Roberto Unger is right: we need a post-Brexit national project to help us unite and rebuild. Just as in the 1950s Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role”, so in the 2020s we have left Europe and not yet found a purpose.
What prevents such a project is the chronic short-termism of British politics. The longest perspective for a prime minister is at best the next election. That makes it difficult to pursue large national projects.
We have practised long-term politics within living memory: the post-Second World War Labour government introduced the radical social reforms that transformed Britain. But these reforms were maintained by successive governments under the much mocked “Butskellite” consensus – a bipartisan approach to the NHS, universal secondary education, pensions and the welfare state that lasted up to Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979.
Any national project built on the rubble of Brexit and Covid-19 will require similar bipartisanship. No government is going to risk reform by itself. Long-term projects require political parties working at the political centre, willing to maintain successful experiments enacted by their predecessors (a rare recent example would be the introduction of academy schools).
Two of Unger’s prescriptions for his national project might address the problem of polarisation and enable national rebirth.
[see also: The system cannot hold]
The first focuses on AI, machine learning and robotics. The threat automation poses to society is real: according to the Office for National Statistics, it could destroy up to 1.5 million jobs. But the opportunities automation offers for transforming the country by helping us overcome our productivity problem are perhaps greater still.
I don’t agree with Unger that “the state can encourage technology to evolve in ways that enhance labour rather than replacing it”. But I do think that the state is going to have to help transform our economy and society to deal with the impact of automation.
As Unger rightly points out, this will require a “radical reform of British education” to convert schools from narrow exam factories to places of imagination, innovation and technical training. Education should start at birth and continue throughout life, while the divisions between academic disciplines should be erased. We also have to end the apartheid separating the concentration of skilled work in metropolitan cities and the unemployment, stagnant wages and unskilled work in towns and the countryside, which is a fundamental cause of our political polarisation.
The second prescription is “radical devolution”. One of the remarkable things that the Covid crisis has revealed is the crucial role of metro mayors armed with real powers. As Unger suggests, asymmetric devolution could enable innovation in the economy to be “established in decentralised and experimental form”, as happens with state governments in the US. This could begin to distribute skilled work and prosperity around the country.
A national project is only possible with a common set of values. Unger suggests we “act on the idea that the overriding aim of progressive politics is to empower the mass of ordinary men and women, so that we become bigger together”. That sounds remarkably like the new Clause IV introduced to the Labour Party’s constitution by Tony Blair in 1995: “By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential…” Perhaps that would be a good formula to unite all progressives behind a new national project, so we can emerge from the ashes of Covid and Brexit.
Jonathan Powell was chief of staff to Tony Blair from 1995 to 2007
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold