BY SAM HOOPER
Rather than attempting to forge a compelling, coherent vision for Britain rooted in conservative values, our dithering Prime Minister is soliciting a thousand disjointed policy suggestions from every vested interest and armchair crank in the nation. This is not leadership.
Having been on the road since 14 March of this year, I confess that I presently find myself semi-detached from the day-to-day granular developments in British politics. I note the headlines and observe the main spectacles as they occur – this week it seems to be another Cabinet showdown about Brexit and the planned “Rite of Spring” style frenzied celebration of the NHS on its 70th birthday, complete with the worshipping of false idols at Westminster Abbey and perhaps enough human sacrifices to make even the mass murderers at Gosport Hospital seethe with envy – but otherwise have been forced to tune out the smaller procedural stories which, taken together, give the truest indication of where we are heading.
It is dispiriting, therefore, to tune back in this week and discover that the Conservative Party remains every bit as ideologically lost, rudderless and without leadership as it was when I flew from Heathrow Airport nearly four months ago, particularly since the fractious nature of British politics could see any more Tory missteps usher in a Corbynite Labour government and a chaotic, uncontrolled Brexit – two economic calamities both alike in indignity, one slow-burning and the other all too immediate.
At this point, I can scarcely bring myself to repeat the warnings that this blog has been making with increasing alarm (and clarity) for the past six years – that chasing Labour to the left and disowning/apologising for small government conservative principles is political folly, and that the period of discontinuity in which we now find ourselves – where the old political settlement neither adequately addresses our contemporary problems nor commands widespread public support – requires coherent vision and ambitious policymaking from our political elites, not more of the same old demos-phobic technocracy.
At this point I have warned of the urgent need for new Conservative policymaking which neither seeks to mimic statist Labour paternalism or reheat individualist 1980s Thatcherism, and have cheered on those few brave efforts to seed the Tory Party with new ideas – most notably George Freeman MP’s “Big Tent” initiative.
But it has become increasingly clear to me that the Conservative Party cannot save itself, that much of the heavy lifting will have to be done by people not beholden to the existing party power structure (and quite possibly outside of politics altogether), just as it took external voices to commandeer a 1970s Tory Party still stubbornly clinging to a failed socialist post-war settlement. Unfortunately, it has also become equally clear that the required external voices are not at all welcome, that “conservative reform” is seen by those in power as little more than a cosmetic exercise whereby people within the existing Tory ecosystem sit around reciting platitudes at one another.
Until this week. Now, it seems, Theresa May has decided to go in an altogether different direction. From the Telegraph:
Theresa May has launched an appeal for MPs, peers and party members to submit 1,000 policy ideas to form the basis of the Conservative party’s bid to win the next general election.
The Prime Minister has announced she has set up a new Conservative Policy Commission in the biggest overhaul of the party’s policy thinking in more than a decade, personally appealing to Brexit voters in particular to offer up their own ideas.
The new Commission, chaired by Chris Skidmore MP, has been charged with developing the ideas in time for the Tory party conference next year.
The next general election is expected in 2022 but the relatively short timetable means Mrs May will be presented with a ready-made policy platform if she chooses to call an early election in the months after Britain quits the European Union next year.
So from having almost taken a perverse pride in her government’s lack of direction or urgency for change, Theresa May is now seeking the oddly specific number of 1000 new policy ideas, even deigning to consider contributions from (relatively) ordinary people.
And how is this new Policy Commission intended to work?
Each task force will be asked to answer 20 policy questions set by Mr Skidmore with 10 separate policy ideas, to give the party 1,000 new ideas for consideration in the final policy report.
[..] Evidence will be gathered at meetings in towns and cities in every region around the country, with an interim report ready for summer next year and the final document published at the party’s 2019 conference.
The long-sickening optimist within me would like to think that some good might emerge from this exercise, even though a policy review seeking only answers to highly specific, pre-ordained questions is unlikely to produce many truly radical or disruptive ideas. However, the realist within me – whose low expectations have been repeatedly vindicated – suspects that this is nothing more than a Tony Blair-style cosmetic New Labour performance spectacle, that the task forces themselves will somehow end up stuffed full of the same Westminster bubble-dwellers you always see at London think tank events, and that if any genuinely bold policy emerges from the mess it will be met with polite interest and then disappeared down the memory hole.
But worse than that, by announcing this initiative Theresa May is veering from one extreme to another – from having solicited policy and strategic advice from only a small and insular circle of loyal sycophants to encouraging everyone in the land to start shouting ideas or promoting their personal pet projects at the same time. Rather than stepping back and attempting to forge a compelling, coherent vision for Britain rooted in conservative values, our dithering Prime Minister is now soliciting disjointed contributions from every vested interest and armchair crank in the nation. This is not leadership.
Back in November of 2017 I attempted to outline the approach which a Conservative government should be taking toward necessary policy renewal, beginning by quoting the influential 1977 Stepping Stones Report:
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.
I then laid out a case arguing that we find ourselves in a similar moment of political discontinuity today, with new challenges producing the same frustrations and political sclerosis we witnessed during the national decline of the 1970s. For all his flaws, Jeremy Corbyn recognises that we are in a period of discontinuity and is promoting radical left-wing policies in tune with the moment. By contrast, the Conservatives seem terrified to articulate any kind of bold vision at all, and risk being correctly perceived as the party of the status quo.
Hence my final recommendation:
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.
I still believe that this idea, or some variant of it, is the only surefire way for Britain to identify, acknowledge and overcome our present challenges. In principle, a Conservative Policy Commission could be a good idea, particularly one which pays particular attention to the aspirations and concerns of those areas of the country which voted to leave the European Union. But demanding 1000 fresh ideas and then frantically sorting through them, trying to weld together a new draft manifesto in time for the 2019 Tory party conference, is not going to result in anything coherent or sufficiently inspirational to make people positively want to vote Conservative. At best it looks gimmicky, and at worst it serves as a Trojan horse for multitudes of self-serving vested interest policy to find an unwitting champion in government.
Put simply, you cannot solicit 1000 random ideas and successfully pick through them in order to arrive at a compelling programme for government. What’s needed is an earnest attempt to identify, describe and measure the challenges, threats and opportunities facing Britain – be it automation, outsourcing, migration, productivity, education or national security – and then identify the linkages and interdependencies between them. Only on the strength of this bedrock of analysis can new policy ideas be properly evaluated to determine whether they are both politically feasible and adequate to the challenge at hand.
Any such approach would require something between the traditional insular elitism of the political class and the slap-happy populism of Theresa May’s latest initiative, inviting unfiltered ideas without any clear basis on which to evaluate them. Strong government involves making trade-offs and necessary compromises in pursuit of a greater good; Theresa May’s proposed policy commission risks being nothing more than retail politics at its worst, promising all things to all people and disappointing everybody in the process.
I wish that things looked more optimistic for the Conservative Party and for the country, but from my current perch here in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I see only a weak and dithering prime minister who thinks that conservative policy renewal is little more than a cosmetic exercise, or even worse, a political game to be played. All those Conservative activists working diligently to come up with new ideas are not well served by a CCHQ and leadership which bypasses their efforts and seeks an arbitrary 1000 new ideas simply because someone in 10 Downing Street thought that it would make a good headline.
Here in the United States, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to Donald Trump in part because her campaign was never able to satisfactorily or compellingly explain why she wanted to be president beyond the personal satisfaction of having her hands on the levers of power. In Britain, the Conservative Party has been in power for the better part of a decade, most of it without offering voters any kind of positive vision (let alone a granular strategy) for strengthening the country. With Jeremy Corbyn now offering a clear contrast and a very different vision for Britain, the Tories no longer have the luxury of being dull, dismal and technocratic.
Neither the Conservative Party nor the country needs 1000 wacky new policy ideas at this difficult juncture, or any other quick-fix solution proposed by Theresa May. Right now we simply need one leadership-supported policy renewal initiative which might plausibly deserve to be called “strategic”, and a leader who aspires to something more than just remaining in office.
This really shouldn’t be asking too much. At one time, strategic thinking and purposeful leadership were baseline expectations, not wistful pipe-dreams. We have fallen a long way in a relatively short span of time.
I close with this pertinent warning from the Stepping Stones report:
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.