It is easy to laugh at the collapse of a centrist political party within a day of it being formed – if you have anything to do with a centre-right website, at any rate. And it is easier still to mock it as being an establishment enterprise rather than a radical one, since its founder proposes that Britain remain a Single Market member – the ultimate establishment policy. Certainly, the launch of the Radicals on Twitter by Jeremy Cliffe, the Economist‘s Berlin Bureau Chief, had its comic side, and he is duly being lampooned as the Dr Strangelove of the pro-EU movement. Furthermore, his is the second recent pro-EU party to self-strangle at birth, following the non-flourishing of James Chapman’s Democrats. And inevitably, the Radicals’ plight has launched a thousand homilies on the nature of social media and the appetite for a centrist venture, none of which are necessarily untrue simply because they are repetitous.
Fewer have scrutinised the 21 policies that Cliffe floated for the Radicals, and this is a pity, because doing so is instructive. The package cannot simply be written off as an establishment one – even though it certainly contains at least one other classic establishment policy, “introduce PR”. Nearly all of it would indeed involve sweeping change to our political system. Indeed, bits of it are undoubtedly right-wing, without being remotely Tory: for example, he proposes that we “increase health- and social-care funding by adopting Sweden-style social insurance model”. But this idea is not the core of the author’s plan, which is as follows.
The UK would be broken up into a series of city states. The capital would move to Manchester. Scotland would get Home Rule (Cliffe is silent on whether this would lead to a devo-max for the whole UK, a proposal floated in our own ConservativeHome manifesto a few years ago). These states would be linked by a mass of high-speed and other railways. “Accelerate construction of HS2. Immediately green-light HS2, Crossrail 2 and Crossrail 3. Launch planning for HS4, HS5, Crossrail 4 and Crossrail 5,” barks the manifesto. The green belt would be abolished. The immigration cap would be scrapped. Five million houses would be built in five years.
This sounds like a manifesto for younger voters, but that isn’t precisely the right take, since they would presumably be paying for healthcare twice over – for their own, via social insurance, and for that of the retired, via the same means. (Though this would admittedly be a variant of what happens already.) It could also be mistaken, with its pro-migration and pro-Single Market approach, as a manifesto for London, where support for both was evident last June. But the capital would lose that status under the plan, and Westminster would lose a mass of powers.
It would be more accurate to say that Cliffe’s plan is essentially a Manifesto for Cities. He wants “city states”, please note, not city-and-country states. What would happen to the bits of England that are nowhere near a city and don’t identify with one – through which the author’s high-speed trains would whizz? On reflection, it is probably not accurate to label the scheme a manifesto for cities, since its preoccupations don’t seem to be those of the suburbs (whose retired residents might not want, for example, to be liable for Cliffe’s higher inheritance taxes). Rather, it is a Manifesto For Bits Of Cities – namely, the bits of them inhabited not just by younger people, but by prosperous younger people: Conservative-voting Wandsworth; Labour-leaning Hampstead. Even the new national parks that would replace the parts of built-on green belt have an air about them of being built for city visitors – arriving with a whoosh via those trains.
It is no bad thing to be thinking of prosperous younger people. They are a part of the mix. But doing so leads one to conclude that while a few of Cliffe’s proposals are good, more are bad and some are very ugly, what the whole lot of them don’t remotely add up to is a One Nation Manifesto. Essentially, his programme would look to reverse, and with a vengeance, the present policy bias towards prosperous older people and the greater south-east. But a challenge to politics during the coming decade is to do so by building consent, with special thought for those whose boats will not be lifted by any rising tide of prosperity. These are the victims of Iain Duncan Smith’s five giants: failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency. All but the third scarcely register in Cliffe’s modernist manifesto. The footprint of children is strikingly absent.
Maybe Radicals or Democrats or Radicrats or Demicals will come along in due course to break the mould. But not with so narrow an appeal.