Robert Buckland is Solicitor-General for England and Wales, and is MP for South Swindon.
We cannot go back to the 1970s and 1980s
“British politics, so the theory goes, has a certain inevitability about it, namely that the political cycle and our system of government dictates that after years of well-intentioned but ultimately incompetent Labour Governments, the country turns in relief to a Tory Party that, whilst it will always drag the country out of the slough of despond, doesn’t do it in a way that inspires joy, or, dare I say, love, whose restraint in increasing public expenditure is interpreted as an ideological drive for cuts or austerity, and whose members then turn in on each other when it comes to issues that aren’t of the first order of importance with the public and who are in due course turfed out of office when the people turn in hope to Labour. It happened, they say, in 1945 and 1997 and it will, they say, happen again and sooner than we bargained for. I robustly disagree for two main reasons; firstly, that history is never destined to repeat itself and secondly, that we are already beginning the process of self-renewal, this time in office.
My belief is that the old political cycle came to a halt in 2010, a shuddering halt that was caused by a combination of the great recession of 08/09 and a further significant cliff erosion of faith and trust in politicians as a result of the expenses scandal. Some have called it a collapse of the liberal free market consensus that had started under Margaret Thatcher and which had been maintained by New Labour up to the great recession of 2008/9, but I think that it is more a crisis of confidence. For the past ten years, there has been a crisis of confidence in the very system that gave us increased living standards and increased prosperity for the larger part of 30 years. The crisis was particularly marked in the Labour Party, which is now in the hands of people who genuinely want to break the mould and try, for the first time, the sort of policies that would have made Bennism seem tame by comparison. The Labour left have won control of their Party, and are dangerously close to doing the same to our country. On the centre-right, we have failed to sustain a clear argument for free enterprise and a market economy because we genuinely thought that the debate was done and dusted.
It is suggested that we need to go back to making the case for free enterprise as we did in the 1970s and 1980s. The truth is that we cannot go back. More than that, we should not go back. There is no existential threat to the West from communism in the form of the Warsaw Pact to help make it easy to argue our case. The threat to our way of life comes from a myriad of different sources, whether they be organised gangsters using religious fundamentalism as a badge of convenience, or individuals motivated by a dislocation from, and hate of, our way of life. The change to the nature of the world economy, as wealth expands and shifts to other parts of the globe, means that we can no longer assume that the free market always guarantees the ascendancy of the West. The internet has changed the very means through which we have our debates and the way in which we communicate our ideas. In short, most things have changed, and changed utterly. The need for us to understand these fundamental truths is self-evident.”
The moral basis of conservatism…
“What then, of the case for conservatism amidst all this breathtaking change? What of Our Party? The first thing to note is that, despite a return to a share of the vote that we last enjoyed 25-30 years ago, the crisis of confidence that started in Labour is now affecting us. The Tory Party is, as has often been noted, the oldest and most successful of our political groupings. We have seen off, (some would say absorbed) Whiggery, the Liberal Party and now New Labour. If the maxim that no party has a right to exist is true, we have continued to defy it by understanding the limitations of ideology and accepting the inevitable contradictions and compromises that have to be made if broad success is to be maintained. If the old political cycle has indeed been broken, then the inevitability of defeat just because it is someone else’s turn is the wrong way to look at our future. The future of Toryism lies in our hands at this moment, and we will not be forgiven if we rely on the electoral cycle to renew ourselves after defeat.
Renewal has to take place here and now. The challenge is formidable. We have been governing for seven and a half years. The work of Brexit absorbs many parts of Government and takes up a huge amount of energy. We have a domestic agenda that is admirable and achievable. And yet we are not perceived to be in a “good political place”, despite our continued high share of the vote in opinion polls and our highest share of the vote in a generation this June.
I joined the Conservative Party in South Wales thirty-three years ago next February. I joined in the middle of one of the greatest schisms in our recent history, the Miners’ Strike. I loathe unaccountable power, and I saw this being wielded by Arthur Scargill and his followers, who divided and ruled their own Union and its members and who tried to undermine a democratically elected government. Like all Tories, I continue to dislike abuse of the Rule of Law by those who think they can act with impunity, whether they be in the private or public sector or in positions of existing influence. I am part of a Tory tradition of respect for our institutions, our national way of life and the need to reform only where necessary. The maintenance of the balance between rights and responsibilities is at the very heart of what I believe being a Conservative is all about. I get angry when the moral basis of my Toryism is questioned by those on the left who choose to be ignorant about it and who, even worse, assume a moral high ground that is not theirs to own.”
…and bringing it up to date
“Let us bring it all up to date, then. What did it mean to voters in Swindon this year? My message was one of continuing service, an improved economy, greater investment in local infrastructure and a politics firmly focused on people. After years of steady engagement, we enjoyed support from a wide cross-section, and particularly active support from members of the black and minority ethnic community. My campaign team is predominantly young, with students and twentysomethings literally making the running. I am supported each week by male and female borough and parish councillors from a range of ethnic backgrounds. The one thing we are not is unrepresentative. This didn’t happen through deliberate selection, incidentally. It happened because the positive message that we continue to propagate captured their imagination and support. In putting people first, we are telling a Tory story that was liked by those who heard it.
When our Prime Minister came to office, she rightly acknowledged that she had come to power at a turning point in our history. She acknowledged the achievements since 2010 that delivered economic credibility, reduced the deficit and saw more people into work than ever, describing our government as a One Nation administration. She spoke about the importance of the British Union, and then memorably addressed the challenges facing many parts of our society, including young people and home ownership and the struggle of many to get help for mental health problems and her aim to tackle them. She re-iterated that deep commitment only a few weeks ago at Manchester, offering a unifying message of action on the things that matter, such as housing, mental health law reform and a defence of “free and open markets, operating under the right rules and regulations.” She talked of how free markets have underpinned the rules-based international system that inspired 70 years of prosperity and rising living standards across the world. Note the timescale; this is a reminder that the Tory story did not begin in 1979.
In looking forward, then, we can draw upon the rich experience of a Tory heritage that supported and encouraged the development of the welfare state, built houses for our families and was not afraid of using the machinery of Government in order to foster greater social order and social responsibility. We would be wise, too, to remember that language is important. We used to talk about “choice” in an age when there were only four TV channels and when your phone, electricity and gas were supplied by the state. In a 21st century where not only do we have hundreds of TV channels but a choice of media via the internet, then choice is a “given” thing for this generation.”
Scaling up people politics and the challenge of housing
“Instead, we should be talking about quality, effectiveness and value. When we talk of the free market, the language should be that of opportunity, of giving people their chance to succeed, of fairness and of being on their side. A “people politics” that many of us practice locally but which needs to be scaled up if we are to have continuing relevance. The way in which we approach the electorate, too, is going to be important. It is no good insulting or patronising those who didn’t vote for us by suggesting that they are the enemy or the passive victims of an organised deception. Many who didn’t vote Conservative in my constituency did so not because they were ideological and divisive, they did so because they were worried and deeply uncertain about the future. The answer for us to take their concerns seriously and to work hard to persuade them by our actions and responsiveness that voting Conservative makes a difference. I know that many of them are repelled by the language of division and moral superiority that many on the left deploy. In short, they are looking for a positive message from us, that talks about rewards for people who do the right thing, for example.
This positive message doesn’t have to be the unachievable “change” that socialist Labour peddled at the election and at their Conference. In reality this is a complete reversion to outdated, divisive and dangerous set of politics that will destroy jobs and prosperity. In the words of Iain Macleod, when he referred to the original Brexit, namely the withdrawal from Empire: “The socialists can scheme their schemes, and the liberals can dream their dreams, but we at least have work to do”.
And work we must; positive work that has a real impact. It would be too easy to take the election in June and hit the reset button, forgetting all that we have done and what we promised to achieve. We must continue the Tory tradition of house building and home owning that has delivered prosperity to millions of people. I am profoundly encouraged by recent moves to up the ante on housebuilding, from increased funding for new Council houses to the stated resolve of my colleague the DCLG Secretary of State to seek more Government borrowing to build the hundreds of thousands of new homes we need each year. Many of us have been invoking the spirit of Macmillan and the Tory housebuilding of the 1950s, so the issue now is: how to do it. I believe that nothing short of a development corporation approach, akin to the successes of Cardiff Bay and other areas during the Thatcher years, will address the issues of land ownership, the cost of land and the need to cover the costs of infrastructure that so often form a block to development. Working with the private sector, we can then move to conventional housebuilding but also, vitally, new methods of construction that will deliver homes in months, rather than years. The financial services sector has to step up too by providing mortgages for these new types of home. Then, and only, then, will we deliver the hundreds of thousands of new homes that will give younger people a vital stake in our economy and our society.”
Growth, innovation and job creation
“It is not only housing that we need to focus our attention on, but also job creation. The Government’s aim is to do more to reinforce the UK’s place at the vanguard of innovation. Through technological advancement we improve lives as well as creating jobs. Advancement in the areas of medicine, transport and communications we reap economic rewards, whilst improving people’s health, social care and security. UK Research and Innovation, an organization this Government has created, has been created to do exactly that. It is dedicated to developing the best new technologies, with the aim of putting the UK at the forefront of innovation. It is no co-incidence that its headquarters is in Swindon. It is the town that I represent that has been the home to so much innovation, from the Great Western Railway, via the automatic change turntable through to the IT patents, engineering skill and motor manufacturing innovation of today. Whilst the debate over AI rages, the key for me is to make sure that advances in artificial intelligence fill the gaps in our reach first and foremost and that we take care to identify those areas of human activity that simply do not allow their replacement by machines.
What generates much of our growth and innovation? Our small businesses, which are at the heart not only of our economy but also of the Tory story and which are increasingly being set up by young people. Allowing our smaller businesses to escape the burden of the rates system altogether with business rates reduction and by lowering small business corporation tax will ensure the UK leads the way in G20 and maintains the need for a business led recovery. We need even more drive and focus when it comes to policy to give our small start-ups a bigger chance to survive and expand, particularly in those first few, often difficult years. In 2016, 660,000 new businesses have started in the UK, a record number and something we have helped with our start up loan system and the British Business Bank. The challenge is on, however, to ensure that more of these businesses scale up to larger enterprises, which is why LEPs must do more proactive work in this vital area. However, too much of this economic activity is centred in London, with investors unwilling to back new start-ups in areas other than our capital.
Very recently, we have seen Apple opening Oxford University’s first facility dedicated to turning more of its 23,000 students into successful entrepreneurs. Our Local Enterprise Partnerships could emulate this style of practice by nurturing new starts-ups and providing facilities with a space in which entrepreneurs can work on their ideas and meet like-minded people. In these spaces, those with the best and brightest ideas, could by mentored by professionals and potentially offered equity funding. Like similar facilities in the private sector, there could be joint working with established businesses, who could be part of advisory boards and offer financial backing.
The growth of small businesses gives more and more people a direct stake in our economy and our society, as does the growth of employee share ownership. It is encouraging to note that over two million employees now have some form of ownership of shares or share options in their places of employment, but I am of the view that we should be considering bolder ways in which to involve workers in the operation of businesses in order to create a greater sense of daily, direct responsibility for levels of service or quality of production. The best of our businesses have already learned to work in this way, but I am sure that more can be done to create a framework of greater co-operation and co-ownership, whether by a new legislation or by an extension of best practice. This approach is to my mind a renewal of our determination to widen the spread of what should be the benefits of a free and fair market.”
“Giving more and more people a direct stake in our economy all helps to reduce the widespread mistrust in market economics that was generated as a result of the banking crisis ten years ago and which persists. The other main way in which trust will be restored is to strengthen confidence in the enforcement of our laws. The successes of the City of London and of UK businesses more widely, including our financial services industry, have been built on support for the rule of law, assisted by our independent judiciary and legal services sector. It is a key reason why people choose to invest in our country, so when there is concern that some of us aren’t being brought to account for failing to adhere to the same laws the rest of us have to abide by, this causes loss to all of us. The Tory approach requires an even stronger adherence to a set of standards and, yes, further reform in order to change the culture.
We have already taken action to move in this direction. I spoke recently about the implementation of new corporate criminal offences of failing to prevent bribery and now, in recent weeks, a new offence of failing to prevent tax evasion. The Government has been gathering evidence on the case for introducing a new offence of failing to prevent economic crime, which can be committed by a body corporate, removing the need for the Prosecution to have to establish evidence of a “controlling mind” who was responsible for the criminal behaviour. This hurdle has been a significant barrier to past prosecutions of corporate wrongdoing, and has done nothing to enhance the view in some parts of our society that there is one law for some and another for the rest of us. It meant, for example, that other jurisdictions were better at holding British Companies to account than we were – not good for our international reputation, either.
To those who say that this is the heavy hand of an intrusive Government, I beg to differ. If we take the United States, for example, they have maintained a business-friendly, free market economy, whilst policing its boundaries with vigour. An important aspect of this is the rise of corporate monitoring in the US, where independent monitors, paid for by the companies themselves but adhering to independent, rigorous processes, regularly examining companies, making sure that court orders are being complied with and that the law in general is being observed, with duties on the monitors to report breaches to the company and to deal with serious breaches by direct reporting to state authorities. Monitors will also make positive recommendations to companies to change or improve procedures; in other words, companies paying for constructive but robust scrutiny. This is the kind of culture I want to see flourish here in the UK; the participants themselves, as well as state agencies, ensuring that their activities are within the law. This is a Conservative approach to addressing concerns about corporate responsibility.”
Doing the right thing
“The way in which our legal system responds to new methods by which old offences are committed is an important test of our resolve. Nowhere is this more challenging than in the area of fraud and online crime. Almost six million online fraud and cyber-crime offences were committed in England and Wales last year. Many of these crimes will remain undetected and unpunished. This is corrosive not only to people’s sense of security, but to the rule of law itself. Why should the rest of us play by the rules when others act with impunity? The Government is taking this problem extremely seriously. At the end of last year, we announced a new five-year National Cyber Security Strategy. Supported by £1.9 billion of investment, the strategy set out our commitment to tackling cyber crime in our country with detailed plans on how threats will be managed and a new National Cyber Security Centre as part of GCHQ, with a team of around 700 people. Whilst awareness and preparedness for cyber crime is increasing, we still have a long way to go to protect businesses, charities, and individuals against this threat.
I believe that our financial service institutions must develop more crime prevention measures to support customers who are elderly or otherwise vulnerable, for example. Institutions like Nationwide Building Society, based in my constituency, have already taken action to provide tailored support to customers with life limiting conditions, which I believe must be a precedent for wider work by the financial services industry to introduce processes and systems that design out much of the opportunistic fraud that affects people with vulnerabilities and which has, up until now, been treated as a question of insurance write-off rather than as crimes that undermine the integrity of the system. And for anyone who questions whether this is achievable, just remember how the motor industry rose to the challenge of car crime in the 1990s by improving car security and “designing out “ car crime.
The common thread to all of this is a sense of joint endeavour, with the law enforcement agencies of the state being supported by the sector itself in a way that enhances detection of crime but, even more importantly, will lead to greater adherence to the law itself – a preventative approach that will yield results by doing the right thing. Doing the right thing has to extend not only to those who are starting up new enterprises, but those who, selflessly and without complaint, take on caring and other social responsibilities towards other family members or within their local communities. We should do more to reward our carers, who save us millions per year. We should look at further tax breaks or other cost reductions for our carers, to acknowledge not only their hard work but the burdens placed upon many of them who have given up work in order to carry out their caring responsibilities.”
Our future relationship with the EU
“In preparing my remarks, I have had to resist the temptation of trying to cover all the political topics that are on my mind, but I was more easily tempted to avoid references to Brexit. I have not given in to that temptation. It’s no secret that I was an ardent Remainer and have no regrets about my vote, but what happened last year cannot be ignored or undone and I understand the need for new beginnings. In many of the debates I took part in before the referendum, I made no qualms about my opposition to a Norway-style deal and explicitly warned that withdrawal was not a “pick and mix”, allowing us to stay in the single market and reject freedom of movement, for example. I do not want to see us leave to the European Union to have a reheated version of what we once had, with all the expenditure but none of the direct influence or input. I strongly believe that reaching an agreement with the EU about the terms of our withdrawal and the way ahead for our future relationship is in the best interests of our country, in order to achieve that crucial element of stability and as high a degree of certainty for our businesses and communities as possible.
One of the most remarkable elements of our nation’s history is our ability to emerge stronger from perceived setbacks. Perhaps more remarkable is the consistent lack of fanaticism, save for, perhaps the years of the Commonwealth in the mid 17th century. Taking a British, pragmatic approach to Brexit has to be the right way to go, and this is what I see happening in the negotiations. Brexit is but an episode in the life of our relations with the rest of the continent. We have to now look over the horizon and start to outline a New Europeanism, where bilateral engagement and new structures of co-operation have to be our aim. The Single Market was a job incomplete; why should we not pursue greater integration of our service industries, our energy industry and the digital economy with new treaties in the years to come? Taking the long view, since the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain’s trading influence in Europe has never dwindled. These long and deep roots cannot and should not be eradicated, for the sake of jobs both here and in Europe itself.
So finally, I return to that question about the political cycle, and what may happen next. Although the rhetoric of shining cities and a new Jerusalem has never sat well with us, don’t think for a moment that we are not interested in, nor capable of inspiring, such feelings. We are. The hope of a society where everyone has freedom and equality of opportunity under the law, the hope that we will achieve the necessary balance between development and conserving what matters; the hope that our genius for innovation will generate more prosperity for us; the hope of a new glory for our country and for our people, delivered by the practical approach of One Nation Toryism. That is our “Certain Idea of Britain” which should inspire a new generation to keep telling and keep living the Tory Story for the rest of this century.”
“The Conservative Challenge; a Tory story for the 21st century” was delivered yesterday at the offices of the Cicero Group.