Conservative Party Policy Renewal: 1000 Ways To Die Trying

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Rather than attempting to forge a compelling, coherent vision for Britain rooted in conservative values, our dithering Prime Minister is soliciting a thousand disjointed policy suggestions from every vested interest and armchair crank in the nation. This is not leadership.

Having been on the road since 14 March of this year, I confess that I presently find myself semi-detached from the day-to-day granular developments in British politics. I note the headlines and observe the main spectacles as they occur – this week it seems to be another Cabinet showdown about Brexit and the planned “Rite of Spring” style frenzied celebration of the NHS on its 70th birthday, complete with the worshipping of false idols at Westminster Abbey and perhaps enough human sacrifices to make even the mass murderers at Gosport Hospital seethe with envy – but otherwise have been forced to tune out the smaller procedural stories which, taken together, give the truest indication of where we are heading.

It is dispiriting, therefore, to tune back in this week and discover that the Conservative Party remains every bit as ideologically lost, rudderless and without leadership as it was when I flew from Heathrow Airport nearly four months ago, particularly since the fractious nature of British politics could see any more Tory missteps usher in a Corbynite Labour government and a chaotic, uncontrolled Brexit – two economic calamities both alike in indignity, one slow-burning and the other all too immediate.

At this point, I can scarcely bring myself to repeat the warnings that this blog has been making with increasing alarm (and clarity) for the past six years – that chasing Labour to the left and disowning/apologising for small government conservative principles is political folly, and that the period of discontinuity in which we now find ourselves – where the old political settlement neither adequately addresses our contemporary problems nor commands widespread public support – requires coherent vision and ambitious policymaking from our political elites, not more of the same old demos-phobic technocracy.

At this point I have warned of the urgent need for new Conservative policymaking which neither seeks to mimic statist Labour paternalism or reheat individualist 1980s Thatcherism, and have cheered on those few brave efforts to seed the Tory Party with new ideas – most notably George Freeman MP’s “Big Tent” initiative.

But it has become increasingly clear to me that the Conservative Party cannot save itself, that much of the heavy lifting will have to be done by people not beholden to the existing party power structure (and quite possibly outside of politics altogether), just as it took external voices to commandeer a 1970s Tory Party still stubbornly clinging to a failed socialist post-war settlement. Unfortunately, it has also become equally clear that the required external voices are not at all welcome, that “conservative reform” is seen by those in power as little more than a cosmetic exercise whereby people within the existing Tory ecosystem sit around reciting platitudes at one another.

Until this week. Now, it seems, Theresa May has decided to go in an altogether different direction. From the Telegraph:

Theresa May has launched an appeal for MPs, peers and party members to submit 1,000 policy ideas to form the basis of the Conservative party’s bid to win the next general election.

The Prime Minister has announced she has set up a new Conservative Policy Commission in the biggest overhaul of the party’s policy thinking in more than a decade, personally appealing to Brexit voters in particular to offer up their own ideas.

The new Commission, chaired by Chris Skidmore MP, has been charged with developing the ideas in time for the Tory party conference next year.

The next general election is expected in 2022 but the relatively short timetable means Mrs May will be presented with a ready-made policy platform if she chooses to call an early election in the months after Britain quits the European Union next year.

So from having almost taken a perverse pride in her government’s lack of direction or urgency for change, Theresa May is now seeking the oddly specific number of 1000 new policy ideas, even deigning to consider contributions from (relatively) ordinary people.

And how is this new Policy Commission intended to work?

Each task force will be asked to answer 20 policy questions set by Mr Skidmore with 10 separate policy ideas, to give the party 1,000 new ideas for consideration in the final policy report.

[..] Evidence will be gathered at meetings in towns and cities in every region around the country, with an interim report ready for summer next year and the final document published at the party’s 2019 conference.

The long-sickening optimist within me would like to think that some good might emerge from this exercise, even though a policy review seeking only answers to highly specific, pre-ordained questions is unlikely to produce many truly radical or disruptive ideas. However, the realist within me – whose low expectations have been repeatedly vindicated – suspects that this is nothing more than a Tony Blair-style cosmetic New Labour performance spectacle, that the task forces themselves will somehow end up stuffed full of the same Westminster bubble-dwellers you always see at London think tank events, and that if any genuinely bold policy emerges from the mess it will be met with polite interest and then disappeared down the memory hole.

But worse than that, by announcing this initiative Theresa May is veering from one extreme to another – from having solicited policy and strategic advice from only a small and insular circle of loyal sycophants to encouraging everyone in the land to start shouting ideas or promoting their personal pet projects at the same time. Rather than stepping back and attempting to forge a compelling, coherent vision for Britain rooted in conservative values, our dithering Prime Minister is now soliciting disjointed contributions from every vested interest and armchair crank in the nation. This is not leadership.

Back in November of 2017 I attempted to outline the approach which a Conservative government should be taking toward necessary policy renewal, beginning by quoting the influential 1977 Stepping Stones Report:

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.

I then laid out a case arguing that we find ourselves in a similar moment of political discontinuity today, with new challenges producing the same frustrations and political sclerosis we witnessed during the national decline of the 1970s. For all his flaws, Jeremy Corbyn recognises that we are in a period of discontinuity and is promoting radical left-wing policies in tune with the moment. By contrast, the Conservatives seem terrified to articulate any kind of bold vision at all, and risk being correctly perceived as the party of the status quo.

Hence my final recommendation:

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

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

I still believe that this idea, or some variant of it, is the only surefire way for Britain to identify, acknowledge and overcome our present challenges. In principle, a Conservative Policy Commission could be a good idea, particularly one which pays particular attention to the aspirations and concerns of those areas of the country which voted to leave the European Union. But demanding 1000 fresh ideas and then frantically sorting through them, trying to weld together a new draft manifesto in time for the 2019 Tory party conference, is not going to result in anything coherent or sufficiently inspirational to make people positively want to vote Conservative. At best it looks gimmicky, and at worst it serves as a Trojan horse for multitudes of self-serving vested interest policy to find an unwitting champion in government.

Put simply, you cannot solicit 1000 random ideas and successfully pick through them in order to arrive at a compelling programme for government. What’s needed is an earnest attempt to identify, describe and measure the challenges, threats and opportunities facing Britain – be it automation, outsourcing, migration, productivity, education or national security – and then identify the linkages and interdependencies between them. Only on the strength of this bedrock of analysis can new policy ideas be properly evaluated to determine whether they are both politically feasible and adequate to the challenge at hand.

Any such approach would require something between the traditional insular elitism of the political class and the slap-happy populism of Theresa May’s latest initiative, inviting unfiltered ideas without any clear basis on which to evaluate them. Strong government involves making trade-offs and necessary compromises in pursuit of a greater good; Theresa May’s proposed policy commission risks being nothing more than retail politics at its worst, promising all things to all people and disappointing everybody in the process.

I wish that things looked more optimistic for the Conservative Party and for the country, but from my current perch here in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I see only a weak and dithering prime minister who thinks that conservative policy renewal is little more than a cosmetic exercise, or even worse, a political game to be played. All those Conservative activists working diligently to come up with new ideas are not well served by a CCHQ and leadership which bypasses their efforts and seeks an arbitrary 1000 new ideas simply because someone in 10 Downing Street thought that it would make a good headline.

Here in the United States, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to Donald Trump in part because her campaign was never able to satisfactorily or compellingly explain why she wanted to be president beyond the personal satisfaction of having her hands on the levers of power. In Britain, the Conservative Party has been in power for the better part of a decade, most of it without offering voters any kind of positive vision (let alone a granular strategy) for strengthening the country. With Jeremy Corbyn now offering a clear contrast and a very different vision for Britain, the Tories no longer have the luxury of being dull, dismal and technocratic.

Neither the Conservative Party nor the country needs 1000 wacky new policy ideas at this difficult juncture, or any other quick-fix solution proposed by Theresa May. Right now we simply need one leadership-supported policy renewal initiative which might plausibly deserve to be called “strategic”, and a leader who aspires to something more than just remaining in office.

This really shouldn’t be asking too much. At one time, strategic thinking and purposeful leadership were baseline expectations, not wistful pipe-dreams. We have fallen a long way in a relatively short span of time.

I close with this pertinent warning from the Stepping Stones report:

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

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Review: The People vs Democracy

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“The People vs Democracy” goes further than many other books which claim to “explain” Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, showing that it takes both sides – outraged establishment centrists as well as populist insurgents – to successfully undermine liberal democracy. Political renewal depends on the former group finally accepting responsibility for some of the failings which brought us to this divisive moment

Introspection has been in short supply since the twin shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory. Both sides are at fault – supporters of Brexit and Trump, well used to being the insurgent political outsiders, have frequently struggled to adapt to the fact that they now set the agenda (at least in part) and share responsibility for tangible outcomes affecting everybody. Meanwhile, dispossessed leftists and centrists, largely content with the old status quo and fearful about the speed and extent to which their worldview was repudiated at the ballot box, are so enraged at developments that they refuse to even consider how their actions and errors led to the present situation.

A new book by Yascha Mounk’s, “The People vs Democracy”, attempts to shake both sides out of their complacency while warning that doubling down on current behaviours – with populists displaying impatient contempt for norms and institutions which stand in their way, and establishment centrists concluding that even more areas of policy need to be lifted out of the “risk” of democratic influence – risk fatally undermining liberal democracy, which turns out to be a far less stable and inevitable system of government than we have all tended to believe.

The book was apparently conceived before either Trump or Brexit, but inevitably it has been seized upon by a political and media class who are overwhelmingly sceptical of (and often hostile to) both developments as a kind of guide book for how to avoid ever again losing control of the political narrative. Unfortunately, these audiences seem far more interested in analysing and condemning the supposed pathologies of voters who support populist leaders and initiatives rather than looking honestly at their own manifold failings. In an otherwise excellent interview and Q&A with the American author and journalist EJ Dionne, establishment centrist failings are barely considered at all, and certainly do not receive top billing.

Media organisations with an agenda to push have consistently portrayed the book as an analysis of the means by which “populist uprisings could bring down liberal democracy”, but this is disingenuous. Such deceptive portrayals begin in media res, assuming that populist uprisings begin spontaneously and unpredictably like forest wildfires rather than as a direct result of the failures of the increasingly antidemocratic pseudo-liberalism they champion in the form of institutions like the European Union and continuity politicians such as Hillary Clinton.

In reality, any intellectually honest observer must now concede that populists do not spring spontaneously from the earth, and that the ground must be fertilised with the arrogance and failure of establishment politicians and institutions before populism can take root and pose any systemic danger to democracy. Mounk himself acknowledges as much in his book, which is refreshing, but the biases of his target audience mean that this side of the story is consistently downplayed, both in the book and in many reviews.

Yascha Mounk begins with an overview of the West’s current political landscape, looking at factors which are common between countries:

Then there are those short years in which everything changes all at once. Political newcomers storm the stage. Voters clamor for policies that were unthinkable until yesterday. Social tensions that had long simmered under the surface erupt into terrifying explosions. A system of government that had seemed immutable looks as though it might come apart.

This description of increased political division also describe periods of discontinuity and the difficult, contentious process of forming a new political consensus from the ashes of an older, failing one:

There are ordinary times, when political decisions influence the lives of millions of people in ways both big and small, but the basic features of a country’s collective life are not at stake. Despite deep disagreements, partisans on both sides of the political battle line endorse the rules of play. They agree to settle their differences on the basis of free and fair elections, are committed to the basic norms of the political system, and accept that a loss at the ballot box makes it legitimate for their political opponent to take a turn at running the country.

[..] Then there are extraordinary times, when the basic contours of politics and society are being renegotiated. In such times, the disagreements between partisans on both sides grow so deep and nasty that they no longer agree on the rules of the game.

[..] As a result, the denizens of extraordinary times start to regard the stakes of politics as existential. In a system whose rules are deeply contested, they have good reason to fear that a victory at the polls may turn out to be forever; that a loss in one political battle may rob them of the ability to wage the larger war; and that progress defeated today may turn out to set the country on a path toward perennial injustice.

This could very easily describe the post-war socialist consensus which prevailed almost uncontested in Britain from 1945 to 1979, or the subsequent supranational and technocratic (or “neoliberal”) consensus which followed. The difference this time is that it is not the coal miners or those whose lives were made more precarious by globalisation protesting and striking, but rather members of the political and economic elite raging that their judgment as to what is best of the country has been second-guessed by other, less educated or refined people.

While Mounk plants his flag quite clearly on the “liberal” side of the argument, he is refreshingly willing to examine the flaws and missteps of his own side as they increasingly work toward a future of rights without democracy:

The rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, is but one side of politics in the first decades of the twenty-first century. For even as ordinary people have grown sceptical of liberal practices and institutions, political elites have tried to insulate themselves from their anger. The world is complicated, they insist – and they have worked hard to find the right answers. If the people should grow so restive as to ignore the sage advice proffered by elites, they need to be educated, ignored or bullied into submission.

Mounk uses the example of Greece and the Euro crisis as his example, but he could just as easily have taken any of the EU’s dealings with recalcitrant member states, or the economic and social consensus adopted in most Western countries.

And so we find ourselves locked in a negative spiral:

In democracies around the world, two seemingly distinct developments are playing out. On the one hand, the preferences of the people are increasingly illiberal: voters are growing impatient with independent institutions and less and less willing to tolerate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, elites are taking hold of the political system and making it increasingly unresponsive: the powerful are less and less willing to cede to the views of the people. As a result, liberalism and democracy, the two core elements of our political system, are starting to come into conflict.

[..] Democracies can be illiberal. This is especially likely to happen in places where most people favour subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike. Conversely, liberal regimes can become undemocratic despite having regular, competitive elections. This is especially likely to happen where the political system is so skewed in favour of the elite that elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.

This is absolutely correct but it is important to note that democracy has atrophied much faster and further than liberalism thus far in countries such as Britain and the United States. This may seem incorrect to bewildered centrists who tended to believe that everything was marvellous (or at least on a positive path toward progress) until Trump and Brexit appeared like bolts from the blue, but it is true nonetheless.

Much of the rising anti-liberalism has thus far been confined to rhetoric only, and has not yet rooted itself in public policy, while anti-democratic practices and the effective disenfranchisement of those who hold the “wrong” views have been flourishing for years and even decades. It is also the case that many policies now considered intolerably illiberal by many opinion setters (such as aggressive immigration enforcement under the Clinton or Obama administrations in America) were accepted or even positively encouraged by so-called liberals not long ago, raising the question to what extent the current fear of “illiberal” policymaking is primarily the result of goalpost-moving by those on the progressive left determined to find evil in present policy for cultural reasons and cynical political advantage-seeking. Yes, we must absolutely tackle both sides of the equation, but we can only do so when we recognise the extent of democratic corrosion compared to real-world illiberal infringements.

And of course this is a self-perpetuating cycle – more and more areas of policy being lifted free of responsive democratic control inevitably increases support for populists and assorted dissenters, which (from the perspective of elites) only validates their belief that the people are unqualified and untrustworthy of making key decisions for themselves.

Ultimately, Mounk correctly diagnoses the burning issue of the age:

Rights without democracy need not prove to be more stable [than democracy without rights]: once the political system turns into a playground for billionaires and technocrats, the temptation to exclude the people from more and more important decisions will keep on growing.

A large part of Mounk’s criticism of populist movements (and one of the main criticisms in general) is the idea that populist politicians offer glib and simple solutions to inherently complex problems, and in doing so perpetrate a fraud on the gullible people who vote for them. Citing Donald Trump and Nigel Farage as examples, Mounk writes that populists:

…all claim that the solutions to the most pressing problems of our time are much more straightforward than the political establishment would have us believe, and that the great mass of ordinary people instinctively knows what to do. At bottom, they see politics as a very simple matter.

Yes and no. It is certainly true that the complicated technology and regulation required to make the global economy hang together does necessitate a growing technocracy and makes politics far more complicated, but at times the populists are surely reacting with righteous and justified indignation to a bipartisan or consensus view to lift decisions out of democratic control. As Mounk later goes on to admit, there is no good reason why the citizens of a country should not be heard through the ballot box when it comes to immigration levels. The complex cost/benefit analysis of different types and scales of immigration may well be hugely complex, but the principle currently being violated in many Western countries is starkly clear, hence the stark (and supposedly simplistic) solution of returning some decision-making around immigration to the electorate.

Yet for most of the book, Mounk seems happy to dismiss this causal factor, rhetorically asking:

If the political problems of our time are so easy to fix, who do they persist?

Some of these problems are really entrenched and lack a simple solution, contrary to the populist claims. But at other times, the issue is simply that centrist consensus politics – or what those on the Left might denounce as peak neoliberalism – simply will not countenance the obvious and ready solutions.

Mounk rightly warns that the willingness of populist leaders to advocate the sidestepping or abolition of various institutional roadblocks – whether through earnest impatience or more malevolent intentions – is contrary to the spirit of liberal democracy. And indeed, in Britain we have seen this play out with attacks on the judiciary and now the House of Lords because of their interpretation of law or procedural foot-dragging. Mounk correctly expresses the ideal, and warns of the danger:

Liberal democracies are full of checks and balances that are meant to stop any one party from amassing too much power and to reconcile the interests of different groups. But in the imagination of the populists, the will of the people does not need to be mediated, and any compromise with minorities is a form of corruption.

Quite so. But we cannot level this criticism against populism unless we acknowledge that many of these cherished, long-standing institutions have thus far seemingly offered no defence against an effective cartel whereby both (or in some countries, all) the main political parties implement the same policies and pursue the same basic worldview without offering meaningful choice to the electorate. In such a case – as with EU membership and New Labour era mass immigration in Britain – it is not unreasonable to complain that the institutions or checks and balances currently in place are not fit for purpose, and require urgent reform at the very least.

Despite moments of real clarity, there are other occasions when for whole sections at a time, Mounk lapses into the kind of lazy, almost arrogant view of his political opponents which has for too long infected the media and mainstream opinion-setting public figures:

So much of the angry energy that fuelled [protests against Angela Merkel’s lax and permissive immigration policies  in Germany] had been on display in the streets of Dresden that I could not help interpreting the events of 2016 an 2017 in light of what I saw there: the hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities; the mistrust of the press and the spread of fake news; the conviction that the silent majority had finally found its voice; and, perhaps more than anything else, the hankering for somebody who would speak in the name of the people.

Have journalists and academics really no alternative way to think about and describe opposition to mass migration than “hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities”? This is half the problem – the determination of many opinion-setters to read the worst possible motives into popular protests, thus making it even harder for politicians to take those legitimate concerns seriously lest they be accused of “pandering”.

In fact, the best refutation to Mounk’s assertion is the story of the far right in Britain. While Mounk meticulously documents the rise of populist hard or far-right political parties in many European countries, he is conspicuously silent about the fate of the British National Party in the UK. Early on in the era of mass migration to Britain, in the early 2000s, the BNP secured a stunning series of victories in local and European elections, seeing their vote share climb and jostle for position with other more established and respectable smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats. The BNP prospered in a climate where none of the major political parties promised to seriously grapple with the issue of mass migration, and rising support for the BNP was taken and portrayed by the commentariat as rising support for the BNP’s worst and most racist tendencies. However, the rise of the UK Independence Party, a staunchly Eurosceptic party lacking the racist baggage of the far right, saw the BNP quickly fade back into obscurity. In subsequent elections, the BNP lost almost all of their local council seats and entered a period of organisational dysfunction from which it has not yet emerged.

This shows that when the subjects of race and immigration are separated (as they were when voters were offered a clear choice between the BNP and UKIP), voters are far less racist and prejudiced than many establishment commentators give them credit for. The triumph of UKIP over the BNP proved as definitively as possible that concerns about mass immigration implemented without democratic consent were not primarily ethnicity based – why else would voters eschew the party which was more willing to make race and ethnicity an issue? Yet political and media elites continually over-conflate the issues of immigration and race, partly because of a soft bias which leads them to instinctively favour higher immigration and look down on those who equivocate, but also, one suspects, because they know that accusations of racism are the best way to discredit an otherwise legitimate policy argument.

The lazy charge of racism is not the only instance where Mounk unfortunately lapses into comforting establishment dogma. In this paragraph he effectively ventriloquises the sense of entitlement felt by displaced establishment politicians throughout the West, from displayed centre leftists in denial about their newly diminished position in Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left Labour Party to identity politics-worshipping Democrats who now want to double down on the divisive rhetoric of racial or gender-based grievance:

Populist leaders’ willingness to offer solutions that are so simple they can never work is very dangerous. Once they are in power, their policies are likely to exacerbate the problems that drove public anger in the first place. It would be tempting to assume that voters, suitably chastened by the ensuing chaos, would then return their trust to establishment politician.

Tempting? Chastened? Yascha Mounk is clearly an intelligent and conscientious writer, but these words reveal the extent to which he and other opinion-setters marinade in a very ideologically and culturally homogenous environment. “Tempting” suggests that it would be good if voters returned power to the same unrepentant establishment politicians that Mounk has elsewhere conceded to have led us into our current difficulties, and “chastened” suggests an establishment view of the electorate as spoiled children to be either indulged or reprimanded at various times, but never given full agency over their own lives. Mounk may not have intended it to come across this way, but there are few other ways of reading this paragraph, which itself is very reflective of prevailing opinion within the political bubble.

Throughout the book, generally the most extreme degrees of anti-establishment or populist argument are analysed, with the more moderate positions whose continued stonewalling led to a populist revolt in the first place are frustratingly avoided. We see this again here:

The major political problems of the day, populists claim, can be easily solved. All it takes is common sense. If jobs are moving abroad, you have to ban other countries from selling their products. If immigrants are flooding the country, you have to build a wall. And if terrorists attack you in the name of Islam, you have to ban all the Muslims.

On one hand it is quite right and proper to note the glib simplicity and unpleasant tone of these policies, particularly since Donald Trump did come to office promising to implement them all in one form or another. But taking potshots at the obvious impracticality of Trump’s proposals is easy. What is much harder – and would have made the book even stronger – is a more consistent and rigorous introspection as to why the continued downplaying of these issues (job displacement due to globalization and poorly enforced immigration laws with tacit acceptance of illegal immigration) by previously ruling elites led to their downfall in the first place. An understanding that continually crying “racism!” in the face of sober minded and reasonable policy proposals ultimately led to the emergence of someone with far catchier but less workable policies – the kind of introspection shown in Mark Lilla’s book “The Once And Future Liberal” – would have rounded out “The People vs Democracy” and made it a less frustrating read for moderate conservatives who agree with Mounk’s diagnosis but marvel at his inability to keep a fixed gaze on the root cause.

Too often, Mounk gives a free pass to the media, whose manifold failings also contributed enormously to this populist moment:

Critical media outlets cover protests against the populist leader. They report on his government’s failings and give voice to his prominent critics. They tell sympathetic stories about his victims.

All well and good, exactly as it should be. But where was this brave and critical media during previous administrations? Where are the equivalent stories about the victims of policies pursued through the establishment consensus? Yes, many news outlets, dazed and confused after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, urgently dispatched reporters to far flung parts of their countries in a bid to speak with and understand the motivations of people who voted for populist options – and to be fair, there has been some good and incisive reporting as a result. But why were those journalists not always rooted in these communities, reporting sympathetically on the struggles taking place there? Why did so few media outlets or opinion-setters correctly predict the two most shocking electoral events of the century? The answer can only be that the media was and remains utterly unfit for purpose, thinking and reporting almost exclusively from one side of an emergent divide while having few authentic connections to – and zero credibility with – the other.

We should absolutely celebrate and defend a free press and reward good reporting and analysis wherever it is produced. But we delude ourselves if we hold up the existing media class as plucky heroes and defenders of democracy when their collective failure did as much as anything else to ensure that populist concerns were not fully heard until they exploded into the open with the election of Donald Trump.

Mounk is also sometimes too forgiving towards other institutions which have historically been part of the problem rather than the solution:

Attacks on the free press are but the first step. In the next step, the war on independent institutions frequently targets foundations, trade unions, think tanks, religious associations, and other nongovernmental organizations.

Populists realize how dangerous intermediary institutions with a real claim to representing the views and interests of large segments of society are to the fiction that they, and they alone, speak for the people. They therefore work hard to discredit such institutions as tools of old elites or outside interests.

Again, Mounk’s basic warning is a fair and important one. But focusing only on the attacks which these institutions are now attracting from populists and largely ignoring their significant failures makes it much harder to successfully argue for needed reform, or to reach a bipartisan compromise which might help rebuild trust in the various institutions while cleansing them of any existing bias or corruption. For example, many Brexiteers are wrong to propose the total abolition of the House of Lords due to the assembly’s scrutiny of the Brexit process and defeat of government motions, but those defending the institution are too willing to overlook the lopsided, unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of the Lords. And in America, defending the free press against the outrageous tweets and bluster emanating from Donald Trump’s White House risks overlooking the deep flaws and blind spots which run through many news organizations which consider themselves strictly objective and impartial.

Mounk also fails to consider other reasons why populist leaders may seek institutional or systemic change in addition to implementing their own policies, confidently asserting:

The reason why populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norm is in part tactical: Whenever populists break such norms, they attract the univocal condemnation of the political establishment. And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo.

Fair enough, but one cannot offer this cynical explanation without offering the far more reasonable corollary – that if the existing political system and institutions had successfully kept his own worldview and preferred policies at the political margins despite significant public support, then he too might have just cause to believe that a deeper bias exists and that institutions really do need comprehensive reform or abolition.

“The People vs Democracy” is strong where it analyses the economic forces behind populism, going further than issuing the usual misleading banalities uneducated working class citizens voting against their own interests:

The most straightforward markers of economic well-being do not predict whether somebody voted for Trump or for Clinton. Whereas Americans who saw Trump favourably had a mean household income of nearly $82,000, for example, those who viewed him unfavourably had a household income of a little over $77,000. Similarly, Trump supporters are “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than other people in the sample. In short, the popular media narrative according to which Trump primarily appealed o the poor and the lowly just doesn’t hold up.

[..] But when we turn our attention from the attributes of particular voters to the places in which they live and the fates they likely face, it becomes clear that economic factors do mater. For one, voters who favour Trump are much less likely to hold a college degree or to have a professional job – which implies that they have a much better reason to fear that their economic fortunes might decline because of globalization and automation.

Mounk perceptively concludes that at present, countries like Britain and America are vulnerable to populism because they “can no longer offer their citizens a real sense of momentum.” This is prime Stepping Stones territory – only a comprehensive analysis of the challenges facing developed countries (and the complex linkages between them) can hope to restore the kind of positive national momentum which is needed to maintain widespread faith in liberal democracy. Piecemeal efforts to solve discrete issues (or, more realistically, to avoid bad headlines in the media) will always be insufficient. If one acknowledges that the global economy, financial and regulatory environment is so complex as to require a significant technocracy to aid good policymaking then it is ludicrous to believe that the democratic nation state can continue to prosper without any kind of forensically strategic analysis of a country’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Yet far too many governments – Britain’s being one of the most dismally prominent examples – are stuck in neutral, focused on irrelevancies or fighting for political survival rather than maintaining a strategic outlook. And so the key questions raised by Mounk continue to go unanswered:

What do liberal democracies need to do to extend their remarkable record of past stability? Is it enough for them to afford their citizens a decent life? Or do they need to be able to cash in on the old promise, implicitly issued in the long decades of rapidly growing plenty, that each generation will do much better than the one that came before?

How indeed. We will never find out unless our politicians and governments lift their gaze from their navels and initiate a conversation about these pressing questions and the policy solutions required to confront them.

Where Yascha Mounk does offer proposed solutions, they tend to be quite sensible (if sometimes overly hopeful). Much like Mark Lilla, Mounk writes very much from the perspective of a US “liberal” writing for the consumption of other liberals, but he does not spare criticism of his own side. Citing the example of Poland, Mounk warns that splits in the opposition to an authoritarian regime can be instrumental in helping it to cement long-term control, a lesson that many Democratic Party activists might want to consider heeding, given the endless identity politics purity wars roiling the party and pushing them ever further to the left. Mounk’s counsel for liberals to tone down the public mockery of those they disagree with is also sound advice, for nothing shuts down debate and eliminates the possibility of persuasion than a dose of finger-wagging mockery – and this is as true for pro-EU activists in Britain who love to scoff at “uneducated” Brexiteers and deploy their new, racially-tinged “gammon” insult as it is of American leftists who demonise average Trump supporters.

Mounk also writes about the importance of constructing a rival, positive narrative to compete against the populist vision, rather than simply protesting or mocking the populists. At present, far too many of those people connected with the #Resistance in America or the anti-Brexit #FBPE collective in Britain visibly project an image of simply wanting to roll the clock back to the moment before the 2016 presidential election or EU referendum. The ongoing prominence of Democratic Party grandees like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and even the public utterances of Hillary Clinton herself, project an air of aggrieved entitlement rather than contrition or introspection for their role in bringing us to this point. New, fresh faces are needed, people with charisma, yes, but also the political vision and policy know-how to offer a viable, appealing alternative. As Mounk points out:

To rival the narrative according to which only they can fix the nation’s problems, defenders of liberal democracy have to put forward realistic promises of their own.

[..] the defenders of liberal democracy will not vanquish the populists as long as they seem wedded to the status quo.

[..] To avoid the mistake Clinton made in 2016, defenders of liberal democracy must demonstrate that they take the problems voters face seriously, and seek to effect real change. While they don’t need to emulate the simplistic solutions or pander to the worst values of the populists, they urgently need to develop a bold plan for a better future.

One of the most valuable contributions of “The People vs Democracy” to our discourse is its searching consideration of whether the growing identity politics movement and political activism within academia are truly helping the fight for equality or undermining the basic trust in the institutions of democracy which is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic nation state.

The net effect of he deliberate failure to inculcate respect and reverence for democracy among young people (and to corrode whatever attachment to democracy does exist) is stark:

Millennials in countries like Great Britain or the United States [..] barely experienced the Cold War ad may not even know anybody who fought fascism. To them, the question of whether it is important to live in a democracy is far more abstract. Doesn’t this imply that, if they were actually faced with a threat to their system, they would be sure to rally to its defense?

I’m not so sure. The very fact that young people have so little idea of what it would mean to live in a system other than their own may make them willing to engage in political experimentation. Used to seeing and criticizing the (very real) injustices and hypocrisies of the system in which they grew up, many of them have mistakenly started to take its positive aspects for granted.

Mounk also inveighs against the current hysteria over “cultural appropriation”:

Far from celebrating the way in which different cultures can take inspiration from each other, the opponents of cultural appropriation implicitly assume that cultures are pure; that they are forever owned by particular groups; and that there should be strict limits on the degree to which they influence each other. In other words, they ultimately think of the culture of particular identity groups in much the same way as right-wing xenophobes who are continually on guard against foreign influences on their national cultures.

Mounk also possesses a more realistic take on nationalism and the nation state than is now common among academia and much of the elite, who tend to see patriotism as outdated and embarrassing at best, and inherently harmful at worst:

The energy on today’s left, by contrast, is increasingly directed toward a radical rejection of the nation and all its trappings: This is the left that delights in 4th of July op-eds entitled “The Making of a Non-patriot”. It is the left that chants “No Trump, No Wall, No USA at all!” And it is also the left that, not content with acknowledging the copious failings of the Founding Fathers, refuses to recognize that they might be defined by anything other than their moral faults.

Mounk, by contrast, favours “domesticating nationalism” and calls for both elites and the Left to embrace a more expansive form of patriotism instead of attacking and ridiculing the symbols and institutions which bind societies together. This sounds good in theory but is hard in practice, given the extreme to which the Democratic Party has moved in America and many activists have moved in Britain.

At its core, “The People v Democracy” identifies many of the same developments, trade-offs and challenges that several others have noted – solving international problems versus defending national sovereignty, the need for technocratic bodies vs the need for democratic input and accountability, for example. Many of these I have also laid out several times in my agitation for a new Stepping Stones Report – a document which, like the original 1977 report which Margaret Thatcher brought with her into 10 Downing Street and was used to help navigate the last great period of discontinuity in Britain – updated to identify and tackle the new challenges of the 21st century.

Yascha Mounk’s book is ultimately a call for people – particularly disaffected leftists and centrists – not to give up on all of the goodness inherent in the liberal democratic nation state just because some of the institutions of government have been temporarily captured by populists. Amy Chua made a similar point at the end of her excellent book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct And The Fate Of Nations”, quoting from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”:

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free….
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!

Mounk closes by referencing the end of the Roman Republic as a warning example, casting the populists of today as the heirs to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus:

The brand of politics propagated by the Gracchi and perpetuated by their opponents shaped the Roman Republic long after they themselves had left the scene. Every dozen or so years, a new follower was able to capture power. Each time, the norms and rules of the Roman Republic were a little less capable of containing the assault.

There was no one breaking point, no clear moment at which contemporaries realized that their political institutions had become obsolete. And yet, over the course of a tumultuous century, the Roman Republic slowly withered. As the old norms of restraint crumbled, violence spiraled out of control. By the time ordinary Romans recognized that they had lost the freedom to rule themselves, the republic had long been lost.

A prescient warning indeed, particularly because it acknowledges that it often takes two sides to degrade institutions and norms of behaviour. After all, today’s establishment would be the Roman Senate and patricians in this analogy, groups which hardly covered themselves in glory during the period.

Much prevailing opinion still holds that the establishment holds a near-monopoly on wisdom and morality, and that the populist insurgencies we now witness are entirely the result of low-information, uncultured voters being preyed upon by opportunistic leaders with ulterior motives. There is a widespread, arrogant assumption that voter dissatisfaction is somehow displaced, that people do not understand the real causes of their own unhappiness and that elites should be allowed to continue governing as they see fit, explaining to the people why they are wrong rather than adapting to their will. Mounk’s book shows that establishment centrists are every bit as much to blame for our present crisis than the populists they fear.

The danger is that these establishment centrists, driven mad by their sudden fall from power and influence, react not by examining their own flaws and failings but rather by lashing out at their opponents and continuing the loss of faith in democracy whose consequences form the root of their present situation. There is such anger among elites – often (though not always) out of proportion to any so-called populist policy which has yet been proposed or enacted – that many establishment politician and activists will accept nothing less than total defeat of every populist initiative, regardless of merit, which then only confirms the populists’ suspicion of an open conspiracy against them.

Democracy without rights versus rights without democracy. The populists have been heavily scrutinised and fairly criticised for their sometimes cavalier attitude to rights, norms and institutions. When will establishment politicians be held to account for their cavalier attitude toward democracy?

 

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - book review

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Why I Am Glad To Be Leaving Britain

Statue of Liberty

[As I continue to wend my way through Southeast Asia en route from London to my new home in the United States, below are some reflections on leaving Britain which have been percolating in my mind. Regular political commentary to resume once our travel itinerary calms down a bit and I reach a country with more reliable internet connectivity.]

I’d like to say that it has been a pleasure…

Britain will always be home to me. I will never renounce my citizenship, even though I will proudly take American citizenship and become a joint citizen of the other country to which I feel love and loyalty when I become eligible to do so. But speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who thinks about policy and writes about politics more than is probably healthy, I’m very glad to be escaping Britain for America at this particular juncture.

Not because of Brexit. I hear the keyboards of fifty Twitter wags clattering to life in my mind right now: “Ha, look at this die-hard Brexiteer who wanted out of the EU so badly but now won’t live in the apocalyptic hellscape he has bequeathed us”. Save the wisecracks, this has nothing to do with Brexit (though Brexit certainly shines an unforgiving light on the institutional and intellectual rot which makes me glad to move across the Atlantic).

I’m happy to be leaving Britain because we have become a small, petty and insular country. Not because of Brexit; we have been gradually becoming so for years prior, helped in large part by our EU membership, the stultifying centrist Westminster consensus and decades of bland technocratic government. The smallness I refer to has nothing to do with military or diplomatic power, though there are certainly warning signs in both these areas. It has nothing to do with our immediate economic prospects, since growth continues and the fundamentals of our economy are no more or less wobbly than they were prior to the EU referendum. It has nothing to do with the rise of other powerful countries or Britain’s supposed isolation outside the comforting embrace of supranational European political union.

The smallness afflicting Britain is a smallness of aspiration, of confidence, of purpose. It is the gradual draining away of any self-belief among those who run, report or comment on this country that decisions made here could actually matter, or influence human events and progress in a significantly beneficial way. It is the even more alarming realisation that the people with the potential intelligence and vision to help Britain recover our place as a visionary leader among countries increasingly self-select out of political life for reasons which are as obvious as they are tragic.

Why climb the greasy pole in a broken party system which rewards group conformity over ideological consistency or necessary pragmatism? Why inch one’s way up from town councillor to county councillor to MP’s bag carrier to ministerial SpAd to junior MP to parliamentary private secretary to junior minister to Cabinet minister to prime minister, compromising one’s ideas every step of the way, when one can have a far more fulfilling career in every respect working in the private sector, and have a more lasting and profound influence on humanity in the process?

For a couple of years now I have been writing about the great challenges facing Britain and the world in the new period of discontinuity which we are entering – an era when the old political settlement with its associated policies neither solve the new challenges we face nor command widespread public support any longer. The last such period of discontinuity in British politics took place in the late 1970s, when a sclerotic economy and over-powerful vested interests (particularly the trades union) were gradually choking the life out of Britain. Back then, we responded with the Thatcherite revolution, which for all its faults (and yes, those faults were real) revitalised our economy and rolled back the worst excesses of the socialist post-war consensus.

This new period of discontinuity is different, with new challenges in the form of globalisation, outsourcing, automation, mass migration and uncertainty over the role and long-term survival prospects for the nation state. These are problems which affect nearly every advanced economy, and which most countries are currently sidestepping or delaying their day of reckoning to some extent. Brexit offered Britain the golden opportunity to be not a helpless canary in the coalmine but rather an innovative testing laboratory and beacon to the world, confronting some of these challenges head on, breaking open political taboos and experimenting with heretofore unconsidered policy alternatives to meet the challenges we face. Britain could have seized this opportunity to genuinely lead the way for the first time in the post-war era, certainly in my lifetime.

This opportunity has been squandered, and the squandering is both tragic and unforgivable. In the 1970s there was enough intellectual life left in Britain for new policy ideas to germinate in places like the Centre for Policy Studies, then-revolutionary think tanks who brought in outside talent and evaluated ideas based on their innate worth rather than the connectedness or insider reputation of the individual putting them forward. That’s how the famous Stepping Stones Report came to be written in 1977, which Margaret Thatcher then took with her into Downing Street in 1979 and used as a blueprint for many of the policies and reforms which ultimately saved Britain from seemingly inevitable national decline.

In 2018, there is nobody left to do this kind of radical, disruptive work. Some of the same think tanks and organisations still exist (in name), but to a large extent they are rusted out old shells of their former selves, living on past glories and eking an existence by flattering government ministers or acting as a mouthpiece for existing party policymaking theatre rather than doing anything genuinely revolutionary or independent.

When I proposed a new Stepping Stones Report for 2022, a document which would seek to identify and classify all of the issues and threats facing modern Britain in order to discover their interlinkages and arrive at a suite of mutually-supporting policies to tackle and overcome them, I received a few polite and non-committal words or emails from various MPs and think tanks, and then no more. On one occasion I was cordially thanked and then told that there is “nothing in particular for you to do at this time”. You see, I am from outside the inner Westminster bubble so it is inconceivable that I might have stumbled upon a good idea or have anything whatsoever to contribute to government policy.

A few fruitless efforts at gaining the attention of influential figures within the Conservative Party made it abundantly clear that while normal people like me are good for stuffing envelopes or knocking doors to get out the Tory vote, best leave the policymaking and strategic thinking to those inside the bubble. And so the Conservative Party’s effort to make policy continues to throw up random half-baked ideas to solve the housing crisis, the productivity crisis, the migration crisis, the healthcare crisis, the education crisis and the so-called crisis of capitalism (many of these ideas lifted straight from the Miliband playbook) without any attempt to consider how these challenges might be linked or best be solved in conjunction with one another. A few genuinely heroic Tory MPs – George Freeman, Nick Boles and Robert Halfon, to name the most active – are engaged in serious work attempting to reimagine conservative policy for the 21st century, but they are receiving precious little air cover from CCHQ or Downing Street.

Things are no better on the other side of the aisle, where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is permanently one anti-Semitic tweet away from total self-destruction. This blog celebrated Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, not out of any admiration for or agreement with his policies but because he represented a bold step away from the suffocating centrist consensus whose policies overlook so many Britons and which has been hugely resistant to change. And there have on occasions been genuinely encouraging signs of intellectual life within Labour, such as with Corbyn’s proposed National Education Service – a horribly statist idea, but one which at least sought to recognise the limitations of our present system and try something different rather than continuing to shoot for the middle.

However, much of the political backing behind Jeremy Corbyn – Momentum in particular – is anything but modern or forward thinking, offering nothing so much as reheated 1970s statism. Worse, it comes infected with rabid and widespread anti-Semitism which the leadership ignores in order to avoid offending certain other fellow ideological travellers at home and abroad. Such has been the infighting that one can scarcely discern a Corbynite platform more nuanced than raising taxes and renationalising industry. Meanwhile, the displaced Labour centrists, full of entitlement and utterly lacking in introspection as to how their moral and intellectual failures led to this nadir, have done precious little policy thinking of their own and when given the chance to displace Corbyn in 2016 were so concerned for their own precious political careers that none of the remaining big beasts would stand, leaving it to the malodorous Owen Smith.

Ah, but what about the smaller parties? Well, UKIP has collapsed into now inevitable (if once avoidable) irrelevance, the Green Party continue to wage their ostentatiously anti-prosperity agenda and the Liberal Democrats have become nothing more than a futile Stop Brexit Party (and even on this ground they are challenged by new upstart anti-Brexit parties such as Renew). If there are signs of intellectual life or political courage to be found on the political periphery they have escaped my attention.

Look at education, healthcare, housing, automation and AI. Britain isn’t even currently aspiring to emulate best practice in (or achieve parity with) other countries, let alone pioneer new policy solutions which might see us leapfrog our competition and point the way for other nations. Take just education as an example, where technology could be revolutionising our current conception of school, opening up new possibilities for remote learning and real-time interaction with experts and other classes across distance and borders, and research in the social sciences has long hammered home the importance of proactive parental involvement in order to inculcate success at an early age. Where is the new technology in our classrooms? Where is the digital learning strategy? Where is the government promoting more responsible parenting?

Instead of these necessary endeavours to face up to policy failure and change direction, we either indulge in vainglorious British exceptionalism and imagine that the world has nothing to teach us (see the Tory Right’s insistence on a hard Brexit and our national obsession with the NHS, according to its hagiographers the world’s only compassionate universal healthcare service) or else resignedly believe that we are so feeble a country that there can be no hope in striking out on our own to road-test new ideas. How pathetic. How cowardly. What a betrayal of the next generation. How utterly, utterly small.

None of this is to say that things are significantly better in the United States. Lord knows that my new adopted home has not got everything all figured out just yet; America is also idling in neutral to a large degree, an unpredictable and vastly underqualified new president at the helm, his own worst enemy, and an opposition party which has sold its soul to the false god of identity politics rather than offering any uniting, uplifting alternate platform. But at least the big issues are still debated in America, however crudely may sometimes be the case.

As I wrote last year when lamenting the decline in British political rhetoric:

Maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world.

Despite having every opportunity to take the lead, Britain seems determined to be a follower – either cowering fearfully within the EU or attempting to roll back the clock to a time when economic integration, regulatory alignment and international just-in-time supply chains didn’t make a mockery of the Tory Right’s hard Brexit fantasies. We even import our social movements these days, with British universities racing to copy their American counterparts in capitulating to the censorious cult of identity politics and organisations like Black Lives Matter UK springing up despite lacking any of the context or triggers which prompted the formation of the original.

I have very little desire to spend my time engaged in the minutiae of political debate in a country which stubbornly refuses to lift its gaze above its own navel, whose activists have enough spare time on their hands to worry about non-issues or capriciously import social movements from abroad yet no time to agitate for universal reform, true egalitarianism or issues which do not immediately benefit their own wallets. America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.

Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.

Only on the question of national identity and societal cohesiveness is the political debate more interesting and pressing in the UK and Europe than in the United States, and even then only because years of bad and arrogantly-imposed policy have bequeathed Europe with significant subpopulations which feel little loyalty to or affinity with the countries which give them life and liberty, thus making it an existential issue. It is now fashionable among many elites to bemoan the decline of liberal democratic values, yet there is precious little introspection as to how policies which deliberately undermine the nation state and erode a common sense of identity accepting of liberal values might have played a part in their demise.

America is presently less far down this destructive path, and thus freer from the risk of the kind of societal unrest and breakdown which would make other policy experimentation impossible. In other words, if you don’t have to continually fight to justify your country’s existence (either from plotting euro-federalists on one side or unintegrated subpopulations and post-patriotic citizens of the world on the other) then one can comfortably think about other policy concerns, but if national survival underpinning essential liberal values is not assured then everything else becomes largely irrelevant.

So why this long, somewhat bitter screed as I depart the United Kingdom? After all, in the grand scheme of things I don’t matter at all. I’m not a genius, a policy wunderkind or a charismatic future political leader, so me quitting these shores to make my mark in the United States is no great loss for Britain. But if even people like me survey the state of British politics and civic life and feel overwhelmed by a feeling of resigned ennui, how must those individuals blessed with real talent and inspiration feel? You think they are going to stick around to watch Owen Jones, Ian Dunt and EU Supergirl slog it out with Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox, or feel compelled to step forward and offer their leadership skills to a country which itself has no desire to lead?

Britain can survive me flouncing off across the Atlantic; indeed, the country may well be much the better for it. But the pathetic state of British politics and civic life that I have described here is not only repulsive to me; it alienates talent and discourages innovation at nearly every level.

When British politics becomes little more than a technocratic debate about making the trains run on time or ensuring by national decree that hospital waiting times hit a certain target, we are thinking far too small.

When British political debate is more about desperately ignoring obvious truths (the unsustainability of the NHS, the failure of unmitigated multiculturalism, our broken welfare state) than tackling those problems head-on, we are being far too cowardly.

And when the desire and capacity of British elites to confront and overcome 21st century challenges gives way to a sense of resigned powerlessness and a petulant impatience for somebody else to do the difficult work, I can’t muster much sorrow to be taking a step away from that dismal stage.

I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.

But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.

And Lord knows I am looking forward to that change of scenery.

 

Sign at Plymouh Rock - landing place of the pilgrims - 1620

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Conservative Renewal: A Glimmer Of Light In The Darkness At CPS

CPS event - conservative policy renewal - Tories - Conservatism

Faint signs of optimism for the future of British conservatism, and an opportunity to pitch Stepping Stones 2022

The other day, after hitting “publish” on another one of my increasingly repetitive blog posts pressing the case for positive renewal within the British conservative movement, a friend had this to say about me:

Billions of years from now, when the last proton decays and the wailing of AC Grayling can no longer be heard, the final sound in the Universe will be Sam saying he can still save the Tories.

A fair point, amusingly made. Quite possibly through sheer ignorance of political machinations combined with my lonely position on the outer, outer, outer periphery of Westminster life, I am imbued with a natural optimism which tells me that however far the Conservative Party may stray from the path of visionary, principled government, there is always a way back.

An annoying voice in the back of my head keeps insisting that just as with the “twitch upon the thread” in Brideshead Revisited, the Conservative Party can wander to the edge of the world under the non-leadership of Theresa May and yet still eventually be brought back to the faith – though I’m not delusional, and also accept the possibility that eventual outcome may be rather less optimistic:

 

Others in my circle have understandably given up hope and effectively adopted a “let it burn” stance with regard to the entire British political system, but to me this seems like an indulgence. I am about as idealistic as they come, but still I acknowledge that politicians must to a large extent operate within the ballpark of existing public opinion, even when that public opinion is the reason for our current strategic impasse on nearly every important decision.

I have attended a number of events on the subject of conservative renewal over the past couple of years, and read and written countless words on the subject, but nearly every event thus far has left me rather underwhelmed. Either the basic optics were all wrong (like inviting Home Secretary Amber Rudd of all people to talk about encouraging visionary new policies) or the words were right but lacked any sense of plausibility.

And perhaps it is precisely because the most recent event I attended – Wednesday evening’s Centre for Policy Studies conversation with Chris Skidmore MP on the topic of Conservative renewal in government – did not promise the moon on a stick or suggest easy answers that I ended up coming away feeling more buoyed and encouraged by what I witnessed than has been the case in over six years.

Part of the reason was undoubtedly due to having attended the event with Chloe Schendel-Wilson, an optimistic young voice within British conservatism, something of a rising star and about as welcomely different from the stereotypical Young Conservative activist as one can imagine. Prior to the CPS event we had the opportunity to talk about what it might actually take to bring about meaningful conservative outreach to younger voters who have no time for Corbynism but currently see nothing positive in the Conservative Party, which has given me much food for thought.

But Chris Skidmore himself, in his role as vice chairman for policy, also talked a lot of sense, beginning with his acknowledgement that “there is a battle for the soul of the country, not only the size and shape of the state but also the future of markets”. Skidmore spoke about a return to “an age of extremes”, but to my mind there is presently just one extreme in British politics – that offered by Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour Party captured more than ever by the toxic Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. In the face of this danger, the Tories by contrast are not merely not extreme but positively wishy-washy, scampering to the Left on everything from market regulation, big government paternalism and disregard for the national defence. Would that the Tories actually offered a meaningful counterweight to Corbynism rather than the thirteen shades of beige painted by Theresa May.

Not everything that was discussed was on point. Much time was given by Chris Skidmore to talking about the need to create and promote “vertical narratives”, the kind of jargon I thought I had escaped when I left management consulting, which apparently involve telling marvellous and compelling tales about how children born in 2010 have flourished growing up under Conservative rule. I and several audience members thought that this was a bit of a stretch, that making the story about What Government Has/Can Do For Us will only draw us into an unwinnable war of promises with Labour, but perhaps there is something we’re missing.

Other points were much more welcome to hear, particularly when Chris Skidmore chastised the party for having failed to make any mention of the deficit in the 2017 manifesto, a striking feat of amnesia given the previous emphasis by David Cameron and George Osborne  (in rhetoric if not in deed). But best of all was Skidmore’s mention of the need for a timetable – a clear set of goals and ambitions for what the Conservative Party wants to achieve in government in 1, 5 and 10 years, something more tangible than clinging to power and surviving the daily news cycle.

Throughout the evening a lot of the right things were said – from the need for a strategic direction flowing down to granular policy goals on the one hand, to the need for “signpost moments” on the other – legislative or public relations events such as Iain Duncan Smith’s speech at the Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow. This blog has always maintained that an “all of the above” solution to the current Tory malaise is required, that there is no single policy or personnel change which alone can staunch the bleeding (though of course signpost moments are pointless until there is a clear direction for them to point towards).

But as always, the proof is in the pudding – deeds, not words. And despite more of the right things being said at this CPS event than at previous gatherings on the future of conservatism, the same niggling doubts remained. My misgivings about the Centre for Policy Studies’ New Generation project is that it is so MP-centric.

The CPS’s greatest victories, particularly looking back to the 1980s, occurred because the think tank sought ideas from outside the Westminster political bubble and fed them into Downing Street rather than relying on those within the bubble and inevitably wedded to certain ways of doing things to then come up with disruptively innovative new policies. Yet at one point Chris Skidmore said, with specific reference to the 2015 and 2017 intakes of Tory MPs “we’re here now, we have something to say”. Fantastic. Are the rest of us allowed to make some suggestions at any point, or is this to be an entirely Westminster-centric talking shop? And if the latter, why would we expect the results to be any less dismal than the last few years of Tory policymaking?

And so when it came time for Q&As, I seized the floor to repeat my pitch for a new Stepping Stones report to identify and analyse the challenges and opportunities facing Britain as we approach the 2020s, understand how those issues are interlinked, chart a path for national recovery and then generate a coherent suite of mutually-supporting, politically feasible policies to deliver on that strategy. I emphasised the point that attempting to individually tackle the various “crises” afflicting Britain without understanding how they are linked together and solving them together rather than in silos.

I further emphasised that generating policy to tackle symptoms rather than root causes is time and effort thrown away, that Britain has entered an unstable new period of political discontinuity not seen since the late 1970s when the prevailing political consensus and its associated policy solutions no longer work nor command majority public support, and warned that the future belongs to the political party which acknowledges this fact and comes to the electorate with an entirely different pitch.

As should be evident to anyone with a brain and a pulse, Labour is currently streets ahead of the Tories in this regard, with the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn itself evidence that the Labour Party has rejected the previous centrist consensus in favour of something different (much as a bulk of the parliamentary party may grumble about it). Fortunately their new offering is not particularly compelling, and indeed is actively repulsive to many swing voters – but at least the faction currently leading the Labour Party is trying something new. At present, the Conservative Party under Theresa May can be easily portrayed as grey, worn-out guardians of a despised status quo – not a good foundation for future electoral success.

Will anything positive come out of all these meetings? Who knows. More and more, the right things are being said, and glaring failures and weaknesses finally acknowledged. But the epiphany is happening far too slowly, and as was pointed out during the event, any future strategic planning will be for nought if the Tories cannot rack up some positive accomplishments between now and the next general election. A few people approached me after the Q&A was over and expressed support for what I had said, which I take as an encouraging sign, but ultimately I don’t see any real Conservative renaissance taking place unless the party and its orbiting system of think tanks and advocacy groups cast off their insularity and start welcoming input from outside.

Seeking and accepting help from outside takes humility – the kind of humility often only borne out of prolonged, crushing failure. That’s what it took for the Tories to reconsider their slavish devotion to the failing post-war consensus policies of the 1970s, and that’s probably what it will take today.

The only question is how bad will things have to get before the conservative minds holed up in Parliament and Tufton Street recognise that they don’t have all the answers?

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The Dangerous, Beguiling New Conservative Luddite Movement

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Conservative reform? Who needs it? Apparently the dogmas of the quiet past are totally adequate to the stormy present

Just as the prestige conservative media and a handful of prescient MPs are belatedly waking up to the need for serious ideological renewal within the Conservative Party, a reactionary new counter-movement seems to have popped up, determined to counsel complacency and inaction instead of urgency and reform.

Alex Wild of The Taypayers’ Alliance has a new piece in CapX entitled “Does the Conservative Party really need new ideas?“, in which he determines that no, the Tories can apparently do just fine by reheating the ideas and rhetoric of the past.

Not everything that Wild discusses is wrong – he does at least acknowledge that the Conservative Party’s primary political error in recent years has been their cowardly acceptance of leftist ideas and frames of reference, borne out of a pathetic and hopeless desire to be liked rather than respected. That much at least is accurate. But when it comes to diagnosing solutions, Wild seems to be under the dangerous illusion that playing the old Tory Greatest Hits album on endless repeat is a solution remotely equal to the challenge of our times. It isn’t.

Wild writes:

Instead of continually accepting the Left’s diagnosis and offering halfway-house policies that don’t actually do anything to address underlying causes, more basic thinking is required.

Energy is widely regarded as a dysfunctional market. But why doesn’t this market work while others, for example retail, do?

Is it because the shareholders and executives of utility companies are much more greedy and incompetent than the shareholders and executives of major retailers?

Or is it because, unlike in the energy sector, the government does not decide which shops are built where, what they sell and at what price?

This is indeed “basic thinking”. There are a number of reasons why even passionate privatisation advocates don’t support the idea of total deregulation of the energy market, not least because short-term profit maximisation may well be in the best interests of shareholders, but does not necessarily promote energy security or national security.

The worst that can happen with a deregulated retail sector is that some of our provincial high streets lose their character and small businesses, to be replaced by out-of-town big box stores which in turn are undermined by online shopping. The worst that could happen with a totally deregulated energy sector, on the other hand, is that the lights go out. We can have a sensible discussion about whether the current mode of privatisation is working, how it can be improved and whether more can be done to give consumers access to better information and ease of switching suppliers, but airily suggesting that the government get out of the way and allow any old punter to throw up a coal-fired power plant is to indulge in libertarian fantasy – and not even the good kind.

And then we get to the main event:

For the less-careerist, more policy-orientated MPs however, a potential pitfall is not just that they advocate variations of Leftist policies, but that they try too hard to find new ideas and wheezes whilst ignoring old ones which we know would actually work.

For starters, they should revisit policies floated between 2010 and 2015 that then failed to make it through the inevitable political wrangling of coalition government.

The reality is that for most of the major challenges the country faces, there are obvious solutions. Huge amounts of time and effort have been spent trying to explain the UK’s “productivity puzzle” but even if there are yet-to-be-fully-understood factors at play there are masses of things the government could do that would significantly increase productivity.

The tax system that punishes investment by taxing profits and not allowing businesses to write off investment in machinery and property from their tax bills. Stamp duty that gums up the housing market, preventing people from moving to take up better-paid jobs. The dreadful planning system that has driven up the cost of housing to obscene levels. The 67 per cent effective marginal tax rate on some high earners. The ongoing Heathrow third runway farce.

These are all problems with obvious solutions. No “blue-sky thinking” is required.

This “programme” of policies is to fail to see the wood for the trees. Sure, some of these ideas have merit – raising the speed limit seems sensible, while we have long known that a broken, NIMBY-enabling planning system is responsible for the ongoing housing crisis (the issue here is a lack of political will to fix it, not ignorance of the solution). Most conservatives also would agree that Gordon Brown’s questionably revenue-positive tax hike should have been repealed completely, not simply reduced by David Cameron’s equivocating administration, while this blog has been championing a third runway at Heathrow since I started writing in 2012.

But given the seismic political changes we have witnessed in British politics – the rise and fall of UKIP, the wane of Labour centrists and the Age of Jeremy Corbyn, the EU referendum and Brexit itself – it should be obvious to any outside observer that there is tremendous public dissatisfaction not confined to any one specific policy or issue, but rather at a systemic level. And looking at the state of the world – with the benefits and challenges of globalisation and automation, the ongoing massive global migration and the threat posed by radical Islam – it should be equally apparent that the standard policies of the centre-left and the centre-right are unequal to these unique challenges.

Reheating the 1980s and 1990s playbook is (in some ways) also currently being attempted by the Republican Party in the United States, and equally doomed to fail there as it is in Britain. With Donald Trump in the White House, Republican congressional leaders seized the moment to pass the big tax cut for which they have been incessantly clamouring. Fair enough. But now that they are in government rather than opposition, the tax cut came packaged with no commensurate spending cuts, meaning that the resulting bill has blown an already sizeable budget deficit wide open. After all the moralistic preaching about fiscal responsibility during the Obama years, only one Republican senator – Rand Paul of Kentucky – expressed serious reservations about this hypocrisy (and even he ultimately voted for the bill).

This approach may reap some political dividends in the short term, as individuals enjoy a slight reduction in their tax burden and certain corporations reward their long-serving employees with an unexpected bonus. But in the medium to long term, all the Republicans are doing is frittering away any remaining claim they had to being the party of fiscal conservatism, kicking the can down the road on every serious entitlement reform which needs to be considered and further sullying their brand by association with President Trump’s new protectionism.

Likewise, rebooting Thatcherism for the 21st century with no introspection or modification is no solution to our present challenges. Thatcher’s privatisation programme and her government’s rollback of the worst excesses of the socialist post-war settlement were vital, and saved this country from likely terminal national decline. There are few more ardent fans of Margaret Thatcher than myself. But to pretend to oneself that the same bag of tricks will get Britain out of an entirely different set of problems four decades later is dangerous self-deception.

One gets the strong sense that the rising profile of backbench MP and Brexit Ultra Jacob Rees-Mogg, refreshing though he can be (on matters other than Brexit) for the forthrightness of his views and his refusal to disavow deeply held values, is also a symptom of this nascent reactionary movement within contemporary British conservatism, the idea that we need only find a new leader who looks and sounds like a traditional Tory in order to repeat past Tory success.

But what Alex Wild and this nascent Thatcherism Redux movement fail to realise is that Britain has entered an unstable period of political discontinuity, a time of serious national challenges, threats and opportunities where the tried-and-tested policies of the past no longer work effectively nor command majority political support. Be it Corbyn’s unreconstructed socialism, reanimated Thatcherism or whatever Theresa May’s inarticulable vision of government happens to be (nobody really knows), none of these options command the kind of enthusiasm or political support on which strong governments with mandates for change are built.

There is no tax cut which can address the fact that Britain’s public pension system is becoming little more than a national Ponzi scheme propped up only by high levels of immigration (itself a solution with rapidly diminishing returns). There is no privatisation scheme which can deliver meaningful healthcare reform within the incredibly narrow Overton window established by the high priests of the NHS. There is no instant productivity fix, or any lasting solution to that intractable problem which does not involve a much wider conversation about how our education system currently fails to churn out school leavers, apprentices, technical diploma holders and university graduates equipped to walk into the jobs of tomorrow – let alone reach back to help those adults struggling to adapt on their own.

These are some of the real root causes of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. Public polling may not yet always the right questions in order to draw this broader, inchoate dissatisfaction out into the open, but the pressing nature of these challenges should be evident to anyone involved in strategic political thinking (apparently a particular weakness in the current Tory Party).

The absolute last thing that the anaemic British conservative movement needs, just as it starts to awaken to the danger in which it has placed itself, is for a new movement to come along peddling false reassurance that new challenges do not in fact require new policy solutions, and that there is no problem too big to be effectively cured by tax cuts and deregulation. Yet this message, if allowed to go unchallenged, may prove to be especially attractive to a Conservative Party in which only a handful of MPs are awake to the need for ideological renewal.

For many senior Conservatives – including Theresa May’s uniquely uninspired senior lieutenants and likely successors – the message that they can succeed by adopting the government equivalent of painting by numbers effectively absolves the government of any need to think for themselves, to acknowledge that the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.

And that’s what makes the siren song of Thatcherism Redux so potentially dangerous.

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