Lee Rowley is MP for North East Derbyshire, and Co-Chair of FREER.
Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Has there ever been a time when one subject so overwhelmed the political debate in our country? Where one political Death Star loomed over every facet of public policy to the point where, at least for the political class, nothing else appears to matter?
The last few months have felt as though we’ve entered some shadow realm where our relationship with Europe has obliterated UK politics. Brexit gnaws away at the most reasonable people, engulfs even the most tangential subjects and saps the life out of even the most joyful of conversations – and I say this as a committed Brexiteer. Even Christmas was not immune. MPs were told to use the festive period to reconsider the Prime Minister’s deal as if an over-indulgence of mince pies and sherry would result in a sudden epiphany that it was, somehow, acceptable after all.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I have as strong a view on Brexit as the next person (perhaps even more so than many!). Yet Remainers and Brexiteers alike must recognise the politicians are stuck in an ever-decreasing circle of fervour, hyperbole and hysteria. And all the while, those outside the bubble tire of the indulgence of the political class. The people made a decision two and a half years ago. And they are bored of politicians trying to frustrate it.
The people are completely right – and for two reasons. First, because we’ve got to honour the referendum result. Second, and just as importantly, they are right because we’ve got to move on. As a Party, there is so much that we have to do and, relatively, so little time to do it. Not just the day-to-day responsibility of government, which needs continuous attention, but also because we’ve also got properly to wrestle with the underlying bigger issues which are going to determine whether we continue in government, whether we have the right answers to future challenges and whether, crucially, we can defeat the resurrected zombie of 1980s socialism.
So as the meaningful vote debate gets underway again, here is an article that doesn’t primarily focus on the EU for a change. And here are six big issues that need our urgent attention when we, finally, move on from Brexit.
First, we’ve got to accept that there is a massive change coming in the way we live, work and play through technology – and that needs better thought and consideration than we’ve managed to date. Mark Wallace was absolutely right a few days ago when he talked about the need to embrace technology and the good that it can bring for society. Yet, more importantly, that change is coming anyway – and it is an abdication of responsibility if we don’t engage properly. A recent report suggested that in the next 20 years, seven million jobs will be lost – one in every five in the country. If the UK gets its act together, a similar number (or even more) could be created. But we need to think it through. And most people in Westminster still don’t even know what machine learning is.
Second, we’ve got to stop banning things. As Conservatives, we have a guilty pleasure for paternalism; our inner restraints occasionally loosen as we believe people need to be saved from themselves. We know we shouldn’t, but we do. Yet, that isn’t what our mission is about. Freedom is what sets us apart from the socialism – and that includes the freedom to make mistakes as well as take opportunities. If, as a party, we really believe in this principle then we have to have the hard conversations with the country about why government can’t do everything, not just bask in a warm glow of where it can. If we don’t make a clearer case about our belief in people, then we become a pale pastiche of Labour. And, for those who believe that people over-indulge too much on sugary treats already, why would people choose the Diet Coke version of nannying government when they can have the full fat one from Jeremy Corbyn?
Third, we’ve got to stop the money arms race with Labour on public services. As a Conservative, I believe in strong public services which help people up, support them when they need and make our country safer and secure. You need money to do that. But it isn’t an end in itself. Spending an arbitrary number on education or increasing the health budget by a similarly arbitrary figure focusing on the wrong thing. Corbyn is the one fixated on inputs and processes. We should care only about the transformation money can bring and the outcomes it delivers. Stop talking in billions. Start talking about what we want to do and what we want to achieve by when. How to raise the number of children getting world class education. How to improve cancer outcomes. How to connect people in the north by rail. Focus the debate on outcomes or we will lose.
Fourth, we are going to have to have a proper discussion about what we want government to do in the future. Demographic change, increasing demand and increasing complexity in health and social care are all going to strain public budgets in the coming decades. Some assessments suggest the NHS is going to need another £50 billion. The ONS thinks that there will be another eight million people over 65 in the UK in 50 years’ time. It’s fantastic news that we are living longer but it also requires us to seriously reform our public services to avoid us becoming a national care home with a country attached to it. People have a right to expect their government to come up with solutions and to be able to pay for it. We need a clearer conversation with the public and a strong reforming mission as we renew in Government in the run-up to 2022.
Fifth, we are going to have to work out how we restore democracy. Quite simply, the way in which we approach decision-making is stuck in the 1990s. Political manifestoes declare lofty ambitions once every five years and then politicians disappear off to squabble about them. We are awash in national and local consultations perpetuating a thin veneer of public involvement, followed usually by politicians doing whatever they want anyway. A hundred years ago, politics was the practice of educated people taking decisions for the uneducated. Absolutely rightly, no longer. Today, politics should be a continuous process of discussion, debate and interaction with everyone – where that interaction matters. And it will need to be a more local conversation than before which, by default, means accepting that services will be delivered differently in different places. Democracy is fragile. And we need to renew it.
Finally, we are going to have to learn how to “deliver” in government. Another little commented national scandal is the continuing inability, across all parties, of government to function. Carillion showed the limits of poorly structured services – not because private enterprise doesn’t work (far from it) but because it wasn’t set up properly. Sitting on the Public Accounts Committee every week, I hear horror stories of billions lost through poor Government administration and projects, both public and private. And the Civil Service leadership glides effortlessly through whatever screw-ups occur, no matter what. Real reform of government requires proper leadership, a proper understanding of change management and deliverers who are actually held to account. We aren’t even trying at the moment.
So, yes, Brexit is big. But other things are bigger. Taken together, these are the issues which will transcend individual portfolios and departments; the quiet problems which will monster us if we start thinking about them too late. So, this week, as Brexit again sucks all the oxygen out of the room, remember this: we are essentially fighting over a foreign policy pivot and a future trading relationship. Vast and existential they certainly are. Yet at some point the Brexit fog will lift. And, if we haven’t started to consider the underlying bigger challenges we face, then our party will be caught wanting. More importantly, our country will be poorer. And that’s a much bigger problem than whether flights will take off on 30th March (spoiler alert: they will). Time to broaden our conversation.