Sam Gyimah’s Great Conservative Roadshow

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It’s great that Universities Minister Sam Gyimah is embarking on a tour of university campuses to spread and defend the Conservative message in traditionally hostile territory. Now we just need the government to come up with a conservative platform that’s actually worth defending

Sam Gyimah appears to be on manoeuvres. Writing in the Times today, the Minister for Higher Education announces his intention to take part in a tour of higher education facilities and campuses, engaging in a dialogue with students, academics and administrators.

Gyimah writes:

In my new role as universities and science minister, I will continue to visit institutions across the country to meet with vice-chancellors, lecturers and researchers, but also, crucially, to speak directly to students. They are a key stakeholder in the success of our higher education sector – for universities to thrive, their students must flourish.

So many young people feel disengaged from politics and, although some students and I might not always agree, I want them to have a voice and be heard in the corridors of power. I’d like to be thought of as minister for students as much as minister for universities.

Politics should be a dialogue, not a monologue, so I’m looking forward to discussing tuition fees, safe-spaces, access to higher education and our potential post-Brexit, among many other topics, in a robust and honest fashion.

Displaying more gumption than most of Theresa May’s uninspiring Cabinet put together, Gyimah continues:

We must also get out there, outside Westminster, into what used to be ‘no-go’ areas and defend our record whilst showing how we want to do better. We must continue to call out Jeremy Corbyn and prevent him monopolising the student space.

I don’t have all the answers, but I am going into this tour in good faith, ready to discuss the challenges and opportunities in our higher education system. Together, with all those who work tirelessly in it, we will ensure our universities remain the envy of the world filled with students who have the best possible chance of success.

This should be interesting to watch. On the one hand, it is great that we finally have a Tory government minister seemingly willing to mount a bold and unapologetic defence of conservatism before a hostile audience – that much is excellent. But on the other hand, the continuing drift and incoherence of Theresa May’s government makes one wonder what Sam Gyimah can possibly say at these events, what stirring national plan of action or highlights reel of political accomplishments he can present that might make any significant difference to the perception of conservatism among young people.

It’s all very well having the Higher Education Minister inveigh against safe space culture in front of an audience of baying students (though to be honest the time to do that was five or ten years ago, not today) but it counts for relatively little when the government shows no sign of rolling back draconian anti-free speech laws which see people visited by the police in the middle of the night and carted off to custody for saying or writing “offensive” things on social media. What message could be drawn from a pro-Tory stump speech, in this context? “Stop creating your own safe spaces on campus, the government is already hard at work creating a national safe space on your behalf, backed by the awesome power of the law”? Hardly a ringing defence of liberal values.

These qualms aside, one wonders why Gyimah actually volunteered for this thankless mission at all, attempting to preach free speech and liberal enlightenment values to an academic world which increasingly rejects any such notion. No Tory government minister, however charismatic, stands any great chance of reversing the antipathy of many students toward conservatism – it will take determined peers and influencers their own age to do that. So why put oneself through the ordeal of being heckled and used as a foil for leftist establishment posturing when there is so little to be gained?

Perhaps it is expecting too much, but is this a glimmer of a new, muscular and unapologetic conservatism which has been so conspicuously missing under David Cameron and Theresa May? Is it the beginning of a slow motion, unofficial audition for the Tory leadership? And dare one hope that this might be a good thing? True, Sam Gyimah espoused the same kind of bland, reflexive, unthinking pro-EU stance in 2016 as most others within the parliamentary party, but the Tory bench is hardly brimming with sufficient talent that having been on the wrong side of the EU referendum can count as an automatic disqualifier. With the rising profile of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Moggmentum the only other sign that the Tories have an ideological pulse, beggars can’t be choosers.

When it comes to conservative policymaking, this blog has long argued that rather than running off in a million different directions and formulating a bunch of panicked quick fixes to the various slow-burning crises which ail Britain, a more analytical, holistic approach is required – a methodical study of how these national challenges and opportunities are interlinked so as to arrive at a suite of mutually-reinforcing policies which address them as a whole. But when it comes to conservative personalities, the same rule does not necessarily apply.

While it is true that there is much intellectual work to be done behind the scenes, it is also true that British conservatism desperately needs fresh new faces. For reasons both deserved and undeserved, Theresa May’s government has the pallor of death about it, pale and emaciated despite the recent reshuffle. And while throwing a hundred half-cooked policies at the wall to see what sticks (as Tory regeneration efforts risk degenerating into) is a suboptimal approach, throwing a handful of ambitious new Tory MPs at a crowd of sceptical students might be just the kind of proving ground the party needs as it searches for a new generation of leaders.

Let’s watch this space and give Sam Gyimah the opportunity to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of conservative apologetics. It can’t do any harm, and maybe in the process of saving student souls from the clutches of Corbyn the lost Tories will finally begin to rediscover themselves.

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Dead In The Water

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Looking for positive signs in this most underwhelming of ‘major’ Cabinet reshuffles

What to make of Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle?

Firstly, one cannot escape how incredibly underwhelming it is. If you are going to let the media run with the story that a “major” Cabinet reshuffle is imminent, better make darn sure that the extent of shuffling lives up to the hype. On this occasion the advertisement was significantly glitzier than the product, which together with the stunningly botched rollout only added to the impression that the Tories are a frightened, disorganised mess.

Following on from that, the limited extent of the reshuffle – with Education being the only really significant department seeing a change – is another depressing reminder that Britain is led by someone without the authority to stamp her will on a party which is crying out for firm direction, let alone on a fractious and divided country.

Thirdly, even if Theresa May had wanted to carry out a wider-ranging reshuffle, what could she possibly have done that would have made the slightest difference to the direction of her party, the ambitions of the government or the fortunes of the nation? Maybe tomorrow we will see some encouraging promotions to the junior ministerial ranks – one might hope that some solid backbenchers with a bit of vision and ideological gumption, people like Kwasi Kwarteng or Chris Philp, might finally be given some executive responsibility and a launchpad to bigger and better things.

But in terms of big-hitters whose appointment or shuffling might make an immediate impact on the overall tone of the government, there was precious little that could be done even if the prime minister had wanted to shake things up. The sickness within the Conservative Party is deep, pervading all the way up from the (dying) grassroots through the activists, prospective parliamentary candidates and much of the parliamentary party, and a reshuffle can only be as good as the cards you have to deal.

In terms of bright spots, one can summon a degree of enthusiasm for the fact that charismatic MP James Cleverly has been made Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, but odds are that the centralising, micromanaging bureaucrats of CCHQ will chew him up and spit him out just as they did to Rob Halfon before him, nodding sagely while Cleverly reels off a litany of smart and worthwhile suggestions before ploughing on in exactly the same dismal direction as before, tacitly encouraged by Theresa May.

I do also reserve a spot of admiration for “beleaguered” Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (which Health Secretary of either party has ever not been described as beleaguered, and at this point shouldn’t that really tell us more about the anachronistic National Health Service for which they are responsible than the personal acumen of any given incumbent?).

Being a Tory Health Secretary is surely the most lethal of poisoned chalices when it comes to future career prospects. The role guarantees that one will be pilloried by the Left as a heartless monster who cackles as nurses are forced to food banks and patients die on trolleys, regardless of one’s actual record.

Yes yes, All Hail the NHS.

For some reason either involving masochism or great nobility, Jeremy Hunt has borne this burden stoically for six years, and for him to plead with Theresa May to not only keep his current brief but also assume responsibility for social care is quietly impressive, and shows character. I personally think that the Tories are far too timid when it comes to healthcare, but if we must set our sights low and keep Our Blessed NHS in more or less its current form, we at least need to merge it with social care – and hopefully this is an indication that the government is looking to do so.

The main problem with the reshuffle though, aside from its timidity, is that it gives no real indication of a likely change in the soul of this ideologically lost Tory government. All of the great offices of state, the main levers through which a government might seek to remake the country in its image, remain in the same uninspiring hands. Meanwhile, a bunch of junior ministers play musical chairs with one another in a frenetic pantomine apparently designed to distract us from the fact that the prime minister remains far too politically weak to move any of the people who most need moving.

But even if Theresa May did have any residual authority to undertake a real reshuffle, what difference would it make? The reshuffles that truly matter in historical or strategic terms are ones where you think “ooh, that person is going to take Department Y in a totally different direction because they are a strong believer in X”. One thinks of Margaret Thatcher’s reshuffle in 1981, in which she sought to purge some of the Tory Wets, remaining holdovers from the days of opposition who were still wedded to the failed post-war consensus.

Yet few MPs serving in Theresa May’s Cabinet, especially the most senior ones, are known for having strong ideological feelings about anything at all. Indeed, many of them seem to cultivate a deliberate sense of vagueness, giving speeches stuffed with meaningless platitudes to disguise the fact that they are chickening out from taking a bold position on anything remotely controversial (cough, Amber Rudd, cough).

Believing in things and daring to stake a bold position is dangerous in this day and age – unless you are Jeremy Corbyn or retiring from electoral politics. Far better to be blandly inoffensive, to keep everybody on side and be ambiguous about your intentions if you want to get ahead – only too often this leads to the gradual atrophy of any real policy intentions at all. Spend long enough trying to be all things to all people and soon enough you’ll forget what, if anything, you went into politics to do in the first place.

This uninspired, unambitious, managerial technocracy was the algae-asphyxiated pond in which Theresa May went to fish for new talent, and her near total lack of authority within her own party was the dismal climate in which she set off with her rod and tackle. Unsurprising, then, that she came back with little more than a few old boots to show for her efforts.

And so to abandon the fishing metaphor for another, we have ended up with a reshuffle that most closely resembles a particularly dissatisfying game of Scrabble (or Words with Friends, for the smartphone-owning crowd). One swaps out a number of pesky and useless letter tiles in the hope of getting something better in exchange, but ends up with virtually the same tiles back again, only arranged in a slightly different sequence. All that effort and a missed turn, and still you are unable to spell anything meaningful or score more than a handful of points, be it on the Scrabble board or the statute books.

So far as I can tell, virtually nothing has changed. Good luck and God speed to James Cleverly as he goes off to bash heads together (or more likely have his own caved in) at CCHQ, and may angels minister to Jeremy Hunt as he continues his lonely mission to serve as Chief Cartoon Villain to every leftist in the land. But besides that, who seriously expects a shockingly new bold policy to emerge from this cohort?

I hope I’m wrong. But more than ever I think it is going to take external events – potentially very disruptive and unwelcome ones – to shock any kind of life back into the moribund Conservative Party, the kind of political shock therapy which also tends to land the patient back in Opposition for a time.

 

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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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CCHQ Should Not Automatically Protect Tory MPs From Deselection

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A seat in the House of Commons is not a job for life. And just as the Parliamentary Labour Party should not be encumbered with MPs increasingly at odds with their local constituency parties, so Tory MPs should not be immune from deselection if they repeatedly ignore the priorities and concerns of grassroots Conservative Party members

Try as I might, I simply cannot get myself worked up about the government’s “shock” defeat over the amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. While the legislative drama seems to have Hard Brexiteers up in arms and Remainers parading their newfound (and one suspects rather less than genuine) love and respect for Parliamentary sovereignty, I don’t see that these machinations will have any real bearing on the eventual outcome.

So Parliament gets to have a “meaningful” vote on the terms of the UK-EU agreement? Fine, so be it – though I have always held that the people, not Parliament, should be sovereign, and that no government should be able to divest itself of fundamentally important powers or seek to repatriate such powers without an explicit and specific mandate from the people. Of course, if we had a written constitution then such things would likely be enshrined automatically rather than be up for furious debate as new issues and obstacles are encountered along the road. But then if we had a written constitution we likely would never have ceded so much sovereignty to the European Union in the first place and would not now be in this position, making it all a rather moot point.

Of far more interest to me is the fact that talk of deselection of MPs has bubbled up again. We saw this last year as Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters sought to cement their control of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and for democratic reasons I supported the idea of mandatory reselection in principle. And now there are new calls to deselect sitting MPs, this time from Conservative politicians and activists angry at what they see as the Tory rebels’ deliberate undermining of the prime minister and the country’s negotiating position with the EU:

On this occasion I do not share the Tory Brexiteer outrage, but their case is every bit as compelling as was that of the Corbynite leftists who wanted to rid their party of centrist MPs who do not reflect the values and priorities of their local associations. While I personally find it hard to work myself into a spittle-flecked fury at the antics of Dominic Grieve or Heidi Allen, if it is the case that these MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies and a majority of local party activists find their voting record objectionable then I see no reason why they should be protected and continually re-imposed on an unwilling local party organisation.

Of course, CCHQ and the Tory Party machinery vehemently disagrees. Reflexively opposed to any notion that grassroots activists or local constituency associations should have any input as to the direction, policies or running of the party, CCHQ sees individual conservatives as little more than indentured servants campaign material distributors at election time, to be put to work when necessary and then roundly ignored the rest of the cycle.

Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s intellectual bloodbank-in-exile, makes it perfectly clear that the present Conservative leadership remains determined to run the party (if not the entire country) as their personal private fiefdom, and that local constituency associations should shut up and do as they are told, whether they like the candidate or MP chosen for them or not. Timothy unapologetically and shamelessly spelled out as much on Twitter today:

This is an open admission that Theresa May, the prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, saw fit to interfere in local constituency business and keep an unwanted MP foisted on an unwilling local party.

But what the hell business should it be of the prime minister who gets to stand as a Conservative candidate in a local constituency? This is everything that is wrong with the current Tory party – overcentralised and overbearing, with CCHQ pig-headedly declaring that it knows best while confidently marching us all to ruin. Given the litany of gaffes, unforced errors, scandals and bad judgements which have emanated from Theresa May’s cabinet, I would sooner entrust a panel of ten individuals randomly selected from the phone book to choose good Tory candidates than I would have Theresa May make the judgement call.

Of course, there is a counter-argument to all this, as a reader pointed out on Twitter:

We certainly don’t want a situation where conscientious, independent-minded MPs are peremptorily driven from office or from their political party because they fail to toe the hardest of hard lines demanded by their activists. We have recently witnessed just such a phenomenon lead the Republican Party to ruin (at best Pyrrhic victory) in America, where a succession of primary challenges and forced retirements saw an influx of ideologically uncompromising Tea Party politicians into Congress, hard-liners who thwarted any attempt at sane governance in the second term of Barack Obama, rendered the Republican congressional caucus unmanageable and ineffective and set the stage for Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP.

In actual fact we need both of these opposing forces – greater responsiveness to grassroots opinion and a cool, dispassionate process to adjudicate in the event of rogue or underperforming MPs – to be in balance. We need a far greater measure of accountability of MPs to their local party associations, and a more meritocratic system of selection (preferably primaries) which draws more people into the political process and prevents the mediocre-but-well-connected from leveraging their connection to CCHQ to be shortlisted or ultimately foisted on a constituency.

But we also need to build safeguards into the system so that the bar for triggering deselection is high but achievable – the recourseshould only become available at the time of a general election or by-election, so that MPs are judged on the body of their work and their voting record throughout a Parliament and not on the basis of any one single contentious vote.

Ultimately, the resurgent argument about deselection of MPs reminds us that Brexit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for meaningful democratic renewal in Britain. Brexit was never going to be a cure-all no matter what some cynical Brexiteers may have implied, and we must all now recognise this fact. Achieving Brexit only to return power to the hands of the same MPs who negligently frittered it away in the first place, and who think so little of the people who campaign to put them in office that they seek to be made immune from their judgement, will not solve anything.

To this extent, the worries of Hard Brexiteers that the EFTA/EEA route may be used as cover by some Remainers in order to thwart Brexit entirely are quite valid. When there are so few penalties or recourses available to voters when politicians betray their own supporters, the trust required to sustain a well-functioning democracy is inevitably corroded.

But the real tragedy is that when we should be discussing how to respond to the period of disruption and discontinuity facing Britain, developing bold new mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle 21st century challenges, instead the Conservative Party is bickering about process and thwarting any attempts to clear out the intellectual deadwood and bring in some new ideas and personalities. Constitutional and electoral reform is important and eventually necessary, but there are pressing issues facing Britain which cannot be put on the back burner while we argue about the rules of play. Unfortunately, we seem less interested in these big debates and more interested in arguing about process stories.

When the Conservative Party fails to stand for anything – and Lord knows that under the rootless leadership of Theresa May, the Tories stand for little more than surviving the day at hand – it has plenty of time to devote to juvenile, internecine spats like the one playing out over the EU Withdrawal Bill rebels.

This is highly entertaining for the political media and a gift for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, but very bad indeed for everyone else.

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Budget 2017 Reaction

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This was a holding budget designed to buy the government some political breathing room, and so Philip Hammond kicked the can down the road on nearly all of the major fiscal and structural issues facing Britain

I intended this piece to be just a few disjointed thoughts reflecting on Philip Hammond’s Budget Statement and the boldness or cowardice of the Tories, but it gradually expanded to touch on issues of federalism and local government, and the counterproductive nature of the annual “Budget Theatre” itself.

A one-way ratchet to Bigger Government?

As Budgets go, this one was fairly bland and non-offensive. Contrary to the justified fears that Theresa May’s administration would be a one-way ratchet to Bigger Government, such ominous moves were largely missing from today’s statement – though of course we still have the highly un-conservative “Industrial Strategy” to come.

Equal to the challenges facing Britain?

It is hard to argue that this Budget in any way acknowledges the scale of the challenges facing post-Brexit Britain. A serious Budget which attempted to do so would have included a lot more on education and proposed a means to help re-train the many workers who will find their jobs outsourced or automated in the coming decades. £40 million to train new maths teachers is good, and any steps to improve Britain’s STEM output are welcome, but this does nothing to disarm the time bomb which will affect many of those already in the workforce.

A serious Budget would have done more than take tentative steps around the housing crisis, firmly addressing the supply issue now rather than tinkering with demand by abolishing stamp duty on properties under £500,000. It would have touched the third rail of British politics and defied the doctrine of NHS non tangere to meaningfully reform British healthcare and the way it is funded. It would have grappled with social care and the need to ensure that those who can afford to bear more of the cost of any care they require in old age.

But of course we got none of those things. And the great danger is that we will now never see these problems meaningfully addressed in the lifespan of this government. One can appreciate that Brexit is currently sucking much of the oxygen which might otherwise fuel other policymaking, but we should not have to choose between managing Brexit (which this government is also failing to do) and dealing with other long-term problems. It should not be too much to ask for the UK government to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Short-term thinking over long-term need?

A government’s first budget is normally a place where bad news gets dumped and difficult decisions made, the idea being that it is better to absorb public anger now and then win back favour with giveaways in the final budget(s) before a general election than have to anger people with harsh corrective measures later in the term. David Cameron’s government followed this approach, with Chancellor George Osborne doling out the harsher medicine (or plain confusion, in the case of the Omnishambles budget) in early years and then sweetening the deal prior to the 2015 election by pretending that he had solved all of Britain’s fiscal challenges and therefore had spare cash to throw around.

The fact that Theresa May’s government is not following this well-worn path is not a sign of some innovative new strategy – it is a sign of clear political weakness. The current Conservative government is already teetering on the brink, without a majority in the House of Commons and kept afloat in the polls only because of fear of Jeremy Corbyn. Philip Hammond therefore had no political capital to spend by irritating the electorate any further, or asking anything more of them; instead he was forced to try to accrue some political capital with a giveaway.

As I previously wrote:

Twice a year – once in the annual Budget and once in the Autumn Statement – the Chancellor of the Exchequer gets to his feet and delivers a refreshed set of economic policies in a big, set piece speech where he is essentially forced to favour tomorrow’s headlines over optimal long or even medium term decision making.

Nationally significant policies from every government ministry live or die by the concessions that their ministers are able to wrangle from a Chancellor who is forced by political reality to be more concerned with tomorrow’s Daily Mail headline than the state of our public finances in a year’s time.

Thus the annual Budget Theatre encourages short-term thinking. Whether one takes the Osborne approach or the Hammond approach, Budgets are as much about chasing favourable headlines and dominating the news cycle with positive coverage for a few days than they are about serious long-term strategic thinking.

Budget Theatre is a bad way of governing

This blog has long complained that this annual Budget Theatre, with all the speculation and press coverage surrounding it, is a really bad way to run a modern democracy. Why? Well, there are a number of reasons.

First of all,  as already discussed, the Budget spectacle encourages short-term thinking. Budget 2017 is something of a “giveaway” budget, with the government making concessions and seeking to tamp down public anger rather than taking difficult decisions in the long term. In short, it prioritises the political and tactical over the strategic.

Secondly, the Budget spectacle directly feeds into the Politics of Me Me Me, far more so than any other event, even general elections. During the build-up to Budget Day, the day itself and the immediate aftermath, we are encouraged by the media to think only about how the budget affects us and our wallets. This is understandable, since the Chancellor has the power to inflict severe pain or lavish great rewards on favoured groups. But it is also therefore an incentive for us to “ask not what we can do for our country, ask what our country can do for us”, to reverse John F. Kennedy’s exhortation.

As I wrote at the time of George Osborne’s 2015 Budget:

Having two occasions each year when an already-powerful chancellor in an already-centralised country like the United Kingdom gets to play with nearly all of the controls and levers which influence our economy – as though he were Homer Simpson at the controls of Springfield Nuclear Plant – only encourages meddling and tweaking of things that should properly be left to local government and individuals.

When you have direct, ultimate control over which families deserve help buying a house, which people should keep or lose their benefits or how much a person pays in sin taxes for their guilty pleasure, the temptation to use those powers is irresistible. And because of the ratchet effect, it is the easiest thing in the world to give away new perks to favoured interest groups, but nearly impossible to ever claw them back without being exposed to political attack. Even under this nominally conservative government, budgets and autumn statements have often been a one-way ticket to bigger government – or at least more activist state.

Unfortunately, Budget Theatre is inevitable when so many decisions affecting so many people are made centrally rather than locally, and applied at a national level rather than taking into account the specific and varying needs of different regions (or between the cities and the countryside).

And this leads on to my next point…

Britain’s overcentralisation disease

I continue to find it vaguely ludicrous that decisions about how much tax should be applied to a pint of beer or a litre of gasoline are set nationally in Westminster, and that we all have to tune in to the Budget Statement every year to find out what tweaks and incentives the Chancellor has seen fit to impose on our lives at the behest of the public health or environmental lobby.

Britain is a ridiculously over-centralised country in terms of governance. Devolution is a good thing in principle (though I would argue that we should move toward a federal UK with the same powers devolved to each home nation) but the net result of current devolution is that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have rightly floated off to do their own thing in terms of domestic policy while England remains overcentralised.

We need to move to a place where local authorities, ideally county councils, take over some of the tax-raising powers from Westminster and gain more control over spending in areas such health, transport and education. We need to stop fearing the “postcode lottery” and start welcoming it as a petri dish for testing new policies and encouraging healthy rivalry between regions. More decentralised taxation and spending would force local politicians to put their money – or their electorate’s money – where their mouths are. If leftist politicians want to hike sales taxes or fritter money away on white elephants they should be free to do so, and then answer to voters.

Finally, enhancing the powers of local government in England would increase the current woeful levels of participation in local democracy as the decisions made locally suddenly started to matter a lot more. And this in turn would see an improvement in the calibre of people running for local office, and serve as an incubator for political talent outside Westminster.

Of course, some of the blame for the current situation rests with the Thatcher government, which felt it necessary to de-fang many local authorities since they represented such an impediment to the government’s turnaround strategy. One can argue whether or not this was justified, but certainly the end result is a country where far too many decisions and policies rest with the Westminster government when they should really sit much closer to the people.

Conclusion

This year’s Budget could have been a hell of a lot worse, given Theresa May’s interventionist instincts and tolerance for Big Government. Fortunately, Philip Hammond seems to have resisted such pressures and delivered a Budget which – if Britain were operating in steady-state with no major challenges on the horizon – would have been largely inoffensive.

Unfortunately, Britain is not in a period of steady-state operation, where domestic and international issues are stable and a technocracy is more than capable of fiddling with the switches and dials to keep things running smoothly. On the contrary, we have entered a period of discontinuity, an abrupt departure from our previous national trajectory, when the old political consensus is revealed to have frayed to the point of uselessness and bold new policymaking is required.

As I recently wrote, a bold new programme of coherent, mutually-supporting policies is required to equip Britain to face these oncoming challenges. The Tories now have the slogan, but it remains painfully clear that they do not yet have the solutions, though various initiatives are now underway to come up with some original new policies.

But it will take their time for these policy groups – notably George Freeman’s Big Tent and Nick Boles’ Square Deal schemes – to come to full fruition and develop workable policies. And even then there is no guarantee that Theresa May or the next Conservative leader will approve of these policies and work them into their programme for government.

Unfortunately, as a nation we are treading water at the moment, neither swimming toward the oncoming wave or swimming away from it as it threatens to break over us. This was a holding budget designed to buy the Tories some political breathing room and perhaps signal that they are starting to comprehend  public dissatisfaction with the status quo, particularly on housing.

But without some kind of joined-up, comprehensive plan – and a coherent message with which to sell it to the public – it is hard to see the Tories winning the kind of electoral mandate or public support they need to be anything more than a caretaker government.

 

Philip Hammond - Budget 2017 - Conservative Party - Tories

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