Luke de Pulford is Director of the Arise Foundation.
A conversation I had:
Me: “What do you think Boris is going to do about modern slavery?”
Wonk: “Wasn’t that Theresa May’s thing?”
Yes, really. But can you blame our friend, the wonk? If you don’t feel sorry for those who “do” policy for a living, you don’t know enough of them. These are people chained to the electoral cycle, tasked with solving intractable social problems over the course of a single parliament.
“I want to hear new ideas ricocheting of your sinuses like a pinball” Dr Stewart Pearson tells his Government Thought Camp in The Thick of It. Exaggerated, of course. But policy-by-tennis-ball-chucking is an actual thing.
It’s even worse these days. Special Advisers have the added complication of having to churn out flagship “cause” ideas to help their bosses become Prime Minister. How any serious policy actually gets made under these circumstances is stupefying.
The issue isn’t so much that our system of policy-making has a baked-in superficiality. Well, it is that. But it’s also that that crucial issues drop down the agenda merely because they bear the brand of another MP.
If there were a policy graveyard, it would be littered with epitaphs to government campaigns owing their origin as much to the politician promoting them as the issue itself. Political protagonism is the death of policy. Step forward William Hague on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Remember that? Or Amber Rudd for her work on FGM. More latterly, Jeremy Hunt’s superb efforts on Christian persecution (which FCO mandarins sought to knee-cap from the start). Did someone say Big Society?
It’s a long list. We haven’t solved these problems yet, by the way. We just don’t hear about them any more. Someone else’s “thing”.
But this isn’t a piece about how indignant we all should be. It is merely to say that some issues are bigger than the people promoting them. I don’t think it’s controversial or earnest to insist that eradicating slavery is too important to become the property of a single government or politician. Yes, Theresa May did great work highlighting it. But the real surprise is that it wasn’t picked up before. It’s hardly a new phenomenon. More surprising still, perhaps, is that, despite the May premiership, it is still a long way from being an embedded government priority. If this seems hyperbolic to you, I’d be interested in how you explain the weekend’s news about a woman who was repeatedly trafficked for “sex” after Home Office failures.
After all, over 40 million people are reckoned to be enslaved. Forty million, for pity’s sake. The prospect that the UK’s modern abolition effort might end up buried in a Theresa-May-shaped coffin is a worry, to put it mildly.
Greta Thunberg isn’t helping either. She’s absolutely bossing the sustainability agenda (that’s what slavery comes under in the business world, in case you were wondering). By the time she’s through berating hordes of masochistic elite about the climate, there’s no time left to discuss the enslavement of human beings. One well-known businessman lamented this as the Greta Effect. Depressing, but you have to hand it to her: she’s effective.
Meanwhile, though, the number of slavery victims in London is skyrocketing. Containers full of dead Vietnamese people are being deposited on our shores. The global number of enslaved people is stable at around the 40 million mark. And even the UK’s support for people who have suffered slavery is uncertain. What we are doing isn’t working. You don’t need to be a blue sky thinker to work that one out.
There’s a message for Boris Johnson in all this. The cause of abolition is no more the property of Theresa May than William Wilberforce. Ending slavery is going to require tenacity, ingenuity, optimism and sheer courage – leadership capable of finding a way of unshackling the wonks, making businesses step-up, and rooting the cause of abolition so deeply across government that it actually happens. It will be difficult, but is it possible? Absolutely.
As with another key area of public policy, May did not succeed, despite her best efforts. And as with that other key area of public policy, it’s over to you, Prime Minister.