Where do we go from here?

This is a long post, and I apologise for that. But there is a lot of ground to cover. The 12th December election was a turning-point. I want to establish points of departure. To put down, issue by issue, policy area by policy area, where we are now, as I understand it. And to take a view, from an avowedly liberal standpoint, on whether the government on the evidence available is competent to handle those issues.

Over the coming months I mean to return to some of the points made here, and see how the government is faring – and see if my judgements are correct. Or otherwise. I will try and be fair!

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The key issues for the next five years: should we rejoice, be angry, or simply despair?

Did I collapse in despair, or rise up in anger? No, I surprised myself. Two days before the election, I’d been talking to LibDem supporters in Cheltenham and they were gloomy: their polling put the Tories 2% ahead. On my drive back home that day I reconciled myself to the reality, that politics would be anything but Zen-like in the years to come. The Tories would win, and handsomely. I could continue to be angry, or I could keep my cool. Hold firm to my ideas, beliefs and aspirations.  Let events unfold, influence them in my own small way if I could, and see where they take me.

Boris Johnson thought Brexit an impossible idea when asked at Davos in 2014. Who knows where we might be in 2024?

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‘Should we rejoice,’ I ask above. Well, hardly. But let’s be positive. There may be, just maybe, some good news. The Tories will have to tack to the centre, even to the left, to keep on board the support that’s been loaned to them in Yorkshire and the North East. The NHS will get extra funding. But not at Blair-years levels of increase. And will it be thrown at the existing players – GPs and hospitals, when it is health and social care at every level that Tory administrations over the last almost ten years have brought into crisis?

Where are the beds for those well enough to leave hospital, but with nowhere to recuperate? Will the funding be there to relaunch the childcare, daycare and other facilities closed down during the austerity years?  To match the spending assessments allocated to local councils for social services not just to existing expenditure, but to the higher levels of expenditure that everyone recognises are required, not least for support for the elderly? Put another way, will the funding be token – or transformative? Will it be case of, ‘what can we get away with’? Or will commitment be total, and even passionate?

Johnson has promised proposals for later this year, but ‘asked for a date for action to finally be taken to improve social care, Mr Johnson said: “We will certainly do it in this parliament”.’ (Independent). The vagueness is absolute.

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Infrastructure: big investment is needed, and might be good news, although HS2 is a poor starter by way of priorities. An infrastructure plan needs to be pumping funds into the North-West, well north of Manchester, into the North East, well north of Leeds – and it may be fifteen years before a link to Leeds is completed. And the South-West.  And Wales. The big hubs already have train and air links. The areas in between and at the peripheries should have equal if not greater priority.

Race and gender: there’s no evidence that the Tories will seek to unwind any of the changes of the few decades. But there is a hard core of Tory support that is seriously socially conservative, and wary if not intolerant of change. Arguments will be heated on the subject of political correctness, campus bans and the like. (Social conservatism is a fundamental instinct, and one I connect to. Not all change is wise! How far can we take the absolute liberty of the individual? When is intolerance just that – intolerance?)

Referenda: the curse of our political system. The one-off vote driven by half-truths, lies and misrepresentation, to which we all have to hold as if it is the voice of, the will of the people. The good news – the Tories sure as hell won’t want another for a good few years. They have the parliamentary majority, and it isn’t going to go away in a hurry.

Mandate: however much we might query his means Johnson has a clear mandate. From that comes stability. Things can at last get done. And we’ve a sense of urgency, or at least the appearance of one. Will it all in the end be dissipated by the muddle and machinations of Brexit? Will things indeed ‘get done’?

Luck:  Johnson has also had luck on his side. The caution engendered by the financial crisis and austerity has disappeared as in a puff of smoke. A fairy godmother? Does Johnson have one? Is he lucky, or does he make his own luck?  Greased pig was the appellation The Economist gave to him a month or two ago. He slides through obstacles, and nothing sticks to him. Is he that rare thing, a genius, as Charles Moore suggests? Should we give him his head, and see where he takes us?

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Which takes us to the bad news.  There are vast issues out there, and I touch on many, maybe most, of them below.  There are few signs, as of now, that the new government has the nous or the commitment to deal with them. It is in fundamentals a continuation of what has gone before. Ten years of Tory rule. (The first five years somewhat constrained.) The government would have us believe that it is entirely new, and its ministers a new breed. Taking a fresh look at all problems. A dubious proposition. But let us, for now, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Leadership: Johnson is talking of a Golden Age, when first we have to climb out of a mire which he maybe more than anyone has dumped us in. A leader who took up the cudgels on behalf of ‘the people’, as the tabloid press defined it, against parliament, and against the Supreme Court as well.

So, to return to my question above, do we give him his head? As an opportunist, without any broad understanding public affairs, on all evidence to date, of course we shouldn’t. Do we have a choice? No, we don’t. Compare Churchill, Johnson’s hero, we’re told. Churchill anticipated a crisis and was brought in to resolve it. Johnson was a prime mover in creating our current crisis – and now he’s proclaimed as new Moses to lead us out of it.

The total dominance of one party. The utter incompetence of the main opposition. The side-lining of the LibDems. BBC won the election – Boris, Brexit and Corbyn. Corbyn won it for the Tories. All the other Far Left madcaps who think that all they need to do in time is somehow infiltrate the institutions, take over the system. Achieve ‘cultural hegemony’.  (This was Gramsci’s term. Gramsci was a Marxist, but it has a resonance for a few Tory ideologues as well. See below.)

Education: more money, but if that old Govean (Michael Gove ‘deserves an adjective) shibboleth of choice continues to hold sway then money will go to the good and excellent schools, and the free schools. Schools only registering satisfactory or below will find funding reduced still further on a per capita basis. Pupils from disadvantaged areas will continue to be disadvantaged.

Four years, maybe five, maybe longer: that’s the period of time Brexit has dominated affairs, and taken out minds off all the big issues we should have been focusing on. Important issues haven’t been addressed, important legislation has simply never happened. It will be hard to catch up.

Meritocracy: social mobility will get lip service and no more. The ordinarily well-off, the top quartile maybe of the population, will make certain they hang on to what they’ve got. Independent schools offer big advantages. Rather than their abolition (which simply at a practical level would be massively damaging) and trading down we have to focus on the state sector trading up. But there’s little sign of it happening. No government in recent times has come anywhere near getting the measure of the problem. State education may be marginally better funded under Johnson. But the benefits of the best teaching, the best preparation for university, good contacts when you leave university – they all work, and will continue to work, to the advantage of the affluent.

Social justice: where do you draw the line between ensuring people have incentives to work and providing safety net in the event of misfortune? George Osborne muddled austerity with cutting back benefits. Skivers were a popular theme in the press. Benefit fraud. Benefit tourism. Universal Credit has been implemented with a startling lack of understanding of its consequences, or the suffering caused. The bedroom tax was a mean spirit incarnate. There are no plans for any of the cuts in benefits to be re-instated. What I don’t see in the new Tory dispensation is much sign of compassion for the underdog. If Johnson wants to be a one-nation conservative he needs to strike a better balance between enterprise and compassion than his predecessors. This is difficult territory. But the bottom line has to be – compassion. Without it, all else that governments achieve is worthless.

Enterprise: maybe this should be under the ‘good news’ section above. Cutting business rates, which is in the Queen’s Speech, and maximising incentives for small businesses, are essentials. I’m a great believer in not-for-profit social enterprises, but the pursuit of profit is, for now at least, what drives this planet. The issue is how this can be squared with a vast reduction in emissions, a radical approach to conservation and resource depletion, and a re-balancing of wealth, in a way that improves living standards worldwide whilst avoiding crippling the planet.  The longer-term issue is how the planet can be re-educated away from its delight in profit and ever-increasing consumption. Is, indeed, there a remote chance of it ever happening? Don’t expect to see this government leading that debate.

The media. Johnson is talking of decriminalising non-payment of the BBC licence fee. The Tories grumble about BBC bias. So does Labour of course. And the LibDems don’t even get to join the big boys’ debates. (How much did being pushed to the margins affect the LibDems final vote?) Decriminalising will be a first step toward turning the BBC into another pay-TV channel, another Sky or similar. That’s a popular scenario with the Tory right. They have their newspapers, maybe 80% of the press is Tory-owned and wears its allegiance in a very public way. The centre and left have the Mirror and Guardian, and the ‘i’. But they are, in terms of absolute numbers, small players. Check out any newsstand.

The right-wing press will, as they have during four years of Brexit argument, continue to control the public debate through tub-thumping and a cavalier approach to truth. It will take multiple disasters before the Mail abandons its allegiance to whatever prejudice or distortion is likely to have the biggest appeal.

[20th December] The government has now banned cabinet ministers from appearing on the Today programme. (Nick Robinson was an ardent Tory at school.) I guess they don’t want to be interrogated and found wanting. Ensure, with the tabloids on your side, that your press is always favourable. Sky, being Murdoch owned, will never push criticism too far. ITV and C4 have good reasons to be cautious. The Tory take on the BBC is that it’s part of the urban liberal establishment. The rest of us may view it as the last best hope for intelligent debate in the country. But that is, of course, what’s at stake. If the anti-liberal establishment trope really takes hold then plans to scrap the licence fee will become even easier to put into law… That’s the way, no doubt, Tory thinking goes.

[20th December]  Matthew Goodwin, an academic at the University of Kent, came out for Brexit as a populist revolt a while back.  He did his own polling, he tells us. ‘Leavers knew what they were doing,’ as he put it. People were well aware that Brexit involved ‘risks’. So they factored that into their vote for Brexit. But ‘risk’ as we know was played down so as to be almost non-existent in Brexit propaganda. Risk can only be quantified and made real if people see it at work in tangible form in the day-to-day. And poor economic performance is easily disguised: we trundle on as ever. But put us against other countries: we’ve failed by that test already and there’s little doubt based on all independent forecasts that we will slip further behind in future.  (The government promises us the opposite of course: ‘a glorious future’. We shall see.)

There is a further worry. As long as the press is solidly right-wing, and even more now that the press and the parliamentary majority are aligned, there is a real danger that the balance of opinion in our politics, the frame within which it operates, may shift rightwards. (See the reference to ‘cultural hegemony’ above.) Liberal values of openness and equality may be risk if a government forces through a hard-right neo-liberal agenda. The British electoral system, with its five-year election cycle, has in recent times always held parties in check. The electorate has to be persuaded, cannot be bludgeoned. I’m less sure that this will still be the case over the next five or ten years. This could be the biggest and most worrying game-changer of all.

Roger Scruton, the leading Conservative philosopher, died a few days ago. I’ve long recognised him as a redoubtable advocate of Conservatism , with a capital C, and disparager of the values of liberal democracy. ‘The two goals of liberation and social justice are not obviously compatible, any more than were the liberty and equality advocated at the French Revolution.’  I’d seen him in fine form at the Cheltenham Literature Festival eighteen months ago. But his obituaries also highlighted his recent receipt of the Hungarian Order of Merit from Viktor Orban, the ever-more autocratic prime minister of Hungary, and champion of ‘illiberal democracy’. Given Hungarian attacks on a free press and the judiciary under Orban this is a worrying connection. We are a long way from an Orban-style democracy in this country, but there is a strand of Conservative thinking that gives cause for concern.

Democracy is also about local government of course. There’s much talk of a Northern Powerhouse. Direct funding for infrastructure. Major funding increases for the NHS and in time we’d hope social care – but this is central government funding. Will any consideration be given to extending local democracy? To involving people more closely with what happens in their own backyard? Or will localities be bought off by a hike in central government funding?

If the divide between right and centre and left in the media was no more than political we could all relax just a little. Focus on the arguments. But fake news and false alarms, marginal opinions consistently given equivalence with mainstream, the disparagement of expertise, they have been Brexit bread and butter over the last four years.

Law and order. There’s already talk of ECJ judgements being brought back under UK jurisdiction, with serious and unthought-through consequences. The Oxford historian Vernon Bogdanor suggests that in a post-Brexit world we will need some kind of British constitution. Sections of the press may for now hold off from further attacks on judges and the rule of law. But legislating for a constitution might open up a vast new can of worms. That apart, parliament and the executive shouldn’t be at odds for a few years. There should be no need for the Supreme Court to be involved. On the debit side there’s a worrying Tory manifesto promise to ‘update’ the Human Rights Act: intervening to achieve the ‘proper balance’ between the rights of individuals, national security and the government. Whatever ‘proper balance’ might mean.

The prison system: building more jails, locking more people up. Prison welfare, and rehabilitation, and increasing the number of prison officers: that’s not the way Tory talk about the system goes. The Tory knee-jerk response to the London Bridge stabbings suggest that we may well move rapidly in the wrong direction. Likewise Priti Patel’s comments on wanting criminals ‘literally to feel terror’ before breaking the law.

I mentioned fiddling the system. Under Cameron there was much discussion about boundary changes. Advocates on the right have claimed the system penalises them. It takes fewer Labour voters to elect an MP than it does Tory voters. I’m not sure that overall figures bear this out, or if they did once, they may do so no longer – but with one party in power for long periods who knows what might happen.

Brexit itself. I thought for a moment Johnson might feel able to sideline MPs the European Reform Group (ERG). Keep open the option of extending the departure date after 31st December 2020. But he’s legislating to tie himself into that date. (Legislation can of course easily be rescinded by another Act.) Is he playing a game here? Playing tough for now, more moderate further down the line, when the ERG have all but gone to sleep? (Unlikely, I have to admit.)

Once upon a time Johnson was a liberal, centrist Tory. Has he cast off this cloak for good? If power is his aim, then principle may be secondary. A cavalier approach to a hard Brexit suggests opportunism, and a ‘beggar the consequences’ attitude. It may on the other hand be pragmatism. Johnson likes sailing close to the wind, and tacking only when he has to. He’s been clever at ensuring that opprobrium doesn’t stick to him. See earlier my comments on his ‘greased pig’ attributes.

Acolytes: I have in particular Dominic Cummings in mind. Who was at Johnson’s side on election night? Dom, of course. With his laptop.  ‘Taking back control’ was a great slogan. No matter that any gain in ‘control’ is minimal, and our loss of influence a disaster. But he’s the kind of guy who does ‘cut through the crap’. I read that he’s been telling senior civil servants what they should be reading. And he has big ideas on military procurement, and wants to take on the generals and military establishment. See below.  And there’s also Isaac Levido, the Aussie who organised polling and research for the Tory campaign. He it was who was behind climate-change-sceptic Scott Morrison’s surprise victory in the recent Aussie election. He may be a decent guy. But supporting Scott Morrison?

Immigration will be based around a points-system. Aussie style. (Aussies again.) We will get only the brightest and best. I haven’t yet heard how we will get our fruit picked, or our hotels manned, or how other concerns which rely on cheap immigrant labour will function. We will be even more nation of parasites: attracting the best from elsewhere, the cost to the countries giving us their trained and educated doctors and technicians and nurses, and whoever else, being of little concern of us.

Immigration control can be dressed up as an entirely necessary response to job losses (for which there is little hard evidence) and EU citizens’ access to the NHS (though immigrants are in reality net contributors). But it is at a deeper level a fear of foreigners, a closing of doors. The UK recast for our time as ‘little England’. (I’m leaving Scotland and Northern Ireland out advisedly.)

Influence. Johnson will make his mark on the world stage through his bluster. But will anyone listen beyond what they have to? Has he – will he have – any moral authority? Will other countries look to him as someone who might lead? Can we regain the influence we had in Europe? Or the UN? Can we justify any more our permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Once we wrote or co-wrote the rules by which the EU ran itself. Now at best we will be lobbyists. To be listened to, or not, as others dictate. To move beyond that is perhaps Johnson’s greatest challenge. If he succeeds, as some believe he might, if he halfway succeeds, that will be a mighty achievement.

Trade: Brexit deals with the EU. Or not, if we can’t agree to align with EU regulations. Forget about services for now. 330 million Americans and a big-stick president. 447 million (not including the UK) citizens of EU member states. 1.4 billion Chinese. 67 million Brits. Wonderful trade deals are guaranteed. The best terms. And if another party wants to cheat or offload or renege or cancel, we can shrug and walk away and find someone else to do business with… There is madness here. And what kind of deal will we ultimately get out of Trump? We have few cards to play, and much to lose.

Business: ensuring that corporate taxes are paid in the countries where sales happen, and aren’t routed though low-tax countries. Issues of pay and business ethics. The priority given to dealing with vast and growing inequalities, as much in the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1%, or indeed the 5%, as in salaries.

Social media and automation: should the big social media companies, Facebook and the like, where there are issues of both taxation and size, be broken up? Where their influence is malign, how can that be tackled? Automation – the other great transformative issue: what will the workplace look like in ten and twenty years’ time, and how can we best prepare when there’s so much uncertainty around the issue.

The European Union: maybe this should have come at the head of the list. But I’d have been re-running all the reasons for not leaving. The question has to be – how to retain what influence we have left, and regain some of what we’ve lost. We have made ourselves look foolish in the eyes of EU countries, and the wider world. Decisive government now will help claw back some credibility – but prestige and influence are another matter. Beyond lip service, does Johnson really want to be good neighbours with the EU? (He and the new Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, were all smiles recently.) Or by preference a nagging offshore critic? How ‘open’ does Johnson want the country to be.

Peter Pomerantsev in the current Prospect has a definition of the European project which I can subscribe to: ‘… a project whose aim is not some woolly cosmopolitanism, but a way of squaring the circle of nationalism and the need for cooperation in a crowded continent. “European” is a way of doing things, a constant effort to understand others and compromise, to smooth polarisation.’

Can we continue to support this idea, without having any direct involvement in its realisation? Is it a project that Johnson and his government can in any way, even as outsiders, subscribe to? We will be big losers if we can’t.

Brexit has seen the EU compared to the 16th century Papacy as a malign force. Free trade as Brexiters interpret it and free trade following the Repeal of the Corn Laws have also had an airing, as if there were a relevant connection. And recently we’ve had comparisons between the gloom about Britain’s future after losing our American colonies and pessimism about our future post-Brexit. If we were wrong to be gloomy back then, then we are wrong to be gloomy now. The logic is overwhelming…  That misuse, misreading, of history, is one of the troubling aspects of the new Tory dispensation.

[20th December]  USA: how will our relations with the USA evolve over the next five years? Does any of this matter? There is a little discussed instinctual divide in the UK – between those who are natural, for good or ill, Europeans, and those who feel more attuned to the American way of life. Johnson claimed in 2016 that he could sing Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth, with the best of us. But that’s not the point. We’re endlessly doused with American popular culture. Not the high-brow stuff. And the American economy is a gung-ho unregulated paradise, isn’t it? Tory free traders have no choice but to love America: all other boats are burnt. A tilt to America is certain to happen: how blatant it is, how much we have to toady to Trump, we will see. And if a Democratic president gets elected next November… well, that will be interesting.

[2nd January]  The American election primaries are about to get underway. I reference a Californian friend in her Christmas letter. She hopes that the hit taken by a hard-left-dominated Labour in our election will get through to an American left seeking to secure the nomination for an Elizabeth Warren, or someone of similar opinions. If the left comes over scary then centrist opinion might yet plump for Trump.

[2nd January]  Defence: where does the recent announcement of the sale of the British defence company, Cobham (aerial refuelling an area where they are world leaders), to the American company Advent fit in the scheme of things? ‘It came [quoting The Times] after Advent proposed a series of legal undertakings designed to mitigate potential national security concerns, including protecting sensitive government information, and giving notice to the government of future sale plans.’ Rarely have I read anything less convincing. (Expressions like ‘mitigate’, and ‘giving notice’.) It is the business secretary, the redoubtable Andrea Leadsom, who announced the deal. Not, note, the defence secretary. Business, to be entirely cynical, comes first. But does it matter if the long-term plan is to tie our defence ever-more-closely to the USA? France and other European nations may see the advantage of an alternative EU defence establishment given an increasingly untrustworthy transatlantic partner. But not the UK of Boris Johnson.

[14th January]  The UK sits on the fence over the USA taking out  Qassem Soleimani. Johnson hedges over support for the Iran agreement of which, with the USA, the UK, France and Germany were co-signatories. ‘Mr Johnson said the Iran nuclear agreement should be scrapped and replaced with a superior “Trump deal” – as he shrugged off being shut out of the decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani.’ (Independent)

Agriculture: Michael Gove had big ideas as Environment Secretary for a subsidy scheme based around environmental impact rather than acreage of land under cultivation. How this works out now we shall see. The polluter pays principle would be a useful one to enshrine in policy – big farmers/landowners would take a hit. On the other hand sheep farmers and the Welsh rural economy could also be hit hard. I rate Gove’s competence, though not always his ideas – thinking back to his time as Education Secretary. He is of course no longer in charge of agriculture… The jury has to be out on this one. Fishing: there will be a big squabble between the EU and the UK.

Defence [2]: I mentioned above that Cummings wants to take on the generals and military establishment on policy and procurement. With two hugely over-cost mega-sized aircraft carriers … the American strike fighters (with problems of their own) which fly from the carriers not yet delivered … and only three destroyers available to defend the carriers when even the six there should be might not be enough given the capabilities of the long-range missiles both the Russians and Chinese have in development  … You can see his point. If Cummings can help Johnson make better sense of our defences then they will both deserve serious accolades. That is a very big ‘if’. But better the Tories on defence than Labour, who would have been clueless.

Civil service: Cummings also wants to take on the Civil Service. We can all agree that tenures for both politicians as secretaries of state and civil servants as department heads can be too short. We need expertise. But as Matthew Parris and others have pointed out, the difficulties lie more with politicians. The Civil Service has to advise on what’s feasible and what can indeed be actually implemented. The argument is worth making, but Cummings, I fear, is showing off.

Climate change: no such qualification on climate change. Can we have any confidence in the Tories? Maybe Johnson will blaze a trail, show his centrist, liberal, wide-world-aware credentials. But to his right he has the doubters writing in the Daily Mail and Telegraph: the British public we’re told just won’t wear all the disruption that would follow from serious engagement with climate change. Business, a Telegraph writer argued, is taking the lead – when it is increasing pressure from public opinion that’s driving business. Yes, the government is committed to zero net emissions by 2050. But we need to be radically engaged as of now. Carbon trading, support for countries at risk from sea level rise, tighter targets all round. The big issues left unresolved in Madrid recently.  

And what of conservation? The decline of species as mankind penetrates ever further into the last recesses of nature. And the other big issues of our time, closely related to climate and habitat – population growth, migration, and associated resource depletion. Are we now in the hands of a government and ministers who are at the ‘technology can handle it’ end of the spectrum? Trust technology to find a way. Whatever the cost. Or will they seek to take the lead on the world stage – and in Glasgow, at the next climate conference, next autumn. Have no truck with Trump.

There’s one big issue I haven’t mentioned. It could dominate the headlines in a year of two’s time. Scottish independence – the possibility of another vote. If Johnson refuses, how will the SNP, how will an all-SNP city like Glasgow, respond? Scotland wants of course to stay in the EU. As does Northern Ireland: the Irish border may become a big issue sooner rather than later, as for the Northern Irish closer relations with the Irish Republic come to seem a better option than a dysfunctional GB.

And finally, what about values, about who we are as people? Will we be, as is claimed, as open to the world after Brexit as before? Or will our focus be on self-interest, on narrowly defined UK interest? Will equality of opportunity and capability be core values? Social justice. Social mobility, with all its implications for a balancing of education provision and employment opportunities.  The dignity of every human being, in the poorest corner of our own land and every land. That’s easy to say of course, much harder to act on. But it’s not a bad starting-point. When we put care and compassion ahead of fear and anxiety and a closing of doors.

Citizens of the UK, of Europe and the world. Not for Theresa May, but for millions of us that’s who we are. And will remain, EU member state or not. That will for me the ultimate criterion. How we, and how I as a citizen, fulfil each of these roles.

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