George Freeman MP is Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board and Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum
The turbulence of politics in the last few years – here in the UK and across the West – represents a serious challenge to the prevailing order of Western societies and economies.
The rise of increasingly divisive and populist movements of the New Right and New Left, create (and feed off) huge challenges for the hitherto accepted model of liberal democracy.
All mainstream parties have been hit by a political tsunami fuelled by seven years of post-Crash ‘austerity’, rising inflation, domestic and global insecurity, inter-generational tensions exacerbated by the QE housing asset boom and the UK’s creaking system of National Insurance, Welfare and Public Spending.
The Westminster political establishment is increasingly gridlocked in a Brexit parlour game of “Hard v Soft”, and debates about false choices we don’t even have (Welfare or Work?, Markets or Regulation?, Private or Public Sector?). In an ultimate irony, a Brexit vote fuelled in part by frustration at domestic policy failures is threatening to absorb so much political energy that we are in danger of forgetting to tackle those grievances at their source. If we don’t, Brexit risks becoming just the first course in a populist feast of political failure.
So far the response from Westminster and Whitehall to the insurgency sweeping the West (other than to seek the false sanctuary of a convenient electoral tribalism in three years of successive General Elections and a Referendum ) appears to be fuelling an increasingly toxic sense of all of us in Westminster as part of an ‘out of touch’ unaccountable political elite who lack the political ‘legitimacy’ to take the difficult decisions required.
This is dangerous. For our global and domestic security, our economy, society and our politics. Vacuums in politics get filled by populists – from the left or right – making easy promises which fuel ever deeper anger when inevitably exposed.
All of us who believe in mainstream politics, whether from the centre-left or centre-right, must recognise what is happening. That means being uncompromisingly honest about our own failures, rigorous in our analysis, clear in the proposed programme and ambitious, optimistic and generous in our ultimate goal. All around us are inspiring examples of Renewal: by communities, companies, sports teams, families and individuals. It’s the stuff of sporting, personal or Hollywood legend that makes us cheer and cry.
Everyone in the Conservative tradition on the centre right of politics – united by seldom expressed but nonetheless powerful shared values, such as belief in personal responsibility, enterprise, and active citizenship – has a duty to take stock and take steps to tackle this deepening alienation of the governed from government, and a deepening and understandable crisis of loss of faith of a whole new generation in the benefits of capitalism.
As a first step, in September I am organising an inaugural ideas festival event outside of London to kick-start a new conversation about what is needed for the grassroots renewal of mainstream politics. It’s the ‘Big Tent Ideas Fest’.
Put together by a team of us who share a deep belief in the need for a more entrepreneurial, dynamic, diverse, pro-enterprise and pro-innovation politics, this inaugural one day festival is a forum bringing together like-minded reformers who believe in grassroots political renewal.
It will start small. While its founders are mainly from the “small c” pro-enterprise, innovation and reforming branch of Conservatism, we believe our politics needs a more open, grassroots, participative, bottom-up conversation with the people on the frontline of social, economic and cultural renewal, whoever and wherever they are.
If, as we believe, the UK is undergoing a fundamental realignment of our political economy – like in the 1940s and the 1970s – that will recast our politics for the next 50 years, it is essential that we listen to the voices of the pioneering thinkers and doers, from all mainstream political persuasions (and none). As such, we are preparing a range of exciting talks, presentations of new data, insights and best practice on new models of leadership and innovation in both public and private sector.
If this event is as popular as initial indications suggest, we envisage future events, including a larger annual Festival open to all next year.
In the long-term, we hope to start a movement of change, reform, opportunity, empowerment, and a renewed sense of citizenship.
We do not claim to have all the answers, but we hope to at least ask the right questions. Of the right people. In the right forum. In the right spirit.
For more information about the Big Tent Ideas Fest, please continue to follow the Reaction website, where we will be posting regular articles and discussion pieces in the run-up to the event.