, 36 tweets, 8 min read Read on Twitter
The thing I find most frustrating about British politics is how nearly everyone with political power or a media platform is myopically focused on how Britain navigates the next few years, while there is no national conversation about where we want to be in 10, 20 or 50 years.
Both sides of the Brexit divide are guilty. Continuity Remainers want only to reverse Brexit and make it so that the EU referendum result was nothing but a bad dream. Hard Brexiteers have their platitudes about Britain swashbuckling its way to WTO rules-based free trade glory.
The truth is that Britain has entered a state of political discontinuity, where the old left/right political divides, "acceptable" policies & talking points are no longer adequate to the issues we face. We're not alone; other Western countries face the same, but are ignoring it.
We have been here before. In the late 1970s, when Britain was the sick man of Europe and beset by high inflation, unemployment, uncompetitive nationalized industries and restive industrial relations, the post-WW2 consensus broke down. Neither the Tories nor Labour had the answer.
Back then it took a small group of thinkers working within @CPSThinkTank to effectively hijack the Conservative Party from within, seeding it with new ideas and the courage to take actions which had previously been seen as politically impossible, to pull Britain from its malaise.
Today, in 2019, the realization is again dawning that our main political parties are fighting the battles of past decades, not offering solutions to the problems we face today - issues like automation, outsourcing, global migration and reconciling democracy with global regulation
The other day, Honda announced that it was closing down car production in Britain, for a variety of reasons (of which Brexit uncertainty was a contributing factor). This should be spurring a conversation about the strengths & weaknesses of our workforce and competitive landscape.
What kind of economy do we want? What workforce do we need to make it happen? What kind of infrastructure & tax incentives do we need to deploy? What competencies are we willing to lose, and which must we retain at all costs? Does all this support our national security strategy?
That's not to say we need a statist National Industrial Strategy of the kind that Theresa May once spoke. This is more fundamental - not interference in day-to-day industry but the curation of our national competences in a way that will allow the free market to benefit us all.
Do we, for example, want to continue to bribe foreign-owned (and often state-owned) industries to locate production in parts of the UK which our own broken political system has failed for decades to revitalize on its own? Or do we want to do something smarter?
What's going to happen with renewable energy over the next 25 years? Do we want to encourage R&D and investment here with a view to positioning UK startups and corporations for future global success, or are we happy to profit maximize off the remaining days of fossil fuels?
More manufacturing or less? What about finance? Do we want to maintain our economy's current reliance on the City of London, double down on that reliance by specializing even more deeply in financial services, or promote a rebalancing pivot away to other industries?
It almost doesn't matter which side one comes down on with these questions. What matters is that decisions are positively made in terms of their impact on all of the other areas, with eyes open as to the various opportunities and costs. What matters is that there's a STRATEGY.
Do you honestly believe that there is ANYONE in the British government or Opposition right now with a mental time horizon that extends beyond 24 months? Even a year is a stretch for this government, living as it does on borrowed time and by the grace of the other parties.
Maybe there are some grownups in the Civil Service who take a necessary longer view and keep the show on the road. But even this is problematic - when long term planning is undertaken by civil servants without direction from elected politicians, then democracy is undermined.
In some ways, our EU membership acted like an anaesthetic, numbing us as this crisis of strategic leadership grew and festered within British politics. Following the EU's trajectory absolved British politicians from the need to set their own (and win support at the ballot box).
Thus recent British general elections have been little more than student union-style elections over which party leader gets to be Comptroller of Public Services. The role of PM has become less a world leader and more someone we moan to about NHS waiting times or train fare hikes.
It need not be this way. #DespiteBrexit, Britain actually faces a moment of opportunity. Peer and rival countries face exactly the same challenges, but none have attempted to meaningfully address them, tell their citizens difficult truths or plot a new strategic way forward.
Britain at least has taken the plunge. The reasons behind Brexit were many & varied, but they reflect a realization that the status quo is broken beyond the ability of a few tweaks in regional spending or public service policy to repair. The question is what we do with this fact.
All of this requires another thing almost entirely absent from British politics, namely COURAGE. The courage to tell voters harsh truths rather than pander to them. The courage to think beyond the Overton Window, not just to the past (like Corbyn's socialism) but to the future.
Rising to the moment requires ideas & leadership. But how to generate ideas when think tanks are a shadow of their former glory, and when so many academics have debased themselves, either speaking beyond their expertise, getting Naked for Brexit or indulging in identity politics?
And how to create any sense of urgency about the need for new ideas and leadership when the media lack any expertise of their own and are reduced to putting two opposing ideological zealots in a TV studio and watching the sparks fly, as they chase ratings?
What we need is not more whining about Brexit and competing ideological fantasies but a hard-headed, sober analysis of our national strengths, weaknesses & priorities. Where do we want to be in 2030, 2040 and 2050, economically, socially, geopolitically? And how do we get there?
It's not that we are presently making the wrong decisions. The problem right now is that NOBODY in power is making them at all. We are at an absolutely pivotal moment in history in terms of technology and governance and culture, but as a nation we are drifting without a rudder.
Other countries (and to a large extent the EU) are drifting too, or at least operating in willful ignorance of some of these trends. But that won't last forever. At some point, somewhere in the world, leadership will assert itself. Far better for us that it happens here, and now.
In the 1970s, an influential report called Stepping Stones was commissioned by the Conservative party (then in opposition) to analyze Britain's shortcomings, identify the linkages between them and propose a set of mutually-reinforcing policies to address those challenges.
Margaret Thatcher then took that report with her into Downing Street, and it directly influenced her government's reforms, policies which (despite their flaws & side effects) rescued Britain from decades of managed decline which had previously been accepted by all as inevitable.
We need another such report today. We need a fearless analysis of the state of modern Britain, a report whose starting point for government is not "what can we do to placate enough people to let us cling to power?" but "what do we NEED to do to overcome our national challenges?"
If a British politician stood up today and issued that challenge, I would give up every spare waking hour and walk through fire to aid that national effort. But instead I am asked to choose between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, between JRM's Brexit or Lord Adonis's status quo.
Lincoln once said "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present". The dogmas of the ERG, the Corbynistas & the Blairites are similarly inadequate. The cracks in our society and economy will not be papered over with tax cuts or tweaks to income redistribution.
My vision for Future Britain may be quite different to yours. But the important thing is having the national discussion, so we end up in a future of our own collective choosing, not one chosen for us by lobbyists, special interests or other geopolitical powers.
I don't know how much worse things have to get in British politics before they get better, but I suspect that if somebody doesn't put the bigger picture & the national interest ahead of their political future very soon, we will all be living with the consequences for a LONG time.
And the responsibility for that lies with us all - everyone who voted for Brexit. Everyone who voted to remain hitched to the EU. We all have a responsibility to INSIST that our politicians think and talk about these things, because our priorities are their incentive structure.
I'm running out of original ways to say this, but somebody needs to take the freaking wheel in this country. Otherwise determining Britain's possible bright future will be nothing but a counterfactual game of "what might have been?" for tomorrow's alternative historians.
Here endeth the rant.
Oh, apart from to say that I wrote about some of this stuff - particularly around the Stepping Stones Report and our need for a modern equivalent - back in 2017: semipartisansam.com/2017/11/14/dis… #discontinuity #leadership #Brexit #strategy
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