General Election Leaders’ Debate 2017: We Get The Politicians We Deserve

BBC Election leaders debate 2017 - Tim Farron jumping from stage

Think that all of these TV political debates are starting to look and sound the same? You’re not wrong. But that’s because we keep demanding (and rewarding) the same destructive behaviour by politicians

Does this sound familiar? It is a distilled version of what we all heard at the televised BBC general election debate in Cambridge this past Wednesday, and at nearly every TV election debate that has ever taken place in this country since we imported a dumbed-down version of American presidential debates back in 2010:

Vote for me, I’ll keep you safe from terror. Just gonna need your Facebook password, please. No, vote for me, I’ll keep the economy strong because we all know the only point of a strong economy is to raise more tax to spend on the NHS. Liar! You want to destroy Our Precious NHS! You want people to die in the streets when they get sick, just like they do in America. No, we are now the true party of the NHS! Anything for Our NHS, oh god, anything and everything, my very life for Our Blessed NHS.

Oi! Look over here, free university tuition! Yeah, it’s subsidised by the taxes of other people who never went to university and whose earning power has not been boosted through having a degree, but still. Fairness! Young people are the future! No, no, no, it’s all about the environment. That evil party wants to build an experimental nuclear fusion plant in your grandmother’s basement, and frack for oil in the middle of Lake Windermere. But we will bulldoze nasty, Brexit-supporting Stoke-on-Trent and replace it with a massive solar panel field. Much better.

No, look over here! We will bring back British Rail; remember how great British Rail was? Who needs Pret when you’ve got a trusty British Rail egg and cress sandwich? Nice and warm, of course, just like the good old days. Let’s have car-commuting taxpayers in Gainsborough subsidise the travel of London-based city commuters, because fairness. British Rail? Scoff. I’ll see your British Rail and raise you British Leyland! Woohoo – nationalisation, baby! For the Common Good.

All immigrants are a godsend, to the last man. If it weren’t for immigrants, your inflamed appendix would have been dug out by a native-born, chain-smoking school dropout with a can of special brew in his spare hand, and don’t you forget it. No, of course we should have a sensible, measured conversation about immigration. It’s just that I’ll stand here and shriek into the TV cameras that you’re an evil, divisive racist if you disagree with me. But please, go ahead. No no, we should listen patiently to people’s concerns and then carefully explain to them why they are wrong. People love that.

Oh, you? No dear, you don’t have to do anything. We, the politicians, are here to promise you stuff, to pander to your every passing whim. If I’m prime minister, I will make it my overriding personal concern to fix the broken chairs at your GP surgery waiting room – I’ll come round and do it myself, I’ve got some tools in the shed – and make sure that New British Rail adds free wifi to your single-carriage metro train between Stoke and Crewe. Seriously, no worries. I’ll call the boss at 6AM every day until it happens. NATO summit? Geopolitics? Statecraft? Boring! Why be a statesman when I can be a glorified town councillor for 65 million insatiable people? I’m on the case for you, and your every last petty concern. I’ll read foreign policy briefings when I’m on the can, that stuff doesn’t matter.

Heavens no, of course we don’t need to properly empower local politicians to make decisions in the local interest, raising and spending taxes independently of Westminster. For I am running to be Comptroller of British Public Services, and my sole job, my only care in the world is to make your passage through life as easy and painless as possible. You and 65 million of your fellow citizens. The buck stops with me, because public services are everything. After all, Britain didn’t do anything of value or renown on the world stage until we starting implementing the Beveridge Report. Not a damn thing. And now we’ve jacked up the size of the state so much and you have to deal with it so bloody frequently that we’d darn well better make sure you come skipping away happy from every last interaction – too many bad experiences for you are political suicide for us.

All hail the NHS!

All hail the NHS!

All hail the NHS!

The problem is not that television debates cannot be substantive – they can. While US presidential elections in recent years have devolved into tense shouting matches with cringeworthy one-liners and a partisan audience clapping and whooping along like trained seals, this was not always the case. Go back even a few election cycles and you’ll find issues discussed in depth and sometimes even thoughtfully, even if they still adhered to the ludicrous “one minute response and 30 second counter-response” format.

No, the problem is with us. As I wrote in more depth immediately after the BBC’s general election party leaders’ debate in Cambridge, we have been trained and willingly led to a place where we expect our politicians to do nothing but flatter and bribe us all day long. We sit in the television studio audiences at Question Time or other venues, sullenly waiting to hear how politicians will come up with new ways to ease our passage through life, divesting ourselves of more and more responsibility with every passing day.

(It also doesn’t help when you have four irrelevant party leaders clogging up the stage who command no more than a handful of MPs between them and whose tiresome leftist bloviating and virtue-signalling hugely detracts from what should be a no-holds-barred slugfest between the two people with a plausible chance of running the country.)

A friend reminded me on Facebook that immediately after the BBC election debate, they aired an ad featuring a montage of British voters staring into the camera and barking out phrases such as “But what will the parties do for me?”, “What’s in it for me?” and “How will these policies affect me?” – the clear inference being that by watching the BBC’s election coverage we can learn all about how policy will personally benefit us, Number One, me me me. Because that’s all that matters. No need for voters to think in a broader, more strategic way about what’s good for the country or society. No, just keep demanding more and more goodies for ourselves.

But then a wise commenter made the following observation on Twitter:

Interesting but the ‘public’ is not infantilised, people talk about political, social & ideology at length & intelligently…

… arguably it’s the media that does the infantilising. People are patronised by the broadcasters.

True, to an extent – possibly even a large extent. Go back to the Kennedy – Nixon debates, for example, and you’ll find a serious, measured discussion of issues. Seriously, watch them. Even as recently as two election cycles ago you might expect a proper in-depth discussion of foreign policy, war and peace, national security, America’s place in the world, economic policy, domestic and social policy. The standard has of course greatly declined of late – as anybody who watched Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fling faeces at each other for 2 hours on three separate evenings last year can attest.

And it is hard to point to anything other than the fracturing of the media landscape – something which should have been a promising development but which has led instead to shrill partisan outlets of all stripes catering to their niche audience’s basest fears and prejudices. And that goes for “prestige” outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times, with their soft and persistent bias, as much as it does with those outlets that peddle in outrageous, obviously fake news.

Interestingly, the media market in Britain is not yet as fractured. The BBC (particularly the news website) and the major newspapers (whose websites have worked tirelessly to suppress the independent blogosphere) still have considerable reach. There are no strongly partisan news channels, and political sites have much smaller reach. But like America, Britain’s politics has been upended by the internet and social media. And just as we now expect our Facebook, Twitter or Instragram feeds to serve up a constant diet of things that we like and with which we already agree, so we now seem to demand the same of our politicians. Nothing challenging, nothing which shocks us out of our preconceived ideas and prejudices, nothing which threatens to change or undermine our worldview.

The soundbite-ification of the television news also certainly doesn’t help, and is the principle reason why there has not been a good or memorable political speech by a major British politician (at least outside the House of Commons) in the living memory of anybody my age. When speeches are written so that the campaign’s key message is included in every other line, to ensure it gets picked up in a 30-second TV news piece, they essentially become meaningless word clouds of platitudes and focus-grouped phrases. Strong and stable, anyone? It is very difficult to inspire, to lift people’s thoughts above their own petty daily concerns to higher and more noble subjects when you have to keep saying “coalition of chaos” twice in each paragraph.

But again, who is to blame? Yes, it’s the fault of the media and the politicians who accept the terms of engagement and play along with the whole artificial construct. But it is also our fault. We watch the news bulletins. We buy the newspapers and take out the web subscriptions. We reward the godawful work that so many establishment Westminster journalists do, day in and day out.

Expecting the herd to change on their own is a recipe for disappointment. We need one brave politician, or perhaps a few, to just stop playing along with the rules. To stand up and give speeches where audiences and journalists actually have to listen to the whole thing before they understand the purpose or can write their Op-Eds. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn probably comes closest at present. As anathema as his politics are to this blog, Corbyn is capable of giving a speech – such as the one to the Durham Miners’ Gala earlier this year – which is actually formed in complete sentences and paragraphs, not one-liners and soundbites. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is a conviction politician with a coherent worldview goes a long way to making this possible, and also explains why Theresa May so often sounds like a malfunctioning android.

Of course, another politician to break the mold is Donald Trump – but not in a good way. His long, rambling and unpredictable speeches were also free of canned lines and soundbites (or at least pre-planned ones) but he kept the television news networks transfixed, giving him hours of unearned airtime simply because you never knew what he might say next or what incendiary thing he might do. But Trump also won the presidency by promising things which he could likely never deliver, and many of which are actually deeply un-American, such as security over opportunity, protection from every conceivable harm and turning back to an easier past time rather than boldly facing the future.

So clearly what we need to do is genetically engineer a hybrid of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, and indoctrinate them with some good solid small-government impulses before letting them loose on Westminster. We need somebody with Jeremy Corbyn’s consistent worldview and fixed principles, though each of those principles should be reversed almost 180 degrees. And we need somebody with Donald Trump’s watchability and pseudo-charisma, but only after extracting the egotism, ignorance and vengefulness. And when these two forces collide, like matter and anti-matter, it will create more power and political energy than we can possibly imagine.

Okay, maybe not. But something needs to give – or somebody needs to step up; somebody who is not a cautious careerist who intends only to get to the top of the Westminster pole by being as blandly inoffensive as possible and by playing along with the media’s prescribed game. Someone needs to take a chance and dare to hope that the British people might actually respond well to somebody who talks up to them rather than down to them, who levels with them about difficult issues and necessary sacrifices, and who can present an attractive and believable vision of a future Britain worth striving to attain.

The alternative is that we will continue being bribed, flattered and lied to by a cohort of vacuous and craven politicians who never even think of calling us to any form of real citizenship or higher common purpose because their own political and moral horizons have been so limited by the infantilising system under which we labour. A system which encourages the people to shout petulantly for treats like angry toddlers with a gun, and exhorts our would-be leaders to frantically dance for us in response.

There may just be a small window of opportunity before the dust settles from the election results on 9 June. Future Thatcher, if you are out there, it’s time to emerge…

 

john-f-kennedy-richard-nixon-first-televised-american-presidential-debate

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2017 General Election Campaign: The Last Stand For Conviction Politics?

The only national party leader with clear political convictions and the courage to publicly defend them is rendered unelectable on the basis of those convictions, while cowardly and triangulating politicians with more superficially palatable opinions are poised to do well in the general election. How depressing.

Here’s the thing: While Jeremy Corbyn may be wrong about economic policy, foreign policy, national defence, the size and role of the state and a million and one other things, he is also the only major party leader (with the very occasional exception of Tim Farron) who can be fairly described as a man of conviction, somebody with a coherent worldview and the political courage to stand up and unapologetically argue for it.

Covering this general election will be hard for me, not just because (as usual) there is no party which reasonably represents this blog’s conservatarian stance but because the only party leader potentially worth admiring from a political courage perspective is the man that nobody in their right mind can reasonably vote for. If some nervous voters believe Brexit Britain is bad, that’s nothing compared to the kind of sudden confiscatory wealth raids, punishing tax rates and ramping up of the state we would see under Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn.

The most plausible prime minister on 9 June – incumbent Theresa May – has gravitas and the outward appearance of baseline competence, yes. But she is ideologically rootless, her only real defining trait being a consistent hard lean towards authoritarianism. Beyond that, what does she stand for? Helping the JAMs, people who are just about managing? Surely every politician in government should strive to do that anyway. Theresa May was against Brexit before she became its most ardent champion, unable to take a bold stand on the most pressing question to face Britain in the post-war era until her hand was forced by the referendum result.

Then look at the other party leaders. Nicola Sturgeon is an expert at spinning her grievance-soaked tale of Scottish persecution and the need for supposedly childlike, simple Scots to be protected from the Evil Tor-ees, but while she campaigns in poetry (or rather crude limericks) the SNP governs in single-minded, authoritarian prose and is busy constructing a one-party statelet north of the border. At one point the Scottish Parliament failed to pass any legislation for over a year, so consumed were the SNP with manoeuvring for a second independence referendum. And when they did pass laws, they were frighteningly authoritarian schemes like the “named person” scheme which makes Sturgeon’s government an unwanted auxiliary parent to every newborn Scottish baby.

Under Paul Nuttall, UKIP – when they are not infighting and twisting in the wind – continue their lurch to the left, abandoning their original voter base of libertarian types in ever more fevered pursuit of hardcore immigration opponents and the disaffected Northern Labour vote. UKIP (or rather, Conservative fear of UKIP) played a significant role in forcing the referendum and achieving the outcome, but now the party has nothing left to say beyond defending the Leave campaign’s most indefensible promises and pledging to fight for the hardest of hard Brexits with nary a thought for how uncontrolled exit from the EU would impact our economy and diplomatic standing.

The Green Party remain an irrelevance outside their stronghold of Brighton, not helped by their visceral antipathy toward material human progress. And besides, the Green Party are…well, the Green Party.

And to be clear, Labour are in a mess, too. Not everybody subscribes to the Jeremy Corbyn agenda. But at least Jeremy Corbyn has a coherent worldview, as risible or abhorrent as some people may find it. What is the Labour centrist worldview? What are their inviolable beliefs and convictions? What gets Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper or Dan Jarvis out of bed every morning? Being a bit more left-wing than the centrist Tories while prattling on about “fairness” a lot more? Pretending to be heroic tribunes of the working classes but then ignoring their opinions on key issues like the EU and immigration?

One might have more sympathy for the Labour centrists, if A) they hadn’t bottled their cowardly post-referendum coup against Jeremy Corbyn, with all of the shrunken people who now pass for “big beasts” within the party electing to save their political hides while sending out the risible Owen Smith as their stalking horse, and B) they had a solid, work-in-progress alternative to Corbynism in their back pockets. No such alternative is being proposed.

And so we are in a position where the one candidate with a coherent worldview and the glimmer of a sense that the British people should be called to overcome a challenge rather than being soothed, placated and made safe, cannot be elected because his political ideas are broadly wrong. Meanwhile, a bunch of politicians whose views are slightly less wrong than Jeremy Corbyn’s will benefit from the 2017 general election thanks to their ability to conceal what they really think and bend, flatter and shapeshift their way into the public’s good graces.

Just compare the opening campaign speeches made by Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May respectively.

Here’s Jeremy Corbyn, opening with a stridently anti-establishment message which could almost be described as Trump-like:

The dividing lines in this election could not be clearer from the outset. It is the Conservatives, the party of privilege and the richest, versus the Labour Party, the party that is standing up for working people to improve the lives of all.

It is the establishment versus the people  and it is our historic duty to make sure that the people prevail.  A duty for all of us here today, the duty of every Labour MP, a duty for our half a million members – including the 2,500 who have joined in the last 24 hours.

Much of the media and establishment are saying that this election is a foregone conclusion.

They think there are rules in politics, which if you don’t follow by doffing your cap to powerful people, accepting that things can’t really change, then you can’t win.

But of course, they do not want us to win. Because when we win it is the people, not the powerful, who win.

The nurse, the teacher, the small trader, the carer, the builder, the office worker, the student, the carer win. We all win.

It is the establishment that complains I don’t play the rules: by which they mean their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game.

We don’t fit in their cosy club. We ‘re not obsessed with the tittle-tattle of Westminster or Brussels. We don’t accept that it is natural for Britain to be governed by a ruling elite, the City and the tax-dodgers, and we don’t accept that the British people just have to take what they’re given, that they don’t deserve better.

And in a sense, the establishment and their followers in the media are quite right. I don’t play by their rules. And if a Labour Government is elected on 8 June, then we won’t play by their rules either.

They are yesterday’s rules, set by failed political and corporate elites we should be consigning to the past.

This is good because it is not a message which resonates only with Labour’s traditional voter tribes.

Especially now, following an EU referendum which literally pitched the establishment of this country and their sycophantic allies against the ranks of the people, voters may be receptive to this message of fighting against a political, economic, media and cultural establishment which arrogantly seeks to rule in its own interest. Even as a conservative libertarian type, this passage resonates with me.

And here is Corbyn waxing lyrical about the benefits of wealth distribution:

Britain is the sixth richest economy in the world. The people of Britain must share in that wealth.

If I were Southern Rail or Philip Green, I’d be worried about a Labour Government.

If I were Mike Ashley or the CEO of a tax avoiding multinational corporation, I’d want to see a Tory victory.

Why? Because those are the people who are monopolising the wealth that should be shared by each and every one of us in this country.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a contribution to make and a life to lead. Poverty and homelessness are a disaster for the individual and a loss to all of us.

It is wealth that should belong to the majority and not a tiny minority.

Labour is the party that will put the interests of the majority first, while the Tories only really care about those who already have so much.

That is why we will prove the establishment experts wrong and change the direction of this election. Because the British people know that they are the true wealth creators, held back by a system rigged for the wealth extractors.

He is dead wrong, obviously – coercive, large scale redistribution destroys wealth faster than it can parcel it out, dooming people to receive ever more equal slices of a rapidly miniaturising pie. But by God, Corbyn sounds convincing when he makes his case because he actually believes what he is saying, and because it fits into a coherent wider narrative which supports the entire Corbynite worldview.

Meanwhile, here is the prime minister launching the Conservative Party’s election campaign in Bolton:

And that’s what this election is about. Providing the strong and stable leadership this country needs to take Britain through Brexit and beyond. It’s about strengthening our hand in the negotiations that lie ahead. And it’s about sticking to our plan for a stronger Britain that will enable us to secure that more stable and secure future for this country and take the right long term decision for the future. It’s about strong and stable leadership in the national interest. And you only get that strong and stable leadership by voting for the Conservatives. Because that’s what Conservatives government provides. And just look at what we’ve done.

[..] when I took over as Prime Minister, the country needed clear vision and strong leadership to ensure that we got on with that job of delivering on Brexit for the British people and that’s exactly what we did. We delivered that strong and stable leadership, we delivered the certainty that strong and stable leadership can give. And that’s what leadership looks like. Now there’s a very clear choice at this election. It’s a choice between strong and stable leadership under the Conservatives, or weak and unstable coalition of chaos led by Jeremy Corbyn.

And that is very clear. Let’s look – the other parties are lining up to prop up Jeremy Corbyn. We’ve seen it with the Liberal Democrats, and we see it with Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish nationalists. They’re very clear that they want to do everything they can to frustrate our Brexit negotiations. To undermine the job that we have to do, the task that lies ahead. Do everything to stop us from being able to take Britain forward. And it’s their tunnel vision focus on independence that actually provides uncertainty. They want to pull the strings, try to pull the strings of this election, prop up Jeremy Corbyn and provide more risk and uncertainty for the British people and that’s not in Britain’s interests.

So it’s only a vote for the Conservatives that can deliver, and every vote for the Conservatives is a vote for me and local Conservative candidates, and it’s a vote to ensure that we have that strong and stable leadership that we need to take us through Brexit and beyond. Every vote for me and the local Conservative candidates here and across Britain is a vote to deliver on that plan for a stronger Britain and a more secure future for us all. And if we have that certainty of five more years of strong and stable leadership then we can ensure that we’re delivering for people, for ordinary working people up and down the country, across the whole United Kingdom.

This isn’t a speech. It is a soundbite delivery mechanism, the flavourless rhetorical equivalent of a Ryvita cracker, designed to drill the phrase “strong and stable leadership” so deep into the minds of voters (the exact phrase is repeated twelve times) that we all walk zombie-like to the polling stations on 8 June, muttering the phrase to ourselves as we dribble down our chins.

As a political speech, it has no poetry because it was conceived by partisan political calculation rather than any deep conviction about what’s best for Britain. “Vote Tory to prevent the other parties from either influencing or thwarting Brexit” is Theresa May’s message – an implausible message in itself, considering that the prime minister only came to believe in the deep wisdom of Brexit after the British people had voted to Leave.

As a modern political speech (with the bar set accordingly low), Theresa May’s effort will probably be quite effective though. Getting up on a stage and ranting about strong and stable leadership is a very effective way of implying that the various jabbering parties of the Left will screw everything up given half the chance, either by naively giving everything up to Europe in the negotiations for no commensurate return, or by descending into infighting over whether to push for a softer Brexit or seek to thwart Brexit entirely.

The Tory position – advocating a hard Brexit and exit from the single market, to be replaced with a fictional comprehensive deal within two years – is moronic. But it does have the advantage of being easy to understand. Now imagine Corbyn, Sturgeon, Lucas and Farron all sat around the Cabinet table. Do they collectively push to stay in the EU or just for the closest relationship with the EU? Who knows? Ergo chaos, versus Theresa May’s “strong and stable” leadership.

But what of other issues than Brexit? Where is the ringing defence of Conservative principle? The speechwriter crams this material – such as it is – into the final paragraphs, very much as an afterthought:

But it’s also about getting the right deal for ordinary working people here at home, and that’s about building a strong Britain. Britain is the strongest country in Europe in terms of economic growth and national security.

It’s about building a stronger economy. It’s about creating well paid secure jobs. It’s about ensuring that there is opportunity for all. That we provide a good school place for every child. That there is affordable housing. That people can get on in their lives. It’s about ensuring that we create a more united nation. That we take action against the extremists who want to divide us, and that we stand up to the separatists who want to break up our country. So it’s providing that strong and stable leadership.

That certainty. That stability for the future ,and that’s going to be our message as go out in to our election campaign. And I’m looking forward to it. We’re going to fight a positive and optimistic campaign about the future of this country. I’m going to be getting out and about around the country. I’m going to be visiting communities in every part of the United Kingdom.  And I’m looking forward to taking our case out there to people. Because this is the case – that it is only with the Conservatives that you get the strong and stable leadership that this country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond.

That’s it. In other words: “blah blah authoritarianism blah, angrily insisting that the country be united while proposing zero tangible policies to actually rekindle shared British values and identity, blah. Cheap houses for everyone with no explanation of how or where they will be built, oh and I guess we’ll make schools great too, blahdy blah. Strong and stable leadership! Blah”.

What does Theresa May actually believe about anything? How does she intend to remake British society with her (hopefully) increased parliamentary majority? Who knows? I’m not remotely convinced that the prime minister knows herself.

What about tax reform, maybe simplifying the code, eliminating loopholes and lowering the burden on ordinary people?

What about constitutional reform, recognising that Brexit is the beginning and not the end, and pledging to devolve power to the home nations and regions, so that nobody can complain about the “Evil Tory” government in Westminster when their own local officials have greater power over taxes and services?

What about our national defence, committing to serious spending increases to reverse years of decline in our capabilities in order to increase our hard power?

What about an energy policy which frees Britain from dependence on rogue or ambivalent states while keeping costs low for consumers?

What about getting a move on with critical infrastructure projects like Heathrow Airport expansion, allowing other airports to expand too, and cutting the outrageously high Air Passenger Duty tax on flying, which increasingly makes Britain a pariah state for international business travellers?

What about – and I’m shooting for the moon on this one – an end run around the Labour Party, integrating health and social care, and doing it with a dispassionate fixation on healthcare outcomes rather than weepy tributes and pledges of loyalty to Our Blessed NHS?

Perhaps it will all become clear when the Conservative Party release their 2017 general election manifesto. But I wouldn’t count on it. I confidently expect to download that document and read a hundred more exclamations of “strong and stable leadership” while key policy questions are studiously ignored.

And yet all the smart money says that party whose leadership has a coherent worldview and the political courage to argue for it will lose seats in the general election, while the opportunists (Sturgeon, Farron), authoritarians (May, Sturgeon) and nonentities (Wood, Nuttall) do well, or at least escape cosmic justice for their ineptitude.

Assuming that the election goes as expected, rest assured that the next generation of political leaders will be watching and taking note.

Be opportunistic. Short-term tactical gain over long-term policy coherence. Soundbites over substance. Promise voters an easy, consequence-free life. Never tell the public difficult truths or call them to any kind of civic duty.

Message received.

 

Theresa May - General Election 2017 campaign launch speech Bolton - Strong and stable leadership - 2

Theresa May - General Election 2017 campaign launch speech Bolton - Strong and stable leadership

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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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John F Kennedy On The Responsibilities Of Educated Citizens

John F. Kennedy, May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963

From Kennedy’s address to the 90th anniversary convocation of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, delivered on May 18, 1963:

But this Nation was not founded solely on the principle of citizens’ rights. Equally important, though too often not discussed, is the citizen’s responsibility. For our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. The protection of our rights can endure no longer than the performance of our responsibilities. Each can be neglected only at the peril of the other. I speak to you today, therefore, not of your rights as Americans, but of your responsibilities. They are many in number and different in nature. They do not rest with equal weight upon the shoulders of all. Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of responsibility. All Americans must be responsible citizens, but some must be more responsible than others, by virtue of their public or their private position, their role in the family or community, their prospects for the future, or their legacy from the past.

Increased responsibility goes with increased ability, for “of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

[..] You have responsibilities, in short, to use your talents for the benefit of the society which helped develop those talents. You must decide, as Goethe put it, whether you will be an anvil or a hammer, whether you will give to the world in which you were reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of that education. Of the many special obligations incumbent upon an educated citizen, I would cite three as outstanding: your obligation to the pursuit of learning, your obligation to serve the public, your obligation to uphold the law.

If the pursuit of learning is not defended by the educated citizen, it will not be defended at all. For there will always be those who scoff at intellectuals, who cry out against research, who seek to limit our educational system. Modern cynics and skeptics see no more reason for landing a man on the moon, which we shall do, than the cynics and skeptics of half a millennium ago saw for the discovery of this country. They see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.

But the educated citizen knows how much more there is to know. He knows that “knowledge is power,” more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people, that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all, and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, “enlighten the people generally … tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

[..] Secondly, the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or President. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the State house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a Senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.

[..] Third, and finally, the educated citizen has an obligation to uphold the law. This is the obligation of every citizen in a free and peaceful society–but the educated citizen has a special responsibility by the virtue of his greater understanding. For whether he has ever studied history or current events, ethics or civics, the rules of a profession or the tools of a trade, he knows that only a respect for the law makes it possible for free men to dwell together in peace and progress.

He knows that law is the adhesive force in the cement of society, creating order out of chaos and coherence in place of anarchy. He knows that for one man to defy a law or court order he does not like is to invite others to defy those which they do not like, leading to a breakdown of all justice and all order. He knows, too, that every fellowman is entitled to be regarded with decency and treated with dignity. Any educated citizen who seeks to subvert the law, to suppress freedom, or to subject other human beings to acts that are less than human, degrades his heritage, ignores his learning, and betrays his obligation.

I think that we can all take something from this speech as an inspiration to strive to be better citizens, no matter our position on American politics and the forthcoming presidency of Donald J Trump. None of us are above learning from the example set by great men and women of the past.

Yet nobody gives speeches like this any more. Why?

Is modern political speechwriting so poor because it reflects the abysmal quality of our present political discourse, or is our political discourse so poor because our contemporary leaders, more concerned with bribing and placating a fickle public than calling us to any kind of higher duty, have increasingly lost the rhetorical skills required to persuade and inspire their citizens?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

 

And another:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Et tu, Montie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Margaret Thatcher said in 1968:

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

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

 

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