Sam’s Lament

BY SAM HOOPER

Britain will always be home to me. I will never renounce my citizenship, even though I will now proudly take American citizenship and become a joint citizen of the other country to which I feel love and loyalty when I become eligible to do so. But speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who thinks about policy and writes about politics more than is probably healthy, I’m very glad to be escaping Britain for America at this particular juncture.

Not because of Brexit. I hear the keyboards of fifty Twitter wags clattering to life in my mind right now: “Ha, look at this die-hard Brexiteer who wanted out of the EU so badly but now won’t live in the apocalyptic hellscape he has bequeathed us”. Save the wisecracks, this has nothing to do with Brexit (though Brexit certainly shines an unforgiving light on the institutional and intellectual rot which makes me glad to move across the Atlantic).

I’m happy to be leaving Britain because we have become a small, petty and insular country. Not because of Brexit; we have been gradually becoming so for years prior, helped in large part by our EU membership, the stultifying centrist Westminster consensus and decades of bland technocratic government. The smallness I refer to has nothing to do with military or diplomatic power, though there are certainly warning signs in both these areas. It has nothing to do with our immediate economic prospects, since growth continues and the fundamentals of our economy are no more or less wobbly than they were prior to the EU referendum. It has nothing to do with the rise of other powerful countries or Britain’s supposed isolation outside the comforting embrace of supranational European political union.

The smallness afflicting Britain is a smallness of aspiration, of confidence, of purpose. It is the gradual draining away of any self-belief among those who run, report or comment on this country that decisions made here could actually matter, or influence human events and progress in a significantly beneficial way. It is the even more alarming realisation that the people with the potential intelligence and vision to help Britain recover our place as a visionary leader among countries increasingly self-select out of political life for reasons which are as obvious as they are tragic.

Why climb the greasy pole in a broken party system which rewards group conformity over ideological consistency or necessary pragmatism? Why inch one’s way up from town councillor to county councillor to MP’s bag carrier to ministerial SpAd to junior MP to parliamentary private secretary to junior minister to Cabinet minister to prime minister, compromising one’s ideas every step of the way, when one can have a far more fulfilling career in every respect working in the private sector, and have a more lasting and profound influence on humanity in the process?

For a couple of years now I have been writing about the great challenges facing Britain and the world in the new period of discontinuity which we are entering – an era when the old political settlement with its associated policies neither solve the new challenges we face nor command widespread public support any longer. The last such period of discontinuity in British politics took place in the late 1970s, when a sclerotic economy and over-powerful vested interests (particularly the trades union) were gradually choking the life out of Britain. Back then, we responded with the Thatcherite revolution, which for all its faults (and yes, those faults were real) revitalised our economy and rolled back the worst excesses of the socialist post-war consensus.

This new period of discontinuity is different, with new challenges in the form of globalisation, outsourcing, automation, mass migration and uncertainty over the role and long-term survival prospects for the nation state. These are problems which affect nearly every advanced economy, and which most countries are currently sidestepping or delaying their day of reckoning to some extent. Brexit offered Britain the golden opportunity to be not a helpless canary in the coalmine but rather an innovative testing laboratory and beacon to the world, confronting some of these challenges head on, breaking open political taboos and experimenting with heretofore unconsidered policy alternatives to meet the challenges we face. Britain could have seized this opportunity to genuinely lead the way for the first time in the post-war era, certainly in my lifetime.

This opportunity has been squandered, and the squandering is both tragic and unforgivable. In the 1970s there was enough intellectual life left in Britain for new policy ideas to germinate in places like the Centre for Policy Studies, then-revolutionary think tanks who brought in outside talent and evaluated ideas based on their innate worth rather than the connectedness or insider reputation of the individual putting them forward. That’s how the famous Stepping Stones Report came to be written in 1977, which Margaret Thatcher then took with her into Downing Street in 1979 and used as a blueprint for many of the policies and reforms which ultimately saved Britain from seemingly inevitable national decline.

In 2018, there is nobody left to do this kind of radical, disruptive work. Some of the same think tanks and organisations still exist (in name), but to a large extent they are rusted out old shells of their former selves, living on past glories and eking an existence by flattering government ministers or acting as a mouthpiece for existing party policymaking theatre rather than doing anything genuinely revolutionary or independent.

When I proposed a new Stepping Stones Report for 2022, a document which would seek to identify and classify all of the issues and threats facing modern Britain in order to discover their interlinkages and arrive at a suite of mutually-supporting policies to tackle and overcome them, I received a few polite and non-committal words or emails from various MPs and think tanks, and then no more. On one occasion I was cordially thanked and then told that there is “nothing in particular for you to do at this time”. You see, I am from outside the inner Westminster bubble so it is inconceivable that I might have stumbled upon a good idea or have anything whatsoever to contribute to government policy.

A few fruitless efforts at gaining the attention of influential figures within the Conservative Party made it abundantly clear that while normal people like me are good for stuffing envelopes or knocking doors to get out the Tory vote, best leave the policymaking and strategic thinking to those inside the bubble. And so the Conservative Party’s effort to make policy continues to throw up random half-baked ideas to solve the housing crisis, the productivity crisis, the migration crisis, the healthcare crisis, the education crisis and the so-called crisis of capitalism (many of these ideas lifted straight from the Miliband playbook) without any attempt to consider how these challenges might be linked or best be solved in conjunction with one another. A few genuinely heroic Tory MPs – George Freeman, Nick Boles and Robert Halfon, to name the most active – are engaged in serious work attempting to reimagine conservative policy for the 21st century, but they are receiving precious little air cover from CCHQ or Downing Street.

Things are no better on the other side of the aisle, where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is permanently one anti-Semitic tweet away from total self-destruction. This blog celebrated Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, not out of any admiration for or agreement with his policies but because he represented a bold step away from the suffocating centrist consensus whose policies overlook so many Britons and which has been hugely resistant to change. And there have on occasions been genuinely encouraging signs of intellectual life within Labour, such as with Corbyn’s proposed National Education Service – a horribly statist idea, but one which at least sought to recognise the limitations of our present system and try something different rather than continuing to shoot for the middle.

However, much of the political backing behind Jeremy Corbyn – Momentum in particular – is anything but modern or forward thinking, offering nothing so much as reheated 1970s statism. Worse, it comes infected with rabid and widespread anti-Semitism which the leadership ignores in order to avoid offending certain other fellow ideological travellers at home and abroad. Such has been the infighting that one can scarcely discern a Corbynite platform more nuanced than raising taxes and renationalising industry. Meanwhile, the displaced Labour centrists, full of entitlement and utterly lacking in introspection as to how their moral and intellectual failures led to this nadir, have done precious little policy thinking of their own and when given the chance to displace Corbyn in 2016 were so concerned for their own precious political careers that none of the remaining big beasts would stand, leaving it to the malodorous Owen Smith.

Ah, but what about the smaller parties? Well, UKIP has collapsed into now inevitable (if once avoidable) irrelevance, the Green Party continue to wage their ostentatiously anti-prosperity agenda and the Liberal Democrats have become nothing more than a futile Stop Brexit Party (and even on this ground they are challenged by new upstart anti-Brexit parties such as Renew). If there are signs of intellectual life or political courage to be found on the political periphery they have escaped my attention.

Look at education, healthcare, housing, automation and AI. Britain isn’t even currently aspiring to emulate best practice in (or achieve parity with) other countries, let alone pioneer new policy solutions which might see us leapfrog our competition and point the way for other nations. Take just education as an example, where technology could be revolutionising our current conception of school, opening up new possibilities for remote learning and real-time interaction with experts and other classes across distance and borders, and research in the social sciences has long hammered home the importance of proactive parental involvement in order to inculcate success at an early age. Where is the new technology in our classrooms? Where is the digital learning strategy? Where is the government promoting more responsible parenting?

Instead of these necessary endeavours to face up to policy failure and change direction, we either indulge in vainglorious British exceptionalism and imagine that the world has nothing to teach us (see the Tory Right’s insistence on a hard Brexit and our national obsession with the NHS, according to its hagiographers the world’s only compassionate universal healthcare service) or else resignedly believe that we are so feeble a country that there can be no hope in striking out on our own to road-test new ideas. How pathetic. How cowardly. What a betrayal of the next generation. How utterly, utterly small.

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