What Conservative Government? – Part 7, 2016 Party Conference Edition

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Fiscal incontinence, a bizarre grammar school obsession and a new crackdown on civil liberties – forgive me for not cheering along as Theresa May’s Conservative In Name Only Party assembles, victorious, in Birmingham

Theresa May would never have been this blog’s choice to be Britain’s new prime minister, but I have tried to maintain a spirit of cautious optimism in the months since the EU referendum toppled David Cameron and upended our national politics.

And there have been some genuinely positive signs along the way. For one, healthy national pride and patriotism – dead and buried for so long, with New Labour the principal executioner – is starting to make a comeback, no longer automatically scorned by all of Britain’s leading politicians.

Indeed, the Telegraph reports that Theresa May made patriotism one of the lynchpins of her keynote speech to Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham today:

The establishment must stop sneering at the patriotism of ordinary Britons, Theresa May will say today.

During her keynote speech to the Conservative conference, the Prime Minister will proclaim that the Tories are now the party of working class people.

In a bid to attract millions of disaffected Labour voters across the country, she will add that concerns about immigration have for too long been dismissed as “distasteful” and “parochial”.

She will attack the condescending views of politicians and establishment figures who are “bewildered” by the fact that more than 17 million people voted for Britain to leave the European Union.

[..] “Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public,” Mrs May will say. “They find their patriotism distasteful, their concerns about immigration parochial, their views about crime illiberal, their attachment to their job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering.”

This is good. While sneering, elitist anti-democrats like Matthew Parris may suffer convulsions any time somebody outside Zone 2 or with an income of less than £100,000 dares to utter a political opinion, great (and deserved) political rewards potentially await a major political party which stops treating working and middle class patriotism like an infectious disease.

And there was more to admire in today’s keynote speech, not least the fact that Theresa May delivered it from behind a lectern while reading from a printed transcript rather than adopting the tiresome Gordon Brown / David Cameron habit of prancing around the stage while reciting from memory, like an over-eager Shakespearean actor or a Silicon Valley executive delivering a TED talk.

But unfortunately, in that same speech Theresa May also declared “I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics”. In other words, gifted a blank canvas and meaningful opposition only from the ranks of Conservative backbenchers, Britain’s new prime minister is going to play it safe and stubbornly occupy the same tedious middle ground marked out by David Cameron and George Osborne, only a couple of steps further to the left.

But the worst part of Theresa May’s keynote conference speech came when she declared:

“A change has got to come. It’s time to remember the good that government can do. Time for a new approach that says while government does not have all the answers, government can and should be a force for good; that the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot; and that we should employ the power of government for the good of the people.”

Excuse me, but no. What is this Miliband-esque, woolly Fabian nonsense?

Opinions differ as to what ails modern Britain, but almost nobody remotely serious would suggest with a straight face that we currently suffer because the state is not yet involved enough in our daily lives, or that it is not performing activities which the market could reasonably undertake. Nobody apart from our new prime minister, that is.

With a new Conservative prime minister singing hymns of praise to an activist state constantly meddling in the lives of its dependent citizenry, we may as well be back in the 1970s. At least David Cameron used to talk about the Big Society (even if he never made it a reality), and suggested that there might be a whole world out there beyond the suffocating reach of the public sector. If we take Theresa May at her word, she seems to believe the opposite – that we should expect to rely on the state in all matters of life, and that markets are terminally “dysfunctional”, requiring constant state intervention.

I’m sorry, but this is unforgivably leftist fluff coming from a supposedly Conservative prime minister. One appreciates that Theresa May has come to office at an exceedingly difficult time, with Britain’s EU secession by far the most ambitious enterprise which this country has attempted in decades. But that is absolutely no excuse for kicking ideology and founding principle to the kerb and engaging in what can only be described as flagrant socialist cross-dressing.

Furthermore, Theresa May’s sloppy wet kiss to Big Government presupposes that until now we have somehow been living in a Hayekian, libertarian nirvana, where the government stayed out of our lives, the successful didn’t have to fork over half of their income in taxes and everybody was left to sink or swim according to their merits. This was hardly the case. The terrible “austerity” inflicted by David Cameron and George Osborne was in reality nothing more than the meekest, politest attempt to stem the constant increases in public spending. Six years on and the deficit remains, the national debt is larger and interest on Britain’s sovereign debt rivals our annual Defence budget.

In other words, Theresa May’s speech made it seem as though working British people had up to now been left to starve in some awful libertarian dystopia, when in fact we remain prisoners of the welfare state/public sector prison created decades ago and put on steroids by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

And yet the parties of the Left uniformly fail to realise just how lucky they have it with Theresa May in charge of the country. A Britain led by David Davis, Liam Fox or Jacob Rees-Mogg would quite possibly offer a taste of real austerity for those parts of the country which have grown fat suckling on the taxpayer teat, but with Theresa May they don’t have to worry about any of that. For the prime minister is every bit as much of a champion of the state as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband ever were.

Not that you would know it, to read hysterical, weepy editorials like this one in Left Foot Forward:

Theresa May’s speech to Conservative Party conference was supposed to showcase her philosophy. And it did.

It showcased a nightmarish new Conservative ideology that cloaks drastic social illiberalism in the language of inclusive economics, panders to one section of the working class in order to marginalise another, and brands anyone who dares to disagree as unpatriotic and sneering.

And it takes the vote to leave the European Union as a justification for extreme, inward-looking and divisive policies, completely disregarding the 16 million people who voted to remain, not to mention all the decent leave voters, who voted for change, not for for xenophobia.

The delicious irony of a weepy leftist complaining about being disregarded and demonised when such flagrant hostility is the default left-wing attitude towards anybody with remotely conservative opinions is almost too much to bear, but it gets better:

However, the truly frightening aspect of this speech was its divisiveness, its aggression towards anyone who doesn’t fit into the prime minister’s definition of ‘ordinary’.

This includes anyone not born in Britain, despite May’s claim to want ‘a country where it doesn’t matter where you were born.’

It comprises most of the 48 per cent of people who voted to remain in Europe — May seems to have forgotten she was one of them — and all those who envision a more progressive approach to crime, immigration, human rights, healthcare or education.

Here is a prime minister who did everything but daub herself in red paint and sing the Internationale right on the stage of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, and still it isn’t enough for the leftists because the Big Mean Scary Lady apparently used “non-inclusive” language. Truly there is no winning with these people.

In fact, the hysterical reaction from the Left only shows how far Labour’s metro-left ruling class have diverged from their party base and from traditional left-wing thought. Theresa May promises German style corporate governance, more wealth redistribution and the state as an overbearing, omnipresent parent – all of which which would have delighted 1980s socialists – yet the modern metro-left pitches a hissy fit because Theresa May didn’t sing paeans of praise to unlimited immigration or bow down before the altar of corrosive identity politics.

The goalposts keep moving and the ratchet keeps tightening and dragging us leftward. But ordinarily one might at least reasonably expect a Conservative prime minister to act as an anchor and a drag on that influence. Theresa May, though, seems eager to beat the centrist, metro-left in a full-on sprint to the left.

Look: I get that Theresa May is not a socialist herself. But the mere fact that she is comfortable using the same woolly, often meaningless language of Ed Miliband should be a real cause for concern among libertarian-leaning conservatives because it shows that she is far more interested in hoovering up centrist Labour voters than making a bold, compelling case for small government, conservative policies. It is undoubtedly the correct approach if one wants to pursue the path of least resistance, but to tack to the authoritarian centre at a time when the Labour opposition has all but disintegrated is an almost criminal waste of an opportunity to radically reshape Britain – not just through Brexit, but in terms of the relationship between government and citizen.

I know I can be a bit of a bore when it comes to analysing political speeches, but it is also depressing to see Theresa May adopt the short sentence / no complex paragraph style also favoured by Ed Miliband.

An excerpt:

theresa-may-conservative-party-conference-2016-speech-transcript

 

And another:

theresa-may-conservative-party-conference-2016-speech-transcript-2

Put aside for a the obscenity of a Conservative prime minister neglecting to talk about the importance of a flexible labour market to a dynamic economy in favour of trying to outdo Labour in promising counterproductive employment rights, and focus instead on the speechwriting style.

This is the same choppy, disjointed, machine-assembled soundbite speech favoured by Gordon Brown and honed to dismal perfection by Ed Miliband, as this blog explained some time ago:

Behold the short, stunted phrases, written with the news editor’s cropping software in mind while the poor listener’s brain isn’t given a second thought. This is nothing more than a word cloud, a jumble of phrases and platitudes deemed by a focus group to be pleasing or reassuring and then awkwardly bolted together by a computer and beamed onto a teleprompter.

Britain is about to embark on the most complex national endeavour that we have attempted in decades. In seceding from the European Union and deciding to forge our way once more as an independent country, the people of Britain are serving as a case study to the world in how best to maintain and strengthen democracy and accountability in the age of globalisation. Is it really so much to ask that we have a prime minister capable and willing to speak in complete paragraphs rather than ten-word soundbites?

Is it honestly unreasonable to expect that the first major set-piece speech of Theresa May’s premiership should make reference to history, to human endeavour, to our national destiny, rather than simply be a laundry list of bribes to the British people, promising them newer, better public services and an easier life?

This is Milibandism all over again. And while Theresa May is more traditionalist authoritarian than Fabian socialist, alarm bells should be sounding that she intends to govern using the same tired New Labour playbook. May’s conference speech reveals a depressingly small conception of what it means to be the prime minister of the United Kingdom, casting Theresa May as a mere Comptroller of Public Services or a puffed-up cruise ship director rather than a consequential world leader.

Nonetheless, Conservatives seem to be streaming away from Birmingham in a very cheerful mood – some almost outrageously so:

Et tu, Montie?

Yes, libertarian individualism is indeed “THE Tory weakness” if one is trying to appeal to people who love socialism and a big, activist state. Which is why a healthy, virile Conservative Party should either seek to make such people see the error of their ways or else quit pandering to them entirely.

But this is clearly not Theresa May’s approach. She has a different strategy. And what has it wrought thus far?

After three months of reflection over the summer, the Tories are absolutely nowhere when it comes to tackling Brexit, but every indication we have seen suggests that they are toying with the unnecessary self-harm option which would see Britain forsake the single market in a couple of years at the time of EU secession, well before any comprehensive replacement could possibly be negotiated.

We were supposed to be wowed by a so-called “Great Repeal Bill” to undo the 1972 European Communities Act, until five seconds of reflection revealed this grand piece of posturing to be nothing more than a statement of the bleeding obvious – if Brexit is to happen at all, the primacy of EU law and courts must be brought to an end at the moment of departure.

Flagship proposals to build new grammar schools only scratch the surface of problems with British education, but jubilant Tories seem to be treating this policy as the alpha and omega of their plans to create a more educated and skilled workforce when in fact so much more needs to be done to make the British education system the best in the world.

The last Chancellor of the Exchequer was bad enough, with his limp deficit reduction targets, obsession with white elephant infrastructure projects and shameful Brexit scaremongering. But his replacement, Philip Hammond, has taken what little authority the Tories retained on fiscal responsibility and thrown it out the window. Now Conservatives are mocked by John McDonnell of all people – John McDonnell! – for failing to grapple with the public finances, and the national debt will have increased every year after a decade of Tory rule.

And to add insult to serious libertarian injury, Theresa May’s steely-eyed authoritarian side is revving up, with planned new laws to criminalise insulting the army or advocating shariah law for Britain veering from the unworkable to the stupid all the way to the totalitarian.

So I’m sorry, but I can’t get excited about this revamped Conservative In Name Only government. While Theresa May is off to a bright start in terms of tone and temperament, what we have seen so far in terms of policy suggests a shift even further to the economic left than Cameron/Osborne, balanced out by a rise in authoritarianism and government meddling in every aspect of private life.

And for what? To beat Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party by a slightly greater landslide in 2020 than is already expected?

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I would rather Theresa May’s government struggle to a 30 seat majority in 2020 based on a really radical, small government manifesto in the model of Thatcher – and then actually go about reshaping the country based on that clear vision – rather than win a 100 seat majority by dressing up in the abandoned clothing of Ed Miliband.

As Margaret Thatcher said in 1968:

There are dangers in consensus; it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything. It seems more important to have a philosophy and policy which because they are good appeal to sufficient people to secure a majority.

Theresa May clearly disagrees, and there is a very low limit to the respect that this blog can give to a leader who thinks in such unambitious, tactical terms.

 

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On Left And Right, British Politics Is Characterised By Pitifully Small Thinking

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Grammar schools and OBEs – anything to distract ourselves from the real, serious political issues facing modern Britain

Of all the issues and circumstances which afflict modern Britain, what policy do you think would make the single most positive difference? Ensuring that Brexit takes place and that we positively reshape our relationship with Europe and the world? Comprehensive healthcare reform? Constitutional reform to reinvigorate our democracy? Freeing higher education from the dead hand of government funding and control? Sweeping simplification and reform of the tax code?

One could debate endlessly (though this blog would prioritise Brexit above all else). But two things almost sure not to make the list would be the two political stories dominating the news this weekend – Labour leadership contender Owen Smith’s ostentatious vow to ban the bestowing of new honours for five years if he becomes leader, and indications that Theresa May’s government is on the verge of overturning New Labour’s spiteful and vindictive ban on the opening of new grammar schools.

From the BBC:

Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith says honours will not be bestowed upon Labour donors, MPs, advisers and staff for five years if he wins the contest.

Mr Smith, who is challenging leader Jeremy Corbyn, said he wants an honours system that rewards “selfless acts, not political and personal patronage”.

Mr Smith, MP for Pontypridd, said Mr Cameron’s list – which included many Downing Street staffers and Conservative donors – was put together with “blatant cronyism”.

“David Cameron’s resignation honours list has brought the system into disrepute and deepened people’s mistrust of politics.

“It’s simply not good enough for [Prime Minister] Theresa May to turn a blind eye to this situation – we need fundamental reform of the honours system so it can reward good deeds and restore people’s trust in politics.”

He also said his proposed five-year honours ban would stay in place until a total overhaul of the system was completed.

This blog does not dispute the fact that the British honours system is hopelessly corrupt and abysmal at recognising exemplary virtue. If Samantha Cameron’s personal stylist is worthy of career-boosting recognition in a gross act of cronyism, what possible grounds are there to deny an honour for every single member of the British armed forces, all of whom risk their lives for very little financial reward compared to that which they could receive in other private sector careers?

While there are many aspects of British imperial tradition which are worth carrying into the present day, the byzantine honours system, with its multiple levels and incomprehensible initials, is not one of them. In fact, it is the ultimate expression of inward-looking elitism, a Country Club tiered membership system which allows its wealthy and well-connected members to compare themselves with one another while excluding thousands of people whose lifetimes of service make them far more deserving of public recognition.

So scrapping the honours system altogether and replacing it a flattened and simplified system – perhaps just one award for civilian life, like a stripped down variant of the Order of Australia – would be a worthy goal, though hardly mission-critical for UK prosperity. Far less impressive, though, is Owen Smith’s dismal suggestion of an arbitrary five-year pause to supposedly review the system.

This is a typically British muddle. When faced with an unacceptable scandal or unethical situation, the establishment’s typical response is to launch a meandering and ultimately fruitless inquiry, kicking the issue into the long grass until public outrage has died down sufficiently that things can go on unchanged. The only way that the rotten system will ever change is either for firm and immediate action to be taken, or for the issue to be folded into a package of further-reaching constitutional reform (by far the better, though less likely option).

Owen Smith, last gasp of the Labour centrists, clearly has no interest in serious reform – of the honours system or anything else. His proposed five-year moratorium is a quintessentially New Labour device, assuaging public anger with a big flashy gesture while doing absolutely nothing to tackle the underlying issue or inequality. This isn’t bold new leadership from somebody worthy of succeeding even Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. And this is the man who believes he is uniquely gifted to carry Labour back into government?

Not that the Conservatives are any better.

The main news emanating from the Conservative Party this weekend has been the leaked suggestion that Theresa May is planning to announce a repeal of New Labour’s ban on the building on new grammar schools – not unpleasing news, certainly, but concerning (and highly vulnerable to political attack) when not placed in the clear context of wider education reform with a laser focus on raising standards and improving social mobility.

The Guardian reports:

Theresa May has been warned she will face stiff opposition to plans for new grammar schools from some senior Tory MPs as well as Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The prime minister was facing a backlash after the Sunday Telegraph reported that she will announce a return to more selective schools in England as early as the Conservatives’ autumn conference.

Downing Street made no attempt to dampen speculation that an extension of selection in schools is on the government’s agenda, releasing a statement on Sunday that said: “The prime minister has been clear that we need to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.

“Every child should be allowed to rise as far as their talents will take them and birth should never be a barrier. Policies on education will be set out in due course.”

The suggestion that May, a former grammar school pupil, will opt for new selective schools after an 18-year ban delighted many Conservative backbenchers. More than 100 Tory MPs are said to support a campaign by ConservativeVoice, a group endorsed by senior cabinet ministers Liam Fox and David Davis in 2012.

In many ways, seeking to lift the ban on new grammar schools is commendable – the ban is a grotesque piece of spiteful, anti-aspirational Labour Party downward social engineering, in which “equality” was to be achieved by hacking away at the ladders to success in favour of dull, uniform mediocrity.

But as a first major flagship Conservative policy under Theresa May, it is disappointing. Yes, it shows more grit than was ever displayed by David Cameron, and yes it will keep restive Tory backbenchers happy – essential if May’s government is to survive the next four years with a notional majority of just 8. But in terms of the overall education reform which Britain needs, grammar schools are but a drop in the ocean.

The proportion of pupils in grammar schools has been under 5% since the late 1970s. Even assuming an aggressive policy of encouraging new grammar schools, it is hard to see this figure substantially increasing within, say, the next decade (i.e. in time to make a measurable difference in the productivity and quality of the British workforce).

Academic selection can be beneficial, and we should certainly aim to stretch the most talented pupils and appropriately enrich their education wherever possible. As a former state school pupil, my own education was in no way enhanced by being grouped together with other children of decidedly mixed ability (and this despite streaming). And I strongly doubt that the less able students benefited greatly from my presence either.

But the real issue in British education is the stunted curriculum, unambitious targets and wildly excessive early focus on specialisation. As a state school student, I had no opportunity to learn Latin, or philosophy or the classics. And no matter what steps I have taken in adult life to fill the yawning gaps in my knowledge, nothing can replace exposure to these topics at an early age. Why should these subjects be the preserve of expensive fee-paying private schools, simply because some dull left-wing bureaucrat decided that “ordinary” students do not need exposure to the classics and the Western canon in order to get jobs working in factories which no longer exist?

Why, too, are fourteen-year-olds expected to know what they want to be when they grow up, and begin dropping subjects like hot potatoes as they begin studying for their GCSE examinations? How on earth is a young teenager, who has perhaps only ever had one teacher in history or geography or modern languages, supposed to know for sure that they will never need whole areas of knowledge in their future lives? For this is exactly what we demand of our young people today.

At a tender age (when frankly, issues of popularity or boredom come into play as much as anything else) we expect young people to drop subjects and constrain their life choices first at fourteen, when they start preparing for GCSEs, and again at sixteen (if they haven’t been encouraged to abandon school altogether by pandering government agencies) when they begin preparing for A-levels. This is ludicrous – and the idea of dropping subjects which one finds difficult hardly instils young minds with a positive attitude towards dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.

Rather than continuing to shoot for the middle with our education policy, contenting ourselves when we just about keep pace with other middle-ranked nations, we should set our sights higher as a country. We should be looking to match and outdo countries like Japan, Finland and South Korea from their perch at the top of world tables in educational outcomes, and improving our schools so that it is no longer just our elite private schools and Oxbridge which are the envy of the world.

Would this be easy? Of course not. Many factors are involved, from daycare and early pre-school education, relative poverty and tackling an often lukewarm culture of aspiration. In some of these areas (particularly around the culture of aspiration and delayed gratification) we can clearly do much more. In other areas, there may be difficult questions over infringement on personal choice and the proper role of the state. But we should at least have the debate and talk about how much power we are prepared to concede to different levels of government (or determined to take back from government) in order to drag ourselves up the educational league tables.

But these are all discussions which will never take place if the focus is taken over by a debate about grammar schools, which make up just one weapon in the fight to improve educational outcomes. We will never have the broader discussion and the complete policy review if Theresa May’s government expends a vast amount of political capital fighting furious Labour and LibDem MPs to an impasse and ends up being defeated in the Commons by a jubilant Jeremy Corbyn.

So here we are – well over a month after the EU referendum, and here we are talking about grammar schools and the honours system.

Of course the machinery of government must grind on, Brexit or no Brexit. And of course this is the slow summer season, when MPs and journalists normally take a break, promising each other that nothing momentous will take place while they try to grab some quality beach time. But the fact that the Labour Party is consumed by yet another leadership election with a challenger whose key selling point is promising to spend five years thinking about changing the honours system, while the Tories play to the backbenches by choosing to fight and die on the hill of grammar schools, is not encouraging.

Maybe party conference season and the return of Parliament will provide more context, or some other sign of hope that Theresa May’s government plans to do more for social mobility than re-litigate a battle from the 1970s, or that Labour’s childish centrist MPs will either accept four more years in the wilderness or finally show some courage and strike out on their own.

Because at present, the policies and preoccupations of Britain’s leading politicians do not seem remotely equal to the scale of the challenges at hand.

 

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