Conservatives Are Conceding The Battle Of Ideas Without A Fight

Jeremy Corbyn thumbs up

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is hard at work promoting their beguiling new left-wing vision for Britain while the Tories offer nothing but drudgery and incompetence

Every day now brings more ominous warning signs for the squabbling, directionless Tory government that the only people in Britain offering a clear, articulable vision for the country are those on the Corbynite hard-left wing of the Labour Party.

Four months after the general election, and all of the political energy and momentum is still on the Left. Jeremy Corbyn is more wily than he was in 2015, less prone to gaffes or accidentally handing his enemies the initiative. His centrist rivals have fallen into line, discredited and with no strong candidate to unite behind. Moreover, while most conservatives spent the summer licking their wounds far from the ideological field of battle, Momentum continued to organise and prepare for what they believe is one final push required topple the Tories and seize power.

And this newfound confidence is starting to creep into the rhetoric used by Labour politicians. Jon Trickett, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, writes this week in LabourList:

There was a time after the second world war when government saw its central role as creating a socially just Britain where full employment, adequate housing for all and free education was the right of the many.

In that time, there was always more to achieve but the national sense of purpose was clear.

It was a time when jobs were secure and for the long term. Policy was designed to make communities feel secure, when the past was a bad place of mass unemployment, slum housing and no hope. But the future was full of promise, where strangers were welcomed into communities because no one felt their jobs were under threat.

And in the time, it was not acceptable that the growing wealth of the country was only distributed to the wealthiest.

A coherent set of progressive values aimed at building a social contract in which we had a sense of duty to the community, and the country agreed to stand behind those who could not care for themselves.

Note what Trickett is doing here. He is building a narrative, talking about the kind of country we once were and citing the great endeavours from our past in order to build a link with the present and generate enthusiasm for future Labour policies.

President Lyndon B. Johnson did something very similar (albeit at a much more sophisticated level) when introducing the Great Society initiative in 1964, not merely proposing a raft of random new socialist programmes but making them collectively seem almost inevitable by deliberately linking them with the American founding, history and national destiny:

The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

In fact, this is a simple device which even mediocre politicians and rhetoricians were once capable of using before technocratic centrism sucked the soul and energy out of politics. It is the exact opposite of anything written or spoken by a Conservative minister in Theresa May’s administration, because great political rhetoric can only exist when there are great ideas to be expressed or arguments to be won.

Trickett goes on to give a perfunctory but devastating indictment of the state of Britain under the Conservatives:

But now you would struggle to discover a shared sense of national purpose. You could describe a sense of anomie in Britain where a sense of common values, duty to others and co-operation for shared ends are, to one extent or another, lacking.

Too often: post-industrial communities have been abandoned; young people have less hope than ever before of acquiring a home at reasonable cost; education has become a commodity rather than a public good; where that which was common is frequently private or suffering from severe spending cuts; and, where the wealth of the most privileged is growing exponentially at the expense of the rest.

How do we explain this shift in the national culture?  Or rather, how do we account its disintegration and fracturing? Is this a uniquely British problem? And can we begin to rebuild a renewed socialist project based on 21st century.

At this point a five-alarm fire warning should be sounding in CCHQ and inside the head of every single Tory or small-C conservative in Britain, because Jon Trickett has just eloquently and concisely diagnosed the ailments of modern Britain – the fact that we are effectively drifting as a nation with no core unifying purpose or attachment to one another and a diminishing sense of obligation to our fellow citizens. In other words, Trickett has created an itch, a burning discomfort with the status quo, and now stands ready to offer voters the calamine lotion of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist policies.

One does not have to agree that building “a renewed socialist project” is the answer. The point is that Trickett has clearly defined a problem and proposed a solution, all in the space of three short paragraphs. The Tories, meanwhile, are stuck defending a mediocre record with the huge distraction of Brexit, and seem to be loudly insisting that everything is great despite mounting evidence to the contrary (see Universal Credit). They have chosen to be cheerleaders for the status quo rather than agitators for change, even though the Conservative leadership election-that-wasn’t last year presented the perfect opportunity for unflinching self-assessment followed by an ideological reset.

That opportunity was squandered. And it has really come to something quite appalling when a Labour politician is responding to the priorities of this blog before the Tories pay proper attention. Jon Trickett is hardly known as Labour’s greatest thinker, but at least he understands that mandate-bestowing electoral victories are won on the back of selling the electorate an inspiring vision for the future.

Having a narrative is important. Good leaders and successful political movements understand this. The Attlee government alluded to by Jon Trickett certainly had a clear vision of the New Jerusalem they wanted to build out of the rubble of war. Margaret Thatcher had her urgent mission to save Britain from a failing post-war consensus and terminal national decline. Even David Cameron had his “Big Society”, an idea which might have been genuinely transformative if only it was bolstered with more thought and political courage.

In America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his “New Deal”. LBJ championed the “Great Society”. Ronald Reagan beguiled the nation with his promise of “Morning in America” after years of perceived stagnation under presidents Ford and Carter. And while President Obama’s soaring rhetoric often exceeded his relatively pedestrian governing agenda, his 2008 message of “hope and change” also strongly resonated with many Americans (including millions who deserted the Democrats to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 after no positive change appeared in their lives).

British politics has been stuck in such a dismal slump because for two decades an incredibly narrow, self-serving consensus was allowed to crowd out all other perspectives. And while this consensus served many people fairly well, its policy outcomes focused almost exclusively on funnelling material benefits (either wealth and career opportunities or literal welfare benefits) to certain specified groups of people rather than calling all of us together as a society united by a common bond, culture and purpose.

That approach has been found wanting. When the bipartisan political consensus (favouring EU membership, social liberalisation, globalism and corporatism) goes unchallenged it feels no need to respond to the concerns of those who do not benefit from existing policy. That is why for all the material progress seen in Britain we are still blighted by low productivity, family breakdown, divisions over immigration and a lack of any meaningful government response to the negative side-effects of automation, outsourcing and globalisation.

By electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, some within the Labour Party recognised that continuing to stand up for a failing political consensus was no way to address these problems or win a decisive mandate for left-wing government. As incumbents, the Tories were left as the only major party championing the status quo, and rather than develop a radical, inspirational right-wing message of their own they continued to double down on bland, uninspiring centrism under Theresa May.

What makes it especially galling that the Left rather than the Right have recognised the need for a positive, bold new narrative is that it is the Left who are most in thrall to the Cult of Identity Politics which does so much to atomise society and make people see themselves as members of persecuted identity groups first and foremost rather than fellow citizens of a united country. Somehow, despite this increasingly prevalent mindset within their ranks, some on the Left still managed to recognise the need for a coherent, inspiring national message, a message with the potential to unite a broad swathe of society behind it (though whether it succeeds is another matter).

As John Prescott boasted earlier this year:

Finally, we’re talking about ideas and policies – not splits and personalities. Twenty years ago next month, Labour won an ­election landslide because we were united, trusted and had policies people could understand. When we lost in 2010, I felt we lost our way. We didn’t want to defend our record in government and by 2015 we accepted Tory austerity.

At least Labour is now ­developing clear red water between us and May. Not with soundbites and brickbats, but with popular policies.

Ideas and policies over splits and personalities.

Meanwhile, what do the Tories offer? False promises of being “strong and stable”, a moronic slogan which described an unattainable state of being rather than a clear direction for the country. More dull, technocratic drudgery in which eliminating the budget deficit (painstakingly slowly) is considered an aspiration worth putting in neon lights and making the focus of their government. Division and incompetence on Brexit, with the only optimistic Tory voices now belonging to free trade fantasists who want Britain to unilaterally lower barriers to trade and who think that crashing out of the EU and defaulting to WTO trade terms is a smart decision. Barely concealed leadership rivalries between a cast of identikit Cabinet ministers who seem to be competing with one another based on personality rather than different visions for the country.

Yet even now, the Conservative Party has no idea of the terminal danger it is in. Despite a few plucky efforts to re-inject some proper thinking and ideas into the party, the prime minister and her Cabinet offer no real ideological leadership whatsoever. Consumed by Brexit (and doing a pretty poor job at that) they seem to have abdicated any responsibility for using government to lead the country to a better place. Everything they do is reactive and cynical, like Theresa May’s university tuition fee freeze and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s age-based tax proposals, transparently cynical attempts to court the youth vote which are laughable in their inadequacy.

A couple of days ago I mused about whether the Conservatives can renew themselves ideologically and spiritually while still in office. This already slim prospect looks less and less likely by the day, both because senior people within the Tory Party seem to be too busy lurching from crisis to crisis to see the bigger picture and because all of the ideological energy and political momentum is on the Left right now.

And where there is new conservative thinking, it tends to counsel more, not less, accommodation with the Left. Some MPs, like Sam Gyimah, talk the right language of purpose and ambition but then disappointingly default to predictable, Left-leaning “compassionate conservative” solutions. And even these efforts at conservative renewal tend to focus more on what the government could and should do for us rather than what we collectively might accomplish together as a people. Time and again, the present Conservative Party capitulates to the Left and apologises for its own principles.

This is frustrating because conservatives should be able to come up with a far more inspirational, compelling message than the one they have been peddling. The Left’s entire focus is fixed firmly on inequality. Yet even die-hard Social Justice warriors would surely admit that equality is a hygiene factor, the absolute baseline for which society should aim (though they might then go on to disagree about whether equality or opportunity or outcome should be the goal).

Therefore, as eloquent as Jon Trickett’s words are – and as much as they should scare conservatives who are yet to join the ideological battle – equality remains insufficient as an organising principle for society or a shared national ambition. We need more concrete goals toward which we can all strive and move together, while in the background we are working hard to achieve a just society (however we choose to define it).

And luckily for conservatives, this is what the Left still does not get. Though they have woken up to the need to talk in terms of vision and ambition while the Tories are still lost at sea, the Left still sees achieving equality as the ultimate goal. One gets the distinct impression that many on the hard Left would not much care if we never really accomplished anything great as a country and even regressed somewhat in terms of material comfort and economic development, so long as society was flattened and the gap between rich and poor reduced. To listen to many a Labour speech, one almost pictures a country with a state-of-the-art NHS hospital on every street corner but a population so busy marvelling at their wonderful state of equality that they forget to go out and change the world.

So there remains an opportunity for conservatives to sneak in with an improved narrative and national ambition, one which aspires to something more than mere equality. Something which actually seeks to organise and harness the best of our energies and skills as we strive to make our country and the world better, not just more equal. Such a vision, carefully crafted and persuasively argued, would beat the Left’s narrow-minded focus on equality any day of the week.

So who will step up to the challenge and help develop a worthy conservative response to the re-energised Left? Because right now they are the ones fizzing with energy and ideas, while conservatism seems content to trudge wearily to its grave, quite possibly dragging the country along with it.

 

UPDATE – 17 October

Evgeny Pudovkin makes some good points over at Comment Central, specifically around how the Tories can potentially keep Theresa May in place as a “bad bank” repository for public dissatisfaction with the status quo while developing new ideas and new talent in parallel:

Some argue for replacing May with a fresh candidate who could offer the Tories a new vision. Yet May is still at Number 10 due to the very reason of her being a fulfiller and not a prophet. Her main role entails overseeing already introduced reforms – Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, the house building programme and, indeed, Brexit. That doesn’t leave much time for blue-sky thinking, at least not until future relations with the EU are at least broadly defined. Just what exactly will toppling May achieve, apart from spawning new rivalries?

Any vision for post-Brexit Britain must be cultivated in parallel with May’s premiership. First of all, prospective candidates should establish a stronger presence on social media. The time when David Cameron could simply dismiss digital communication with his “Britain is not Twitter” jibe is over. As historian Niall Ferguson explained (here and here), the successes of both Donald Trump and the Leave campaign can be explained at least partially by their presence on social media. Secondly, the next leadership candidate might want to spend more time with the grassroots. Finally, a prospective challenger could create a new platform for developing policy. The Centre for Policy Studies served an important vehicle for Thatcher’s revolution, while Policy Exchange helped to inject a more coherent vision into Cameron’s project.

The dichotomy between May’s stable rule and the need to reinvigorate the Tory party is false. You can do both at the same time.

I agree in principle. Of course, this approach depends entirely on the public retaining patience with the Tories long enough for them to come through the other side of Brexit with an attractive new philosophy of government ready to go and an equally attractive leadership candidate to pick up the torch.

Right now, I struggle to see where the seeds of a new 21st century conservatism are germinating. Certainly the think tanks are nothing like the humming centres of creative energy that they were back when they propelled Margaret Thatcher to power with a copy of the Stepping Stones report in her pocket.

On paper, what Evgeny Pudovkin proposes makes perfect sense. In practice, I don’t see where the new ideas or the leadership talent are going to come from. I sincerely hope that this is due to my political myopia rather than a genuine dearth of new ideas within the British conservative movement, but I do not think it likely.

 

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Claudius Goes To Manchester

Theresa May conservative party conference speech - building a country that works for everyone - set malfunction - 2

God help us

Expectations and appearances matter in politics. That’s why the campaign teams of mediocre politicians try to lower expectations before any major upcoming event while exaggerating the strength and prospects of the opposition. This creates the illusion of forward momentum when their candidate triumphantly clears the very low bar set for them.

Perhaps the most extreme example of expectation-fiddling in recent history occurred in 2004 when George W. Bush’s strategist Michael Dowd tried to tamp down expectations for W’s performance in an upcoming presidential debate by declaring that his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, was “the best debater since Cicero“. Of course, anybody who had ever met John Kerry or heard him speak knew full well that the former Massachusetts senator is more Claudius than Cicero. The overblown comparison insulted people’s intelligence.

Well intentionally or not, Theresa May and the Conservative Party could hardly have set expectations for their own side any lower before they assembled in Manchester this week. The prime minister’s speech was deliberately trailed as a platform for her to tell her own restive cabinet members to stop undermining her and bickering with one another, hardly the sign of a confident, outward-looking party. Yet somehow the Tories still managed to underperform spectacularly. Claudius, not Cicero, turned up in Manchester.

In the end, George Osborne never got the chance to have Theresa May chopped up in bags in his freezer. The prime minister fell to bits – ideologically, physically and in terms of her dwindling authority – right on stage in front of everybody at the Manchester Central convention centre this afternoon.

One cannot be too uncharitable about a politician suffering a coughing fit, a set malfunction and a stage intruder (heads need to roll in the PM’s security detail), all in the same speech. But neither will a number of Conservatives be in any mood to make excuses for Theresa May after she declared war on the small government libertarian wing at last year’s conference, led the party to glorious failure in this year’s general election and then showed up in Manchester with a ragtag bag of Ed Miliband’s rejected policies as her master plan for fending off Jeremy Corbyn.

Some hopeful souls believe that the prime minister’s on-stage meltdown will somehow redound to the benefit of the Tories – either because Theresa May’s coughing fit conveniently masks the gaping lack of conservative vision and principle at the heart of the speech (her speechwriters actually plagiarised a line from The West Wing in a desperate attempt to add profundity), or because the British love of the plucky underdog will evoke feelings of pity. Because embarrassment and pity are just the emotions you want to send the party faithful away with and broadcast to the nation after conference.

James Kirkup takes this view:

What are the politics of the torment of Theresa May?  There are two outcomes, very different, and this is why, for once, a conference speech really could be decisive.

One is that people will look at their Prime Minister struggling and spluttering and see a woman soldiering on in the face of adversity, in spite of her own limitations and in the face of numerous obstacles in her path.  As I suggested a long time ago, back in June, there is a British fondness for the story of the frail and faulty hero who keeps fighting even when things are bleak.

The problem is that only the British have this strange affection for the plucky underdog, and Theresa May has to play the part of British prime minister to the whole world, not just to a pitying domestic audience. We may feel a pang of sympathy every time she literally falls to pieces in front of our eyes. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel will not. They will eat her alive. And by extension our international rivals and enemies will eat all of us alive too, because a weak and nervous prime minister puts more than their own political career in jeopardy.

This is not – repeat, not – about a coughing fit, as some dutiful conservative commentators are now suggesting as they rush to the prime minister’s defence:

And to be fair to her, Theresa May dealt with what must have been a mortifying situation with quick wits, grace and humour. I would not wish that rolling series of calamities on anyone.

No, this is about every nervous television interview where Theresa May looks like a deer caught in the headlights. It’s about her cowardly failure to participate in a televised debate with Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders in this year’s general election. It’s about her abysmal judgment in calling a general election in which she frittered away the Tory majority. It’s about her lack of leadership following the Grenfell Tower fire and recent terror attacks.

But more than all of this, it is about the yawning void where a positive, ambitious and genuinely conservative vision for Britain should sit. Margaret Thatcher also once suffered a coughing fit during a speech, but it didn’t threaten to end her premiership because unlike the present incumbent, Thatcher was a good prime minister with abundant vision, courage and clearly defined principles. By contrast, the emptiness of Theresa May’s conference speech matched the aimlessness of her premiership, and the farce of its delivery painfully reflected her administration’s “limitless capacity” for self-inflicted political wounds.

So what was actually in the speech from hell? Well, first came the contrition:

But we did not get the victory we wanted because our national campaign fell short. It was too scripted. Too presidential. And it allowed the Labour Party to paint us as the voice of continuity, when the public wanted to hear a message of change. I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.

Job done. And then, like several failed politicians have also tried to do before her, Theresa May attempted to make the phrase “the British Dream” a thing:

A little over forty years ago in a small village in Oxfordshire, I signed up to be a member of the Conservative Party. I did it because it was the party that had the ideas to build a better Britain.  It understood the hard work and discipline necessary to see them through.

And it had at its heart a simple promise that spoke to me, my values and my aspirations: that each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future. That each generation should live the British Dream. And that dream is what I believe in.

But what the General Election earlier this year showed is that, forty years later, for too many people in our country that dream feels distant, our party’s ability to deliver it is in question, and the British Dream that has inspired generations of Britons feels increasingly out of reach.

This doesn’t work. The American Dream is deeply routed in American culture and history, and it has a resonance which people living thousands of miles away understand. The British Dream sounds derivative, because it is. At best, it invites a second-class comparison with the United States and at worst it just sounds vague and woolly. The idea that each new generation should be more prosperous than the last is perfectly fine, but there is no need to coin an awkward phrase in order to capture something so self-evident.

Then the open boasts about stealing Labour policy begin:

And a National Living Wage – giving a pay rise to the lowest earners – introduced not by the Labour Party, but by us, the Conservative Party. So let us never allow the Left to pretend they have a monopoly on compassion. This is the good a Conservative Government can do – and we should never let anyone forget it.

The way to demonstrate that the Left does not have a monopoly on compassion is not to start stealing their policies. If anything, this only accentuates the link between leftism and compassion.

Soon it begins to veer toward the ridiculous:

Because at its core, it’s about sweeping away injustice – the barriers that mean for some the British Dream is increasingly out of reach. About saying what matters is not where you are from or who your parents are. The colour of your skin. Whether you’re a man or a woman, rich or poor. From the inner city or an affluent suburb. How far you go in life should depend on you and your hard work.

That is why I have always taken on vested interests when they are working against the interests of the people. Called out those who abuse their positions of power and given a voice to those who have been ignored or silenced for too long.     

And when people ask me why I put myself through it – the long hours, the pressure, the criticism and insults that inevitably go with the job – I tell them this: I do it to root out injustice and to give everyone in our country a voice. That’s why when I reflect on my time in politics, the things that make me proud are not the positions I have held, the world leaders I have met, the great global gatherings to which I have been, but knowing that I made a difference. That I helped those who couldn’t be heard.

Does this position come with tights and a cape? Rooting out injustice is all well and good (though again, this is one of those areas where Theresa May talks a big talk but walks a very small walk in terms of policy, which only invites more criticism from the Left) but a Conservative prime minister should be talking about aspiration and opportunity for all, not flirting with identity politics.

Then there were the downright statist aspirations, as we saw when Theresa May’s disjointed speech veered into a section about organ donation:

But our ability to help people who need transplants is limited by the number of organ donors that come forward. That is why last year 500 people died because a suitable organ was not available. And there are 6,500 on the transplant list today. So to address this challenge that affects all communities in our country, we will change that system. Shifting the balance of presumption in favour of organ donation. Working on behalf of the most vulnerable.

I desperately want to see more people join the organ donor register, and would be in favour of a significant and costly campaign to raise awareness and make taking action as easy as humanly possible. But switching from opt-in to opt-out is a dangerous symbolic concession to leftist statism, effectively declaring (as it does) that our bodies are ultimately the property of the state, to be disposed of following our deaths as it sees fit. Being able to “opt out” of this is not a safeguard – by even acknowledging the legitimacy of such a scheme we concede the state’s power over us, a huge concession which no Conservative prime minister should be making.

Then there were those sections which totally missed the point, as when Theresa May spoke about Grenfell Tower:

It’s why after seeing the unimaginable tragedy unfold at Grenfell Tower, I was determined that we should get to the truth. Because Grenfell should never have happened – and should never be allowed to happen again. So we must learn the lessons: understanding not just what went wrong but why the voice of the people of Grenfell had been ignored over so many years. That’s what the public inquiry will do. And where any individual or organisation is found to have acted negligently, justice must be done. That’s what I’m in this for.

And because in this – as in other disasters before it – bereaved and grieving families do not get the support they need, we will introduce an independent public advocate for major disasters. An advocate to act on behalf of bereaved families to support them at public inquests and inquiries. The strong independent voice that victims need. That’s what I’m in this for.

A public advocate to aid with emotional catharsis is all well and good, but the real failures exposed by Grenfell were those of building safety and particularly those of disaster response, where a medium-sized disaster in Britain’s capital city saw chaos for several days as central government, local government, emergency services, charities and volunteers struggled to work together under any kind of unified command.

The disaster response to Grenfell Tower should worry anybody with responsibility for civil contingencies, particularly knowing the kind of attacks which Islamist extremists would love to inflict upon us given half an opportunity. This is what the prime minister should have focused on, and how she should have demonstrated strong leadership.

Then there was the contradictory. A long-overdue defence of free markets which nobody believed given Theresa May’s past pronouncements and actions:

That idea of free and open markets, operating under the right rules and regulations, is precious to us. It’s the means by which we generate our prosperity as a nation, and improve the living standards of all our people. It has helped to cement Britain’s influence as a force for good in the world.

It has underpinned the rules-based international system that helped rebuild post-war Europe and the world beyond. It has ushered in the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of communism, and the dark days of the Iron Curtain; securing the advance of freedom across Europe and across the world. It has inspired 70 years of prosperity, raising living standards for hundreds of millions of people right across the globe.

So don’t try and tell me that free markets are no longer fit for purpose. That somehow they’re holding people back. Don’t try and tell me that the innovations they have encouraged – the advances they have brought – the mobile phone, the internet, pioneering medical treatments, the ability to travel freely across the world – are worth nothing.

The free market – and the values of freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities, and the rule of law that lie at its heart – remains the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created. So let us win this argument for a new generation and defend free and open markets with all our might.  Because there has rarely been a time when the choice of futures for Britain is so stark. The difference between the parties so clear.

And indeed, a few paragraphs later Theresa May could be found eagerly plotting her next intervention in the energy market:

We will always take on monopolies and vested interests when they are holding people back. And one of the greatest examples in Britain today is the broken energy market.

Because the energy market punishes loyalty with higher prices. And the most loyal customers are often those with lower incomes: the elderly, people with lower qualifications and people who rent their homes. Those who for whatever reason, are unable to find the time to shop around. That’s why next week, this Government will publish a Draft Bill to put a price cap on energy bills. Meeting our manifesto promise.  And bringing an end to rip-off energy prices once and for all. 

The irony was not lost on everyone:

Fixing broken markets is absolutely the responsibility of a conservative government. For people to have faith in free markets they must operate fairly and transparently. But implementing Ed Miliband’s energy bill price cap is not fixing the market or coming up with an inventive solution to issues around monopolies and cartels, it is merely applying a leftist sticking plaster to a festering problem.

But what of education? A shallow and doomed attempt to pander to young voters by halting a planned rise in university tuition fees, and some vague waffle about vocational skills. After a bold declaration about re-tooling the British workforce for a more globalised, automated economy there were precisely two short, throwaway references to education in the entire speech (free schools and vocational training), neither of which deserve to be called policy ideas and neither of which were equal to the challenges we face. This is like promising to end world hunger and then failing to mention agriculture.

But the biggest letdown was on housing. Tory cowardice and lack of ambition on housing is killing conservatives with young voters who increasingly see little merit in capitalism when a deliberate policy of housing scarcity denies them the opportunity to build a stake in the system through the accumulation of their own capital.

If ever there was an area crying out for a bold new policy idea, it was housing. And as always, Theresa May did a fantastic job of describing the problem only to completely bottle it when it came to proposing a solution:

We’ve listened and we’ve learned. So this week, the Chancellor announced that we will help over 130,000 more families with the deposit they need to buy their own home by investing a further £10 billion in Help to Buy.

Oh goody, increasing demand even more while doing nothing concrete about supply. What could possibly go wrong?

More:

And today, I can announce that we will invest an additional £2 billion in affordable housing – taking the Government’s total affordable housing budget to almost £9 billion.

 We will encourage councils as well as housing associations to bid for this money and provide certainty over future rent levels. And in those parts of the country where the need is greatest, allow homes to be built for social rent, well below market level. Getting government back into the business of building houses. A new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market. So whether you’re trying to buy your own home, renting privately and looking for more security, or have been waiting for years on a council list, help is on the way.

So Theresa May wants to build thousands, millions more council houses. But what about the squeezed middle who don’t want or qualify for the state to be their landlord? What the hell good are new council houses for young people in nominally good professional jobs who find themselves priced out by relentless price increases and unreasonable deposit sums?

What about private housebuilding? What about actually relaxing planning regulations rather than just talking about it, and demanding that developers build upward not outward in our cities? In other words, what about doing something to address the supply of private housing stock rather than tinkering around the edges to further boost demand?

Theresa May’s motivation is very transparent here. The Tories clearly think that by focusing on building council and housing association properties there will be less negative impact on the older, homeowning Tory core vote. They calculated that so long as the availability of cheap homes for ownership does not dramatically increase – and they will ensure that it does not – they could avoid angering their base. But unfortunately, the net effect is to signal that this government only really cares about you if you are young and poor or old and rich. If you have the temerity to fall down the gap in the middle, Theresa May is effectively telling you to take a hike.

And more young people in this position are doing exactly that. My own social circle of young professional Londoners on decent salaries are now almost exclusively left-wing – not necessarily Corbynite, but certainly no friend of conservatism. Older acquaintances too. And who can be surprised? If you consistently screw people over throughout their formative years and early adulthood, you can’t expect them to suddenly start voting Tory when they get their first grey hair. This is the single biggest electoral issue facing the Tories, and they went into conference without a policy to match the scale of the challenge.

When Theresa May said in last year’s dubious conference speech that she wants to “set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics” we should have taken her at her word. Because thanks to being the only major party leader with any discernible principles, Jeremy Corbyn has successfully dragged the centre ground of British politics significantly to the left, and May is now eager to go scampering after him.

But if one takes the view that little else matters right now besides Brexit (a quite persuasive argument) then Pete North sums it up best:

So, Maybot’s speech. Would love to dive in like all the other political geeks but, seriously, none of it matters. Not a syllable. The only thing that matters is not screwing Brexit up. If she can’t get that right then everything folds – and however hard she may have tried to move closer to the centre, so long as Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Baker, Fox and chums are steering Brexit then the Tory party is defined by them; ignorant, crass, arrogant, jingoistic morons without a clue to share between them.

Ultimately, the speech was not the problem. The real problem is the leadership vacuum at the heart of 10 Downing Street, and a prime minister who either sees no reason to stand up to the Brexit Ultras in her own cabinet or is simply too weak to do so.

Theresa May’s off-brand, Lidl version of New Labour’s philosophy – her lame Ed Miliband tribute act – is ultimately survivable, and remains politically preferable to a Jeremy Corbyn government. But mess up Brexit and it wouldn’t much matter if Theresa May was an Ayn Rand-toting libertarian for all the good it would do when half the country is stockpiling food as global supply chains break down.

First, the Tories need to start getting Brexit right. Then they can formulate the kind of unapologetic conservative governing agenda which might actually make people want to vote Tory without holding their noses or keeping it a secret. And if there is time left after this, maybe then they can work on the old communication and leadership skills which are so lacking in this administration.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The general election result. The haemorrhaging of the youth vote to Labour, with the middle-aged vote following close behind. The capture of the government by hard Brexit purists who would risk the entire endeavour in pursuit of their chimerical free trade fantasy. All of these things were preventable if only the Tories had shown some degree of backbone in government rather than apologising for their conservatism and making concession after concession to the Left.

In the words of Cicero, non enim parum cognosse, sed in parum cognito stulte et diu perseverasse turpe est – disgrace lies not in imperfect knowledge but in foolish and obstinate continuance in a state of imperfect knowledge.

Theresa May and the Tories had another brush with political death today. They have been shown repeatedly what happens when you stand before the electorate apologising for your principles, watering down your policies and letting the opposition dictate the political agenda. The Conservative peril has nothing to do with coughing fits or stage invaders, but rather with the rotten product they are trying to sell.

And if this latest calamity fails to shock the Tories out of their obstinate state of deliberately imperfect knowledge then I fear they will only learn their lesson via another long stint on the Opposition benches.

 

The wording on a slogan is changed after letters fell away from the backdrop immediately after Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May concluded her address to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester

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Carnage In Las Vegas, And Presidential Words Which Fail To Heal

Donald Trump delivered a poignant address to the nation following the Las Vegas shootings, diminished only by the knowledge that the words and sentiments spoken were so clearly not those of the president

Our thoughts and prayers must be most strongly this evening with the souls of the 59 people killed in cold blood by a gunman as they enjoyed a country music festival in Las Vegas, as well as the five hundred-plus who were injured and their relatives, the police officers who ran towards the gunfire and those medical staff now working hard to save lives still in peril. Even by American standards, the Mandalay Bay Casino shooting is an unspeakably shocking atrocity.

At times like these, we have often looked to elected officials, particularly the president, to explain the inexplicable, to make sense of that which has no reason, and to offer some words of consolation to a shocked nation. Towards the end of his presidency, after Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston and many more such senseless massacres, Barack Obama looked visibly jaded, attempting to come up with new words of comfort as each killer dispatched his quota of innocent men, women and children to the mortuary.

President Donald Trump’s initial response to the Las Vegas attack – on Twitter, naturally – was characteristically slightly off-tone, giving his “warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families” affected by the carnage:

“Warmest condolences” is an odd turn of phrase, the first word almost congratulatory before coming crashing back down to earth with the second. Fair or not, it adds to the sense of a man who knows the social conventions and behaviours expected of him but struggles to perform to specification because it doesn’t quite come naturally.

The televised presidential statement, on the other hand, was much better, almost poetic in places. Some of the words spoken were among the most humane that Trump has ever uttered in public:

Hundreds of our fellow citizens are now mourning the sudden loss of a loved one — a parent, a child, a brother or sister. We cannot fathom their pain. We cannot imagine their loss. To the families of the victims: We are praying for you and we are here for you, and we ask God to help see you through this very dark period.

There was also an effort to seek consolation in scripture and through the faith and religiosity which rightly remains important to many Americans:

Scripture teaches us, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve. To the wounded who are now recovering in hospitals, we are praying for your full and speedy recovery, and pledge to you our support from this day forward.

The conclusion was particularly moving in its simplicity:

Our unity cannot be shattered by evil. Our bonds cannot be broken by violence. And though we feel such great anger at the senseless murder of our fellow citizens, it is our love that defines us today — and always will, forever.

In times such as these, I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness. The answers do not come easy. But we can take solace knowing that even the darkest space can be brightened by a single light, and even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope.

Melania and I are praying for every American who has been hurt, wounded, or lost the ones they love so dearly in this terrible, terrible attack. We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace. And we pray for the day when evil is banished, and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear.

May God bless the souls of the lives that are lost. May God give us the grace of healing. And may God provide the grieving families with strength to carry on.

I have no desire to be churlish about the presidential statement, which in many ways ranked among the best remarks that Donald Trump has delivered since taking office. The president certainly expressed all of the right sentiments.

Yet the gulf between Trump au naturel and Trump on teleprompter is so vast as to be disconcerting. To witness Donald Trump extemporise and then to watch him perform at an important set-piece event is like watching two completely different people inhabiting the same body.

I assume that Stephen Miller was responsible for writing Donald Trump’s effective words today. He did well. It was not on the level of presidential statements such as Ronald Reagan’s in the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle disaster but it was effective in its poignant brevity, though my perception may be slightly skewed given that so many of Trump’s previous public pronouncements have been so dire.

But while poignant and affecting, the words recited with all due solemnity into the television camera were clearly not the inner thoughts of the president who delivered them. Donald Trump’s mouth moved and said the right things, but never has it been more painfully apparent that when it matters most (whether it be setting out foreign policy or responding to a domestic crisis) he is the ventriloquist dummy president.

A good speechwriter can literally channel their boss, “talk” in their voice. My speechwriting hero Ted Sorensen (who worked closely with John F. Kennedy from his Senatorial career right through his presidency and is responsible for crafting some of Kennedy’s most famous speeches) is a prime example, as is former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. They can conjure magic, but their magic bears the unmistakable stamp of their principal’s own rhetorical style. They elevate the person for whom they write, they do not seek to recreate him or her from scratch or mould him in their own image.

As Ted Sorensen wrote in his book “Counsellor”, a memoir of his time serving in the Kennedy administration:

Whatever success I achieved as a speechwriter for Kennedy arose from knowing the man so well – from the years we spent working, traveling, and talking together, as close friends and collaborators who communicated constantly at a time when I regarded his election and stature as my principal professional goals. That success could not later be replicated with someone else with whom I did not have that same relationship.

It stretches credulity to imagine that Stephen Miller, for all his rhetorical talents, is best buddies with Donald J Trump or that they enjoy that closeness of working or social relationships to effectively be of one mind in the way that Kennedy and Sorensen worked so well.

A truly memorable speech captures something of the essence of the speaker, and therefore the speechwriter must know them well, at least in terms of their public and civic life. But this requires the speaker to have coherent values and policy aspirations which can serve as a lodestar to their thoughts for the speechwriter to follow, and Donald Trump has shown no signs of holding any such firm principles. He has no political Northern Star. This would suggest, as if we did not already know, that it was Miller talking, not Trump, when the president stood at the podium today.

The speechwriting ideal is that it should be impossible to tell where the politician’s own voice ends and where the speechwriter’s begins. Richard Nixon once said in an interview that a good speechwriter must be “an intellectual who can completely sublimate his style to another individual”. But we would have heard a very different speech today had Stephen Miller been rash enough to sublimate himself to Donald Trump.

“There’s a tendency among some hopeful souls to confuse the speeches written for Trump with the thoughts of the man himself” remarked a jaded but perceptive Australian journalist during the G20 meeting in July this year. The same point is equally applicable today, when there is such a painful disconnect between the words we hear and the face we see. It is painful because the poignant words of comfort are diminished, knowing as we do that the man who spoke them did not and could never have written them himself.

Perhaps we no longer value good speechwriting or want our leaders to have an aptitude for rhetoric. Maybe great oratory is passé. But I don’t think so. People still want inspiration and will grant a hearing to anybody who looks like they might provide it, whether it be Donald Trump’s shallow pledge to Make America Great Again or Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of a social democratic New Jerusalem in Britain.

People still want to tear down this wall. They want to be exhorted to fight evil on the beaches, in the fields and in the streets, and never surrender. They want to choose to go to the moon, and to touch the face of God. They want to believe that we shall overcome. We are human beings, and we want to be inspired.

Today, the West is led by people who preach fear and pessimism, largely because our leaders are fearful and pessimistic themselves. “Make America Great Again” sounds superficially positive, but is a cold and bleak credo at heart. The same goes for Theresa May’s ideologically lost Conservative government’s overworn pledge to deliver “a country that works for everyone” in Britain.

There is no real ambition any more because confidence in our values has not been nurtured, and slowly ebbed away. And this retrenchment, the fearful, introspective defensive crouch in which we find ourselves is echoed in our present political rhetoric. Kennedy’s exhortation has been reversed, and now we petulantly ask what the country will do for me rather than what we can do for the country (and our fellow citizens).

It will be tremendously hard to improve our politics without better political rhetoric to inspire people and call them to action, but better speechwriting and political rhetoric can only come about when there are policies and values which inspire and uplift. And on those increasingly rare occasions where we still encounter poetry in our civic life, it feels fake because it is so disconnected from the leaders delivering the speeches.

Donald Trump said all the right things today in his response to the heinous mass shooting in Las Vegas. Yet his address did not and could not achieve its full effect, because the words the president spoke and the mind which conjured them were so clearly someone else’s.

 

Microphones stand at the podium after U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta addressed supporters at the election night rally in New York

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Like, Why Can’t British Politicians Talk Fancy No More?

Great political speeches are only possible when there are great ideas to be expressed, and great leaders to express them

After watching the semi-famous video of former Labour minister Peter Shore arguing passionately against Britain’s membership of the EEC during a 1970s Oxford Union debate, Mark Wallace of Conservative Home has realised that the quality of contemporary British political oratory is perhaps not what it once was.

Wallace observes:

What’s striking is to try to list the modern speeches by Parliamentarians which have achieved the same quality. I’ve wracked my brains and, frankly, I can’t think of any. To be quite honest, while there are many excellent MPs in today’s House of Commons, I can’t think of a single one who speaks so well. Probably the most famous good speech of recent years was delivered by Hilary Benn, in the Syria debate – but watch it back, and you’ll see that while it was effective, it was done with notes and is still seen as exceptional rather than normal.

Depressingly, most of our Parliamentarians do not seem to prize public speaking. Indeed it’s a fairly regular occurrence to see some of them apparently struggling to convincingly read out loud from a bit of paper. Many are perfectly serviceable speakers, but compare modern performances to those from 40 or 50 years ago and it seems that today’s greats are not as great, the average is somewhat worse than it was, and the worst are now really quite dire.

Indeed. In actual fact, Hilary Benn’s speech on Syria wasn’t particularly good at all – it is memorable mostly because of the dramatic circumstances of its delivery during a period of unrest over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, not the rhetorical exhortations of a man with all the charisma of a Quentin Blake illustration.

People also frequently praise the speeches of leftist politicians such as Mhairi Black (whose maiden speech in the House of Commons went drearily viral all over social media), but these speeches are also not particularly well-constructed or persuasive – they are simply very emotive, which makes them seem good in an age when feelings trump reason and reality TV has diminished our collective capacity to think.

Wallace continues:

Somewhere along the way, we ceased to value oratorical skill in our politicians. Perhaps it was the decline of the public meeting and the rise of soundbite-dominated TV campaigning that did it. Or maybe the decision not to teach school pupils how to debate left millions unduly intimidated by the idea of even trying to speak in front of an audience. There’s also a suspicion in some quarters that public speaking is somehow inherently elitist – a fallacy, given the many great orators who once arose, largely self-taught, from the union movement in particular, but a self-fulfilling belief, in that if you tell the majority of kids that only the rich and posh do speeches then you run the risk that they will believe you.

This is a clear loss to the character and effectiveness of our politics. How often do we hear people lament that politics is boring, that its main characters are bland, or that they don’t understand what it’s all about? It cannot have helped to have reduced the art and feeling in how we communicate about politics, and abandoned a means to compellingly communicate often complex concepts to mass audiences.

I am very glad that Mark Wallace and Conservative Home have woken up to the crisis in British political rhetoric. This blog has been lamenting the abysmal quality of British political speechwriting (and delivery) for years, not least here, here, here, here, here and here. Hopefully with the “bigger guns” of ConHome now trained on the problem we might force the discussion into the mainstream.

But good political rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum. Contra Mark Wallace and Peggy Noonan, the internet and social media are not a guaranteed friend of good political speechwriting, heralding a coming renaissance in speechifying. While it is true that some political YouTubers are able to gather massive numbers of followers with their witty or acerbic rants, I can’t think of any high profile social media activists who communicate in a genuinely persuasive way.

Case in point: if one looks at the likes of Owen Jones on the hard left or Paul Joseph Watson on the conspiratorial/alt-right (nobody outside the extremes has much of a following), these people are good only at preaching to the converted in order to generate clicks and likes. They will hardly ever cause somebody to reconsider their own deeply held convictions unless a process of personal political transition is already underway. This also applies to the likes of The Young Turks, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro and other voices in American politics, some of whom are good, but who tend not to do bipartisan outreach.

No, the art of British political speechwriting can only be revived if there is a simultaneous renaissance in British political thinking. And there are precious few signs of such a revival taking place any time soon. Right now both main parties are pretty much intellectually dead. The Labour centrists, utterly exhausted and discredited after the Blair/Brown years, are finished – and in their place is a holdover from the 1970s in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, the soft and non-threatening quasi-conservatism of Cameron/Osborne gave way to the statist paternalism of Theresa May, another throwback to the 1970s which can hardly be considered progress.

Nowhere was this dearth of visionary thinking mirrored by equally uninspired rhetoric reflected more clearly than in the EU referendum campaign. This was a highly consequential, even existential political decision for the people of Britain, and yet rather than bold speeches and compelling narratives on either side we were offered little more than glib soundbites and canned catchphrases.

As I wrote at the time:

When the history of Britain’s 2016 EU referendum comes to be written, what will we remember? Of all the particularly dramatic moments in the campaign to date, none of them have been speeches. Sure, sometimes the fact of a speech has been newsworthy, such as when an unexpected establishment figure has been wheeled out to say that Brexit will usher in the apocalypse, but the content – the oratory itself – has rarely raised hairs or stiffened spines.

In fact, proving Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous assertion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, the media has determinedly reported almost exclusively on the latter two. Of course that is always the temptation for journalists, but our politicians have hardly given the media much to work with on the ideas front, even if they were minded to cover them.

This is a depressing state of affairs. This most important debate should be bringing out the best in our politicians and our media. We should be witnessing a straight-up fight between advocates of the democratic, independent nation state and those who ardently believe in the euro-federalist dream, adjudicated by a press corps  beholden to neither side and always willing to challenge baseless assertions rather than merely provide a “fair and balanced” platform for two partisan idiots to yell at each other for an equal amount of time.

We will not see a revival in political speechmaking in this country until British politicians actually start having ideas and advocating policies worthy of grander rhetoric. So long as there remains in place a technocratic, managerialist consensus between centre-left and centre-right (which very much remains the case and has only been partially broken by Brexit), there will be no bold new ideas in British politics, and in turn there will be no speeches worth listening to.

When even the prime minister of our country sees her role as more of a glorified Comptroller of Public Services than a world leader representing a great and consequential nation, why would we expect her speeches to be any more memorable than the platform announcements at Waterloo station? And if the prime minister’s words are so utterly uninspiring and inconsequential then why bother listening to the words of those who are not even at her level, but merely vying to replace her in that diminished role?

Our current political debates are often petty and parochial, and so are the words we use to fight them. And those issues which might potentially generate bold ideas matched by bold words tend to be furiously ignored by political leaders – look at their refusal to properly confront the Islamist threat, or the staggeringly superficial debate about Brexit.

Great political rhetoric only occurs when there are great issues at stake and great minds willing and able to tackle them. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself“, delivered as the American economy buckled under the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University, setting the United States the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches“, given after Britain’s deliverance at Dunkirk. Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall“, made at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (and ironically helping to usher in the post-Cold War world which for all its wonders also sucked much of the vitality from Western politics, together with our raison d’être).

And maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world. Perhaps this is why American political oratory has undergone a similar decline in the post-Reagan era, now that Pax Americana is drawing to an end and the uncertain new multipolar world emerges.

But one thing is certain: without conviction politics, there can be no speeches of great conviction. At best, a centrist or technocratic politician might be able to mimic the grandeur and cadences of famous speeches – as President Obama did so effectively, talking loftily of hope and change while a very different reality played out on the ground – but they will never truly achieve that perfect synergy of subject, argument and tone that is the hallmark of a great speech.

Why are there no great contemporary British political speeches? Well, try picturing one in your head, given the kind of issues we typically argue about and the politicians who represent us.

Imagine future historians studying the impact of rousing speeches about lowering corporation tax by a few percentage points or abolishing the so-called “bedroom tax”.

Imagine schoolchildren memorising the words to that famous speech opposing HS2 or supporting the renationalisation of Southern Rail.

Picture a crowd of thousands of people brought to its feet by an inspirational pledge to reduce NHS waiting times by 15 percent in the next parliament, employ 5000 extra police officers across a country of 65 million people or increase the minimum wage to £8 an hour by the year 2020.

And there’s your answer.

 

Kennedy Inauguration SPS

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Theresa May’s Brexit Speech: Soaring Ambition On A Foundation Of Sand

A grandiose speech with little serious thinking to back it up

Well, if anything lures me back to blogging then it may as well be Theresa May’s speech outlining the government’s long-awaited plan for Brexit.

I must admit that I am rather conflicted. This blog is on the record as holding Theresa May in rather low esteem in terms of her commitment to small government, individual liberty and conservatism in general, but it cannot be denied – least of all by someone like me who routinely criticises political speeches for being dull and uninspiring – that from a purely rhetorical perspective, May’s speech was satisfying both in terms of emotion and ambition.

Here was a speech almost in the American political tradition – reaching back through history to affirm the roots of British exceptionalism, the challenge now before us and the promise that an even greater Britain can be ours if only we strive for it:

It’s why we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do. Because it is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead. The result of the referendum was not a decision to turn inward and retreat from the world.

Because Britain’s history and culture is profoundly internationalist.

We are a European country – and proud of our shared European heritage – but we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world. That is why we are one of the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union, and why – whether we are talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, countries in Africa or those that are closer to home in Europe – so many of us have close friends and relatives from across the world.

Instinctively, we want to travel to, study in, trade with countries not just in Europe but beyond the borders of our continent. Even now as we prepare to leave the EU, we are planning for the next biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018 – a reminder of our unique and proud global relationships.

And it is important to recognise this fact. June the 23rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.

The peroration was particularly good, as May eschewed the temptation to bribe the electorate with glib promises of riches today and instead asked us to consider the longer term good, as well as our place in the history books:

So that is what we will do.

Not merely forming a new partnership with Europe, but building a stronger, fairer, more Global Britain too.

And let that be the legacy of our time. The prize towards which we work. The destination at which we arrive once the negotiation is done.

And let us do it not for ourselves, but for those who follow. For the country’s children and grandchildren too.

So that when future generations look back at this time, they will judge us not only by the decision that we made, but by what we made of that decision.

They will see that we shaped them a brighter future.

They will know that we built them a better Britain.

When nearly every other major set piece speech in British politics is little more than a dismal effort to placate a restive and self-entitled electorate by promising the people Free Things Without Effort or Consequences (ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you), here was a speech that set its sights a little higher and actually aspired to statecraft.

May’s criticism of the European Union and justification of the UK’s decision to secede from the EU was very good, particularly coming from someone who herself supported the Remain side and kept her head firmly beneath the parapet during the referendum campaign:

Our political traditions are different. Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement. We have only a recent history of devolved governance – though it has rapidly embedded itself – and we have little history of coalition government.

The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life.

And, while I know Britain might at times have been seen as an awkward member state, the European Union has struggled to deal with the diversity of its member countries and their interests. It bends towards uniformity, not flexibility.

Without straying into undiplomatic language, May firmly placed responsibility for Brexit at the foot of a Brussels supranational government which is inflexibly committed to endless political integration by stealth, with member state individuality subordinate to European harmonisation.

The prime minister was also at pains to point out that dissatisfaction with the EU is by no means a uniquely British phenomenon, and that significant numbers of people in other member states hold many of the same legitimate grievances:

Now I do not believe that these things apply uniquely to Britain. Britain is not the only member state where there is a strong attachment to accountable and democratic government, such a strong internationalist mindset, or a belief that diversity within Europe should be celebrated. And so I believe there is a lesson in Brexit not just for Britain but, if it wants to succeed, for the EU itself.

Because our continent’s great strength has always been its diversity. And there are 2 ways of dealing with different interests. You can respond by trying to hold things together by force, tightening a vice-like grip that ends up crushing into tiny pieces the very things you want to protect. Or you can respect difference, cherish it even, and reform the EU so that it deals better with the wonderful diversity of its member states.

Of course this blog, unconstrained by any need for diplomatic restraint, would have gone further. Theresa May was at pains to state that a strong and united European Union is in Britain’s interest, which sounds magnanimous and sensible until you actually recognise the punch which is being pulled.

If the EU is an antidemocratic straightjacket imposing unwanted political integration on national populations who are ambivalent at best, why do we wish that the organisation prospers for decades to come? Do we not think our European friends and allies as deserving of democracy and the right to self-determination that we demand for ourselves? But this is nitpicking – the Brexit negotiations would hardly be served if May openly salivated at the prospect of the breakup of the European Union.

In her outreach to other European leaders, assuring them of Britain’s continuing goodwill, one almost hears an echo (okay, a very, very distant and diminished echo) of Lincoln’s first inaugural (“The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors…”) as May asserts that the UK government will negotiate in good faith so long as the EU reciprocates:

So to our friends across Europe, let me say this.

Our vote to leave the European Union was no rejection of the values we share. The decision to leave the EU represents no desire to become more distant to you, our friends and neighbours. It was no attempt to do harm to the EU itself or to any of its remaining member states. We do not want to turn the clock back to the days when Europe was less peaceful, less secure and less able to trade freely. It was a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy, national self-determination, and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit.

We will continue to be reliable partners, willing allies and close friends. We want to buy your goods and services, sell you ours, trade with you as freely as possible, and work with one another to make sure we are all safer, more secure and more prosperous through continued friendship.

You will still be welcome in this country as we hope our citizens will be welcome in yours. At a time when together we face a serious threat from our enemies, Britain’s unique intelligence capabilities will continue to help to keep people in Europe safe from terrorism. And at a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty.

We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.

All of this is good. So why am I not celebrating?

Because then the prime minister proceeded to outline her government’s plans and priorities for the upcoming Brexit negotiation. And at that point it became clear that we are not dealing with Abraham Lincoln but rather with James Buchanan.

In other words, the real problem with Theresa May’s speech came when she pivoted from the background context to the government’s 12-point plan (or exercise in wishful thinking).

Pete North says it best:

In just a few short passages May has driven a horse and cart through all good sense.

For starters May has misunderstood the exam question. The process of leaving the EU is to negotiate a framework for leaving and a framework for continued cooperation. Instead she has taken it as the process of securing a trade deal – which doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the depth and complexity of the task. Because of this Theresa May will ensure we pay the maximum price possible.

By any estimation there is no possibility of securing a comprehensive agreement in two years and if we reach any kind of impasse then all of the leverage falls to member states as we beg for an extension.

Worse still, May has fallen for the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal and is prepared to walk away from the table. This would result in the WTO option and would be the single most egregious act of economic self harm ever recorded. As much as that is to be avoided there is now every chance that it will happen by accident as our time expires.

May has drunk deeply from the Brexiteer kool aid and Britain is about to find itself substantially poorer with fewer opportunities for trade. This will be the Tory Iraq. Blundering with half a clue and no plan and no real understanding of the landscape, resting the fate of the adventure on some overly optimistic patriotic nostrums that fold at first exposure to reality.

While the EU Referendum blog patiently explains why Theresa May’s declaration of intent is such a tall order:

Mrs May has set her face against a rational, measured Brexit and is embarking on a wild gamble, the outcome of which she has no way of predicting.

Such is her idea of pursuing “a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement with the European Union”, an undertaking which others have tried in the recent past – the most recent being Canada, which has spent eight years now in trying to bring an agreement to fruition, and we’re still waiting. The possibility, therefore, of the UK negotiating a deal (and getting it ratified) inside two years is, to say the very least, remote.

Nevertheless, there are those who think otherwise. They argue that, because the UK is already in the EU and achieved full regulatory convergence, transition from one type of agreement to another should be relatively straightforward and swift.

That, however, is completely to understate the complexity of modern trade agreements. In addition to regulatory convergence, there must be a dynamic arrangement that will ensure the automatic uptake of new regulation, and also the changes mandated by ECJ judgements. There must also be internal market surveillance measures, agreed conformity assessment measures, customs agreements, dispute settlement procedures, agreements on competition policy, procurement and intellectual property rights, as well as systems to deal with rules of origin.

These and much else, will require an institutional structure to facilitate communication and ongoing development, a form of arbitration panel or court, and a consultation body, which allows input into, and formal communication with the EU’s regulatory and institutional system.

And concludes:

This is my way of saying that to achieve a “bold and ambitious” free trade agreement with the EU inside two years is not just difficult. It is impossible. It cannot be done. And it doesn’t matter how many times it is discussed amongst the chattering classes, it still can’t be done.

It has been over eighteen months since this blog woke up to the fact that lazy Brexiteer tropes about quick-n-easy free trade agreements being the golden solution to every problem simply do not cut it in the face of such an unimaginably complex undertaking as extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Since that time, it has become clear to me and many others that forty years of political integration cannot be unpicked within the two-year timeframe granted through Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and that any attempt to negotiate a bespoke solution within this timeframe would see us hit the deadline without a deal in sight, leaving us at the mercy of the EU27 as we scramble for an extension or risk going over the cliff and resorting to WTO rules.

But what has been clear to this blog (since I first read of the Flexcit plan for a phased and managed Brexit with an eye to developing the new global single market which must eventually replace the parochial EU) and to a growing number of Brexiteers remains completely opaque and mysterious to Her Majesty’s Government:

So as a priority, we will pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union.

This agreement should allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states. It should give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets – and let European businesses do the same in Britain.

But I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.

European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the ‘4 freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people. And being out of the EU but a member of the single market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country.

It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.

And that is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the single market.

So we do not seek membership of the single market. Instead we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement.

That agreement may take in elements of current single market arrangements in certain areas – on the export of cars and lorries for example, or the freedom to provide financial services across national borders – as it makes no sense to start again from scratch when Britain and the remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years.

But I respect the position taken by European leaders who have been clear about their position, just as I am clear about mine. So an important part of the new strategic partnership we seek with the EU will be the pursuit of the greatest possible access to the single market, on a fully reciprocal basis, through a comprehensive free trade agreement.

Okay, great. And you plan to accomplish this in just two years, at a time when we are rebuilding our national trade negotiation competency from scratch? And what about the numerous other aspects of our co-operation with Brussels that do not directly relate to the single market? What process is there to be for evaluating and renegotiating these?

Ministers clearly still view Brexit through the narrow lens of wanting to sever all of the ties that bind us to Brussels and hope that a “quick and dirty” free trade agreement will somehow be a good substitute for patiently considering and unpicking each individual strand of co-operation between London, Brussels and the EU27.

And unless Theresa May has another, top secret Brexit ministry devoted to unglamorous issues like mutual recognition of regulatory standards (rather than burbling inanities about tariffs) then we are in for a very rude awakening at some point within the next two years.

Look: I like the ambition and confident tone of Theresa May’s speech. I like some of the swagger and self-confidence. And if May had been speaking about any subject other than Brexit in this manner I would be on my feet, giving a standing ovation. But unfortunately the prime minister has chosen to be smug and blasé about the one topic where airy self-assurance alone cannot win the day.

The prime minister accurately summed up many of the problems with the European Union, and did a good job in reminding people what an indispensable country Britain really is to the future economic, cultural and geopolitical prospects of Europe. That’s great. But it doesn’t begin to explain how Britain is going to negotiate an entirely bespoke new relationship with the European Union within two years when far less extensive deals focusing purely on trade routinely take over a decade to complete.

Ambition is good, but it must be tempered with reality. When John F Kennedy dedicated America to landing a man on the moon and safely returning him to Earth before the end of the 1960s, the specific technologies and facilities needed to achieve the historic feat may not all have existed, but the competencies to invent and build them certainly did. Not so with Britain and the goal of a two-year bespoke Brexit deal.

Unpicking forty years of political integration within two years would be an unimaginably tall order at the best of times, even if the organisation into which we are subsumed had not gradually drained us of the critical competencies required to complete the task. Theresa May promising a clean Brexit given our current national capabilities and negotiating climate is like President Theodore Roosevelt promising a moon shot in 1903, when the Wright brothers rather than Wernher von Braun represented the pinnacle of aviation technology.

So mixed feelings. How nice to finally hear a political speech that is so outward-looking and ambitious in content, positive in rhetoric. How sad that this particular one is likely to end in disappointment and recrimination.

 

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EU Renegotiation - Brexit - European Union

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