2019 07 – Review of Tory Brexit ideas

The Supporters of Boris Johnson for Tory Leader and Prime Minister

We are re-publishing the review below to draw attention to the politics of the five Tory authors who believe a hard or no-deal Brexit will not harm the British economy. To a man and woman they are ardent believers in an unregulated free market economy and  enthusiastically supported the austerity programme carried out by the Cameron/Osborne and May/Hammond governments, which has caused so much hardship and misery to so many families across the country. Although they claim to believe in Britain, they clearly do not believe in the British worker.

‘Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity’

By Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Priti Patel MP, Dominic Raab MP, Chris Skidmore MP, Elizabeth Truss MP.  Palgrave MacMillan 2012

Five ‘fiercely bright’ new intake Conservative MPs offer their thoughts and a kind of manifesto about how to put the ‘Great’ back in Britain again. It is an opportunity for the rest of us to get some idea of whether there is any fresh thinking or intellectual substance  at work on the political right in Britain. So what should the verdict be?

The central claim of ‘Britannia Unchained’ is that the British are workshy and that this has to stop if we are not to be engulfed by global competition. In particular we Brits don’t work hard enough at school and are averse to doing hard subjects like Maths and Physics and consequently our economy fails to innovate. Benefits are too generous and public sector pensions are subsidised by the rest of the taxpaying population. We need to get our deficit down if we are to be prosperous and Canada is the model that we should follow at the macroeconomic level.

British youth in particular is obsessed with celebrity and pop culture and mistakenly believe that their idols have got to where they are without any effort. They need to realise that results come with hard graft and that innate talent cannot make up for elbow grease. There isn’t much to disagree with in this part of their analysis. The British, and the English in particular, are not terribly keen on education and have not been for quite some time. On the other hand, their rulers have not been too keen on the majority getting a good education either. Given the dearth of jobs that require any intellectual effort it makes much more sense, from their point of view, to have a labour force of happy pigs rather than discontented philosophers. Recent reforms of schooling by governments from the Thatcher era onwards, designed to promote accountability in schools have reinforced this trend. Teachers have become ‘deliverers’ of education and are held ‘accountable’ for the results of their pupils. However education requires effort from the educatee as well as from the teacher and if teachers are made to feel that they are service providers and that they alone are responsible for their pupils’ education, then demotivated pupils will happily rely on their teachers to do all the hard work for them. Kathryn Birbal-Singh’s book on a year’s life of a teacher in a London Comprehensive, ‘To Miss with Love’, brought this out clearly.

However, Kwarteng and co do not have any solutions to this problem. There is no awareness of the need for improving the quality of teachers through better teacher education, and no appreciation of the importance of factors outside the school, for example of the importance of the lack of routes into work, other than through higher education nor of the shortage of good jobs for which a good education is required. There is no criticism of the featherbedding of employers who take rents from the taxpayer to make up the meagre wages of the low skills jobs that they offer, no mention of the state’s responsibility to encourage better employer behaviour by itself providing more apprenticeships. In their world, there are featherbedded scroungers on the dole and that is pretty much the most significant problem that we face. The whole debate about vocational education and economic renewal seems to have passed them completely by. They do not understand that school  reform needs to go hand in hand with labour market reform. Their solution, to promote a hire-fire culture and cut benefits will just reinforce the low skill, low wage economy in which Britain currently languishes. They lament the fact that we have immigrants who are willing to do jobs that Brits will not do. Fair enough, but they have no answer to this phenomenon nor to the broader fact that in any country there are jobs which the locals would rather leave to immigrants. Short of starving reluctant Brits into seasonal fruit-picking it is not clear how our authors would address this issue, other than by whingeing about it.

The authors clearly admire maths, physics and computer science and regard other subjects as a soft option. I do not know what subjects they studied at university but their grasp of recent British political history leaves something to be desired, as does their awareness of much of  what goes on across the Channel. Some of them at least are arch Euro sceptics and regard the ‘social democratic’ regimes of northern Europe as an outdated model, although they do not say why. The suggestion that we might have something to learn from the successful social partnership arrangements in the economy  of Germany for example simply does not belong to their thought world. As for British history this is chunked up into decade-long disconnected gobbets: 60s – optimism; 70s – pessimism; 80s – renewal under Thatcher: more optimism; 90s – initially pessimism then optimism; 00s – optimism, hubris and downfall. No attempt whatsoever is made to understand the history of this period and in particular the way in which Thatcherism, although it trimmed the power of irresponsible trade unionism, singularly failed to do anything other than reinforce the chronic weakness of the British economy.

I picked up this book in the hope that it would indicate some vigour on the right of British politics, something that one could get one’s teeth into and which would make the ‘battle of ideas’ relevant to British politics once again. There are lots of footnotes and facts and figures are strewn around with abandon (always carefully selected, of course). Sadly this book shows that the new generation Conservative right are Manchester liberals who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It may well be that this does not matter, as the battle of ideas is not usually won in the sphere of ideas but through the appropriate application of power and force. This book is a good display of the arrogance, shallowness and ignorance of the current breed of younger generation Conservative MPs. It comes as no surprise that some of them, such as Dominic Raab, belong on the extreme Euro sceptic wing of the party. Fantasy plays a large role in their political make-up.

Christopher Winch