George Freeman is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum and is MP for Mid Norfolk.
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.” Ronald Reagan.
Never has Reagan’s famous Conservative aphorism been more pertinent. As some of us have been warning for over a decade, it’s now clear that the debt crisis following the crash of 2008 has triggered a major crisis of political economy: a crisis of public trust and legitimacy in the relationship between power and wealth in our society, and the ability of traditional party politics and Governments to solve it.
As recent elections have shown, the electorate are getting fed up with technocratic tinkering and want bolder reform. The new dividing line in British politics is between those who have been lucky enough to own assets – principally a house – through the boom years, and those who see little prospect of being able to. We need to rediscover again the spirit of Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which was committed to the bold redistribution of economic power and opportunity.
At its heart, the debt crisis we face is inter-generational. As David Willetts described in his brilliant book The Pinch: How The Baby Boomers Took Their Childrens Future, a new generation under 40 have inherited a broken model of public finances and national insurance – the combination of unprecedented debt from the 2008 bank bailout, a QE-fuelled house price boom and rising household living cost inflation, combined with low wage growth from historically stubborn low productivity and underinvestment in technical skills training, made worse by rising taxes and fragmented and demoralised public services. To deliver on its promise, Brexit needs to be a moment of inspiring national renewal.
The stark choice we face is reform or decline. As in the 1980s, we must be the leaders of a Great Disruption to shake up the status quo, empower consumers, and open up markets here at home, and around the world, to new entrants for a new cycle of growth.
With wages and household spending power falling, and exhaustion in the public sector after seven years of Whitehall imposed spending cuts (which we led the public in 2010 to believe would eradicate the deficit by 2015) the danger is that we come to be seen as the defenders of a broken system of failing Big Government, rather than bold reformers only half way through the job.
As the public begin to demand fresh thinking and new approaches, we have to make sure that Brexit is seen as the moment we reboot the spirit of conservatism as an insurgency come to London on behalf of the people we serve: to recapture the reforming spirit that Maggie and her great Cabinets harnessed as they took on a broken establishment in the 1980s.
Whilst the Prime Minister brilliantly defined her social justice crusade on entering Number Ten, we haven’t yet framed a coherent economic programme to tackle the underlying economic causes of the injustices which so many voted against in the election: the growing unaffordability of housing, the dominance of too few big companies in markets such as energy, house building, banking, telecoms and utilities, and the rising taxes on middle England combined with falling real spending on frontline public services that we all rely on. The Chancellor is right to signal that we need some bold moves to signal that we ‘get’ the grievances. And that we mustn’t embrace “Corbyn-lite”. It isn’t the answer. And risks tempting voters to vote for the real thing.
No, we need a more distinctive Conservative programme of economic reforms: opening up markets to new entrants, radically empowering consumers, unleashing the power of technology and innovation, freeing up mayors in our great city regions to raise infrastructure bonds to accelerate housing and public transport investment, giving councils more freedoms to retain and reinvest the proceeds of local economic growth, a more inspiring and empowering approach to rewarding public sector leadership and reform, and a bolder ‘skills passport’ offer of an industry training placement to all school and college leavers without a job, to build on our quiet revolution in technical education and apprenticeships so that we have the lifelong learning for all we will need for post-Brexit success.
All of this requires a coherent Conservative vision of Britain ‘beyond Brexit’: of how we make this a moment of reform and regeneration capable of inspiring even – perhaps especially – those who didn’t vote for it.
Whilst renewal in office is something that parties have historically struggled to find the space for, fortunately, the extraordinary political turmoil of the last few years creates a natural moment to reboot and reset our defining mission as a Conservative generation looking beyond Brexit.
With the Government locked down in the negotiations, no majority in the Commons for controversial legislation, and with the urgent task of modernising our Party’s campaigning and membership made all the more urgent by the appearance of Momentum and a rejuvenated Labour Party, I believe we could regain the political momentum by the Prime Minister announcing that we will use this unprecedented window to instigate a bold programme of Conservative Party renewal, with a new Chairman and political team at CCHQ to oversee the intellectual, organisational and cultural renaissance of a conservatism fit to shape and lead us through the 21st century.
After the failure of an ill-conceived election campaign which let down the Prime Minister, the Party grassroots, 30 good Conservative MPs who lost their seats, and our professional team at CCHQ whose advice was ignored, an ambitious programme of Conservative Party reform would signal real commitment to learn the lessons and restore both the low morale, and falling numbers, of our membership. Given the deepening disconnection between the Conservative Party and the new generation of aspirational voters under 45, the new intellectual battle of ideas reshaping our political landscape, this is now urgent.
That’s why I’ve suggested the Prime Minister turn this challenge into an opportunity for our Party to lead the intellectual, organisational and cultural modernisation of conservatism for the twenty-first century, and frame the political debate with Jeremy Corbyn. We need to reach out, too, to the many who have become disillusioned. If we don’t, we will cease to be a national movement of reform and end up simply talking to ourselves.
That’s why I launched the Big Tent Ideas Festival and the Capital Ideas Foundation to champion the enterprise, innovation and new approaches we need to tackle the most intractable problems defeating traditional Whitehall policy makers. And it’s why I’ve stood down as Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board in Number Ten, to focus on my role as Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum. We need a strong Conservative forum and voice – outside of, but heard inside, Government. A voice on behalf of the grassroots members through the CPF, of our new Tomorrows Champions leading the new policy conversations we need to have with younger voters, and of backbench Parliamentarians through a Conservative Policy Board outside of the constraints of the Government machine.
I would go further – why don’t we launch a “Conservative Commission for Britain Beyond Brexit” to work over the next 18 months on looking ahead to what the next few decades will bring, and setting out a long term Conservative vision and programme for how we make Brexit a moment of profound reform in which Britain harnesses the pace of 21st century technology and social and economic change?
This Commission should include not just our brightest Parliamentarians and reformers from both sides of the EU Referendum debate – from Nick Boles to Priti Patel and the new generation of MPs come to Parliament during the last few years, but also modern business leaders, social enterprise pioneers, our best council leaders and campaigners – so that the Conservative Party is harnessing the talents of all those we need to make a success of Britain beyond 2020.
At its heart this vision of Britain Beyond Brexit needs to have a coherent Conservative strategy, vision and programme for a resilient long term economic recovery. It needs to recognise public exhaustion with ‘austerity’ 2010-17, and to set out a more exciting and inspiring model of growth, incentives for public sector productivity and efficiency, support for our best public sector leaders we rely on to deliver modernisation, and a New Deal for the Next Generation who have been hit by a triple whammy of personal tuition fee debt, unaffordable housing and a national debt and deficit inheritance for which their parents generation – not they – are responsible. We need to signal we will make Brexit to be a moment of opportunity for them, too.
What we don’t need is the reheated socialism of McDonnell. As I set out in my speech in the City at the IPPR Economic Justice Commission last week (which John McDonnell also addressed) none of our structural economic problems will be solved by his plans for Renationalisation, a £500 billion spending spree, more welfare dependency and old left union obstruction to modern public services. Behind Corbyn, the new Che Guevara-in-a-cardigan pinup of the British left, lurks a proper hard left marxist class warrior in McDonnell. For McDonnell read “McMarxism”. Proper class war socialism which Corbyn would happily work with the Scottish Nationalists, and Vince Cable, in Parliament to implement. (That’s another reason why Ruth Davidson’s inspiring leadership of our Party in Scotland is so important.)
Our Party’s genius has always been its ability to hold fast to the small-c conservatism shared by the British people, whilst harnessing the spirit of the times to tackle the challenges of the times. Disraeli did it in the 1860s. Churchill did it in the 1930s. Thatcher did it in the 1980s. This is such a moment. Can contemporary conservatism adapt to rapid globalisation, to the fourth Industrial Revolution, to the new realities of post-crash economics and the new politics of identity, culture and a profound disillusionment with old fashioned ‘command and control’ government? Can we make Brexit the inspiring moment of national renewal it needs to be to succeed? Can we, like Reagan, harness an anti-establishment mood into a positive Conservative crusade for widening opportunity?
With the right plan, I believe we can.
We must: if we don’t, Comrades Corbyn and McDonnell have a very different plan.