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Artillery Row

Flourish we must

British conservatives must focus on action over rhetoric

The most important political consequence of Brexit is that there is nowhere to hide. Leaving the EU was a constitutional decision about where power lies, and the British people insisted that it lie in their own country, in their own parliament. With power comes accountability, with sovereignty comes responsibility, far greater than that our politicians have had for decades. This is both a great burden, and a great honour for Britain’s politicians. 

But few can say that our political class has lived up to these demands so far

But few can say that our political class has lived up to these demands so far. It has become a cliched observation in the last year to say, but the Conservative Party has revealed itself as an institution ruthlessly focused on winning elections, but unable to govern in the interest of its voters.

This manifests itself in many ways, each more infuriating than the last. Ministers sit in government departments with countless powers at their disposal and a handsome majority in the House of Commons, but complain limply to the press about how they can’t deliver their policies because of judges, or activists, or charities, or their own civil servants. 

They have got to the point of blaming the Leader of the Opposition for the Just Stop Oil protests which brought London traffic to a halt day after day. The clue is in the name: he is in the Opposition, he is not in fact in power, despite it often feeling like it. 

Similarly, ministers say they cannot overrule the Mayor of London’s expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), despite having in theory the greatest power of them all: a majority in the House of Commons. Strangely, it has led some Tory MPs to support vigilantism against this policy, instead of using their actual constitutional and democratic powers to legislate. One wonders what we elect MPs for, if it is not in order to legislate on our behalf. 

Perhaps we simply have the wrong people. The demands and opportunities of sovereignty and democracy might be beyond the current political class, raised and attuned to the norms of the long 1990s. Unfortunately, even those who managed to achieve our exit from the European Union have been found wanting when the stage was theirs, and theirs alone. Much like the skills needed for founding a company are different to those required for running a global enterprise, the reality of governing Britain outside the European Union, today, has fundamentally different requirements to that of the pre-2016 world. 

There were some glimmers of hope, but few, if any, unqualified successes. The ambition of the UK Internal Market Act to realign Westminster with local communities throughout the whole country, bypassing the failed devolutionary administrations, ended with a climbdown over the position of Northern Ireland in the Union. Long overdue reforms to judicial review which turned the courts into a political arena are seen as a missed opportunity, and did little to tackle the economic destruction wrought by judicial review in housing and infrastructure. Most successful has been the country’s renewed geopolitical and trading ambition, marked by the submarine pact with the United States and Australia, and the accession to the CPTPP trade agreement, which show a modern understanding of national interest and British purpose outside the European Union. 

However, these have been overshadowed by the emergence of a model of conservatism as little more than drift, and a democracy which is more cosmetic than it is real. From ministers who govern via press release and media briefings, to the local hero brand of MPs who see their role as campaigners for taxpayer money rather than national legislators, British conservatism has retreated from governing, and is scared of its own Brexit-shaped shadow.

The Conservative Party from David Cameron’s era onwards attempted to reshape itself to appear more like the Britain it wished to represent, instead of using its multiple election victories to restore and defend our country and its constitution, and make the country more conservative. 

British conservatism focuses on rhetoric over action

British conservatism focuses on rhetoric over action. Despite whatever populist editorials ministers may pen in the press, the tax burden is at a record high, migration continues to soar despite all promises to the contrary, and our economy is so over-regulated that the construction of Sizewell C nuclear power station has been struck down in the courts for not being sufficiently environmentally friendly. One could be forgiven for hoping for a little more vigour from a supposedly populist governing party.  

Compare this administrative deficiency with the Labour Party, which reshaped much of society during its time in office. The vast majority of Labour’s political and economic architecture remains. Survey the land and see the constitution created by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; the rigidities and iniquities of the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act, which has racialised and divided our country, encouraging people to see themselves primarily as members of minority groups; the top rate of tax; the expansion of the administrative state far beyond democratic control; a dysfunctional NHS; and asymmetric, subsidised devolution, to name but a few examples. 

This is the landscape on which contemporary British politics is fought. Despite increasingly excitable rhetoric, the substance of politics and governance remains remarkably unchanged. Whitehall operates largely as it did within the EU. The extent to which our political parties debate economics, if at all, focuses narrowly on income tax cuts, redistribution, and the views of the Office for Budget Responsibility, rather than making the median British family as rich as their counterparts in the United States.

Compare conservatism in Britain to that in America. While drift and paralysis reign here, American conservatives have been forcing serious institutional change in state-level politics in places like Florida and Texas. They have been reforming schools and universities, and using executive power to deregulate their economies, attract business investment, and encourage growth. Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation are producing serious and strategic plans for reforming the federal government. We solemnly wait for an election, our parliamentary schedule like a ghost ship.  

Maybe a government that embraces risk and adventure is simply not possible with our welfare state. See the difficulty the Tories have had in their quest to deregulate and diverge outside the EU. It has been a punishing ordeal. The few ministers who dared to make headway were rounded upon not just by the Labour Party but their own colleagues, whose conservatism extends to protecting bats and newts, at the expense of human flourishing or prosperity.

But flourish we must. National prosperity and democratising our state must be our aims; ending the housing crisis by building beautiful new towns and suburbs and ending mass immigration; and allowing businesses to flourish with cheap and abundant energy and the most attractive tax and regulatory environment in the world. These are basics of governance, but we are failing to get them right. This must be Britain’s conservative mission for the coming decade, and it requires a new generation of missionaries to make it a reality.

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