Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity
Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss
Palgrave Macmillan, 152pp, £12.99
It has been so long since there has been any trace of original thought in the parliamentary Conservative Party that it is a cause of profound shock when some comes along out of the blue. After its well-merited defeat in 1997, the party became afraid to be conservative. This was because in the decade or so after that defeat the party was hijacked by centre-leftists who saw an opportunity to change the nature of the beast. They hectored people in the mainstream about the need to “detoxify” what the present Home Secretary called “the nasty party”.
In truth, the party under John Major had been a left-leaning party. And it had been roundly defeated in 1997 because it was full of sleazy MPs and provided a government run by incompetent ministers – and not because it had made a point of being vile to women, homosexuals and black people.
Since then, ideas have been driven out of the party. In order to become Prime Minister and enjoy, as it now seems, power for its own sake, David Cameron simply embraced the consensus. Conservative policies became whatever Cameron thought the public wanted. The party, like New Labour before it, became obsessed with focus groups and polling. I recall, only weeks before the collapse of Lehman
Brothers in 2008, being told by one of George Osborne’s advisers that the Tories intended to maintain spending at Labour’s destructive levels, and to “share the proceeds of growth”. There was no intellectual engagement with policy, simply the pursuit of the popular for its own sake. These people were too stupid to realise what was really happening in the economy and to grasp its unsustainability. These same idiots are now in power.
The five Tory MPs who have written this book are manifestly a cut above that. One of them, Elizabeth Truss, was promoted to the front bench as an education minister in the recent reshuffle and we have not heard the last of her. She and four of her colleagues – Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Chris Skidmore – have produced an intelligent, evidence-based programme for economic revival. Their words, because of the empiricism that underpins them, have an authority not seen in a policy submission by a group of Tories since the original One Nation group in 1950.
This book deserves to be taken seriously by all with an interest in politics, whatever their beliefs. It especially deserves to be taken seriously by the clique of complacent, trust-funded PPE graduates who call the tune in the Tory party.
The methodology of the book is surprisingly simple. The authors look at other nations and ask why they have the drive to advance, and we do not. They seek to explain why India, Canada, Israel and even Brazil, with all its poverty and social problems, have lessons to teach us. Yet it is not all negative: pointing out that our birth rate continues to increase while that of most other European countries is falling, the authors hint that in a generation or two we shall have the human raw materials to secure great prosperity in the global marketplace – provided we educate and instil the right values into those people. The main obstacles that we as a nation seem to suffer from are over-regulation and over-intervention by the state: two factors that have produced a sclerotic aspect to our economy and, indeed, to our wider society. There is, it seems, no “can-do” culture, because the overbearing state will not permit it.
Many on the left will dismiss the arguments of this book as, to use Theresa May’s phrase, “nasty”, but they represent a long-overdue confrontation with a reality that the present government seems not even to have half the measure of. The authors say things that no Tory minister, anxious to pursue the party line about “detoxification”, would dream of uttering: for they would counteract the pretence that there do not have to be what Tony Blair used to call “hard choices”. The authors state that we continue to live beyond our means. They say that without serious cuts in taxation, funded by even deeper cuts in public spending, there will be insufficient impetus and incentive in the private sector to economic recovery. They quote Jim Callaghan’s admission 35 years ago that a country cannot spend its way out of recession. They warn the present opposition that nothing has changed: it is demented to argue that the way out of a catastrophe caused by excessive borrowing is to borrow some more. There has to be a better way: and the authors seek to find it. They expose, by implication, the scandalous inaction of a government that, in so far as it was elected, was put in office to revive the economy. But they also indicate the fatuity of an opposition whose only plan to solve a problem caused by excessive spending is to spend more.
The authors identify welfarism and high taxation as the two main disincentives to employment. Most controversially, they identify the absence of a work ethic among many in Britain, partly caused by those two factors but also because of a failure to make the link between effort and reward. They observe a society where the desire to become a footballer or a pop star, with fantasies of excessive wealth, has undermined the notion of getting an education, working hard and becoming self-reliant. They talk about other cultures, some of them well-represented in our country, where parental attitudes towards education and self-improvement are superior to those of many Britons, and which as a result flourish economically. For too long, the authors say, we have worked too little, lived off credit and allowed ourselves to be outfoxed by the industry and talent of our competitors. If we don’t stop, ruin is the only option.
The absence of grammar schools has – as even some on the left now admit – reduced social mobility. The welfare state has encouraged some parents to lose a sense of responsibility for their children and to regard their education as an optional extra. Without properly educated people, the authors argue, we cannot grow: but, as they also hint, the upbringing of children is about more than filling them with academic or vocational skills; it is teaching them the right attitudes and imparting to them a work ethic.
It will be instructive to see what future the Tory party holds for the four authors who did not receive preferment in the reshuffle. Since the four of them are more able, original and thoughtful than about half of the present front bench, they should not resist the temptation to conduct the odd seminar in the House of Commons, in the press and on television in order to keep up the pressure. The Conservative Party has plumbed a depth of cynicism not seen since the early 1970s and the locust years of the Heath government. It does not only seem to avoid ideas: it seems to fear them and hate them. The closest the present Prime Minister has come to one was “sharing the proceeds of growth” (RIP) and the so-called “big society”.
Britain is in an economic crisis the like of which has not been seen since the 1930s. It was not of the Conservative Party’s making, but a Conservative chancellor, hemmed in by Liberal Democrats, has made it worse than it needed to be. Only a fundamental change of direction in our economy and in the ground rules for our society can provide the change of direction essential for us to flourish. The start of the blueprint for that is seen in this book. I doubt Cameron will have the guts to follow it: but perhaps, one day, one of these five will.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail