Sam Gyimah is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons, Probation, Rehabilitation and Sentencing and MP for East Surrey.
The Brexit referendum result was a democratic demand for change. To deliver, we must direct the same passion and intellectual energy into addressing what kind of country we want to build post-Brexit, as we do to the process of withdrawal from the EU.
The vote to leave expressed dissatisfaction with the limitations of the European project, and demonstrated a belief that new opportunities for our country lay outside the EU, but it also contained a huge protest against a society that has left so many feeling disaffected. It laid bare the chasms between young and old, North and South, towns and cities. Add to this the cultural and racial fault-lines revealed in the Race Disparity Audit and it is plainly clear social reform is as important as trade deals post-Brexit.
As Prisons Minister, everyday I see the extreme results of what happens when we don’t solve the deep social ills in our society. Family breakdown, failures in the care system, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems and young people failing to reach their potential at school; all contribute to the cycle of re-offending. And yes, while prisons exist to punish and help prisoners turn around their lives, it is also clear to me that many of these problems could be addressed – with compassionate conservative policies – long before the escort van reaches the prison gates.
An agenda targeting poverty, housing and the growing regional disparities is essential for dealing with the root causes of a growing prison population and a broader dissatisfaction with the state of the country. No longer can we have children from the poorest backgrounds falling behind at school, members of black and ethnic communities who are less likely to get a job because of the colour of their skin, or those from Lincoln being left behind by the effects of globalisation, while those in London thrive on its benefits. So the pressing question is: what future do we want?
Arguably, Brexit, and all it entails, is the biggest challenge facing us since the Second World War. But like the leaders of that era we must consider not only how to win the proverbial war but also how we will win the peace and sow the seeds of prosperity for all Britons, for generations to come.
While the resources of the wartime government were rightly focused on the defeat of Nazism, some of the most innovative thinking that shaped post-war social policy happened in the darkest days of the war under the Conservative-led coalition government; the Beveridge Report on the welfare state of 1942, the Butler Report on Education of 1944 and the Willink report on Healthcare (which formed the basis of the NHS), of the same year. So, while the economist William Beveridge is widely remembered, the intellectual endeavour of two Conservative ministers, Rab Butler and Henry Willink, crucially helped build a new social contract out of the ruins of war.
These ground-breaking works offered a reward for the sacrifices of the war and a vision of a better future. A vision that went beyond the necessary austerity, and indeed rationing, which continued into the 1950s. A vision that gave people hope and laid out a clear direction for the country. The party that embraced this vision and won the political argument for it – the Labour Party – was the party that won the election in a landslide.
If we, three generations on, are to learn the valuable lessons of the past, we must listen and respond to this renewed demand for social change with Conservative solutions that cut to the heart of the matter; because any deal, whether you voted leave or remain, will not tackle the social rifts laid bare by the referendum.
Now is the time for a Conservative vision for a future that goes beyond Brexit, to map out the path that gets us there, and to champion this plan. A vision that goes beyond the next election and takes us to 2050, that we can build together.
We are leaving the EU, reasserting our sovereignty, and we will therefore have no-one to blame if our action falls short of our ambition.
As we push for the deal we need and plan for life after it, social reform must be central in our minds. Prisons are a reflection of society and I hope in the future, when we look into that mirror, we like what we see.