The Big Tent Ideas Festival

Stepping Stones Report - Goals and Risks - Brexit - EU Referendum

Searching for the missing conservative soul in a Berkshire field

Various people have been raving about an event which took place last week in Twyford, Berkshire, where Conservative MP George Freeman set up a few yurts in a field and held an impromptu late-summer symposium on how to renew British conservatism.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival is a laudable ongoing effort to refresh and reset British conservatism while the Tory party is still in government, as opposed to waiting until they languish in opposition. This is easier said than done – as anybody can plainly see, Theresa May’s listless and fratricidal government has run out of what little ideological steam it inherited from David Cameron’s equally muddled tenure. Now they sit, idling in neutral, on the cusp of making an almighty mess of Brexit and being kicked out of office without a single lasting achievement to their name.

Mark Wallace of Conservative Home was in attendance, and describes the extent of the challenge:

The Right’s challenge is that time in government saps the energy, and increases the centralisation, of any movement. The never-ending trials of running the country drag in, and burn through, many of the policies and people. Indeed, we produce our best ideas and develop our greatest new talents when the variety of interests that exist across the centre right movement have room to breathe and freedom to operate. Often that happens in Opposition – the Party’s apparatus, authority and powers of patronage are more limited, and there’s a clear objective to pursue.

That’s as true for Labour as it is for the Conservatives – consider the contrast in energy between the respective camps of Major and Blair, or Brown and Cameron. The task for our movement today is to break that cycle: to renew and innovate now, while the Conservative Party is still in power. To do so requires us to recapture that freedom and urgency enjoyed in the years between 2004 and 2010, which saw such fertile growth of new thinking and campaigning organisations, the development of new outlets to communicate our ideas (not least ConservativeHome), the development of a raft of strong, new policies and the emergence of a generation of talented campaigners, thinkers and communicators.

The Big Tent is currently focusing on three main strands of renewal: Social Renewal, Political Renewal and Economic Renewal. Fair enough – these designations seem to make sense. And some of the questions being debated across all three areas resonate very strongly with topics that this blog cares deeply about, namely:

  • What are the causes of the deepening crisis of disconnection between government and the citizens it is supposed to serve?
  • How do we define a meaningful notion of citizenship with reciprocal responsibilities with the state, which works for us all?
  • How do we better support our third sector and encourage volunteering?
  • How do we reform our benefits system?
  • How do we build lifelong learning, from antenatal, through the early years, school and adulthood, and incorporating resilience, emotional and social learning, as well as key skills? How do we get parents and communities to support this in the poorest areas?
  • Is the rise of extremism – to left and right – a function of failure in the mainstream centre or simple liberation of the radical fringes?
  • Given the public’s rejection of mass low wage migration, how can we achieve the transformational skills and training revolution of the UK workforce which has defied policymakers for 150 years?

And particularly:

  • How do we embed lifelong learning to increase workforce resilience for the coming tech change tsunami so we do not make the same terrible mistakes as happened in 1980s mining areas (and from which we have still not recovered)?

Remarkably, though, the housing crisis was not called out as a separate issue for discussion, even though it is the pre-eminent challenge driving a wedge between the Tory party and otherwise potentially sympathetic voters. This is a very curious feat of omission, to the extent one wonders whether it can have been accidental. As with Conservative policy since 2010 there seems to be a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the need to do anything which might annoy the current rural, home-owning, NIMBYish Tory base by threatening the continual upward trajectory in the value of their houses.

This is short-sighted, and needs to be addressed urgently. Housing should be one of the absolute key issues being debated by the Big Tent, not something whispered about on the margins or tangentially as part of another discussion. In the 2017 general election, the Tories did not win a majority of any demographic until the average age ticked over fifty. Fifty! Conservatives no longer merely have a problem with youth voters, though we are certainly more radioactive than ever among this crowd. We are now almost equally unpopular among young professionals and people in early middle age.

At least the Tories of Margaret Thatcher’s day had some slick city Yuppies with stripy shirts and enormous cellphones in their corner. I have lived and worked in a professional capacity in London for a decade now, and can count the number of fellow “out of the closet” conservatives in my social circle on two hands, with fingers to spare. That CCHQ does not presently view this deficit among young, educated voters as an existential crisis speaks volumes about their complacency and sheer incompetence.

This is a demographic time bomb waiting to explode in the Conservative Party’s face. The metaphorical conveyor belt carrying young idealists from left-wingery to conservatism as they age cannot be taken for granted – it has only worked in recent decades because as people get older, government policy has allowed them to acquire a greater stake in society, primarily through home and equity ownership. People do not just magically start voting Conservative when they get their first grey hair, and people who have been consistently screwed over by selfish, short-termist policies which pander to the Tory base at the expense of the wider national interest will develop a lasting antipathy to the Conservative Party and to conservatism in general.

Dodging the housing issue is not an option. It must be tackled head-on, and (unlike Theresa May’s “dementia tax” debacle) it must be done with care and sensitivity. So long as Jeremy Corbyn or somebody like him leads the Labour Party, the Tories will have a bit of political cover to do something radical on housing – even if it enrages a section of their base, few of these people will defect to a Labour Party eager to tax them to death. Failing to act before Labour falls back into centrist hands means that the Conservatives’ scope for manoeuvre will be greatly reduced.

Additionally, while the tripartite focus on social issues is laudable at first glance, this area should not be allowed to dominate the discussion as it dominated much of Cameronism and now Theresa May and Nick Timothy’s very statist, paternalistic brand of conservatism.

Yet Toby Guise at The American Conservative reports that the “society” tent was by far the most popular:

The mainly young delegates heard speakers in tents marked “politics,” “economics,” and “society.” Tellingly, the last of these was the largest—with a program that opened with pitches from the founders of two significant charities focused on social exclusion. This theme reflected the fact that accusations of a compassion-deficit are at the heart of Labour’s attack on the Conservatives.

This reflects the current priorities and incentives for success in conservative Westminster politics. Being seen as a beardy Nick Timothy acolyte seeking to extend government influence into every home and mind is viewed as trendy and forward-thinking, while sitting at a desk thinking about how to encourage entrepreneurship and decrease reliance on the state is seen as excessively “ideological”.

It may sound harsh, but conservative renewal will not come about by focusing relentlessly on social issues, as though the state can and should provide an answer to every single social ill in Britain. It is tempting to believe that government must fill this expansive role these days, especially since the Tories are pounded day after day by Labour’s wobbly-lipped moralisers about how they are supposedly so callous and unfeeling. It is only natural in these circumstances to want to begin offering scattergun policy prescriptions to address every last issue which happens to excite the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Indeed, the phrase “compassionate conservatism” only plays into the Left’s hands by wrongly conceding that ordinary vanilla conservatism is somehow cruel and uncompassionate, and that we can only redeem ourselves by accepting statist, left-wing talking points and policies. This is a dangerous nonsense.

People say that they are interested in social justice and equality, particularly at dinner parties, when talking to pollsters or otherwise needing to make themselves look good. But when they are in the privacy of the voting booth they actually care about the economy and the general direction of the country. That means that to make a measurable difference in the fortunes of the Conservative Party, the Big Tent should focus primarily on the Economic and Political renewal branches, trusting that improving the overall health of the nation and spurring the reinvigoration of civil society will improve conditions for all. Rather than more government intervention, we need to create the conditions for a rapid growth of charitable (real charities, not 90% government-funded money laundering outfits) and private solutions to entrenched social problems rather than the clunky, failed attempts at social engineering preferred by New Labour and their successor Tory governments.

The good news is that there is precedent for all of this. In 1977, the “Stepping Stones” report was published by the late John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, two businessmen (at IBM and Unilever respectively) who took it upon themselves to diagnose the “British disease” which threatened to doom us to long-term national decline, and propose radical solutions. Crucially, the treatment prescribed by Stepping Stones was not a mixed basket of scattergun solutions to individual problems, but rather a coherent package of reforms which sought to simultaneously treat all of the symptoms of the British disease while also identifying and destroying the root cause (the grip of statist socialism and the unions).

The Britain of the 1970s, wallowing deep in the failing post-war consensus, can hardly be described as being highly receptive to radical right-wing thinking at the time Stepping Stones was published. But that didn’t matter – Hoskyns and Strauss managed to get the ear of aides to Margaret Thatcher back when she was still Leader of the Opposition, and when she walked into Downing Street in 1979 she did so with Stepping Stones in her handbag and on her mind. Then, as now, the important thing to begin with was not that the country understands the entire plan or knows that the Tories view the current status quo as a disease to be cured, but just that the government seems to have energy and purpose again. The plan will reveal itself in good time, just as Stepping Stones did.

That doesn’t mean that the Tories can avoid coming up with a better narrative than “Strong and Stable” or “Brexit means Brexit”. These were appalling battle cries with which to fight the 2017 general election, and deserved to be mercilessly picked apart and ridiculed by the media and a newly-confident Labour Party. A new narrative is certainly needed, but this must be both authentically conservative and it must avoid clashing with policies that the government intends to adopt. For instance, it is no good for the Tories to publicly wring their hands about such-and-such social issue when they have little intention of directly tackling it through the levers of government. That’s why I am hesitant to support the Big Tent’s heavy focus on social renewal – it opens up endless opportunities for the sanctimonious parties of the Left to attack us for weasel words or hypocrisy, while at the very best all we can hope to do is fight the socialists to a draw.

But of course, back in 1977-79 all of this ideological and rhetorical renewal was done from the relative comfort and obscurity of opposition. Now, an intellectually exhausted Tory Party must effectively perform the same feat while in government and seeing their worldview held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong up and down the land. This is a much harder task, bordering on the impossible.

Yet that is exactly what we need. We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, recognising that the challenges we face today – globalisation, automation, mass migration, Islamist terror and Brexit – are very different to those faced by the incoming Thatcher government in 1979, but that these contemporary problems must be tackled with exactly the same spirit and according to the same conservative values.

Hopefully the Big Tent can play an important role in this process. If nothing else, it is hugely encouraging to see somebody, anybody else finally acknowledge that the Conservative Party does actually need to renew itself and come up with a compelling conservative vision for Britain rather than arrogantly waiting for Jeremy Corbyn to fail. This blog has been something of a voice in the wilderness on this topic since mid way through the coalition government – hammering home the point here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere and here – but it is good to be belatedly joined by a chorus of establishment journalists and conservative commentators who have finally woken up to the fact that the Tories need an explicitly ideological answer to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s resurgent socialism.

Toby Guise is broadly hopeful that the Big Tent has potential:

Disheartened conservatives should remember that cultural Marxism was born out of weakness not strength—specifically, the failure of Western proletariats to obey Marxist doctrine by revolting during World War One. Since the fall of Communism, the strategy has been pursued with ever-greater vigour as a displacement activity from discussing discredited economic ideas. When British Labour politicians are put on the spot about policy, they often flounder spectacularly. Yet the overall direction of travel in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today at the Labour national convention was clear: towards a Venezuelan-style command economy based on nationalization and authoritarianism. Equipped with this tried-and-failed policy program, it’s no surprise that the party machine diverts as much attention away from economics and onto kulturkampf. By refusing to engage this strategy—and instead directing attention firmly onto clear-minded political solutions that make markets work for all—the Big Tent Ideas Festival is precisely the right type of response.

Mark Wallace was also pleasantly surprised:

I’m pretty sure I saw some Hunter wellies, and some conversations did occasionally threaten to induce a minor wince. But, if we’re honest, there was probably less of each of those phenomena to be seen in the beautiful Berkshire sun than there will be in Manchester next week.

Crucially, they did not outweigh the value of the event, which grew on me as the day went on. Here were Conservatives, entrepreneurs, inventors, charity founders, policy experts, young people, older people and a mix of journalists and politicians talking about ideas for a whole day. That shouldn’t be unusual, but it is. The election, and the problems suffered by the Conservative Party among certain key demographics, was the inevitable backdrop to the discussion, but the Big Tent encouraged people to exchange views openly, to hear experiences alien to their own, and to consider how their principles might be applied to real world issues.

With about 220 people in attendance, it wasn’t a lobbying-fest, or a jockeying arena for glad-handing and card-swapping. It felt more like what I’d imagine to be Steve Hilton’s ideal wedding reception (except with more shoes): tents and bunting, a good buffet, and a bar of sustainably-produced beverages, along with speeches about the environment, prison reform and the impact of technology on democratic culture.

This wasn’t a representative sample of the Conservative Party, still less of the electorate, either socially or ideologically, but I found it refreshing to see people applying their minds and experiences to pressing problems.

I have also now volunteered my time and effort to the cause. And in a way, I will regard whether my offer of help is taken up as a sign of whether the Big Tent has the potential to be a useful vehicle for conservative renewal. Not because I am so amazing, talented and inspired that I can single-handedly save British conservatism, but because if they start listening to independent bloggers and other voices (besides the usual MPs, journalists, Westminster types, charity representatives and community organisers) then it will be a clear sign that British conservatism is willing to entertain ideas from outside the bubble. That having hit intellectual rock bottom they are finally willing to take a dispassionate look at their failings and make some vital changes.

Stepping Stones, which literally formed the blueprint for saving Britain from 1970s-style national decline, was not borne of a cosy conversation between people inside the Westminster political elite. It took outsiders – from the world of business, in this instance – to hold a mirror up to the country and to the establishment, showing them that the old path was unsustainable and that new ideas, previously dismissed as unworkable or politically unpalatable, were required to get Britain back on track.

We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, and a Conservative Party with the ambition, courage and clarity of thinking to get on and carry out its recommendations, effectively executing a dramatic mid-term course change rather than waiting fearfully for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to cast them back into opposition.

God speed to the Big Tent and the work they are doing; Lord knows that it is desperately needed.

 

Stepping Stones Report - Wiring Diagram

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The Left’s Self-Serving Hypocrisy On Immigration And Free Movement

Labour - controls on immigration mug - general election 2015

The Left’s extreme attachment to the principle of free movement of people speaks volumes about whose interests they really serve

This, by trade unionist and Blue Labour activist Paul Embery, really gets to the heart of the modern metro-Left’s extremist stance on immigration and free movement of people within the EU, so divorced from the fears, priorities and aspirations of the Labour Party’s traditional working class base:

“Access to the single market and freedom of movement are inextricably linked, and it would be wrong… to put the economy anything other than first,’ Diane Abbott told The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.

Leaving aside that there is, in fact, no inextricable link between access to the single market and free movement (she may be confusing access with membership), what is most striking is that Abbott’s argument here – that everything must be subordinated to economic imperatives, that policies must ultimately be judged not by their impact on society or quality of life but according to whether they boost GDP or make someone somewhere a fast buck – is the very embodiment of market-obsessed Thatcherism.

Abbott isn’t a Thatcherite, of course. Anything but. She is, on virtually all things, on the side of the angels in a head-to-head with Thatcher. Yet it is weird how, when it comes to the subject of immigration, she and so many others on the Left are willing to suddenly embrace the philosophy of a woman they have spent their lives opposing.

When did it become the norm for the Left to put the demands of the market above what was right for wider society? To allow the dictates of the balance sheet to trump all? To know the cost of everything but the value of nothing?

When Thatcher closed the mines and destroyed whole communities, didn’t she do so because she wasn’t prepared to ‘put the economy anything other than first’?

We can argue until the cows come home about whether particular policies or strategies do indeed bring economic advantages. But, for the Left especially, that should never be the sole consideration – and certainly not when those policies or strategies give rise to profound consequences for society.

It is certainly very telling when the Left pivots from disparaging corporations and viewing business as evil (their standard M.O.) to fawning over multinational corporations and anxiously tending to the every care and concern of their CEOs.

I noted this point over two years ago:

Isn’t it funny how the voice of big business – usually the object of scorn and hatred from the left – suddenly becomes wise and sagacious when the short term interests of the large corporations happen to coincide with those of the Labour Party?

Labour have been hammering “the corporations” relentlessly since losing power in 2010, accusing them of immoral (if not illegal) behaviour for such transgressions such as not paying enough tax, not paying employees enough money, paying employees too much money and a host of other sins. In Labour’s eyes, the words of a bank executive were valued beneath junk bond status – until now, when suddenly they have become far-sighted and wise AAA-rated pronouncements, just because they have come out in support of Britain remaining in the EU.

(In fact, I wonder whether the Left’s eagerness to talk about the economics of immigration is actually a classic piece of misdirection designed to sway conservative or swing voters; that in actual fact, they don’t give a hoot about the economy but rather want to ensure maximum immigration levels for cultural and political reasons that they dare not speak out loud. Why else would Diane Abbott of all people, hardly the sort of person who you would picture fretting about a multinational corporation’s labour costs and investment decisions, be speaking about economics, well outside her comfort zone?)

Embery is quite correct, though – the Labour Party did indeed once value additional metrics beyond raw GDP when evaluating public policy. This formed a large basis of their objection to Thatcherism, bordering on hatred. (While this blog remains convinced that the Thatcher reforms were entirely necessary and hugely beneficial on the balance, it must be acknowledged that too little was done to ameliorate the harsh impact of deindustrialisation on many Northern, Welsh and Scottish communities – the Left actually has a valid critique here, and a reasonably strong moral point).

Yet large elements of the Left, driven mad by Brexit, now seem willing to squander any moral high ground they may once have held by openly contradicting their former principled critique of the Thatcher government. According to the new post-Brexit leftist playbook, Thatcher was completely correct to sacrifice close-knit industrial communities in order to save the overall British economy. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, after all, and if a few livelihoods have to be crushed in order that the City of London continues to prosper then so be it. These are strange sentiments indeed to hear emanating from people who usually won’t shut up about how kind and compassionate they are.

It continually astonishes me that so many leftists – the type of urban, metro-left progressive who wear their political opinions like this season’s latest fashion and consider themselves to be super woke and compassionate – can be so callously disregarding and downright heartless when it comes to acknowledging legitimate concerns about immigration from an important segment of their collective movement.

And yet it should not be so surprising. Britain’s membership of the European Union, and free movement of people specifically, has greatly benefited this class of people – the young creative professionals working in the city and the Labour MPs who share the same outlook. These people have an extremely consumerist outlook on politics, always asking what their country or government can do for them rather than dwelling on their own responsibilities and obligations as citizens.

They are sworn adherents to the politics of Me Me Me. And a super-streamlined process for moving to another European country for work is to their great benefit, while the fact that many of the people for whom they claim to speak probably do not have glittering international careers in their future barely seems to register. This isn’t compassion – it is pure selfishness.

Embery goes on to make this very point:

How depressing it has been to witness so many on the Left fall into the trap of defending free movement almost unconditionally, presenting it as some kind of advancement for working people. One wonders whether they have ever stopped to ask themselves why the multinationals are so enthusiastic about it. In this case, they are guilty of defending a system which, in the quest for greater profits, commodifies humanity, uproots families and fragments communities. When that happens, the bonds of solidarity, mutuality and community are weakened, and instead we get loneliness, alienation and atomisation. ‘Migrants are not to blame,’ the free movement defenders will often retort. Well, of course they aren’t. But that was never the argument. It’s as meaningless as saying ‘The unemployed are not to blame’ as a response to opposition to unemployment.

A few other brave souls, such as Richard Johnson, have dared to tentatively make the same criticism of the Left:

People’s concerns about immigration haven’t been invented out of thin air. The real experience of immigration in Britain since the EU expanded into Central and Eastern Europe has been one of rapid change, over which people have felt little control. As Geoff Evans and Jon Mellon have shown, the salience of people’s concerns about immigration has closely tracked actual levels of net migration since 2004. Areas which saw the fastest increases in migrant populations were more likely to vote Leave. In areas where the migrant population increased by 200 percent or more between 2001 and 2014, there was a 94 percent chance of voting Leave.

[..] To oppose new controls on immigration is to speak for, at best, the 4 percent who want higher immigration and the 17 percent who are satisfied with current levels. It is not a 48 percent strategy; it is a 21 percent strategy. Too many in Labour seem to want the party to become the Lib Dems of c2005 – one which appeals to liberal, university-educated, cosmopolitans in big cities and university towns. It’s a fine strategy, but only if you want to win 60 seats in Parliament.

All too often, working class people only now exist in the eyes of the Labour Party to be used as convenient props when a political attack on conservatives needs to be made. The progressive left will happily get all weepy about the impact of gentrification and “social cleansing” on working class people, but then treat those same people like lepers if they dare to offer any political ideas or opinions of their own – especially those relating to Brexit and immigration. And almost nobody calls them out for this rank hypocrisy.

Thanks to Paul Embery for having the courage to do so. We may come from opposing sides of the political spectrum, but Embery clearly believes strongly in self-determination and the idea that British democracy should be accountable first and foremost to British people, not transnational elites or Labour’s progressive clerisy.

 

Labour 2015 General Election Mug Control Immigration - Immigration Policy

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The SpAdocracy And Theresa May’s Flawed Manifesto Plans For Social Care

The Thick Of It

Social care funding and other important policy questions are too important to be decided solely by a couple of Bright Young Things and Special Advisers ensconced in Downing Street

The problem with Theresa May’s disastrous, miscalculated decision to shoehorn dramatic changes to the funding of social care into the Conservative (In Name Only) manifesto – and then perform a humiliating U-turn live on TV – is that it was cooked up by a couple of her closest, most trusted advisers and then foisted on the Conservative Party and the country with zero wider consultation.

The Guardian lifts the veil on the dysfunctional Court of Theresa May:

The manifesto for Mayism was stitched together on an upper floor of Conservative campaign headquarters over the past few weeks by a tight-knit team of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers.

While May has been out on the road giving stump speeches nearly every day, her policy team has been holed up in Matthew Parker Street in Westminster composing a document intended to redefine Conservatism, drawing a line under the elitism of the Cameron era and the individualism of Thatcher.

The document is pitched as representing May’s firmly held world view, but it also has the fingerprints of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, her two co-chiefs of staff, all over it.

The pair, who reigned supreme over May’s Home Office, have been the subject of complaints from MPs that they act like deputy prime ministers instead of Downing Street aides. Now the election campaign has started, they run the show at CCHQ with a tight grip.

Who needs cabinet ministers, think tanks, non-profit organisations, lobbyists, the general public or anybody else in the political ecosystem when you have two loyal SpAds ready and willing to deconstruct and rebuild core functions of the state quietly, in the shadows?

More:

MPs have complained privately over the past 10 months about the centralised nature of Downing Street, with May, Timothy and Hill sucking policy decisions away from Whitehall departments and other ministers. It comes as no surprise to them that May’s campaign focuses on her personal leadership qualities to the exclusion of other senior figures in the party, with the case for that focus bolstered by the prime minister’s strong poll ratings.

Cabinet ministers say they are not being sidelined, although the reality looks somewhat different. Of 15 campaign events for the press held by the Tories so far, all but one have been fronted by May herself, speaking of “strong and stable leadership” and the need for a mandate to carry through Brexit at every opportunity.

A few – including Boris Johnson, Michael Fallon, Amber Rudd and David Davis – have been used for some media interviews, but they are mainly kept away at constituency visits. By Wednesday, senior cabinet ministers such as Philip Hammond, Johnson and Rudd had seen the manifesto and approved its contents.

But its composition was very much a matter for May’s inner circle.

It is quite frightening to realise just how quickly harebrained, incomplete and otherwise controversial policies can find themselves shoehorned into a party manifesto (and then swiftly become law) if they are adopted and pushed by a well-connected member of the SpAd-ocracy.

In fact, prior to calling the general election the Conservatives had planned to hold at least a basic level of consultation on reforming social care, but some bright spark apparently decided that it would be far simpler to ram the changes through by including half-baked ideas as firm manifesto pledges, as the Telegraph reports:

Politicians who will deliver the Conservatives’ new care policy if they win re-election were left in the dark about their manifesto commitments, it can be revealed.

Senior Government sources have told The Sunday Telegraph they were left “completely surprised” by the wide-ranging package of reforms announced this week.

A series of social care policies were due to be put out to consultation this summer, including some of those adopted by the party in its manifesto.

However the changes would have been followed by months of consideration with less political risk if they were dropped or altered after industry feedback.

As I type, Theresa May is scrambling to defend her social care policy and her broader judgment in a television interview with Andrew Neil (the closest that the prime minister will condescend to participating in a debate) and frankly failing miserably, all of which could have been avoided if her core team behaved less arrogantly and if British political parties sought to formulate and enact legislation in a more open, inclusive way.

When President Barack Obama sought to overhaul the American healthcare system early in his first term, he didn’t slap a fully worked-out, prescriptive solution for single-payer healthcare on the table and demand that everybody get behind the main principles “or else”. While American conservatives rightly point out that the extensive consultation exercise was partly cosmetic and not nearly as welcoming of right wing input as it was portrayed, the fact remains that when American political leaders wanted to change something which impacted millions of people and a significant share of the US economy, there was a consultation (or at least the pretence of a consultation) before the first draft was issued. Sure, congressmen were expected to vote on the final bill having had only a few hours to read it, if they could even be bothered, but this was after every aspect of healthcare reform had been discussed in excruciating detail in committees, public town halls and in smoke-filled rooms with the special interests who (rightly or wrongly) have the power to make or break reforms.

This style of policymaking seems to be anathema to the British system. When David Cameron won re-election in 2015 based in no small part on the promise to hold an EU referendum, he cooked up his own list of demands for the European Union and marched off  to Brussels to negotiate them (and we all know how well that worked out). Cameron and his team presumed to know – without engaging in any special consultation, public or otherwise – exactly what changes the British people wanted to see in our relationship with the EU, without once bothering to actually ask our opinion. The only thing more laughable than David Cameron deciding on our behalf what issues to raise with Brussels was the fact that they still sent him away empty-handed and humiliated. This arrogant, presumptuous approach to government was, and nearly always will be, a recipe for failure.

Few people would disagree that the way we fund social care needs to be tweaked at the very least, if not wholesale reformed. But doing so is an enormously complex process, involving the intersecting demands and interests of numerous groups and political principles. There are the interests of homeowners, taxpayers, council and private care providers, current and future care recipients, all of which will be in competition with one another and must be balanced to maintain a functional system.

But whatever one’s view on the ideal model solution, the manifesto pledge as it stands – together with recent panicked talk of a potential “cap” on care payments, made after four days of relentlessly negative headlines – seems politically naive at best. It is a blunt policy solution, a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and the kind of half-baked idea that would have been kept firmly away from the media had there been any serious ministerial input to the drafting of the Tory manifesto.

Now, there is nothing wrong in principle with having a core team of advisers and ideological kindred spirits aiding a new prime minister as she seeks to put her stamp on the party and the country. Margaret Thatcher did just that when she came to power in 1979, bearing the ideas of the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies. As Leader of the Opposition she had read the famous “Stepping Stones” report which diagnosed Britain’s ailments and proposed radical solutions to lift Britain out of near-terminal economic decline.

But the emergency circumstances in which Thatcher pushed through her reforms were far different to today’s more benign environment. When the country faces existential threat, as we did in the late 1970s, some justification can be made for strong and decisive leadership which doesn’t wait around seeking to hand-hold and achieve consensus before acting. And while some people with a flair for the dramatic might claim that Brexit represents a similar crisis, Brexit and the rise of populism is far more a crisis of political legitimacy than economic survival – and political legitimacy is undermined, not improved, by ramming through ill-considered reforms to the social care system.

Ultimately, the cause of good policymaking is never well served when a couple of “Bright Young Thing” Special Advisers – often with wide but shallow portfolios, and no democratic mandate of their own – decide to rewrite government policy and plan to reshape our national institutions on the back of a napkin. I’m sure that Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s collective brain trust, are extraordinarily bright and capable people – on paper, at least. But the accumulation of evidence increasingly suggests that they lack street smarts, let alone a decent political radar, which is rather strange given their respective biographies. Ted Sorensen they are not.

Hopefully Theresa May will learn from this debacle. She intends to lead the country – never mind the Conservative Party – in a direction that many people have reservations about, some of them quite justified. To succeed in office, she will need to draw on the best that the entire conservative movement has to offer, including those wings of the party that she continues to vilify (cough, libertarians).

And for somebody like Theresa May, a self-confessed pragmatist with no overarching vision for government of her own, that means widening the circle and taking some more advice before tearing up the social contract, crashing out of the single market without a transitional arrangement or implementing Ed Miliband’s 2015 Labour manifesto by the back door.

 

Theresa May - Conservative Party - General Election 2017 - Forward Together

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Is It Time For Conservatives To Get Over Thatcher?

Theresa May - Conservative Party Tories General Election 2017 Manifesto Launch - Halifax

Theresa May is proving to be more Ed Miliband than Margaret Thatcher

Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman thinks that we should all flop around on the ground and praise Theresa May for tearing up tried-and-tested small-government conservative ideology in favour of an interventionist, paternalistic, stubbornly large state. Apparently at this challenging point in our history, when decisive leadership and a clear direction of travel is needed more than ever, we should swallow our reservations and lustily cheer on a pragmatist, paternalistic prime minister who still has not even properly articulated her vision for Britain.

On the day of the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election manifesto launch, Paul Goodman tells us that it is time for us to “get over Thatcher” and “get on with May”, because apparently a New Labour government with a blueish tint is the best that conservatives can now hope for.

Softening the ground in advance of what will surely prove to be a frustratingly unambitious general election manifesto launch – particularly given the paucity of opposition faced by the Tories and the near certainty that they will be returned to government with an increased majority – Goodman simpers:

Theresa May does not support a big state: in her very first major policy speech outside her ministerial responsibilities, she said that it should be “small, strong [and] strategic”.

Oh, well that’s fine then. She said it, so it must be true.

Nor, for that matter, is her so-called Red Toryism as crimson as is sometimes claimed.  Many of the headlines generated during the last few weeks will look less alarming to liberals if they peer at the small print.  May wants more council houses, but it isn’t clear where the land to build them on will be found.  She supports more rights for workers, but it isn’t evident whether taking leave to care for a family member, for example, will be paid – and nor is she planning to scrap the employment tribunal fees that David Cameron introduced.  She has resuscitated a requirement to put employees on boards, but it looks as though companies will choose them.  The red spray is mixed with blue paint.

So now we are to celebrate that Theresa May apparently wants to build more council houses? What about houses for upwardly mobile young people to buy – people who now find it exponentially harder to get on the property ladder than Theresa May’s generation? Where does Theresa May think that the next generation of conservative voters will come from when it is so difficult for so many to take the stake in society that comes from property ownership? And are we to rejoice that an unfunded pledge to allow workers to take family care leave could hurt small businesses and make companies quicker to fire in a downturn and slower to hire in an economic recovery?

She doesn’t want to state to get bigger, but she does want it to intervene more.  The industrial strategy won’t seek to pick winning companies, but it will search for winning sectors.  There will be an energy price cap – not the relative one floated by John Penrose and others, but an absolute one.

I’m sorry, but what is the functional difference between a bigger state and one which simply “intervene[s] more”? Most people judge the size and bearing of the state on the number and nature of interactions they must have with it over the course of their daily lives – everything from speeding tickets to planning permission to small business red tape to the amount of tax taken from their pay cheque every week or month. Even if Theresa May was technically shrinking the percentage of Britain’s GDP accounted for by government spending – and there is no indication that this key indicator is even on her main dashboard of concerns – her record as Home Secretary and subsequently as prime minister suggests that her “intervening” state will only seek to take on an even larger role in our lives.

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But while we agitate about the detail, the Prime Minister sees the big picture – and has assimilated its scale and size more clearly than her Thatcherite critics.  The Conservative Party travels through the landscape of its times.  These are not the same as they were in the era of Thatcher’s first landslide, over a quarter of a century ago, any more than they were a quarter of a century or so before that, when Harold Macmillan won his own overwhelming victory in 1959.  The world has globalised.  Family structure has been transformed.  The western world has low birthrates and high immigration.   Britain is a multi-racial country.  The Soviet Union has collapsed and Islamist terror has risen.  The crash happened and recession followed.

Free market absolutists will claim that the former took place because there is too much crony capitalism, and too little of the real thing.  They have a good point.  But the argument only draws one deeper into probing whether the system works as well for the working man and woman as it did in Thatcher’s day.  There are three big reasons why it does not.  First, relations between capitalism and nationalism are strained now in a way that they weren’t then.  Many of those who do well out of it feel they have more in common with their counterparts abroad than their fellow citizens at home.  If you doubt it, ponder the politics of immigration – and look, to pluck just one example out of the air, at how George Osborne at the Evening Standard now beats a pro-migration drum.

Second, the changes in the way we live now have created winners and losers.  The latter are simply out-wrestled by Iain Duncan Smith’s five giants – failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency.  For those who can’t read or are mired in debt or trapped in substance abuse, the traditional free market nostrums of lower taxes, a smaller state and less red tape are not so much wrong as irrelevant: if a man isn’t working because he can’t count, cutting taxes won’t help him.  Finally, capitalism in the western world is simply not creating well-paid white and blue collar jobs on the same scale as it was in the immediate post-war period.  Welcome to the gig economy.

Nobody seriously disputes any of this, but Theresa May’s prescriptions are all wrong. Globalisation does present real social challenges in terms of ensuring that people are no longer left behind as they have been by many callous elites who otherwise consider themselves enlightened and compassionate. And of course Britain’s industrial makeup and labour market are very different today than in the 1980s, but this doesn’t mean that a heavily interventionist state is the answer.

This blog has often noted that the challenge falls hardest upon conservatives to come up with answers to the problems of globalisation – to find ways to retool and retrain a population so that they can participate in the industries of tomorrow rather than clinging to the dying industries of the past. This was clearly one test that the Thatcher government failed, and the legacy of broken communities left behind as side effects of the Thatcherite medicine is why there are still many people who would shoot themselves before voting Tory, and why the Labour Party’s electoral floor remains so stubbornly high.

But the answer to this challenge is not to steal wholesale from the left-wing playbook and seek to make the government the energetic auxiliary parent to millions of grown adults, people who should be expected to find their own way in life. The answer is to find the least invasive way possible of incentivising people to retrain and gain skills that make them competitive in the labour market – perhaps the kind of vocational adult education common in America’s community colleges, but either tied to the welfare system (so benefits become contingent on learning), made tax-deductible or a requirement for larger companies seeking to make redundancies. As this blog has previously noted, Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for a National Education Service connecting adults with further education is not actually a bad one – it is just the left-wing execution (funnelling everybody off to university, free of charge) which is wrong.

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We will have seen more of the Conservative Manifesto by the end of the day.  But what we know already is that May, if she can win her own landslide, wants to correct the liberal excesses of the Thatcher era by making peace with the state – of seeing it, as this site puts it, not as Big Brother, but Little Brother.  This ground has the merit of being where most voters stand: very, very few speak the Westminster Village language of making it bigger or smaller.  And the Prime Minister seems set to use her mandate to do much of what this site has been pressing it to do – such as dropping the tax pledge and ending the pensions triple lock, thereby setting the scene for more flexibility in deficit reduction and more fairness between the generations.

It doesn’t matter whether people speak the Westminster Village language or not. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, most people had not read the “Stepping Stones” report – that influential document which diagnosed all of Britain’s economic and social ails, and prescribed a comprehensive cure. But the man in the street didn’t need to have read the report, or necessarily have a firm sense of the ideology behind it. What was important was the fact that Margaret Thatcher came to office with a pre-formed ideology already in her mind, while her government’s policies generally flowed from that same consistent approach.

Theresa May is the precise oppose of this – the anti-Thatcher, if you will. Theresa May ascended to 10 Downing Street as the ultimate pragmatist – somebody who kept her head firmly under the parapet while Home Secretary, almost never stirring the waters or causing controversy by ramming through serious reforms in her department and being notable only for her willingness to take advantage of terror attacks in Western countries to vest ever more powers in the security services and clamp down on civil liberties.

There is no Theresa May governing philosophy. While Margaret Thatcher somewhat vaguely quoted St Francis of Assisi as she entered 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, Theresa May spoke quite specifically about helping the JAMs (people who are Just About Managing). But Thatcher’s vagueness concealed a deadly seriousness of intent, while May’s specificity seems only to hint that she will steal shamelessly from the Labour playbook in order to steal their voters.

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Thatcherism was right for its times, and has lessons for today.  But the world has moved on, and the Conservatives must move with it.  This is a Party, not a mausoleum.  None the less, the Prime Minister’s plan contains a stinging irony.  May, the former Remainer – as Thatcher also was – has not only embraced Brexit but grasped, perhaps more fully than any other British politician, what it means, what the British people wanted in backing it, and where it is leading.

It is Brexit that is empowering May within her own Party, because the free marketeers are so often Brexiteers too.  Since she has won their trust over the EU, they will forgive her views on the market – for the moment, anyway.

That’s not how it works! Even if one agreed with Theresa May’s ill-considered Brexit approach, merely agreeing to carry out Brexit in accordance with the referendum result does not and should not automatically build up reserves of goodwill ready for the moment that the prime minister chooses to chuck conservative economic policy overboard.

Brexit is incredibly important, but so is the day-to-day government of the country. And rejecting the lighter touch, non-interventionist policies which have benefited this country so much should not be done lightly, as Allister Heath warns in the Telegraph:

This jobs explosion [from 1975 onwards] is an extraordinary achievement, and one which, tragically, the Tories now take for granted. Their policies are no longer geared towards job creation – yesterday’s issue, they clearly think – but towards “improving” the labour market and making it “work” for more people.

[..] The answers from Mayonomics are much more simplistic. There is a demand for lower energy prices, so she will simply deliver them by fiat. The jobs market will be fine regardless of how much more red tape is thrown at it, the new doctrine asserts – after all, the minimum wage keeps going up and the roof hasn’t fallen in. The existence of invisible side-effects, or the fact that we may well be nearing a tipping point, doesn’t enter the calculation. Mayonomics advocates blaming business for “not doing enough for their workers”, but hitting them with yet more non-wage costs will merely put further downwards pressure on wages, in a dangerous vicious circle.

Heath concludes:

To make the most of Brexit, the UK needs to embrace free markets, not retreat to the quiet economic certainties of the Sixties. The Tories will eventually come to realise this, of course, but not before they squander an immense opportunity to retool this country into a 21st century trading superpower.

As I write, Theresa May is on her feet in Halifax, Yorkshire, launching the Conservative Party manifesto. People are standing and cheering. It is an election manifesto which will almost certainly receive the endorsement of the electorate on June 8. But contrary to the hysterical shrieks of the British Left, it will not be a Thatcherite manifesto. In some cases, it will barely be recognisable as a small-C conservative manifesto.

And small government conservatives should not take this lying down.

 

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What Is The Point Of Theresa May?

theresa-may

Right now, Britain needs a leader, not a placeholder – Theresa May needs to step up and set some ambitious national goals, or else be swept aside to make room for a real conservative leader

David Mellor doesn’t know what Theresa May stands for. And as Christopher Hope writes in the Telegraph, Mellor has good reason to be confused:

Theresa May is proving as Prime Minister that she is no Margaret Thatcher, a former Thatcherite minister has said, because she is not “seizing the initiative”.

David Mellor, who served under Baroness Thatcher for three years, said “the description of Theresa May as the new Margaret Thatcher is as wide of the mark as it could possibly be”.

Mr Mellor urged Mrs May to call a general election next year and win a larger House of Commons majority. The Tories have a consistently strong polling lead over Labour.

Mr Mellor was a minister in Lady Thatcher’s last government in four departments from 1987 to her resignation in November 1990.

He said Mrs May had shown herself “infirm of purpose”, most recently over the Christmas strikes at post offices, Southern Rail and Heathrow airport, where action will take place later this week.

He told Sky News’ Murnaghan: “When I was a minister for four years she treated me with even more disrespect than my mother did, but Margaret Thatcher knew what she wanted do and did it.

“I don’t think Theresa May knows what she wants to do. Her advisers appear to be the ones that create the headlines. I think she is sitting there and she is infirm of purpose, and she needs to seize the initiative.

“The main initiative she needs to seize is to have an election and get herself a mandate.”

This blog has never joined the calls for an early general election, not least because the laudable idea of having fixed term parliaments is rather undermined if we suspend the rule on the first occasion it becomes politically inconvenient. But if triggering a general election is what it takes to force Theresa May to really think about what kind of prime minister she wants to be (and hopefully give the British people a clue as well) then maybe we should just get on with it. Because right now Britain is idling in neutral at a time when we should be setting a firm course and all striving to pull in the same direction.

The underlying problem is that having succeeded to the office of prime minister unexpectedly in the most turbulent of times (in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation and Andrea Leadsom’s surprise departure from the following Conservative Party leadership contest), Theresa May evidently took office without ever having clearly thought about what it is that she wanted to achieve through her leadership of Britain (the recent Sunday Times interview is heavy on temperament and almost completely lacking in vision).

And it shows. Mellor cites Theresa May’s supposed “infirmity of purpose” when it comes to things like tackling the strikes on Southern Rail, but those are side issues. More troubling than May’s failure to get tough with striking railway workers is the fact that she used her first party conference speech as prime minister to declare war not on Labour and the vested interests of the Left, but on the libertarian Right.

What’s worrying is that Theresa May’s government has passed the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, dynamite for privacy and civil liberties, and is still toying with the idea of enforcing section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act and Part 2 of the Leveson Report, further curtailing freedom of the press. It is not just that we do not know enough about Theresa May’s agenda for Britain – what little we do no should give small government conservatives everywhere cause for concern.

Contrast this to the last great transformative Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who had four years behind her as Leader of the Opposition in which to solidify her worldview and flesh it out with policy (notably from the Stepping Stones Report and Centre for Policy Studies think tank) before taking office. By the time Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street in May 1979, she had not only diagnosed Britain’s ailments but formed a fairly clear idea of how she intended to tackle them, even though the road ahead was inevitably marked by missteps and challenges.

Theresa May appears to have no such plan. If she has a burning ambition to change Britain from an X type of country to a Y type of country then she is keeping her cards very close to her chest, for there is no evidence of such a goal. All we have is her reputation of flinty-eyed authoritarianism and aversion to publicity, earned during six years at the Home Office, a grammar school fetish and some woolly words about focusing her government’s attention on helping the JAMs (people who are Just About Managing).

The danger, therefore, is that with Brexit on her plate, a populist rebellion afoot in the country and challenges abroad, Theresa May’s government will become so preoccupied with fighting fires and engaging in daily damage control that the big picture vision never emerges at all. Mellor is right to say that most of the useful tidbits of information about the government’s intentions have come not from the prime minister but from public spats between rival cabinet members. And who can be surprised that such turf wars are underway when there is no clear drumbeat emanating from Number 10?

Of course, Theresa May is by no means the first politician to reach 10 Downing Street without a plan for what to do in government. Gordon Brown famously spent so long plotting his own ascension and the downfall of Tony Blair that he cut a uniquely uninspired and uninspiring figure among world leaders, at least until the global financial crisis breathed some fire into his belly (even if his “solution” was hiking the top income tax rate up to an immoral 50 percent).

There are times when a bland and uninspiring individual, a technocrat, is the right leader for the moment – primarily when times are good and the key imperative is not to rock the boat. This scenario does not describe Britain in 2016. Brexit may be foremost of our challenges, but there are others, too. And from Theresa May’s cautious and unambitious start in office, it is difficult to see how she – and we – are to best confront them.

 

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