UK Politics

To avoid Britain becoming Venezuela the Tories need to offer hope and reform

BY Robert Salisbury   /  20 June 2017

There is a memorable account of the days leading up to the Bolshevik victory in October 1917. Every street corner in St. Petersburg was adorned by a fiery orator who attracted enthusiastic crowds which moved from corner to corner and from orator to orator. No matter that few orators peddled the same opinions: the crowds cheered each with equal enthusiasm. The only orators who peddled a consistent story were the Bolsheviks. Lenin knew what he wanted and how he intended to get it. No one else did, so Lenin won, ushering in seventy more years of misery and paranoia.

Fortunately, there is as yet no parallel between the United Kingdom after the 2017 general election and Kerensky’s Russia, except in one respect. The bunch of Stalinists and Trots who surround Jeremy Corbyn know what they want. Those who oppose them, of all parties and of none, do not seem to.

Those suffering the most from our present situation, the under 45s, do not remember the 1970s and voted overwhelmingly for the promise of a ready outcome from their afflictions, peddled by seemingly friendly, avuncular anti-establishment figures.

They were not impressed when the Tories told them that Corbyn and his friends supported terrorists who were enemies of this country. After all, in Northern Ireland, were there not faults on both sides? Now every one is in favour of peace, including Corbyn. We should not condemn him for what is ancient history. He means well and signals his virtue in much the same way as most of us are now expected to do.

Equally, we are not Venezuela, so we need not be too concerned that the economic policies Corbyn so admires have bankrupted the country with the world’s biggest oil reserves.

For, what we are experiencing here doesn’t seem to be doing us much good either.

Fewer and fewer can afford either rent or a mortgage. The public services are chronically short of money, however much is pumped into them; and those who work in them have not had a decent pay rise for years and have little hope of one for some time yet. A university degree saddles you with a lifetime of debt. The institutions that rule our lives seem increasingly flat-footed in the age of the internet. The bankers who criminally brought the 2008 crisis round our ears seem to have got away with it and are investing much of their ill-gotten gains in London houses which they only occupy when they visit this country for Wimbledon and Ascot. Movies and television tell seductive tales of a deep state conspiring against ordinary decent folk and social media encourages a similar view. The very rich seem to be doing fine. Pity about the rest of us.

This mixture of fair comment and twaddle is seductive.

Now the disaster in Kensington has confirmed all these suspicions. Public administration at both local and Whitehall levels seems indeed to be sunk in turpitude and shortage of funds; and the victims are the poor, not the rich who are protected.

And what is the Tory Party’s response to all this? It is much the same as that of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party: a nod of acknowledgement in the direction of the difficulties the younger electors and the poor are experiencing and a promise of more of the same until 2025. Dumping a bucket of ordure on Corbyn’s head hardly provides a convincing plan for the future. Project fear did not work for the Remainers and nearly lost the Unionists the Scottish referendum. It near as dammit lost the anti-Stalinists this month’s election.

Corbyn is indeed a disaster. His policies would bankrupt this country, leave it defenceless in a dangerous world and destroy its institutions. That does not mean that those of us who see the danger he represents should fail to address the grievances that get him both a hearing and a ton of votes. The Tories certainly failed to do so and paid the penalty, but so did the Parliamentary Labour Party who now are trying to make their peace with Corbyn. It looks as though the only reason most of them opposed him was that they thought he could not win, rather than that they disagreed with his policies. Why should anyone take them seriously?

So if project fear does not work, what will?

The only option is to lay before the public an alternative vision that is more realistic, but which offers hope. If it is to have a chance of working, that vision must be bold and for this there are two reasons: firstly, we are facing a crisis of governance in this country similar to 1832 or 1945 and in such crises only radical change can seize the initiative; and, secondly, technological change demands we govern ourselves differently lest we follow Austria-Hungary into oblivion (an empire we are coming increasingly to resemble).

Tories should not worry about being bold. Reality and human nature are on our side in this rapidly changing technology-driven world. Prosperity flows from free trade and private enterprise. It does not flow from oligopolic crony capitalists who stifle innovation.

Equally, prosperity flourishes under the rule of law in a polity with vigorous representative institutions, big and small and public and private; a polity which promotes a feeling of belonging among its citizens, but which faces outwards to the world. Contrary to what our friends in Brussels may think, such a polity can only be a nation state. Brexit is our opportunity to rebuild such a polity, but if Corbyn and his friends are to be defeated, we need to be specific and to be specific one must have courage.

And indeed there are a large number of specific areas which cry out for attention, but there are some which surely cry out more than others.

Any polity cannot survive without representative institutions that are fit for purpose and so command the loyalty of those they serve. Ours can no longer be so described and demand reform. There are a number of groups at work on what might be done. For instance, the Constitution Reform Group, which I chair, is looking at the relationship between the nations of the United Kingdom and has drafted a bill which sets out some initial proposals. Others are active in the same area, while others still are thinking about how local government in England might become more effective than it now is.

Defence and security are posing increasingly troubling questions of our politicians and of Whitehall which, as for example Reaction’s recent piece on the F35 demonstrated, they are failing to answer. There is no shortage of interest among specialists in looking at a fresh approach.

We have a housing crisis. It is a crisis of quality, of price and of supply. Much intelligent work is going on, both in theory and in practice, in all three areas.

Our tax system and our benefits system are complicated and need simplifying. Success would not only make the system more equitable, but raise more money for the Treasury.

Most intractably of all, over two thirds of our public expenditure goes on pensions, benefits and health. This is not only leading us to national bankruptcy, but is perpetuating systems which will gobble as much money as we can throw at them without making more than marginal improvements. We know that tackling this central problem of public finance is politically toxic. However, any attempt has to bet that the electorate is adult enough to engage in a national conversation on these subjects. If it is not, Mr. Corbyn or his successor will certainly shortly win an election and we will all be enjoying the privilege of living in a Venezuela-style economy.

The Tory Party looks a poor thing in its post election shock, but it is the only party whose opinions and traditions remotely qualify it to undertake what has to be done. It might be agreeably surprised by the response, both from experts and electorate, if it pulled itself together and sounded the trumpet. Certainly, Marshal Foch – “my centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack” – would approve.

Lord Salisbury is the chairman of Reaction


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