidates and much of the parliamentary party, and a reshuffle can only be as good as the cards you have to deal.

In terms of bright spots, one can summon a degree of enthusiasm for the fact that charismatic MP James Cleverly has been made Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, but odds are that the centralising, micromanaging bureaucrats of CCHQ will chew him up and spit him out just as they did to Rob Halfon before him, nodding sagely while Cleverly reels off a litany of smart and worthwhile suggestions before ploughing on in exactly the same dismal direction as before, tacitly encouraged by Theresa May.

I do also reserve a spot of admiration for “beleaguered” Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (which Health Secretary of either party has ever not been described as beleaguered, and at this point shouldn’t that really tell us more about the anachronistic National Health Service for which they are responsible than the personal acumen of any given incumbent?).

Being a Tory Health Secretary is surely the most lethal of poisoned chalices when it comes to future career prospects. The role guarantees that one will be pilloried by the Left as a heartless monster who cackles as nurses are forced to food banks and patients die on trolleys, regardless of one’s actual record.

Yes yes, All Hail the NHS.

For some reason either involving masochism or great nobility, Jeremy Hunt has borne this burden stoically for six years, and for him to plead with Theresa May to not only keep his current brief but also assume responsibility for social care is quietly impressive, and shows character. I personally think that the Tories are far too timid when it comes to healthcare, but if we must set our sights low and keep Our Blessed NHS in more or less its current form, we at least need to merge it with social care – and hopefully this is an indication that the government is looking to do so.

The main problem with the reshuffle though, aside from its timidity, is that it gives no real indication of a likely change in the soul of this ideologically lost Tory government. All of the great offices of state, the main levers through which a government might seek to remake the country in its image, remain in the same uninspiring hands. Meanwhile, a bunch of junior ministers play musical chairs with one another in a frenetic pantomine apparently designed to distract us from the fact that the prime minister remains far too politically weak to move any of the people who most need moving.

But even if Theresa May did have any residual authority to undertake a real reshuffle, what difference would it make? The reshuffles that truly matter in historical or strategic terms are ones where you think “ooh, that person is going to take Department Y in a totally different direction because they are a strong believer in X”. One thinks of Margaret Thatcher’s reshuffle in 1981, in which she sought to purge some of the Tory Wets, remaining holdovers from the days of opposition who were still wedded to the failed post-war consensus.

Yet few MPs serving in Theresa May’s Cabinet, especially the most senior ones, are known for having strong ideological feelings about anything at all. Indeed, many of them seem to cultivate a deliberate sense of vagueness, giving speeches stuffed with meaningless platitudes to disguise the fact that they are chickening out from taking a bold position on anything remotely controversial (cough, Amber Rudd, cough).

Believing in things and daring to stake a bold position is dangerous in this day and age – unless you are Jeremy Corbyn or retiring from electoral politics. Far better to be blandly inoffensive, to keep everybody on side and be ambiguous about your intentions if you want to get ahead – only too often this leads to the gradual atrophy of any real policy intentions at all. Spend long enough trying to be all things to all people and soon enough you’ll forget what, if anything, you went into politics to do in the first place.

This uninspired, unambitious, managerial technocracy was the algae-asphyxiated pond in which Theresa May went to fish for new talent, and her near total lack of authority within her own party was the dismal climate in which she set off with her rod and tackle. Unsurprising, then, that she came back with little more than a few old boots to show for her efforts.

And so to abandon the fishing metaphor for another, we have ended up with a reshuffle that most closely resembles a particularly dissatisfying game of Scrabble (or Words with Friends, for the smartphone-owning crowd). One swaps out a number of pesky and useless letter tiles in the hope of getting something better in exchange, but ends up with virtually the same tiles back again, only arranged in a slightly different sequence. All that effort and a missed turn, and still you are unable to spell anything meaningful or score more than a handful of points, be it on the Scrabble board or the statute books.

So far as I can tell, virtually nothing has changed. Good luck and God speed to James Cleverly as he goes off to bash heads together (or more likely have his own caved in) at CCHQ, and may angels minister to Jeremy Hunt as he continues his lonely mission to serve as Chief Cartoon Villain to every leftist in the land. But besides that, who seriously expects a shockingly new bold policy to emerge from this cohort?

I hope I’m wrong. But more than ever I think it is going to take external events – potentially very disruptive and unwelcome ones – to shock any kind of life back into the moribund Conservative Party, the kind of political shock therapy which also tends to land the patient back in Opposition for a time.

 

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The Age Of Perpetual Crisis

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When every single issue is falsely portrayed as a burning crisis, none of our national challenges will receive the considered attention they deserve

“We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.” 
― W. H. Auden. The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue

The housing crisis. The migrant crisis. The productivity crisis. The deficit crisis. The tedious, annual NHS winter crisis. Brexit. Nearly every important issue or event in our politics is portrayed as a pressing, existential crisis, despite few of them even remotely living up to the definition. If you are sceptical, just ask somebody who was alive and situationally aware in 1940 whether any of the issues which excite politicians and newspaper editors today amount to a real crisis, and see what they have to tell you.

And as it is in Britain, so it is across the Atlantic in America. Surveying the present scene, David French writes in the National Review:

In politics, when everything’s a crisis, it turns out that EVERYTHING’S A CRISIS!

We keep reading that Donald Trump is a unique danger to American democracy, a threat we should put aside partisan tribalism to defeat. Then, seconds later, we read that giving Americans the choice to buy health insurance will kill people by the thousands. Seconds after that, we learn that an entirely conventional Republican tax plan will not only kill people but also extinguish American democracy as we know it. Finally, we read that the end of net neutrality — a regulatory doctrine that only the smallest percentage of Americans even remotely understand — will extinguish American liberty.

[..] For the average American, who pays less attention to politics than to his professional and personal lives, all of this is exhausting. It’s numbing to the point where he can’t possibly determine what’s important and what’s not. So he checks out. He throws his hands in the air and gives up. But for the Americans who care the most about politics and drive our public debate, perpetual crisis is invigorating. It provides meaning and purpose.

A nation’s political culture is always defined by the people who care the most, and the people who care the most in our nation have lost all sense of proportion.

Charles Cooke makes a similar point, but at the more personal level, in the same publication:

Ours is a moment in which millions rush breathlessly to exclaim. In defense! In resistance! In bloody-minded persistence! “I will not back down!” we are told, by people who have not been asked to, and could not be compelled to. They won’t be “intimidated” either, nor “silenced,” nor “bullied” nor, it seems, pushed to any form of self-reflection. Indignation, not analysis, is the perennial order of the day, and the tone of our debates is ineluctably Twitteresque. Retweets are points on the board, and hyperbole gets you oodles of them. The worst. Ding! Insane. Ding! Crisis. Ding, ding, ding! Congratulations, you have been promoted to the next level.

I don’t think I have ever read a more perceptive or honest summary of how political Twitter works, and as a denizen of this world I see more than a few of these negative traits in my own work, some due to personal failures but more often because the difficult pathway to being heard and gaining an audience on social media incentivises some pretty negative behaviours.

It is in the nature of those involved in politics – either doing or writing about it – to imbue their work and their passions with an air of existential importance. In many ways, this is understandable – it is hard to get a hearing in the media, or from the People Who Matter, with a piece of sober, rational analysis addressing a long-running issue; harder still when the competition presents every new report or white paper as some kind of magical elixir to the nation’s woes.

Given the choice, most people want to be Neil Armstrong and not the dedicated but overlooked engineers and project managers who made the Apollo Program a reality. Or if politics is showbusiness for ugly people then most players want to walk the red carpet and be photographed, not lurk in obscurity editing screenplays or building sets. This is human nature, but it has the unfortunate side effect of warping our political process, bending it towards flashy but superficial quick fixes and wonder cures rather than holistic analysis and serious reform.

The word “crisis” in particular is used far too readily at present, by people who should know better. The nature of politics and public policy means that nearly every important decision will ultimately have some direct or indirect impact which can be measured in terms of human lives, thus making it existentially important to at least a few people. In fact, the Left in particular rely on this very phenomenon, since their conspicuous compassion policies front-load the emotional benefits of throwing resources at a problem while deferring or even denying the costs – after all, it is easy to win applause and positive headlines by opposing welfare or healthcare reform, but much harder to counsel delayed gratification or highlight the cumulative toll of welfare dependency on the quality and duration of human life.

But in actual fact there are very few actual full-blown crises facing us at the present time, despite the best efforts of opportunistic politicians and the media to suggest otherwise. Rather, there are a series of slow-burning, serious and often intractable problems which need to be tackled, few of which are likely to lead to sudden national ruin but many of which – if left unattended much longer – have the potential to chip away incessantly at our economic prosperity, national security, democratic health or the stability and cohesion of our society.

The appalling failure of successive governments to adopt a sensible housing policy and increase the housing stock will not lead to an explosion in homelessness or destitution overnight, but it will lead to a continuing sense of rage, disillusionment and alienation among younger voters, as it is already doing. Continuing to stand by an immigration system which proudly fails to make skills or likelihood of assimilation and popular consent the key drivers will not lead to riots in the street tomorrow, but it will continue to drive a wedge between the political class and much of the country. Continuing to enshrine the NHS as our national religion and abide by the strict political doctrine of NHS non tangere will not create an immediate spike in death rates, but it will ensure that UK health outcomes continue to further lag behind those countries with the best healthcare systems.

Labelling something a “crisis” suggests imminent peril requiring immediate remedy, even if the resulting damage control ultimately creates other problems or only succeeds in kicking the can down the road. It advocates for quick fixes, which is exactly what we don’t want at this time. In this period of discontinuity, where the old political settlement has broken down and traditional, familiar policy prescriptions neither work effectively nor command sufficient public confidence, what we need are carefully thought-out and mutually supporting policies rooted in an uncompromising, forensic analysis of the precise problems we face. What we absolutely do not need are a bunch of panicked gimmicks and pseudo-policies cooked up in silos by desperate politicians and leaders whose sole objective is to survive the day and avoid negative headlines.

The difficult truth is this: there is no one pressing crisis the resolution of which will solve all our problems and keep us safe and prosperous in a changing world, and there is no universal and comprehensive solution to any of the problems we deem to be crises. Housing cannot be addressed without revising planning rules, but it is also impossible to adequately plan future housing and infrastructure when there is no meaningful control over mass immigration. Low productivity cannot be addressed without looking at corporate governance, secondary and tertiary education, workers’ rights, union power and addressing the weak commitment to R&D. Indeed across the board there is no silver bullet, no quick fix, no political party with all the right answers, no system of government ideally equipped for the challenge. We must forge a new path.

Far from focusing attention and driving positive change, labelling everything a crisis merely creates apathy, causes many voters to check out and encourages many politicians to either view problems in a highly compartmentalised way or else simply consider them insurmountable, facts of life to be dealt with rather than challenges to be overcome – just as many in the British establishment seemed resigned to irreversible national decline in the 1970s, before Thatcherism finally equipped Britain with the tools to dig ourselves out from the last major period of discontinuity this country faced.

Britain emerged stronger from the late 1970s and 80s because after years of paralysing indecision and timid half-measures from Tory and Labour governments alike we finally made a calm, methodical and dispassionate analysis of the problems holding us back – excessive union power, flawed monetary policy, excessive state involvement in the economy – and set about tackling each of these issues in a coordinated way, as part of a comprehensive national turnaround strategy.

We need to adopt just such a process again today in order to overcome this new period of discontinuity and the specific challenges that it brings. And the first step is to stop viewing every last issue as a standalone, burning crisis.

 

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The Importance Of Conservative Principles, By Nicky Morgan

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Teach us, O great one

It’s good to see that Nicky Morgan has discovered the importance of fundamental driving principles to an effective government.

Writing in Conservative Home, Morgan graces us with this pearl of wisdom:

Values and principles matter. It isn’t enough to have great policies. People want to know what our motives are and they are looking for authenticity in their politicians. We need people to be clear that we are talking about aspiration, social mobility, mental health, education, housing, animal welfare and lots of other areas, not because a focus group told us to do so but because they matter to us, personally, and we aren’t prepared to put up with the status quo.  Last week has also deepened my understanding of why principles matter, and why it is worth defending them however difficult things get.  And that some people, despite saying they like MPs with principles, actually only like those with principles that they agree with.

It’s amazing how politicians can sometimes say all the right things yet so conspicuously fail to let their actions reflect their words. Ask any random Conservative activist what strand of conservatism Nicky Morgan represents, or what a Morganite government might look like or differ from Theresa May’s, and besides a difference of tone on Brexit you would draw blank faces nearly every time.

It is all well and good pontificating on the need for “authenticity”, but it doesn’t count for much when one served unremarkably in the thoroughly un-ideological Cabinet of David Cameron, or when one’s sole reputation for political steadfastness springs from a newly discovered fetish for our unwritten constitution, spurred by the electorate’s rejection of the pro-EU consensus and a burning desire for the pro-EU House of Commons to have the last word.

Morgan’s last point, whining about people demanding MPs with principles but then disliking MPs whose principles they disagree with, is particularly asinine. Many people do indeed respect MPs with strong and unapologetic convictions, but this does not have to translate into respect for their particular policies or moral code.

This blog has long supported Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party on the grounds that the present centrist, managerialist consensus is conspicuously failing Britain in this period of political discontinuity, and because having the two viable parties of government both camped out in the same narrow centre ground is a recipe for political disengagement and fringe extremism.

But in no way is this an endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic or foreign policies, his closeness to Palestinian or Irish terrorist groups or endorsement of authoritarian leftist regimes which drive their countries into the ground. In other words, it is possible to respect the presence of principle while deploring individual policies, and Nicky Morgan should not be surprised that having finally taken something resembling a stand for something resembling a principle, she is now receiving a degree of political blowback. Unfortunately, that much comes with the territory.

And so long as MPs like Nicky Morgan continue to equate democratically legitimate calls for the deselection of MPs with other more concerning actions like online trolling or threats of violence, it is very hard to conclude other than that the entire exercise is really just a cynical ploy to grasp the mantle of victimhood and avoid accountability to the people.

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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.

Conservative Party Logo - Torch Liberty - Tree

Things fall apart the centre cannot hold - Yeats quote

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