The issues grow and the politicians shrink
The last ten years have seen the challenges facing Britain growing stronger – even aside from Brexit. The global rise of authoritarian strongmen, an economy unable to generate a decent rate of growth in living standards, collapsing home ownership, a looming pension crisis, the highest taxation rate in decades despite talk of austerity, a crisis of identity within the UK and West itself, migration pressures on an unprecedented scale.
What has been the response? On this site last week, Andrew Gimson criticised the dire, answer-evading language of modern politicians, particularly Theresa May. But the problem is worse than a few leaden speeches. In the sweep of their policy response to these major issues, what do our cliché-ridden rulers propose? Ending plastic cups, gender quotas for boardrooms and banning Tony the Tiger. No wonder there is a feeling of general crisis.
The complacent political class and its struggles since 2016
Occasionally, in the house journals of the establishment, the Economist, Financial Times and Times, articles still surface about how people should be more grateful for our wonderful ruling class. But as the anger expressed in vote after vote shows, Western nations, including the UK, are seeing a revolt.
So our leaders applaud themselves for having, over the last decade and a half, installed a handful of cycle lanes in London – when over the same period, Shanghai has gone from a three-line metro to the largest metro system in the world. (And while traffic speeds across London, partly down to said lanes, drop). On ever-increasing amounts of borrowing, we eke out sluggish growth. For ordinary people, life generally is good, thanks to the basic classical liberal framework of our society – but stagnant wages and poorly handled social change intrude more and more into their lives.
It was a sign of just how complacent and entrenched this cross-party consensus is that Labour had to go back to a man elected in 1983 to escape it. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s success comes because they know what they want to say – and they are not held back by the complacent and soggy consensus of Westminster in saying it. It was this that led Labour to the most successful election campaign of recent times in 2017. Whereas the Conservatices published, with the exception of its commitment to Brexit, the most Establishment manifesto the country has seen for decades: reheated corporatism posing as radical change.
The depressing truth is that politicians nanny and hector over such small issues because far too many of them are either unaware of, or terrified of, the bigger issues at stake. So, they retreat to gimmicks, clichés and virtue signalling – often on the territory of the left.
The Left’s control of the language of politics makes it hard for conservatives to think big
Part of the problem in coming up with solutions for the Right is that the Left has taken over the language of politics very effectively, and we have let them do so. If you are too afraid to even state your case and stand up for your values, how can you ever begin to persuade people to stand with you?
So conservatives often fall into the traps created for them. To take one example, once you start talking about correcting a ‘gender pay gap’, you are halfway to agreeing to whatever solutions the Left demands. As this excellent briefing shows, many argue there is no gender pay gap for full-time workers between 22-39. There is a cost to motherhood – but that is quite a different matter, and should be debated as such.
More broadly, if you think that there are unconscious biases in our society, then remove them – but the best way to reduce the impact of such bias is through the market, which rewards good ideas and hard work whoever they come from. In addition, if different groups of individuals make different choices then they will see different outcomes. This is not the fault of society, but a result of different choices by those individuals.
When we do defend our principles, it is nearly always in a mealy-mouthed way, as if we are apologetic for having the temerity to speak up. We support freedom of speech – except when people say something that other people take offence at. We support the private sector – except when it comes to lower taxes or reducing regulation. We think that very high levels of immigration create social and economic strains – except that Theresa May and David Cameron appear to be the only senior Conservatives since 2010 who have actually supported a “net tens of thousands” target that allows in ‘only’ 450,000 or so a year. Over time the easiest thing for those on the right is to do and say nothing at all. So they do.
The Left’s control of language is assisted by many factors – the fact that most stakeholder groups want more Government spending not less; that most broadcasters are progressives based in London; that left-wingers demand those not following their semantic rules are kicked out of public life, that universities are run by postmodern left-wing academics (where Remainers outnumber Leavers by ten to one).
We are also undermined by the fact there is always a ‘Conservative’ willing to depict any attempt to stand up for conservative values as extremist and unrealistic. Much of this is interlocking – i,e; any ‘green’ group will be portrayed in the media as the good guys, academics will row in behind them, and we bend over backwards to get their approval, not challenge them.
We need solutions to the big issues – not word games or micro policies
Today, even refusing to join in the Left’s language games is seen as an act of rebellion. Boris Johnson, while defending the right of people to wear a burqa (a liberal minority position in itself) faced several days of opprobrium and is now under a frankly bizarre investigation for making some jokes while doing so. In America, Donald Trump rejects those who seek to police language by using language that is deliberate in its offensiveness.
But in the long run, we need to make a serious attempt to tackle the issues set out earlier. How can we fix home ownership? How do you solve the pension crisis? How can we reduce state spending more effectively? How should we deal with the migration issue? We need to show how to use a conservative and classically liberal approach to stop the tide of both identity politics and the growth of the state.
Ultimately you can only really say something worthwhile if you have something worthwhile to say. The reason that language games and gesture politics has grown is that many at Westminster do not have any wider plan or philosophy to cope with these issues. The depressingly small policies that emerge at Westminster are the result of a depressingly large failure to grapple with the serious issues – and the revolt in politics will only grow until these major issues are dealt with.