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

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

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

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

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

The Times reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pathetic” is too kind a word.

 

UPDATE – 6 February 2018

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

Thanks.

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Heathrow Airport Expansion And Decision Paralysis, A Symbol Of British Political Failure

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Government indecision and cowardice over the expansion of Heathrow Airport is just one tangible, high profile manifestation of the British political disease

There is no better analogy for the broken, dysfunctional nature of British politics and strategic government planning than the ongoing saga over whether and how to expand London’s Heathrow Airport, an undertaking which most serious people concede needs to happen yet generations of Cabinet ministers seem quite unable to make a reality.

A year after it finally appeared that the decades-long decision process had at long last produced a result, we now learn that plans for a new terminal are being scaled back and the timeline further extended.

From the Times:

Heathrow is planning to build a mini version of Terminal 5 as part of slimmed-down proposals to expand Europe’s biggest airport.

The airport is considering building a new terminal a few hundred metres west of T5 to handle 25 million passengers a year as part of updated plans for a third runway, The Times has learnt.

Heathrow is also planning to phase all building work over as many as 15 years to reduce the cost of expansion by about £2.5 billion. The plan will be one of a series of options put to public consultation in mid-January.

Heathrow says that the proposals would bring the total cost down to about £14 billion, allowing the airport to keep passenger landing charges close to current levels.

Airlines have been concerned that Heathrow’s private owners would increase charges to pay for the project, potentially pricing out many passengers. At present fees add £21.75 to the price of each ticket. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, has indicated that keeping landing charges flat would be a condition of building a third runway. The proposals have to pass a parliamentary vote early next year and be approved by planners in the 2020s.

In other words, the original plans for a new full-size terminal located next to the planned new runway have been downgraded to plans for what amounts to little more than a satellite terminal adjacent to Terminal 5.

And even this reduced ambition has to be justified to the grey mass of naysayers who would sooner go their whole lives without ever making a consequential decision, with Heathrow Airport’s owner now deliberately emphasising what a small, puny and inadequate solution this new micro-terminal would actually be, as though mediocrity and lack of ambition were a selling point (which in today’s Britain they are):

Any comparison with T5, which cost £4.2 billion and was delayed by a four-year planning inquiry, could cause major concerns. However, Heathrow insists that the new terminal would be smaller, catering for 25 million passengers compared with 35.5 million at T5. It would be built in two blocks, creating an initial facility for 15 million.

Wait! We can make this development worse and ensure that it fails even more to keep up with capacity demand by the time it gets built! Give Heathrow Airport another year and they will be proposing little more than a wedding marquee tent and a few folding tables.

The government understandably does not want air passengers to pay an unbearably steep cost to finance the expansion, yet it does not occur to them that adequate relief could easily be provided to passengers by cutting the ludicrously high Air Passenger Duty, an exercise in environmental virtue-signalling which makes Britain one of the most expensive and unattractive countries to fly from, and which is close to being a national embarrassment.

A real Conservative government might see the ideal opportunity and justification for a tax cut in this case, but sadly we do not have a real Conservative government at present – we have Theresa May’s strong and stable government, limping from day to day by offering as many concessions to the Left as is humanly possible without changing the Tory party logo from a tree to a hammer and sickle.

Of course there are some very specific reasons why countries like China and the United Arab Emirates can complete vast civil engineering projects in the same time it takes Britain to convene a planning committee – an authoritarian government, the absence of inconvenient democracy, few planning regulations, lax health and safety standards, cheap labour and/or a tolerance for slave labour being among the chief distinguishing factors.

And indeed one of the key factors which sets Britain apart from certain other countries is the importance we place on our preserving our heritage, our built environment and taking local concerns into account when giving the green light to major new projects. Any government can quickly see to the construction of a giant, soulless mega-mall in the desert, or a dubious national ego-boosting skyscraper in a locale where there is no real need to build upward. It takes far more inspiration and resourcefulness to create and expand critical national infrastructure or important new commercial developments in sympathy with natural surroundings which have often existed for many centuries.

But still, Britain is too hesitant when it comes to authorising critical new infrastructure projects of national importance, and our failure holds us back as a country. Whether it is central government failing to bite the bullet and commit to a decision for fear of political fallout, NIMBY campaigns effectively trumping the national interest with the local or ill-considered privatisations or public-private partnerships allowing responsibility for key decisions to slip through the cracks, decisions which should be made at a local level in a healthy democracy are instead commandeered by central government, and strategic decisions which should take two years instead take twenty.

One of the very first pieces written on this blog nearly six years ago lambasted the Tory-LibDem coalition government for kicking the can down the road on Heathrow airport expansion. It is a subject I have returned to again and again in subsequent years – and yet we are no closer to striking ground on a project which is essential to maintaining the pre-eminence of Heathrow as a key European hub. At this point, even if one of the alternative schemes (such as Gatwick expansion or a new airport in the Thames estuary) is chosen instead of a third runway and new terminals at Heathrow, we are rapidly reaching the point where any decision is better than no decision.

And as it is with Heathrow Airport expansion, so it is with nearly everything else in British politics. There are an array of slow-burning, pressing issues facing this country which successive governments have either tackled half-heartedly or ignored altogether. It is wrong to call them “crises” as there will be no sudden national implosion if they are not all fixed within six months, but our continued failure to tackle the housing shortage, low worker productivity, education reform, healthcare reform and immigration leads to a slow and steady erosion of trust in politics and our democratic institutions, as well as making Britain a less attractive place to live, work or invest.

The retrenchment of British ambition and capability is not emblemised by Brexit, as many tremulous Remainers like to claim. The symptoms have been all around us for years, decades even, and we have been too lazy or calculating to subordinate the short-term political interest to the long-term strategic need. Look at the big issues facing the West and the world in general in 2017 – global migration flows, Islamist terror, globalisation, outsourcing, automation and more – and there is not one of these complex problems which we as a country have failed to comprehensively sweep under the rug or otherwise avoid meeting the challenge.

Even on those occasions when the people have recognised burning problems and the need for bold new solutions, public opinion (such as on Brexit and immigration) has been repeatedly slapped down over the years by a cohort of politicians who think it is their job to explain and defend the current status quo to the citizenry rather than change the status quo according to the demands of the citizenry.

The managerialist, consensus politics which has characterised Britain since the end of the Thatcher and Major governments is partially justifiable when the economy, society and the world are operating in something like steady-state, and governments have but to tweak a few dials here or there to keep the system running smoothly. But this brand of aloof technocracy is lethal to national prosperity and security in times of discontinuity such as the period in which we find ourselves today, when the prevailing political consensus is conspicuously broken and the worn-out old policy prescriptions no longer command sufficient confidence or support.

As this blog has been warning repeatedly, and will continue to warn – even if nobody listens – the time for denial and evasions is over. But so too is the time for cosmetic, superficial pseudo-reforms or scattergun crisis management. Rather, we need to develop a set of mutually supporting new policies based on a clear analysis and understanding of the challenges facing modern Britain and the various ways in which they are interlinked. This is what the CPS did in 1977 with their “Stepping Stones” report, paving the way for Margaret Thatcher’s transformative government, and that is what we must do again today.

And until such time as we demand political solutions and visionary government equal to the challenges of the stormy present, every aspect of future Britain will soon come to resemble the cautionary tale of Heathrow Airport – dilapidated, twenty years behind the curve, fatally stymied by strategic indecision and increasingly avoided by anyone with the means to do so.

 

UPDATE – 19 December

Based on positive reader feedback to this and other articles, I am actually now trying to do something to turn this idea (the need to respond to discontinuity with radical but coordinated new policies) from 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 anyone 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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Building A Britain Fit For The Future

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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 for the glories of decades past.

The event itself was both heartening and discouraging – heartening because many of the right words were said and sentiments expressed, discouraging because we have heard the same protestations that the Tories will open up their policymaking process on numerous other occasions in the past. The guest of honour that evening 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 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 occur. 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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