07 December 2017

Time For Reform

It isn’t just Brexit.

By John Watson

Which is the precedent?  The US in 1775 or Britain in 1536?  Will the current period go down in British history as the start of a trip towards independence from Europe, or as the beginning of a social revolution?  Both of them, to some extent, but which will dominate?  From reading the press you’d think the former, but that is perhaps because Brexit is such a dramatic affair.  The issues are stark, and with a cast list which includes Juncker, Barnier, Johnson and Gove, the production promises thrills and spills all the way.

Where the press leads, politics follow.  Brexit absorbs the energies of the nation’s leaders, leaving insufficient “bandwidth” to deal with pressing issues of social exclusion.  All four members of the Social Mobility Commission (Labour and Tory) have resigned because they see little progress being made to reduce inequality.  That is not because the Prime Minister does not believe in her social agenda but because, despite the rhetoric, it is being pushed aside by action on Brexit.

The priority may seem inevitable now but history will probably see it differently.  Exclusion is political dynamite not just in Britain but also throughout the West.  In the US it has produced President Trump.  In the EU it is creating tensions between a rich north and a poor south.  Electorates are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo and are looking for new and more radical alternatives.

Back here in England it is probably time for a political revolution.  The 1945 Attlee government, with its introduction of the welfare state and nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, wholly reset the British political model, the thinking which underlay it dominating our politics until we moved on with the election of Margret Thatcher in 1979.  Her victory was not a verdict that the model was wrong but rather that, after thirty-four years, the drivers behind it had become tired.  Much, for example the National Health Service, was retained; but the new talk was all of slimming down the state, reliance on market mechanisms and encouraging private ownership.  The powers of the unions were curbed; tax rates came down; exchange controls were abolished; council tenants were sold their homes, utility companies and the railways were privatised.  The changes introduced a new prosperity and became a template for reforming governments around the world.  Their influence can be seen in the programme of President Macron in France.

Roll forward thirty-eight years and here we are again.  Although the post-Thatcher consensus may have been successful in reviving the economy, it failed to push prosperity into large parts of the UK.  Now it shows signs of exhaustion.  The destruction of the pension system has left little room for those who simply wish to do a good job without worrying too much about their finances.  Privatisation has become a political mantra, a solution applied universally and not just where it is the right answer.  So we find ourselves back where we were in 1979 with a system which is gradually losing momentum.  That is when revolutions happen and we are probably due one now.

Faced with this, neither of the major parties has distinguished itself.  The Conservatives plough on, the reforming zeal initially demonstrated by Mrs May being stifled by the cares of Brexit.  Labour calls for change but by reversion to systems which have already failed, such as nationalisation of the railways. Depressing, isn’t it?  Where should we look for new ideas?  To academia?  To business leaders?  Neither are good at this sort of thing.  In the end the ideas will arrive, as they always have, through the emergence of a new generation of politicians, younger, more thoughtful, less bogged down by the past.

If it is too much to expect the current generation of leaders to drive a new way forward, there is one thing they can contribute.  They can use their powers to enable new ideas to develop, so that we benefit from past experience.  How?  The trick must be to actively encourage free discussion, not just between those who think the same way- we have plenty of that already- but cross party too.  There should also be increased delegation of authority to cross-party bodies both at national and local authority level.

This challenge goes beyond the politicians to all of us.  It is up to us to enter into debate with those who think differently.  It is up to us to expose our own ideas to hostile criticism.  It is up to us to avoid the safe spaces and to risk our pride being damaged.  If we can do that we should be able to produce something better than the systems we have seen before; something which draws on their strengths; something which avoids their mistakes.  A revolution in political thinking which could be used as a template by others and will stand as yet another monument to British ingenuity and sense.  Come on, ladies and gentlemen, let’s just do it.


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