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

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

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

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

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

Lewis writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May’s risible pitch in the 2017 general election was strength and stability, but these are states of being, not a direction of travel. People jetting off in an aeroplane together would generally prefer less turbulence to a more bumpy flight, but more than anything they care about arriving at the correct destination. Jeremy Corbyn made his flight plan crystal clear to the British electorate. Theresa May didn’t even bother to produce one, preferring to pander to the Politics of Me Me Me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Times reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pathetic” is too kind a word.

 

UPDATE – 6 February 2018

If anybody who reads this article feels called to action and could contribute in any way to a potential Stepping Stones 2022 project, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at semipartisansam@gmail.com

Thanks.

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The Battle For British Conservatism: Should The Tories Be Ideological?

Tories vision is not optimistic about the future but small mean and nasty - Jon Ashworth MP - Conservatives

Some say that it is not the job of conservatives to think big or be ideological – but in a period of discontinuity such as this, being ideological and ambitious is exactly what conservatives must do

My interest was piqued recently by a Philip Collins column in the Times, in which Collins argues for pragmatic conservatism over idealistic conservatism, and chastises Brexit-supporting conservatives in particular for supposedly putting adventurism and ideology over the cautious stability which ought to flow from the conservative worldview.

Collins makes some interesting points, beginning with his conception of the differing roles of Britain’s two main political parties:

The electorate selects a Labour government to push the nation down the road of progress. That effort inevitably leads to an excess of public spending and too great a faith in the capacity of the state to improve the lot of the people. Much good gets done along the way but the temperature gauge of the British people is so attuned that, once spending starts to spiral, they call on the Conservative Party to tidy up. The whole point of the Conservatives, the absolute raison d’être of Tory government, is to provide sound money and solid competence, unburdened by too much radical belief.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this. Over the course of both short and medium-term timeframes one can witness this phenomenon in action, from the pivot away from New Labour in 2010 as a short-term correction by an electorate in search of economic competence, and on a longer-term macro level the big swings from pre-war government to Attlee’s post-war socialism followed by a Thatcherite rollback of the post-war consensus.

(Of course, one can also argue the opposite – that the 1979 and 1983 Conservative governments were a deeply ideological monetarist reaction against the managed decline wrought by Keynesian economics and the socialist mixed economy. But while I fully agree that these were very ideological movements on the inside, I must also concede that they came to power not because the British people suddenly bought into a particularly individualistic mindset but rather because the people knew that the Tories were delivering strong, necessary dose of needed medicine).

But it is when Collins applies this same thinking to the European Union and the question of Brexit, though, where I really take issue with his argument:

But the issue of Europe, alas, pricks Conservatives into believing things. Suddenly, all the errors of the left, which the right exists to correct, are being committed by the Conservative Party. The usual conservative view is risk-averse and frightened of grands projets by their sheer complexity and by the low capacity of the state to administer them. The true conservative, who is not a reactionary in thrall to the past, is also not a radical excited by a better tomorrow. He or she instead makes a fetish of the present. Better not to risk change for fear it will be worse than what we have. The caution and the complacency can be infuriating but it is a fool who sees no wisdom in the position.

Where are these conservatives today? Can you name a single one? Who is the person who holds the quintessentially conservative view, which is that the EU is a bit of a mess for which no affection can really be mustered but who thinks that leaving is really not worth the candle? The process of leaving, thinks the historical conservative, is just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother. To attempt the most complex administrative task that the British state has undertaken since the conduct of the Second World War is just a profoundly unconservative thing to do.

This, to me, seems a rather glib analysis. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union for slightly more than four decades. This is but a blip in the very long history of our country, and certainly an aberration in comparison to the independent course we charted before joining the EEC in 1973. To say that remaining in the European Union is the conservative option is to apply an exceedingly narrow temporal window in determining whether the “natural” state of being to which conservatives should naturally gravitate should be the status quo, or what existed for centuries up until forty years ago.

Collins would be aided in his argument that the EU represents the “new normal” if there were any other examples elsewhere in the world of nations voluntarily creating supranational governments to sit above their own courts and legislatures, cheered on at every stage by their citizens. But of course there are no such examples. The people of Canada, Mexico and the United States do not clamour to form an ever-closer union of their own, let alone one which includes central America (the equivalent of the European Union’s continual eastward expansion). Nor would the citizens of, say, Canada, tolerate the idea of a supranational court and legislature in Mexico City setting an ever-wider range of social, trade and foreign policy.

In other words, it seems clear that the European Union is the historical aberration, not Brexit. The EU is an anachronistic relic borne of a time when the world was divided into a few major international blocs. It is a solution to a problem which no longer exists, and while international cooperation is more important than ever, EU-based cooperation has conspicuously failed to live up to the challenges of our time, from the self-inflicted euro crisis to the great migration crisis. And given that EU membership represents such a narrow slice of our history, it seems clear to me that the conservative position is one which advocates a calm, orderly and pragmatic Brexit (probably of the kind which I and other members of the Leave Alliance campaigned, namely a phased exit from the EU via EFTA/EEA in order to avoid undue disruption to trade and economic links).

Also concerning is Collins’ assertion that Brexit is “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. He seems to wilfully ignore the fact that the Conservatives are also traditionally the party of patriotism and the robust, self-confident defence of national integrity (the clue is in the name Conservative and Unionist Party). While conservatism may often mean cautious pragmatism in terms of domestic policy (which admittedly has sometimes needed to be disrupted by Labour’s progressivism to advance the social good) it has never meant timidity or a lack of faith in Britain’s ability to act and defend our interests on the world stage. Collins seems to equate natural conservative caution with a necessary lack of ambition, but I do not consider these one and the same thing at all.

And then Collins really loses me with this:

Britain feels very different from the glorious summer of 2012 when Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the Olympics was a paean to British culture that had spanned the world and to British institutions that had stood the toughest test of all, the test of time. In the distant past five years ago, it was an easy nation to be proud of. Boyle’s was a conservative vision of Britain, which the Tory party has thrown by the wayside.

I’m sorry, but this is balderdash. Prior to his career in journalism Philip Collins was speechwriter to Tony Blair, so his proclivities are very much of the centre-left. And while parts of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics might be said to be rooted loosely in conservatism, the part which most people remember is the bizarre open-air Mass in praise of the NHS and socialised healthcare.

(It is telling, too, how many of those on the left and centre-left almost seemed to discover patriotism for the first time back in 2012 while watching hundreds of actors in nurse costumes prance around a huge stadium pushing hospital beds and wheelchairs).

An all-singing, all-dancing Rite of Spring in worship of the National Health Service is not conservative in nature. In fact, its emphasis on uniformity, collective endeavour, equality of outcome and dependency on government is about the most un-conservative spectacle one can think of. The fact that it took a rather gaudy homage to that most socialist of socialist institutions to evoke feelings of patriotism in some on the Left shows that this was very much a leftist moment, not a conservative one – and in my opinion also shows that the same argument that EU membership is too new to fall under the protective umbrella of conservatism also applies to the NHS.

So should conservatives believe in anything, or should they be the timid, pragmatic and unambitious party of technocrats and fixers who are called in once in awhile to clear up the mess caused by an over-zealous Labour Party? I think this is where we need to be very clear about our meanings. It may absolutely be the case that most of the British public never see the conservative worldview and resulting policies in terms of an inspiring, coherent story. We may always be seen as the fixers. But that does not mean that we can get away without having a story to motivate and guide us, even if this remains largely internal.

Remember: British politics has now entered a period of discontinuity (as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) in which people have increasingly become dissatisfied with the previous Cameron-Blairite centrist, pro-EU political settlement and are demanding something new, something which addresses the unique challenges we face as a nation in 2017. This cannot be done without first diagnosing these challenges, understanding where they are interlinked, and then devising a set of mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle them.

We saw the same thing in 1977, when the influential Stepping Stones report (no, I’m not going to stop talking about it anytime soon) provided a blueprint which Margaret Thatcher then took to Downing Street and started implementing in 1979. The Thatcher government did not save Britain from inexorable national decline by conceding that reversing years of state ownership of industry and tackling the over-powerful trades union was “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. On the contrary, the Conservative Party of 1979 was forced to accept that discontinuity had to be met by new and previously unthinkable policies, just as the idea of leaving the EU remains unthinkable to so many within the political class today.

Believing in nothing and playing the role of the calm technocrat is all very well when times are good, when society and the economy are in steady-state and there are no urgent or existential challenges to be addressed. In such times, the Conservative Party is very welcome to play the tedious but necessary role of fixer. Unfortunately, we live in rather more interesting times which require inspired and often disruptively innovative policymaking rather than the usual government painting by numbers.

I can understand why this scares people like Philip Collins. The last time it was incumbent upon the Tories to be truly ideological, in 1979, they ended up remaking the country (and together with America, the world) and stamped a new political settlement on Britain which even now has not been fully rolled back. It is therefore natural, if a little cynical, that he now counsels the Tories to think small, to “keep their senses” and throw their arms around the status quo. The alternative must be terrifying to contemplate.

The last thing that the guardians of the current, fraying political consensus want is for conservatives to come up with an ambitious, ideologically coherent new internal narrative and then remake the country anew all over again.

And that is precisely why we must do it.

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