Dean Godson is Director of Policy Exchange.
There is more going on in British politics than Brexit. Yesterday at Policy Exchange, Michael Gove delivered a critically important speech – “The Right Environment for Growth – reforming capitalism for the 21st century”- that challenged some of the prevailing assumptions of the last three decades.
The importance of these ideas resonates across the aisle. The address was followed by a high-level panel discussion with a range of perspectives. Ruth Davis of the RSPB and Maurice Glasman of Blue Labour were joined by columnist Juliet Samuel and Sir Paul Marshall, the businessman and educationalist who has already shown a desire to bring together Leavers and Remainers under the banner of Prosperity UK.
In the same spirit, yesterday’s event also launched a new major programme of work for Policy Exchange to chart an ambitious vision of the future of the United Kingdom – a re-imagined role for the nation state, and towards a new national consensus.
Such new thinking is needed more than ever. British politics is today in a stalemate. No one side has an overall majority. Contrary to what we have been led to believe, neither side has momentum.
This was the only lesson to be drawn from last month’s rather inconclusive local election results. It is confirmed by polling figures which show both sides stuck on either side of 40 per cent.
And yet it would be wrong to say that this comes from the things that people have thought wrong about our politics for many years – apathy, disillusionment, or boredom with the alternatives on offer. The EU referendum saw a higher turnout than for any national vote in 20 years. In fact, whatever one’s view of it, more people voted for Brexit than they have voted for anything in British history.
On the one side, then, is a party-political deadlock and stasis, complicated even more by divisions over Brexit. On the other side, clearly, immense popular engagement with politics and a huge appetite for change. The two do not sit easily with other – an irresistible force and an immovable object. Our democracy may spit results that the political class finds hard to fathom, but it is in rude health, and it commands respect.
The danger – one that not only faces the think tank community but Westminster as a whole – is to become consumed with the everyday artillery fire of trench warfare. The last three years have seen the EU referendum sandwiched between two general elections. We live under the constant shadow of another.
Within and across camps, beyond Brexit, we see divisions. Old and young, metropolitan and provincial, degree-holding and technical, unionist and separatist, moderate and sectarian – the cohesion of the nation is at stake. We believe that think tanks can and should do more than get sucked into trench warfare, act like focus groups, engage in policy consumerism, and provide polyfilla for future manifestos
There is no use pretending that Brexit did not happen in search of a sticking plaster solution or a fresh face as the cure to all our ills. Likewise, simply peeling off segments of the electorate in the hope of cobbling together a majority reflects a poverty of ambition. To adapt a phrase from William Beveridge, a revolutionary moment in our nation’s history is a time for revolutions, not patching.
It is our view at Policy Exchange that the divisions over Brexit and the last two general elections obscure a deeper truth: that there is fertile soil for building a new national consensus. This can’t simply be a reheated or regurgitated version of past versions of consensus – or a return of the so-called “centrists”. It has to be bolder and more ambitious than 21st-century Butskellism, Blairism, or Cameron-lite.
Now, more than ever, there is a need for creative radicalism. That does not mean engaging in policy soundbites but wrestling with first order questions about the shape and structure of our polity and economy, the role of the state in society, national and regional identity, and our place in the world.
Gove’s remarks yesterday were very much in this mould. They sought to reach across the aisle without resorting to the memes of a hollowed-out centre ground. They are also a spur for Policy Exchange’s latest programme of work. That work will proceed under four main themes – four “Ps” which we consider to be the necessary pillars of a new national consensus: prosperity; people; place; and patriotism.
As every Conservative will understand, prosperity (the focus of Gove’s speech yesterday) is the foundation stone of everything else. It may seem remarkable that the Labour Party has managed to make such ground on the basis of ideas that threaten to turn back this country half a century in terms of economic health.
But it is no use being incredulous that Britain is faced with the prospect of a Chancellor in John McDonnell, who is a barely reconstructed, indeed self confessed, Marxist. Conservatives must wake themselves up from their stupor and seek more than campaign slogans.
Gove was surely right to warn that: “unless we rescue and re-invigorate capitalism then we will find the engine which has generated so much of mankind’s progress either stalls or moves into reverse.” We must ask if boosting prosperity requires a more proactive approach to the economy from government. Should more consideration be given to revisiting the nature of share ownership, the aims of monetary policy, and the reform of corporate governance? Of more importance than ever we must unleash Britain’s genius and spirit of innovation as we advance into the digital age.
For too long, the positive effects of capitalism have been hidden from too much of our population. We must ensure more people share in its benefits. The Brexit referendum and 2017 general election showed that many in our country feel left behind.
A relentless focus on higher education by recent governments has left little time or energy for the 50 per cent who will not go to university. Ironically, despite the increase in the number holding degrees, the UK has a yawning skills gap when it comes to the digital jobs of the future. This glaring blind-spot must be addressed.
We must also pay more heed to the unfashionable notion of “place” – be it where we live and work, or the natural environment we cherish. Housing remains the first-order challenge. The dream of owning a home is too distant for many. The quality of much existing housing provision, furthermore, is not worthy of residents in a self-respecting, modern country. The lack of attention to design and style fuels nimbyism. Who wants another soulless carbuncle in their community? Until we take seriously the matter of aesthetics, people will seek to protect their patch of these green and pleasant lands.
Finally, any rebooting of Britain after Brexit must be accompanied by a reimaging of our role in the world. Policy Exchange’s work in this area aims to drive the creation of a truly strategic foreign policy, on the basis of a broad degree of cross-party support. From our work with Jo Cox on atrocity prevention, to the endorsement of Ruth Davidson and General David Petraeus of our work on international development, we have sought to build consensus for a positive role for Britain’s place in the world.
Jingoistic flag-waving is not the answer. But neither should we talk ourselves down. There is a tolerant civic patriotism across the United Kingdom that can be harnessed and energised as the basis of a new unionism. We must also pay more attention to the state of our political discourse, which has coarsened in recent years. The creep towards intolerance and extremism must be opposed more effectively. We need to revive civility as the basis of a vibrant liberal democracy.
At Policy Exchange, we see ourselves as a full-service think tank – rejecting any neat distinction between domestic policy and foreign affairs. We believe that, despite the divisions of recent years, there is both an appetite and an emerging common ground to start to build a new national consensus. We see prosperity, people, place, and patriotism as the four pillars of that consensus – one that champions enterprise while advancing the commonweal; one that seeks to unite four nations, town and country, north and south, while seeking a new vision for our place in the world.