Britain Has Rarely Needed Them More. So Where Are The Big Ideas?
Such has been the frenetic pace of politics that the Easter break comes as a welcome pause. Brexit and the Trump presidency have consumed politics. Then the tempo was heightened last week by Donald Trump’s strikes on Syrian bases.
Although politics will be far from the minds of many, the pause gives us time to reflect. Britain is undergoing one of the greatest changes in its post-war history. It carries considerable risks. The risk becomes greater when one considers the dearth of new ideas and bold thinking among our political class.
When she became prime minister, Theresa May spoke passionately about her unionist beliefs, about the need to tackle society’s burning injustices and, most intriguingly, about rebalancing capitalism, to help those who have not seen its benefits. Her rhetoric shifted dramatically to the left, abandoning the orthodoxies of the Cameron-Osborne regime.
The second female prime minister appeared to want to drag her party away from the legacy of the first.
Nine months into her premiership there remains little evidence that this agenda is anything more than empty words. Her one signature policy has been a return to grammar schools, an unnecessary and divisive policy that goes against every piece of evidence.
Not all of this is May’s fault. Brexit will be a consuming task. It is predicted that leaving the European Union will take up nearly three quarters of government business. However, what will take up the last quarter?
The prime minister has allowed her agenda to be thwarted or junked. Her industrial strategy has been so watered down by more traditional colleagues as to be pointless. She no longer mentions putting workers on company boards. In his budget Philip Hammond did not present any new ideas for increased funding of education, social care or the NHS. Even her schools policy will struggle to survive her slim majority.
We are no closer to answering the question, what does Theresa May believe?
Radicalism does not just exist on the extremes
Perhaps the answer is that she does not believe in anything much. Her fervent conversion to Brexitism merely demonstrates the same seriousness of purpose she displayed with police reform and immigration as home secretary, not belief in itself. Moreover, her aversion to appointing a heavy-hitter to oversee a domestic agenda means that a radical programme is taking a distant second place Brexit. May’s controlling instincts are inhibiting her premiership.
Such a lacklustre government would be easy pickings for an effective opposition. However, Jeremy Corbyn has not only given the prime minister a free pass on Brexit so far but he has absolutely failed to present a compelling direction for his party.
His supporters may dispute this but effectively Corbynism has become a stance not a reforming programme for government. Although in recent weeks Labour has improved its game in terms of specific policies, notably on the minimum wage and VAT on private school fees, they have not shaped an alternative direction for Britain. They are repeating the mistakes of 2010-2015 when Labour produced a series of superficially popular policies but with no overarching theme to attract voters.
Brexit may mean we never find out what Theresa May really stands for. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has been found out: 30 years of opposing every Labour leader he served under; yet when he is elected to a platform to propose a radical alternative, he chokes.
Whatever happened last summer - and the referendum result has been subject to endless speculation - it gave an indication that there is some sort of desire for change. Yet, change need not come from the polars of British politics. Radicalism does not just exist on the extremes.
we are given totems not equivalents
Some would argue that Brexit itself is a big idea. If it is, it seems to be one borne of small thinking. It is also one that will do little to address a system that favours the wealthy and already successful. What’s more it may cause our politicians greater public anger when the promises turn out to be mirages.
Perhaps we are seeing how Westminster politics stifles original ideas and fresh thinking. In the face of changing technology and, worse, the counter-revolutionaries of Trumpism, timidity is dangerous. Ideas of the “end of history” are short-sighted, to say the least.
It is on the outskirts where the most interesting ideas can be found. The Universal Basic Income may be an idea whose time has not yet come, but it does question how Britain can rebalance the tax system so that it no longer penalises the poor. The Green Party recently proposed a three-day weekend: perhaps it is time we revolutionalised our work-life balance in order to tackle a culture that erroneously equates long hours with productivity. Worries about immigration need not be address by knee-jerk xenophobia and closed borders: why not address internal labour market reforms by making apprenticeships compulsory for UK firms, as they are in Scandinavia or Germany?
Most of all, the state needs to disburse power from the centre to ensure that growth is no longer confined to a privileged group.
The middle ground in British politics looks increasingly empty. The loudest voices are the simplistic voices of regressive left and nationalist right. There has rarely been a greater need for big themes that recognise the benefits of globalism but is determined to invest so that more people can benefit from it. Instead, we are given totems not equivalents that acknowledge the huge changes of the last years and the vast challenges of the next.
Our leaders have proven themselves to be big on rhetoric but short on substance. Nature abhors a vacuum. So does politics. Now, more than at anytime in the last 50 years, there is an urgent need to fill it.
About the author
Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.
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