Britain has long told itself a story of its own decline. Certainly from Suez onwards, if not from the late 19th century, the spectre of being outcompeted on the global stage has loomed over British public life. In the past year, that concern has once again filtered into the wider consciousness, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt taking aim at ‘declinists’ in his budget speech. This time, however, it’s different. Since 2007, Britain has seen a stagnation in productivity and real incomes that is genuinely unprecedented.
Late last year the economic historian Adam Tooze sounded the alarm: “The current stagnation is unlike anything in the last quarter millennium,” he wrote. “Cumulated over time the alarming prospect is that rather than tagging along in the bottom half of the pack, Italy and the UK may fall out of the convergence club of advanced economies.” Indeed, in just seven years, Britain is set to be poorer per person than Poland.
The consequences of this are obvious. The decline is no longer just seen in Treasury figures but felt in everyday life: in the public services that aren’t there when needed, in the soaring rents in our major cities, and in the widespread strikes taking place as workers fight for their share of an ever-shrinking economic pie.
The causes of long-term stagnation are complex, but one is surely the culture of short termism that has taken hold in Westminster and Whitehall. Our political class has long-tended to prioritise headlines over delivery. The result is that over the four decades prior to the pandemic, Britain’s total levels of investment were the lowest in the G7. There is no better example of this than in Britain’s rail network, where promised upgrades and new lines are talked up, delayed, run wildly over budget, and are then cancelled with worrying regularity.
An associated tendency to short-termism is something Britain Remade’s Jeremy Driver has called ‘cheems mindset’: “the reflexive belief that barriers to policy outcomes are natural laws that we should not waste our time considering how to overcome.” Want to reform the planning system, or reduce immigration, or build new infrastructure? Don’t even think about it. Aim low, this logic says, and you’ll never be disappointed. The problem, as we have seen, is that regularly aiming low comes with a very high cost indeed.
So what should we do about the poor quality of our politicians and their decision-making? One solution, recently put forward by the economist Tim Harford, is to implement “institutional reforms to keep the politicians away from policy proposals: Bank of England independence, but for everything.” One can see the temptation. If politicians are constantly going to act as if political change is simply too difficult, too complex, too costly, or too beset with regulatory hoops to even attempt, eventually some may take them at their word.
The point of this depoliticisation is to sever the link between political power and decision-making. That obviously leads to government becoming, in the words of political scientist Peter Mair, “subordinate and deferential”, no longer seeking to “wield power and exercise authority. The relevance of government declines while that of non-governmental institutions and practices increases.” This, arguably, is a form of what we already have. Many of those in the organisations and institutions around government operate on a set of similar ideological assumptions about what is and isn’t politically possible or acceptable. When these assumptions clash with those of voters, or indeed of ministers, it is the former that tends to win out.
Depoliticisation leads to ordinary people’s preferences being ignored or sidelined during the formulation of public policy. That would be a step in the wrong direction. We’ve already seen traditional party memberships collapse over the past half century. In the early 1950s, around one in thirteen people – 3.8 million in total – were members of political parties: 2.8 million Conservative members and 1 million Labour members. Today it is far lower: 172,000 Conservatives and 420,000 in Labour (after the surge under Corbyn).
But it’s not just about raw numbers, it’s about the loss of networks and connections that brought people from different walks of life into politics. Fifty years ago, many more people would have come into contact with MPs and local councillors at their local Conservative associations or working mens’ clubs. They might have sat next to a politician at the annual rotary club dinner who inspired them to also consider a role in public life. And they would have passed on their interest to their own children; Margaret Thatcher’s father was a shopkeeper and an alderman in Grantham, Harold Wilson’s father was a works chemist in Huddersfield and active in the Liberals and later Labour. The parties also had major adult education colleges and programmes: Swinton College in Yorkshire was a stately home which hosted lectures and events for Conservative Party members, while Ruskin College in Oxford became a fertile training ground for Labour Party politicians.
Today, the parties have lost those networks to help them reliably discover talented people from ‘the real world’ and apprentice them to successful political mentors. That means fewer good people coming up through the parties in the first place, which means, ultimately, worse MPs.
But if we are not to take the route of depoliticisation, we need to begin looking seriously at improving the quality of people entering public life. Rebuilding the talent pipeline is now a vital and necessary task. We need MPs, or advisers, or civil servants, or journalists, who are able to think in original and creative ways, and to think about the long-term future: the next 10, 50, or 100 years. They must also be prepared to disagree with consensus elite opinion. Those people are out there to be found. Finding them is one of the primary objectives of Civic Future, the organisation I work for.
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Our Fellowship, a free, year-long foundation programme, is designed to introduce participants to the deep knowledge necessary for a career in public life. Aimed at people in early to mid-career, from all walks of life, Fellows will be introduced to innovative thinking in economics, science, geopolitics, philosophy, and policy delivery, and we’ll share with them the practical know-how of getting things done in government; learning from those who have delivered complex projects, and understanding the challenges that will face those wanting to rebuild Britain into a successful, secure 21st century nation state. Applications are open until 25 March.
We aim to equip a new generation of leaders with the intellectual range and force, alongside knowledge of how power operates in 21st Century Britain, to take on the stagnation now evident throughout public life. This, we recognise, is a long-term project, but it is necessary. Decline is not inevitable: it can be combatted by those with the determination to reverse it. We’ve told ourselves the story of decline for too long — now that it’s finally here, let’s try something else.
The author is Programme Director at Civic Future. Further information on the Civic Future Fellowship can be found here. The application deadline is 25 March