Left-Wing Groups Continue To Outpace The Conservative Party On Strategic Thinking

Young Fabians - Global Ready Britain - Taking Stock As We Go It Alone

While Theresa May’s rootless Conservative Party tears itself apart over Brexit and continues to fail to provide a clear, positive vision for Britain, one currently has to look primarily to left-wing groups for a systemic analysis of Britain’s challenges — and ideas to fix them

Depressing as it is to write, still it must be acknowledged that with the Conservative Party permanently stuck in neutral under the leadership of a failed prime minister, nearly all of the intellectual and political energy currently resides on the left and centre-left of British politics.

Not Jeremy Corbyn’s faction of the Labour Party, of course – Corbynism still doesn’t seem to amount to much more than reheating the planned economy policies of the 1960s and 1970s, which only failed last time because we didn’t throw ourselves behind them lustily enough when they gave us the three-day week and rolling blackouts. And an important caveat should be made that some forward-thinking Conservative MPs are doing their utmost to shock some intellectual and ideological life back into the party – George Freeman and Nick Boles being the two most prominent examples.

Yet it remains the case that when it comes to acknowledging that Britain has entered a period of discontinuity – a time when we face a new configuration of challenges which are unresponsive to the policy remedies of the past and causing people to lose faith in existing political parties, processes and institutions – the Left seems to “get it” far more than the Right. This might be forgivable if conservatives were actively using their time in government to enact an agenda of their own, however misguided. But there is no agenda, save what appears to be a concerted effort to move the Conservative Party to the left of Ed Miliband’s losing 2015 Labour Party manifesto.

By contrast, Ria Bernard, chair of the Young Fabians, has one eye fixed on the future. Writing for LabourList, Bernard urges:

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, we need to be thinking about our position globally to ensure that we can compete and prosper economically and socially on the international stage.

While understandably most parliamentary activity is currently focused on the Brexit deal, we need to consider what happens next as Britain seeks a more independent role for itself in global trade.

The idea of auditing our strengths and vulnerabilities as a nation should not be something brought about by the decision to break ties with the EU – it should be something we are routinely doing to enable us to reach our potential and ensure prosperity for everyone in society. But it seems particularly important that at this time we consider where we stand in terms of a range of domestic policy areas and how we measure up to nations around the world.

If we look at our domestic policies, are we functioning at full capacity? Do we have the skills, expertise and structures in place to ensure that domestically we are supporting the population, and internationally we are able to compete? Which areas of domestic policy will put us in a strong position as we go it alone, and where will we need to be focusing our efforts to ensure that we can compete and participate in the global economy?

Apparently the Young Fabians have been working on this initiative for awhile, and have now published a report with the fruits of their labour. The report itself grew out of discussions around three specific questions:

  1. What are the strengths and vulnerabilities of Britain’s domestic policy in comparison with other countries?
  2. What are our core strengths as a nation that will enable us to effectively compete in the global community?
  3. What will undermine our place on the global stage?

These are absolutely the kind of questions that need to be asked in order to engage in strategic thinking. Serious political leaders ought regularly to conduct a dispassionate analysis of where we stand vis-a-vis our peer countries and competitors. They ought to fearlessly scrutinise our current strengths and weaknesses, confronting any serious liabilities rather than ignoring them. And perhaps most importantly, serious political leaders should be able to outline a clear vision for domestic political reform or management together with an unambiguous declaration of what Britain stands for in the world – and with whom we stand.

Does anybody honestly think that the incumbent Conservative government is engaging in any of these basic acts of strategic thinking? Does anybody honestly believe that they have done so since Theresa May came to power? Or even since 2010 and the coalition government led by David Cameron? In the former cases, the answer is surely no. Instead, ministers scurry around putting out fires or chasing positive headlines, picking up or dropping policies based on the next day’s news cycle rather than doing what is right, guided by conservative principle. And all of this under the “leadership” of a prime minister whose primary objective every morning is to survive the day.

Obviously it is easier to engage in strategic thinking from the luxury of opposition, when one has nothing but time to kick ideas around and undertake the kind of analysis that leads to good policy. But being in power is no excuse for a failure to plan – this government should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, otherwise what are we paying them for?

Meanwhile, as Conservative MPs and activists glumly try to discern whether Amber Rudd or Philip Hammond is the more inspirational, charismatic future leader to replace Theresa May, the Young Fabians correctly identify many of the major challenges facing the country:

It is widely acknowledged that we are performing poorly in terms of growth, productivity and underemployment. We have a generation of young people who are encouraged to go to university, then face a limited pool of graduate-level jobs, leading to a huge mismatch between skills and demand across the skills bands. The “gig economy” and the rise in automation is at risk of eroding hard-won rights and making job security a luxury. Our levels of productivity are some of the lowest in the world and yet we are working some of the longest hours in Europe.

If we look at health and education – are our systems the most effective way to ensure a healthy, prosperous and highly skilled population? The NHS is under phenomenal strain as it performs in a context of under-funding, staff shortages and the demands of an increasingly ageing population. A country with a healthcare service that is entirely free at the point of use, and provides services far beyond the scope of when it was initially founded in 1948, spends a significantly low proportion of its GDP on it. The NHS is likely to face challenges around funding for new research and negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, as well linking up with social care and the correcting the failure to invest in prevention.

The increasingly fractured education system, which comprises a wide range of schools from privately-funded institutions and state comprehensives to academies, free schools and faith schools, is leading to postcode lotteries and a disparity in access to specialist provision. Yet, in terms of skills and innovation, we need to be evaluating whether our national curriculum is fit for teaching the skills and knowledge that will be needed to compete in the international job market. Is the next generation prepared for the new world of automation and able to compete in the era of globalisation?

At one point in the report, the Young Fabians – the Young Fabians! – even question the continued viability of the National Health Service:

Turning to the NHS, there was much discussion on whether it is the most cost-effective way of delivering high quality, free at the point of use healthcare or if the system is no longer sustainable.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs, terrified of showing anything less than fawning deference to our national religion, continue to tweet out bland banalities and paeans of praise to the NHS without engaging in any kind of strategic or comparative analysis to determine whether that dated organisation still best serves our needs:

What is impressive here is that rather than wasting time in a divisive effort to thwart Brexit or impose an ideologically pre-determined left-wing wishlist of policies on Britain, the Young Fabians chose instead to look forward, not back. They started with a blank sheet of paper and  sought to identify all of the various challenges (and presumably opportunities) facing Britain in order to inform joined-up policymaking.

The next step – for which we have not yet seen any evidence from the Young Fabians, though hardly their fault when nobody else has led the way – is an attempt to join up these various diagnoses and identify the connections, dependencies and shared root causes between the various issues. This is an important step if we are to ensure that future policies work in concert with one another to achieve positive outcomes rather than interfering with one another or leading to the kind of confused messaging which can erode political support for a course of action.

It should be a source of abiding shame to Theresa May and those with prominent positions in the Conservative Party that one has to turn to groups such as the Young Fabians for the kind of strategic analysis that most competent governments (and nearly all major corporations) undertake as a matter of course. It should not be necessary for blogs such as this one to plead with MPs and ministers to lift their gaze from the daily news cycle for long enough to articulate a positive vision for their respective departments or for the country as a whole, and yet here we are.

When Britain last went through a period of discontinuity in the late 1970s, Labour represented declinism, fear of the future and a slavish commitment to the failing policies of the post-war consensus. Their punishment for failing to show political courage at that time was eighteen years in the wilderness of opposition, and the destruction of much which they claim to hold dear. The Tories now find themselves in a nearly identical position, painted as grim custodians of a failing status quo, an obstinately un-visionary party of technocrats and chancers who want to cling onto power only for power’s sake. Some of the issues feeding into our current period of discontinuity are different, but the political threat is identical.

And unless the Tories can stop being bested at strategic thinking by a group of earnest twenty-somethings of the centre-left, Labour’s fate of 1979 awaits them.

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It’s Time For Conservative Party Donors, Members And Activists To Go On Strike

Conservative Party email bulletin - Brandon Lewis Chairman - Weve Changed

The Conservative Party: “Trust us, we’ve changed! It will be different this time, we swear. We love you, please don’t leave us.”

Apparently my incessant complaining for the past five years has finally paid off, because the Conservative Party has changed.

How do I know that the Conservative Party has changed? Because they tell me so. The following email pinged into the inboxes of everybody on the Tories’ distribution list this afternoon. Authored by new party chairman Brandon Lewis MP, the subject heading has all the grovelling obsequiousness of a husband who forgot to buy his wife flowers on Valentine’s Day while the main body offers no evidence of said change and rounds off with a petulant demand for cash.

Lewis writes:

With your support, we’re shaping the future of Britain. But Labour and Momentum want to stop our progress.

That’s why we’re hiring new campaign managers. So if you want to help us fight Labour on the ground, sign up to donate monthly to our Campaign Manager Fund.

These new Campaign Managers will help us win elections – so we can continue our progress.

With the lowest level of unemployment since 1971, with more people buying homes of their own, and with less government borrowing – we’re building a Britain fit for the future.

We’re making sure our children have a brighter future – and won’t have to pay off our debts.

Help us continue our progress. Sign up to donate monthly and support our Campaign Managers today.

The remarkable thing about this email is that every single sentence is either false or egregiously offensive to conservatives, and often both at the same time.

The lies begin at the top, with the risible notion that the current government is “shaping the future of Britain”. No, it most definitely is not. Theresa May’s government has not proactively shaped Britain or dictated the course of Britain’s fortunes or political discourse since the decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and set in motion our departure from the European Union. And even that was a colossal mistake, given the fact that the government had given precisely zero thought to what kind of future relationship it wanted with the EU, or what kind of relationship was politically, economically or logistically feasible. In other words, the one time that this government has come anything close to “shaping the future of Britain”, it punched itself (and the rest of us) in the face.

We then learn that the Tories want to hire a bunch of new campaign managers, presumably in the hope of staunching some of the inevitable massive bleeding in the upcoming local elections. But what message will these campaign managers be tasked with propagating? What vision for the future of Britain are they to devise a strategy to articulate? We still don’t know, and haven’t known since the moment Theresa May crossed the threshold of 10 Downing Street as prime minister.

In last year’s self-inflicted calamity of a general election, the whole pitch was “strong and stable”. Any idiot could have told CCHQ and Theresa May’s inner circle that “strong and stable” is a state of being, not a destination, and that people want clarity, purpose and vision in uncertain political and economic times. And this particular idiot did tell the Tories as much, repeatedly:

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.

But the political geniuses in CCHQ and Downing Street chose not to listen, and built their entire campaign around the visionary, inspirational leadership of the most wooden, uninspiring and unpersonable senior British politician in recent history. “Who needs ideas when we have Theresa May’s Kennedy-like charisma?”, CCHQ muttered to themselves as they drove the party into oblivion.

One might have hoped for some introspection since that calamity, a rethinking of the uninspiring, technocratic approach which the Tories have long embraced, but of course we saw no such thing. Despite mounting panic among the backbenches and a few gallant attempts at ideological defibrillation from forward-thinking MPs like George Freeman and Nick Boles, the Cabinet and party leadership are too busy undermining one another, messing up Brexit and positioning themselves to succeed Theresa May to actually stop and think about what Britain should look like in 2020, 2025 or 2030, let alone devise a vision for government to get us there. And they have the gall to ask for donations to fund campaign managers to help “win elections” and continue nonexistent progress (the third lie).

The fourth line brings us the Tories’ zippy new slogan, “Building a Britain Fit for the Future”. I initially had some hope that this new slogan might presage some new ideas from the Conservative Party, given its correct suggestion that the Britain of today is not fit for the future. But those hopes were quickly dashed. After having been given three months to take that statement of intent and flesh it out into something more than a slogan, Theresa May utterly failed to do so, instead producing seven bland and entirely forgettable pseudo-aspirations which could just as easily be the credo of the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats.

In reality, of course, the Tories are not building any kind of Britain at all. Thanks to the total lack of leadership from Downing Street and the dearth of policy vision from CCHQ, Britain is not shaping events but rather being shaped by events, in much the same way that large glaciers scour the land, creating valleys and ravines as they flow down a gradient.

Our Foreign Office is vastly underfunded and led by an imbecile who rightly commands zero respect on the world stage. The Ministry of Defence seems to be led by somebody vaguely competent and willing to stand up for the Armed Forces, but the Tories continue to allow our defence capabilities to wither rather than giving them the aggressive investment that they need. And last but not least, the Tories are an incoherent mess when it comes to Brexit, with the prime minister lacking the political authority to impose any kind of decision on her squabbling ministers, meaning that we drift toward whatever Brexit agreement the EU ends up imposing on us rather than having proactively staked out our own position.

And to close off the whole insulting exercise we get the standard Tory boilerplate about giving our children a brighter future by paying off the nation’s debts. In reality, of course, the Tories – much like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s debased Republican Party in the United States – wouldn’t know fiscal responsibility if it hit them over the head. Still happy to whine about the economy and deficit they inherited from Labour in 2010, the Conservatives remain curiously silent about how exactly we will pay off the national debt when all deficit reduction targets have been abandoned and the debt continues to grow by the day. They continue to lie and falsely conflate deficit reduction with national debt reduction, and only get away with it because Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is congenitally incapable of seizing the political initiative while half of our overpaid political media stars are themselves also too dim to understand or articulate the difference between the debt and the deficit.

In short, every single line of Brandon Lewis’s fundraising email is an insult to thinking conservatives, or anybody who simply wants the government of the day to have some kind of vague purpose beyond trying to cling on to power as it slips away.

So how might a more honest version of the Conservative Party’s fundraising email read? Perhaps it would go something like this:

We haven’t changed. And much like a drug addict who insists to family and friends that they have quit the habit and turned their lives around, if you give us any more money we will simply fritter it away on the same destructive pursuits which have occupied us for the better part of a decade.

But give us a bit of cash anyway. We’ll pretend to you that we are going to use it to buy healthy food and get a new suit for job interviews, and that just £50 will really help us get back on our feet. But you know as well as us that we’re straight off to the crack house down the road as soon as you indulge us, where we will use your charity to inch ourselves ever-closer to death.

The time has come for Conservative Party members (those handful of brave souls who are left) and donors to take a stand. They should go on strike, and refuse to deliver one more leaflet or part with another penny in donations so long as the cash is flowing to the same failed, mediocre individuals who brought us Theresa May and then outdid themselves by squandering her majority in a spectacularly ill-advised general election.

Ideally this strike should take place immediately – after all, the Tories are going to bomb at the local elections and there’s no point throwing away good money after bad. But in reality, it will probably take the dismal result that we all know this government is capable of delivering for Theresa May’s enablers to wake up and realise that they are funding a clown show.

These are serious times for Britain. We face a period of discontinuity, in which we are confronted by new and unprecedented challenges while the same old policy prescriptions used in the past increasingly fail to either work or command popular support. Issues from globalisation and automation to Brexit and the future of the nation state to the housing and migration crisis require a bold vision for government and a set of coherent, mutually-supporting policies designed to resolve or at least ameliorate these issues without making anything else worse.

Theresa May can’t deliver that, and neither can anybody else in senior positions in her Cabinet. And deep down, everyone knows it. You know it, I know it, Conservative Party members who aren’t trying to suck up to the powers that be know it and Tory donors (who didn’t acquire all their money by being stupid) must also now know it.

In order that the Conservative Party might live again, somebody first needs to pull the plug on the life-support machine keeping Theresa May’s necrocracy technically alive (though certainly brain-dead). And since nobody within the Cabinet will wield the knife, it falls to the people who hold the purse strings and deliver the leaflets to act when nobody else will do so.

Any conservative, anyone with any lingering sentiment for the Conservative Party and what it once represented and accomplished, now needs to join a general strike against CCHQ and withhold their money and their campaigning efforts until they force a change. The party has been overrun by mediocrities for far too long, and the time has come to starve them out.

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

Tattered Union Flag - Britain - United Kingdom - Building a Britain Fit for the Future - Tories - Conservatives - Theresa May

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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Are Technocrats To Blame For The Rise Of The Know-Nothing Celebrity Politician?

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When unelected technocrats increasingly set policy and carry out the day-to-day business of governance we should not be surprised that electoral politics, castrated and less consequential than ever before, is becoming a circus freak show

Michael Brendan Dougherty has a new piece in the National Review which so succinctly captures the state of Western democratic politics that busy as I am this week, I feel the immediate need to blog a response/reaction to it.

Dougherty’s jumping off point is the sudden, feverish interest among assorted leftists and Democrats for television personality Oprah Winfrey (yes…) to run for president against Donald Trump in 2020, driven almost entirely by a speech Winfrey gave about the #MeToo movement while picking up an award at last night’s Golden Globes.

You might think it a little hypocritical for people who have spent the past two years bashing Donald Trump as an inexperienced dilettante in way over his head, a reality TV blowhard with no credentials and no right to occupy the office he holds, to immediately embrace a similar figure from their own side of the political divide – and you would be correct in thinking so. But the mere fact that voters are being drawn to these celebrity candidates is itself noteworthy, and crucially, Dougherty places the blame not with the voters but with the bland, interchangeable technocrats of the political class who offer those voters no compelling alternative.

Dougherty writes:

The average voter is going to be blamed for this. The great disdain of the educated class will fall on the Uhmurkans who have been hypnotized by their televisions. Maybe some of that’s right. But I blame the wonks. It was the wonks who, unawares, made the celebrity president not just desirable but logically necessary.

The wonk’s role is well-fitted to the centrist political ideal in the post–Cold War West. For them, government is most highly admirable when it is totally denuded of questions of value or morality (these having obvious and uncontroversial answers), and reduced to a purely technical exercise. The politician working with the wonk finds that his job is reconciling the public with what’s good for them. And this fits the machinery of the executive branch, which is filled with hundreds of thousands of civil servants, overseen by a much smaller retinue of political appointees almost all chosen from within the governing class of the country. Where this model of government is most advanced — in Europe — policy questions are routinely taken away from the passions of democratic peoples, and quarantined for expert management.

Taken together, these trends are more or less the abolition of traditional democratic politics. And so there is little use for the traditional politician, a person of judgment and charisma who represents the community from which he or she emerges, using his own wisdom in reconciling the diverse interests and needs of his nation and constituency.

You couldn’t write a better paragraph describing the impact of Westminster centrism and EU integration on our democracy, even though Dougherty is talking in his essay about American politics as much as European. On both sides of the Atlantic, political leaders have behaved as though we are living in the End of History even when Francis Fukuyama’s prediction has long since been disproven through bitter experience. Elections, while often bitter and hard fought, have generally offered little meaningful choice when it comes to big questions about how the nation can best order society and relate to the world. Even when political rhetoric has been heated and the candidates have seemed very different, the economic system and world order they ultimately support has tended to be the same, an embrace of the status quo.

Michael Lind also wrote at length in 2017 about the severing of the compact between the ruling class and the governed, with those in the political, professional and creative classes increasingly feeling no bond of kinship with or obligation to others in society, those they look down upon for holding “incorrect” or “oppressive views” (which can often be taken to mean “that which was mainstream twenty years ago”. And many politicians, nearly all drawn from this class (or inducted into it soon after election) do indeed spend their time explaining and defending the status quo to the citizens they nominally represent, rather than striving to change the status quo on their behalf.

I noted the same phenomenon only last month, in the context of Brexit:

Look at the big issues facing the West and the world in general in 2017 – global migration flows, Islamist terror, globalisation, outsourcing, automation and more – and there is not one of these complex problems which we as a country have failed to comprehensively sweep under the rug or otherwise avoid meeting the challenge.

Even on those occasions when the people have recognised burning problems and the need for bold new solutions, public opinion (such as on Brexit and immigration) has been repeatedly slapped down over the years by a cohort of politicians who think it is their job to explain and defend the current status quo to the citizenry rather than change the status quo according to the demands of the citizenry.

As I have also written, this managerialist technocratic approach to government, with the wonks in the driving seat and politicians as mere interlocutors to the public can potentially be justifiable when things are in steady-state, when times are good, society and the economy stable and when no large threats loom on the horizon. However, rather than a benevolent steady-state we instead live in interesting times, with numerous opportunities and threats ranged around us. This is the discontinuity about which I have been writing so much of late.

In such periods of discontinuity politicians must not remain in the back seat, because it then falls to unelected civil servants and powerful economic agents to dictate the nature and scope of change on their own terms and to their own advantage. For two decades now, globalisation, automation, outsourcing and immigration have changed the structure of our economies and the very meaning of work, and yet there has been no meaningful political debate about these topics until public dissatisfaction reached such a level that the debate could no longer be suppressed.

Nowhere has the debate been suppressed more effectively than on the subject of immigration, and nobody has done more to suppress that debate (thus pushing it toward the unpleasant fringes) than the Labour Party. On immigration, Labour and left-wing politicians very much see themselves as interlocutors rather than elected representatives. When people (including many of their own constituents) raise concerns about the dramatic levels of net migration since 2004, left-wing politicians and commentators see it as their job to explain why unprecedentedly high immigration is actually a good thing rather than seriously engage with voter concerns and amend policy based on that feedback.

When politicians refuse to take voters at their word and assume that their qualms about immigration are really about something else, this is not only patronising but ultimately counterproductive. One of Labour’s favourite fallbacks when it comes to immigration concerns is to pivot to worker exploitation. They think that by instituting new laws to crack down on hiring workers for less than minimum wage (as though it were not already illegal) the public will be placated because foreign workers will no longer be able to undercut local labour. Another favoured technique is to talk about infrastructure, a glib pseudo-concession to the reality that roads do not automatically widen nor hospitals acquire additional beds with every new migrant who lands at Heathrow. Of course, if they really cared about matching infrastructure to population increases caused by immigration they would have done so when they had the opportunity, so this is yet another evasion.

And even now that this tactic of ignoring voter sentiment and patronisingly explaining to voters why they are wrong to be concerned about mass immigration has spectacularly blown up in their faces, still the key voices of the Left can imagine no other way of functioning. Accepting that voters may have a point and amending their policies to reflect the democratic mood doesn’t occur to them. Instead we just see more earnest think pieces about how voters need to be better taught the benefits of immigration.

But immigration is only the most prominent policy area where we see this behaviour from politicians. The same haughty dismissal of public opinion occurs in nearly every sphere. As another example, both Labour and the Conservatives have long since coalesced around what is basically a social democratic economic worldview where profits were tolerated (though rarely celebrated) because the resulting taxes on those profits fund the massive, omnipresent public sector. This locked old-school socialists and more free-market conservatives out of the conversation until Ed Miliband’s failure to win the 2015 election saw Jeremy Corbyn bust open the consensus on the Left and take Labour in a more ideological direction. Theresa May still stubbornly refuses to come to an accommodation of her own with the libertarian right of her party, and this obstinacy and unwillingness to allow alternative views to influence policy is one of many reasons why the Conservative government is idling in neutral, doing nothing of value for the country and waiting for somebody to put it out of its misery.

So given the fact that our politicians (at least the ones who get ahead) tend to be dismal functionaries rather than inspired leaders with disruptive new ideas to meet the period of discontinuity in which we find ourselves, it is perhaps less surprising that many voters gravitate toward someone, anyone with charisma and a willingness to do something more than patiently explain to voters why all of the things they dislike are actually really good for them.

Dougherty writes:

Having eliminated the need for real probity in politicians, why shouldn’t the parties turn to celebrities as their political leaders? The celebrity will do the job of winning elections and riling up the public, but the machinery of government will go on, almost undisturbed.

This may be cathartic for some voters, but it has not taken long for the establishment blob to get the measure of most populist uprisings and swiftly tame them in all but rhetoric. In France for example, Emmanuel Macron discovered that by jumping around on stage and shouting a lot he could amass huge numbers of disillusioned voters and easily see off the threat from Marie Le Pen’s Front National, even though Macron is himself little more than a young face and a neat hairdo atop the same policies which so irritate the public and have increasingly proven inadequate to our present challenges.

And so it is too in America. Dougherty writes:

We can see how the permanent class of Republicans in government almost immediately tamed the Trump presidency. Instead of the populist presidency Trump promised, Trump is ushering in much of the pre-existing “moderate” Republican agenda of corporate tax cuts and economic deregulation. The political class and the media allied to it were able to expunge most of the populist figures from the administration. Soon, they might even succeed in expunging Trump, too.

We are thus heading toward a place where the theatre of democracy is almost entirely divorced from the process of governing. The connection between national elections and meaningful policy reform is becoming about as tenuous as the link between scripted reality TV and actual reality – in other words, almost nonexistent.

In this increasingly dystopian world, all our favourite celebrities can duke it out to become nominal presidents or prime ministers while the technocratic wonks pay no heed to the sideshow and quietly continue to go about implementing their preferred policies relatively unmolested.

But the blob may no more have the national interest at heart than the populist celebrity politician. Both are prone to self-interest, and while the celebrity politician’s interest likely lies in self-aggrandisement, the blob has often proven itself to be more interested in perpetuating policies which benefit its constituent classes in the short to medium term than strategically positioning the nation(s) they effectively govern to face the challenges and reap the rewards of the future.

And the blob is especially dangerous right now, having been moved to anger by unprecedented popular rejection in 2016. The disruptors may have thought that they could summon a good rage or indulge in a lavish pity party when they wanted, but their antics have proven to be nothing compared to the centrist persecution complex the displaced establishment has conjured up in response.

Neither side does their country any favours. The populists – whose figureheads are Donald Trump in America and the Hard Brexit Ultras in Britain – have by now proven their unseriousness and detachment from reality, but the blob still seems to be of the opinion that things can go back to the way they were once what they see as these temporary aberrations are over and the populist rebellions put down.

Patrick Deneen put it best in the Spectator this week, remarking that we now have “a liberal elite without a populace, and a populace without a moderating elite.” And so we are left to pick our poison – on the one hand an arrogant technocratic class which even now shows no humility or willingness to change its ways, and on the other a succession of telegenic performers who are great at channelling public anger but totally lacking the knowledge or leadership ability to turn anger into smart policy.

Not an enviable choice.

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The Age Of Perpetual Crisis

The Age of Anxiety - Ballet

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.

 

Munch - The Scream

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