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Artillery Row

Where are the real statesmen?

Neither populists nor managerialists can rule

With an insurgent Reform creeping up on the Tories in the national opinion polls, a certain sort of centre-right commentator has begun to rely on a curious intellectual comfort blanket, which reads as follows: “Farage might do well — he might even beat the Tories — but he won’t actually be able to govern.”

This is, of course, true. In its current state, Reform suffers from an operational ineptitude of Dad’s Army proportions, with a slate of candidates that accommodates golf club bores and extremist malcontents in equal proportion. The party’s infrastructure is anaemic at best, and its policy platform is packed to the gills with boomer-baiting appeals to nostalgia. Much work will be needed to transform Reform into the kind of sleek, professional populist movement that is making waves on the continent.

Alas, for most voters, this simply won’t matter. With Labour almost certain to form the next government, most of the electorate will cast their ballot on the basis of aspiration, attempting to nudge the Overton Window one way or the other. Voters who want to cut migration, slash tax, and punish the Tory Party will vote Reform. Those who want Labour to be more progressive will vote Green or Lib Dem, and those who worry about a confident Labour majority will vote for the Conservatives. Like it or not, this is an election characterised by ideological signalling rather than by competing visions for government. 

What’s more, while it’s true that Farage and his band of merry misfits lack the expertise required to govern, it isn’t clear that the Conservative mainstream can be trusted to do so either. Over the past fourteen years, the party has spectacularly failed to grapple with the country’s major structural challenges, distracted by infighting, vanity projects, and obstructionist civil servants; the result is a stagnant economy, sky-high migration, and an ever-expanding regulatory state. Against this backdrop, why should voters believe claims that establishment Conservatives are the adults in the room? 

In fact, red-blooded Faragistes and touchy-feely Cameronites alike suffer from the same affliction — both place far too much emphasis on electoral politics, at the expense of productive governance. 

For the former, it’s big, bold promises that are the most effective way to sway the electorate, combined with a plain-spoken style and a no-holds-barred approach to campaigning. For the latter, elections are about winning the support of broad, moderate coalitions, with a focus on consensus and respectability. Yet ultimately, both camps believe that politics is about winning elections rather than about getting things done. 

In government, neither approach is particularly effective. When populists win, they usually find that their lofty pledges do not translate easily into the desired outcomes — just ask Donald Trump or Giorgia Meloni. On the other hand, when people-pleasing vote maximisers come out on top, their reticence to undertake bold reform projects for fear of short-term unpopularity can have disastrous results, as Rishi Sunak is now discovering. 

The solution is found in a far older tradition, which seeks to directly address major structural challenges and to get the basics of government right; at its core, this is an administrative approach rather than a political one. Upon becoming King of England in 1154, Henry II inherited a country in turmoil — royal revenue was down by two-thirds since the beginning of the Anarchy, earldoms with quasi-regal authority proliferated, and the crown’s control over the church had been shaken. It seemed likely that royal authority in England would continue to dissipate, and yet by the time of Henry’s death in 1189, he had restored royal authority in England, and fashioned a new institutional infrastructure, while establishing Angevin dominion over Brittany and Ireland. Royal revenue had more than recovered, and the banditry which once plagued the countryside had diminished considerably. 

Henry’s success was not the result of mere fortune, or of divine providence. He was a competent, hard-headed administrator, who understood that his kingdom would succeed if its basic institutional infrastructure worked as intended. Under Henry, much of the power conferred to the earls during the reign of King Stephen was returned to royal hands, making it easier for the King to project authority. He was effective at identifying and promoting competent officials, and worked to strengthen royal authority over church appointments, despite the protest of figures like Thomas Becket.

Perhaps even more consequentially, he greatly extended the role of royal justice in England, shaping the modern common law and sweeping away the overlapping alternative jurisdictions which had emerged by the mid 12th century. Travelling justices were dispatched to the north and Midlands, and the role of local juries was expanded. The royal finances were re-audited, a new system of currency issued, and steps taken to get inflation under control. By some estimates, his reforms increased the Exchequer’s average annual revenues by more than 20 per cent over the course of his reign. None of this is particularly sexy, but Henry’s reforms made England a safer, more prosperous, and more stable place to live. 

the British right must stop chasing short-term electoral success at the expense of serious administrative decision-making

Ambitious reformers in the Henrician mould are littered throughout history — Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele all fit the bill. These three figures are characterised by ruthless competence, unsentimental pragmatism, and a systematic, methodical approach to policy-making. Each focused on getting the basic building blocks of government right before pursuing loftier long-term ambitions — that meant removing blockers to executive action, enforcing the law, and allowing the natural economic strengths of their respective countries to blossom. They did not shy away from making difficult decisions in the face of criticism; the acclaim that they now enjoy is testament to the efficacy of that approach.

For as long as our attention continues to be consumed by the five-year cycle of electoral politics, Britain will continue to stagnate and decline. Don’t underestimate how likely this outcome is, or how steep the decline could be; as Adam Smith once so rightly said, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. 

If there is to be any hope of a genuine national revival, the British right must stop chasing short-term electoral success at the expense of serious administrative decision-making. It must introduce a more meritocratic system for promotion within the party, and work to deliberately build relationships with talented professionals who have real-world management experience. Britain is not a country devoid of talent, even if Westminster might occasionally challenge this assumption. 

Most importantly, let us remember that winning elections is a means to an end and not an end in itself; if it ever wants to govern again, the Conservative Party must have a clear plan for what it intends to do after the ballots are tallied. Boring though this is, our country needs fewer people-pleasing vote-chasers, and more Henrician administrators.

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