Building A Britain Fit For The Future

Building a Britain fit for the future - new Conservative Party Tory slogan

Strong and stable, version 2.0

Word on the street is that the Tories have got themselves a shiny new slogan. Guido Fawkes reports:

Here are seven words you can expect to hear a lot more of over the next few weeks and months: Guido understands the new Tory slogan is “Building a Britain fit for the future”. Theresa May used it three times at PMQs on Wednesday, telling the Commons: “this government is building a country fit for the future”, “we are building a Britain fit for the future” and “We in the Conservative Party are building a Britain that is fit for the future”. This morning the CCHQ Twitter account used the same phrase.

As slogans go, I suppose that “Building a Britain fit for the future” could be a hell of a lot worse. It is certainly better than “strong and stable”, though according to Guido it seems as though the Tories are already in danger of wearing out their new slogan through enthusiastic over-use.

BABFFTF has potential because it at least acknowledges that we are entering a period of discontinuity – a time where the current system or political consensus is starting to fray and show signs of fatigue, where new and previously politically unfeasible policies are required to break the impasse or respond to the concerns of the electorate. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the vote for Brexit are just two of the most prominent signs that we have entered such a time of discontinuity, with the pro-EU, centrist consensus adopted by Labour and the Conservatives through 2015 increasingly failing to address the hopes, fears, concerns and priorities of many people.

The problem, though, is that the slogan seems to have been trailed before the necessary supporting ideas – the vital national reboot checklist which can steer Britain through Brexit and on to the other challenges – have been developed. Now, it’s possible that Theresa May has been huddled in Downing Street with her SpAds brainstorming some breathtakingly original new ideas, and that we will all be bowled over when they are announced in the coming weeks – but it seems unlikely. Firstly, she would be breaking the habit of a lifetime (doing something bold and visionary) and secondly it is hard to tell when such inspired policymaking might have taken place given all of the shenanigans going on in her Cabinet.

While we can finally detect a few faint signs of new intellectual life in the Tories – notably the Big Tent programme launched by George Freeman, and the Square Deal initiative led by Nick Boles – these groups are barely getting formed, and are months away (if not more) from reaching full fruition. And as I have previously written (and will continue to expand upon in coming days and weeks), we are still missing anything like an overarching framework to diagnose the issues facing Britain, draw out the links between them and produce an electorally viable set of policies to tackle them. Discontinuity requires policymaking through extraordinary means; the same old processes tend to yield the same old solutions.

That being said, the Tories cannot remain silent altogether while they try to get their act together. It is good, in a way, that Brexit is currently consuming most of this government’s energy because that means that they have little time (and even less political capital) to push through some of the authoritarian, statist, anti-market policies which one suspects Theresa May would now be rolling out had she won a thumping majority. A de facto “first, do no harm” doctine has thus been partially imposed on this government, like it or not.

But still the Tories must do something, starting with the Budget next week, to show that they are starting to understand the depth of public dissatisfaction with the old political settlement, particularly on housing (since this is a vital policy area more separated from some of the others). Years of disappointment mean that I have zero positive expectations of Phillip Hammond when he gets to his feet to deliver the Budget next Wednesday. I fear that even if there is noticeable movement on housing, it will be a big sop to Labour by focusing on the building of new council housing rather than the big unleashing/encouraging of private development (upward, not outward) which we need. This is Hammond’s chance to prove me wrong, as well as everybody else who has lost faith in the current government being anything more than a very clumsy caretaker.

The pessimistic part of me still believes that a mid-term rescue for the Tories is simply impossible; that it will take a (hopefully) short, sharp spell in opposition to rid the current Tory frontbench of much of its dead wood and see some new talent push forward – hopefully talent less beholden to the current political consensus, and which wants to do more than simply make a few cosmetic tweaks to win back public opinion. Readers will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot think of one example of a successful political turnaround that was driven by refreshed policies rather than the good fortune of events.

But a Jeremy Corbyn government is not something to be entertained lightly. The next government will likely set the tone and direction of Britain’s immediate post-Brexit years, and so will play a large role in stamping their imprint on whatever the new emerging political consensus or centre of gravity happens to be. After years of leftward drift under both New Labour and Conservative governments, it is important that the next significant course change is to the right. In a world of pure ideology one may well want the Tories decimated at the next election so that they can grow back stronger and with a renewed sense of purpose, just as controlled forest fires can ultimately benefit an ecosystem even as they destroy in the short term. But since we all have to live in this forest for the duration, dropping a match onto dry leaves by ushering Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street really must be an option of last resort.

Therefore let us hope that “Building a Britain fit for the future” and whatever quickly-concocted policies lie beneath it buy the Tories sufficient breathing room to attempt a more fundamental policy review – to create the new Stepping Stones report for 2018 that Britain needs to chart our way from one failed political consensus to a new one which addresses today’s challenges.

Let’s hope that it falls to conservatives to build the Britain of the future, and not Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

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Discontinuity, Leadership And Britain’s Place In The World

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We don’t face a Brexit crisis, a migration crisis, a housing crisis, an NHS crisis, a social care crisis, an energy crisis, a productivity crisis, a deficit crisis or an education crisis — there is one universal and interconnected crisis of British politics and government

Yesterday I attended an event held by the Centre for Policy Studies, to launch a new initiative for the renewal of British conservatism. The event promised to elevate the voices of the 2015 and 2017 intakes of Tory MPs and certain “other voices”, though it was never made clear who these other voices would be, and no mention of them was made during the event itself.

The CPS is known as Margaret Thatcher’s think tank – it was founded by Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph in 1977 to promote the cause of economic liberalism and a turn away from the statist post-war consensus. And so far as I could tell, its composition has not changed greatly in that times. Their hair may have greyed and receded, but as I waited for the event to start I saw many of the same figures standing around guzzling wine and congratulating themselves on the glories of past decades.

As I expected, the event itself was largely a waste of time. The guest of honour was Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is hardly the fresh face of bold conservative renewal, and her speech was bland, utterly forgettable and targeted exclusively at the Tory MPs present rather than the wider conservative movement. Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, spoke after Rudd, cementing this occasion as more of a Tory Party pilgrimage to Soho rather than an insurgent attempt to change the course of an ideologically lost political party.

It was sad to see that the Centre for Policy Studies has become in many ways part of the fossilised establishment which they did so much to uproot in the 1970s. When Maurice Saatchi opened proceedings by bragging that Henry Kissinger had given the initiative his personal seal of approval, I abandoned any hope of conservative revival even before the first speaker took the floor.

This is a great pity, because from the CPS came the influential and ultimately transformative Stepping Stones Report, an incredible document which summarised a body of work which sought to classify and diagnose all of Britain’s economic ailments of the 1970s and propose a comprehensive solution and communication strategy which Margaret Thatcher then effectively took with her into 10 Downing Street and started implementing in 1979.

I know I keep banging on about this report, but I can’t encourage people enough to go and read it – the thing is sixty short pages of condensed insight and wisdom. Britain in the 1970s was in a very perilous economic and social position, facing challenges which are entirely different to those we face today, but of similar pressing urgency. The central premise of Stepping Stones was that Britain could not be saved through haphazard and piecemeal efforts to tackle each various problem individually – rather, a coordinated approach would be required.

Back before Thatcher

Back in the 1970s, Britain suffered from a budget deficit problem (called the PSBR back then), high inflationary pressures, uncompetitive nationalised industries, bad management, appalling industrial relations and low productivity. In 2017, some of these problems have been quelled while others remain and have been augmented by the challenges of globalisation, automation, global migration, an acute housing crisis and a terminally broken healthcare model in the sanctified NHS.

Just as it was in the 1970s, the problems of the early 21st century can not be solved in isolation from one another or as a series of individual “damage control” measures by a worn-out and rudderless government desperate to stay in power but totally unsure what to do with it. Today in 2017, we need to bring to bear the same comprehensive (one might even say “intersectional”) style of analysis pioneered in the Stepping Stones Report to arrive at a new, mutually supporting suite of policies which are both politically feasible and equal to the task at hand.

As the preamble to the report plainly states:

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

One of the key concepts discussed in the Stepping Stones Report is that of “discontinuity”, which is described thus:

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

Reading or watching the news today, one observes endless argument over what policies or decisions may be politically feasible (be it in British domestic politics or the EU secession negotiations with Brussels), but scant discussion as to whether those policies actually rise to the challenge of our times – whether they actually solve the very specific and intractable problems at hand. Both sides of the equation must be addressed if good policies and decisions are to be reached, but in nearly all cases our shrunken horizon considers only what is possible, not what is actually needed.

1977 all over again?

Who can argue that Britain in 2017 is not experiencing another such period of discontinuity? The symptoms are everywhere and have been visible for some time, notably in the defection of Tory MPs to UKIP in 2014, Jeremy Corbyn’s humbling of the Labour centrists in the 2015 leadership election (and again in 2016), and Britain’s seminal vote to leave the European Union.

The latter in particular was fuelled by public disgust with a political class who contented themselves to operate within the narrow tramlines of EU rules and social policy without any regard for those voters whose values and priorities fell outside the narrow Overton Window prescribed by Brussels.

But that’s just the start. Automation, outsourcing and globalisation have incrementally, relentlessly eaten away at the idea of a steady, 9-5 factory or retail job being sufficient to raise a family or buy a house. Millions of people who in decades past went through an education system which prepared them for little else now find themselves having to learn new computer or service-based skills from scratch, with almost no support or coordination from local or national government.

Even university graduates find that their degrees are of increasingly dubious value, and are obliged to virtually fight to the death for a coveted place on a corporate graduate scheme. The losers go back to live with their parents or work in minimum wage drudgery, wondering why their BA in critical gender theory hasn’t proven to be the passport to the slick professional city life they crave. Call centres and giant Amazon distribution centres have become the new dark satanic mills of modern Britain. Our present education policy should be focused entirely on this looming precipice, yet we distract ourselves by arguments over grammar schools or whether boys should be allowed to wear tiaras and tutus in class.

Meanwhile, there is a huge global human migration underway, prompted by the fact that countless millions more people are connected to the world through the internet and have the means to move from struggling countries to new lands of perceived opportunity – sometimes legally, usually illegally. Political leaders have openly or tacitly welcomed and even fuelled this flow, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the required housing, infrastructure and services do not smoothly and automatically increase in direct proportion to a rising population. And then they dare to act startled and affronted when the resident population complains about the impact.

At the same time, elites have preached a gospel of absolute tolerance and multiculturalism while refusing to promote British or Western values, or encourage new immigrants to assimilate, and then cry “racism!” when inevitable tensions occurs. They have created a country where some British-born people feel more affinity and allegiance to a barbaric Islamist death cult than the country which gave them life and liberty – and then prove it by stealing away to join ISIS or launching terror attacks which kill and maim their fellow citizens.

And then, of course, there is our national religion, the National Health Service. As surgeons once operated under the dictum cor non tangeredon’t touch the heart – today’s politicians abide by the even stricter rule NHS non tangere, terrified to acknowledge that a nationalised, centralised health system built from the rubble of 1940s war might no longer be the optimal way to deliver healthcare to an advanced, ageing country of 65 million people. And so the fifth largest employer in the world (right behind McDonald’s) is not some world-beating British retail giant or consumer goods company, but a creaking nationalised bureaucracy in perpetual crisis.

A failed centrist consensus

Each one of these issues forms part of a crumbling edifice representing the failed, discredited and obsolete centrist political consensus. Tinkering with the EU – to the limited extent that Britain could ever effect meaningful directional change in Brussels – was never going to happen, despite the constant disgruntled, exculpatory outbursts from Remainers that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!”.

An open migration policy may well be best in raw economic terms, but it should be for the British people to democratically decide whether they want to take the economic pain of slowing immigration, not for politicians who “know better” to overrule them.

Globalisation delivers tangible benefits to many of us and previously unimaginable opportunities to a smaller, highly educated elite, but those at the bottom are tired of being thrown into the furnace to keep the engine running for everyone else.

The NHS model has not been copied anywhere else in the world for a reason, and while it does urgent care fairly well, when overall medical outcomes (notably cancer survival rates) are increasingly falling behind other countries then it should not be off limits to ask whether a nationalised, centralised system is the best way to deliver routine or preventative care to the whole population.

In other words, this is a time of extreme discontinuity in British politics and society. But people do not necessarily recognise discontinuity when it happens, at least not all at the same time. The Stepping Stones Report notes in section 6.1 (addressing the situation in 1977):

Discontinuity may not yet have been recognised by the electorate. In fact, with skilful propaganda and suitably ‘pragmatic’ – not to be cynical – government policies, it need not be recognised until the exhaustion of North Sea oil, by which time our last chance will have gone. Once it is recognised, however, the electorate is unlikely to give a mandate to a political party which has not itself changed sufficiently to match the changed prospects. On the other hand, a party which changes itself, because it fully understands how the rules of the game are changing, is more likely to awaken an electorate to a belated recognition of discontinuity and thus win its confidence.

Here, the situation we face in modern Britain actually differs from that facing the authors of Stepping Stones, because the electorate is increasingly aware that we are in a period of discontinuity. Dissatisfaction with the state of modern Britain is quite widespread, and the people are crying out for change. Rather, today it is centrist politicians (and much of the media) who fail to recognise the discontinuity around them, and often openly yearn to cling on to the failing but familiar consensus.

Opportunity knocks – but it needs leadership

Yet Stepping Stones is clear about the need for political parties to acknowledge discontinuity and to realign their policies and messaging in response to it. As leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has done this incredibly well. One may disagree vehemently with everything Corbyn stands for – this blog certainly does – but his election as leader and conduct since that time reflect a realisation among (at least parts of) the Labour Party that standing for the same old failing political consensus was not just wrong, but bad politics too.

No such reckoning has taken place within the Conservative Party, and despite the emergence of a few green shoots of recovery/new thinking, there are precious few grounds for hope that a sufficient reckoning is imminent. The Tories don’t even have a Jeremy Corbyn of their own. Amber Rudd being invited to speak as guest of honour at an event about conservative renewal is hard evidence that the sense of urgency and horizon of thinking is still not nearly equal to the task at hand.

This is why good, decisive leadership is so incredibly important at a time when Britain is not running in “steady state” but rather entering a period of sharp discontinuity. The report makes this crucial observation:

For at a time of discontinuity, leadership is at a premium. When the future is simply an extrapolation of the past, so that we are all tramping over familiar ground, the choice of someone to lead the procession may not be critical. But if we are setting out on unfamiliar terrain, we look for leaders who, at the very least, appear to have imagined what that terrain would be like in fact.

In discontinuity, conventional wisdom cannot get us out of the problems. Indeed, innovation is almost certainly the best way through discontinuity. Almost any vision, any programme, is better than confusion and uncertainty, for it can at least be modified in the light of experience, once it has broken the paralysing spell of past failure and present pessimism.

It scarcely needs to be said that the Conservative Party is not currently offering the country the kind of ambitious, proactive and visionary leadership which is required in this time of discontinuity. Theresa May was an awful choice for prime minister from Day One, seeing the future of conservatism as occupying traditional Labour territory on state intervention in the economy. Now, in addition to having all the wrong instincts, she is also a political lame duck, shorn of her intellectual brain trust (Nick Timothy) and waking up every day reacting to a new crisis rather than boldly setting the national agenda. Much of this is not her fault, yet it is undeniably true.

Pete North is one of few other thinkers and writers I know who regularly explores the systemic nature of Britain’s problems rather than churning out compartmentalised pieces about the housing crisis, the social care crisis, the obesity epidemic etc. And he is correct when he identifies Brexit as the catalyst which will force all of these other problems out into the open:

I take the view that nothing short of a radical shock to the system will drag our politicians out of their self-indulgent navel gazing. Even now as we coast toward a cliff edge Brexit they are still trapped in the pre-referendum paradigm unable to usefully influence the proceedings and easily distracted by trivia.

[..] In this, the Remainers can’t see the woods for the trees. They point to the dysfunction “unleashed” by Brexit as evidence that Brexit of itself is bad. But this is the dysfunction that has been festering for two decades under a well crafted and stage-managed veneer of competence.

If you are not familiar with Pete’s work then at first it can seem unduly alarmist and pessimistic, but Pete gets the systemic, interconnected nature of these issues and understands that Brexit and the political unpreparedness/incompetence it has exposed are just part of this general discontinuity, all of which must be addressed – including our politics, something the original Stepping Stones report did not have to deeply consider.

A new Stepping Stones Report for post-Brexit Britain

And this leads to my conclusion: we need a new Stepping Stones Report for our times. We need a comprehensive and dispassionate analysis of the problems we face as a country, and understand where and how they are linked together. Having diagnosed these problems (which in the case of many politicians many involve some painful introspection) we must decide where we want to go as a country – what we realistically want Brexit Britain to look like in 2020, 2025, 2030 and beyond – and then devise a programme of mutually supporting, politically feasible policies to get us there, and a way of framing and communicating this programme that can unite a sufficient amount of our fractured country to earn an electoral mandate.

It may be noted that many of the issues we face today – globalisation, automation, migration, terrorism – span national borders and can not be solved by any one country alone. This is not a concession to angry Remainers who naively view the European Union as the ultimate platform for all international cooperation, but it is a statement of fact. This means that for the first time in decades – since the Second World War, really – Britain must lift its eyes above our own domestic concerns and seek to use our position on the world stage to promote and coordinate the adoption of the new solutions we devise. Having voted for Brexit and upended our politics, embracing the discontinuity which most other countries still ignore, we are the canaries in the coal mine and other nations will look to us to see how they might navigate the same issues. For once, rather than lowering our national ambitions and ducking a challenge we must rise to the occasion.

This job is too big for any one person, any one group, and probably any one think tank or political party. It will require people on all sides to let go of long-held articles of political faith and ideological crutches. It will require discipline and commitment, but above all it will require strong leadership to get us there.

I don’t know how we go about doing this, whether it should be an open competition, a more academic exercise, a think tank project, a Parliamentary initiative or a citizen-led effort. But the work needs to be done, and soon, if Britain is to emerge from this period of uncertain discontinuity in an advantageous state.

Of course there is no convenient time for strategic thinking, especially when a party is in government and fending off daily crises. But realistically, if the Conservative Party does not do this then it will be left to Jeremy Corbyn to determine what kind of country emerges from the present discontinuity. Labour’s statist, socialist policies may then quickly become ossified as the new British political consensus, though the rest of the world certainly will not be following us if this transpires.

It has been decades since Britain truly took the lead in influencing world affairs. But having voted for Brexit and thrown into the open many pressing debates which other countries remain desperate to defer or ignore, we can now be both a laboratory and a beacon for the world.

And if we do so, whatever the outcome, when we are called to account for our life’s work at least we can say that we tried to accomplish something more significant, more impactful on the world, than hiring a few extra nurses for the NHS or making the trains run on time.

 

UPDATE – 16 November

It appears that people have been discussing my article and the concept of discontinuity in British politics over on another forum. One user made the comment:

That Hooper bloke makes a lot of sense, in my opinion. Where do I sign, to join his social movement? Oh, I’m instead encouraged to make a Comment or leave a Donation.

Well first of all, thank you for the compliment – nice to know that this Hooper bloke can occasionally still talk sense! And in fact I am actually trying to do something to turn this idea from more than a mere blog post to an actual project or initiative in the real world. We clearly can’t leave it to the usual inhabitants of Westminster to do this on their own – new ideas and fresh faces will be needed, just as they were in 1977.

If anybody else who reads this article feels called to action, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at semipartisansam@gmail.com

Thanks.

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Globalisation

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The Centre Must Not Hold

WTF is Centrism

Calls for the Tories to pursue and embrace the non-existent “radical centre” are a dangerous Siren song for conservatism at a time when the country needs conviction and clarity of purpose

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

– John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, “Stepping Stones Report”, 1977

For over a week now I have not been able to bring myself to write anything new for this blog. Why? Because the patterns of failure in British politics are now tediously familiar beyond all endurance, as are the mistakes, missed opportunities and blunders routinely committed by politicians and thinkers who call themselves “conservative”.

Yes, the past week was a particularly torrid one for Theresa May’s shambolic government, but it did not teach us anything new. So more evidence emerged that Boris Johnson is totally unfit to be Foreign Secretary, the Tories no longer even seek to act like the party of Defence while the prime minister is utterly dependent on her questionable deputy Damian Green – these are not new revelations. They have been relentlessly, depressingly drummed into our consciousness over a matter of months and (in some cases) years.

Besides, even if Theresa May’s Cabinet were a precision-engineered Rolls Royce jet engine operating at maximum power and efficiency it would not matter – we would simply reach the same dismal destination somewhat faster than is currently the case. This is not an ambitious and visionary government let down by flawed execution and unfortunate scandal; it is a government which never had any real purpose to begin with.

Every two-bit conservative commentator is now saying what this blog has been screaming for years – that aimless, centrist government devoid of purpose is a dogma of the quiet past, inadequate to the stormy present; that we may as well not have bothered deposing New Labour in 2010 if we were only going to replace Gordon Brown with a bunch of slavish centre-left devotees wearing blue rosettes instead of red ones.

Well slow hand clap, guys. What do you want, a medal? Some of us have been making this point for years now, back when the well-paid and ubiquitous journalists and TV commentators were purring over David Cameron and Theresa May, predicting an uninterrupted decade of energetic, fruitful Tory rule even as their timidity and incompetence led us ever closer to the abyss.

Already there are a number of travelling quacks offering their own dubious potions and cures for the Tory malaise, most of which are vague at best or completely misguided at worst. A few thoughtful people have genuinely interesting ideas, but many seem to propose a further shift to the left, as though additional concessions to Corbynism will do anything other than validate Labour policies in the eyes of the electorate. Others suggest that “compassionate conservatism“, that hateful, self-sabotaging and worn-out phrase, is the magic solution. But most common are the tedious, meaningless calls for the Tories to recapture the “radical centre” of British politics.

The latest to take up this cry is Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who offers a fairly blistering (and by no means inaccurate) critique of past Conservative failures, taking Theresa May to task for her failures of leadership and the party as a whole to task for their ideological drift.

From the Telegraph:

“It smells of decline, and the people won’t have it” said Mr Mercer, MP for Plymouth Moor View, who bucked the national trend and increased his majority by five-fold at the last election.

“There becomes a cross-over point in seats like mine, it becomes about your personal integrity, about your credibility. You have to step back and question what your party is doing – of course.  Yes we are beginning to get there I fear”.

[..] He went on: “A Corbyn/McDonnell Government would fundamentally change Britain and what it means to be British. We would not be forgiven as a party for 20 years. We must remain, if nothing else at the moment, credible.”

[..] “We have a duty to the Nation to ensure the Cabinet is comprised of the best people in parliament, not the most famous names. Theresa May had to make a decision where she formed her cabinet: whether to select members to manage the fall-out from Brexit or select the best modernisers to bring about social change. She chose the former – I understand that, but now is the time for bold, outward facing leadership in my view.”

But then, just as you are expecting something radical or attention-worthy proposed as an alternative, Johnny Mercer merely proposes a further attempt to “grab the middle ground”.

This is so incredibly disheartening, coming from somebody whose profile and biography would potentially make him a very attractive future leadership candidate. Having diagnosed the problem, where is Mercer’s solution? More grasping for the centre?

People: THE CENTRE IS NOT A FIXED PLACE. It merely describes a point equidistant between two other, polarised positions on the political spectrum – usually the status quo, or today the groupthink of a pro-EU establishment who are becoming increasingly extreme in their contempt for democracy. The centre is not and cannot be a place from which to build effective policy because it is rooted in nothing but triangulation and brazen political calculation as opposed to any kind of firm conviction as to how society should be ordered, or the rights of the people and the role of government set out.

If the last few years in British politics have taught us anything, it is that the people respond surprisingly warmly to sincere politicians who hold clear convictions springing from a coherent and easily explainable worldview. People may not agree with Jeremy Corbyn, but even many of his detractors admire the fact that he has held and advocated for many of his ideas in good times and bad, back when they were on the discredited fringe and now, when they are being taken more seriously once again.

The Tories need a Jeremy Corbyn of their own, but instead they got Theresa May, who frittered away the Conservative majority because she stood for nothing. She is an authoritarian pseudo-traditionalist whose intellectual blood bank (in the form of Nick Timothy) has thankfully been exiled from government, but not replaced by anything better.

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

You don’t win a convincing mandate to govern by chasing the centre. You win such a mandate by coming up with a clear plan of action flowing from a coherent and easily explainable view of the world, one which is so compelling that it makes sense to an election-winning majority of voters, thus causing the floating centre to shift in that direction.

Margaret Thatcher’s government did not rescue Britain from a failing post-war consensus and 1970s national decline by cautiously seeking consensus and the same elusive centre ground fought over by the previous Heath, Wilson and Callaghan administrations. She made her mark on Britain by charting a new course, braving resistance rather than capitulating to it, and dragging the centre to the right so that after the Tories finally lost power, New Labour had neither the ability nor the desire to undo many of the changes she wrought.

That’s how you run a government worthy of the history books. The Tories should stop slavishly chasing the centre, and come up with a new blueprint for Britain – the new Stepping Stones Report which we so desperately need, updated for 2017 – which will shift the centre of British politics back in the direction of liberty underpinned by the autonomous nation state (or some compelling improvement on it).

Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is just noise.

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Things fall apart the centre cannot hold - Yeats quote

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The Big Tent Ideas Festival

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

Searching for the missing conservative soul in a Berkshire field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And particularly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Wallace was also pleasantly surprised:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Andrea Leadsom vs Theresa May – An Impossible Choice, On Which The Fate Of The Conservative Party Rests

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

At this difficult time we can take inspiration from our recent history and our last successful effort at national renewal

So it’s Theresa May versus Andrea Leadsom – the final two candidates in the Conservative Party leadership race whose names will now go forward to the wider Tory Party membership in September.

I’m delighted that the Conservatives will soon have given Britain her first two female prime ministers, I really am. When it comes to equality of opportunity the Tories deliver, while Labour bang on endlessly and fruitlessly about equality of outcome, peddle in tawdry identity politics and choose one white male after another to lead them onwards.

But does the successor to Ted Heath Mark II David Cameron really have to be one of these two women? When she entered 10 Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher already had the “Stepping Stones” report in her pocket and on her mind. By contrast, Andrea Leadsom brandishes an overhyped yet still rather thin CV, while Theresa May has your entire internet browsing history and the paranoia to use it against you.

And so, when deciding who to support in this battle to be the next British prime minister I find myself faced with an impossible choice – one may as well flip a coin.

This blog will inevitably write more about the Conservative Party leadership race in the coming days and weeks as I try to make a decision – right now I see pitifully few upsides to either candidacy, and great risk behind either option.

But for now I content myself with re-reading the seminal “Stepping Stones Report” authored by the late John Hoskyns, that masterful diagnosis of everything which ailed Britain in the late 1970s when the state socialist cure had almost succeeded in killing the British patient.

This report – and the solutions contained within it – quite literally saved this country when Margaret Thatcher, who had studied it, came to power in 1979. Without Stepping Stones, Britain would quite likely be a colder, more populous but equally poor and dysfunctional version of Greece. I say this to underline the amazing good which the Conservative Party can do when under the right leadership, and the thread by which such hopes often hang (Margaret Thatcher was considered a rank outsider when she first declared her candidacy for the Tory leadership in 1975).

At this time I am drawn to this passage in particular:

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

It is safe to say that the Conservative government of David Cameron and George Osborne has been in office but not really in power since being re-elected with a tiny outright majority in 2015. And aside from their creepy manifesto pledge about having “a plan for every stage of your life” it has been almost impossible to discern what the Tories actually stand for, besides staying in power.

Winning a majority has not been enough because the majority was won on the wrong terms – by a prime minister who often pitched himself to the left of Tony Blair in the tawdry hunt for centrist votes. And these are far from ordinary times. As this blog recently pointed out, quoting Lincoln, the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.

Theresa May is an accomplished technocrat, but also a fierce and implacable authoritarian. Even her more restrained actions – such as denying the former London mayor Boris Johnson the power to use his expensively purchased second hand German water cannon for crowd control – smack more of political chicanery rather than any shred of liberal principle.

On civil liberties, May is utterly monstrous. But more to the point, Theresa May came down on the wrong side of the most fundamental, existential question to face this country since the end of the Second World War.Worse, she supported the Remain campaign with a calculated half-heartedness, refusing to boldly commit and make the public case for her position. What kind of leadership is this?

Andrea Leadsom is no better. She has publicly and irresponsibly spoken about triggering Article 50 almost immediately, well before any initial scoping discussions have even had the opportunity to commence and well before the British government has had the proper chance to decide how best to implement Brexit, and seems intent on taking us out of the EEA as we secede from the European Union. Her haste is not evidence of super-virtuous commitment to democracy or an uncommon respect for the will of the people, but is the conclusion reached by what seems to be a rather glib and uncurious mind.

But whether you are less repulsed by the flinty-eyed authoritarianism of Theresa May or the oversimplifying, CV-padding antics of Andrea Leadsom, it seems reasonable to say that neither of the two remaining candidates have anything approaching a latter-day Stepping Stones report waiting in their pockets for immediate unveiling as soon as the Queen has invited one of them to become prime minister. And that is what we need most of all right now.

Theresa May’s authoritarian streak, contempt for civil liberties and belief in wielding the coercive power of the state is incredibly objectionable to this blog – yet as by far the more experienced candidate, May is best placed to negotiate good secession terms for Britain with the EU (assuming that she doesn’t double-cross us and effectively condemn Britian to “associate membership” on the margins).

Andrea Leadsom has precious little track record in government or politics in general, and has distinguished herself by saying some downright irresponsible things about Brexit. As a result, she could potentially overshadow the democratic dividend of Brexit through unnecessary self-inflicted economic wounds (e.g. by taking Britain out of the EEA). Yet she is superficially more Thatcher-like (I won’t say Thatcherite), and has the potential, however small, to grow into a far more radical Conservative leader than the soul-sappingly ideology-free Theresa May could ever be.

Choose May and you risk turning Britain into a dystopian police state while rewarding yet another ideology-free, politics-by-numbers technocrat, the kind of person whose unambitious, managerial approach to the great issues of the day turns millions of people off politics altogether.

Choose Leadsom and you risk a tumultuous and highly suboptimal form of Brexit while taking an enormous leap of faith that an untested neophyte will successfully get to grips with one of the steepest learning curves in the world, and that they will be advised well in the process.

Who can choose between these two flawed options with any degree of certainty?

 

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