Boris Johnson does have a vision but is misunderstood

The government has some big ideas, but its purpose is the re-establishment of democracy and the creation of the common good.

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This magazine last week (14 February) carried two pieces attacking Boris Johnson’s government from opposite directions. Stephen Bush accused the Prime Minister of timidity and a lack of big ideas; Adrian Pabst said No 10 is revolutionary, bent on creating a “technocratic uber-capitalism” at odds with the traditions and peace of the nation. 

They were both wrong. The government has some very big ideas, but its purpose is the re-establishment of democracy and the creation of the common good. Though Bush admiringly recalled the speed with which David Cameron’s government brought about its education and welfare reforms, the profound changes we need today are not in the public services – but in what lies above and beneath them: at the top of Whitehall and in communities themselves. We need to improve the quality of government and the well-being of local places. 

This is not a revolution but a restoration. Most immediately it is the restoration of politics to its proper place at the apex of our common life. Last week’s reshuffle put Michael Gove in charge of the government’s reform of legal rights and responsibilities. This will examine the judicial review process by which judges can make policy. Politicians, on behalf of the people, should take the decisions and make the rules: civil servants and judges should implement the decisions and apply the rules. That balance will be restored under this government.

The merger of the No 10 and No 11 teams means that the PM and Chancellor can now insist that economic policy is subject to political will. For example, the Treasury spends 80 per cent of its housing budget on the areas with the biggest gap between house prices and earnings – the majority of which are in the south-east of England. We need more of that money to be spent improving northern cities and towns, spreading prosperity and alleviating pressure on London and its hinterland. In the past governments have sought to shift investment to the North, but the Treasury has prevailed against politics. That will now change.

The challenge of northern renewal reflects a historic reality. For the citizens of the global South and East, tech and globalisation have created a huge increase in income per head; the last two generations have seen the greatest improvement in living conditions in history. They have also seen rich Westerners get richer. But for ordinary Westerners outside the finance sector and the capitals of culture and innovation, tech and globalisation have been a mixed blessing. 

As consumers we have little to complain about; machines and cheap labour abroad have delivered affordable products. But as producers, we are in crisis. Incomes have been more or less stagnant for a generation. Perhaps worse, people have lost the dignity and purpose that comes from meaningful productive work, a development not sufficiently compensated by cheaper iPhones. Concentrate these individual losses in places that have also suffered cuts to local services since 2010, as the government clawed itself out of the budget deficit, and the result is the hollowed-out towns, suburbs and coastal communities whose voters have revolutionised our politics in recent years. 

Boris Johnson’s first major speech as prime minister, three days after entering No 10, was in Manchester. He praised the transformation of the city centre and applauded the Labour mayor – but wondered about the places beyond, the “towns with famous names, proud histories, fine civic buildings” facing “endemic health problems, generational unemployment, down-at-heel high streets. The story has been, for young people growing up there, one of hopelessness, or the hope that one day they’ll get out and never come back.”

These are the places that Johnson has set out to restore. I have heard him call himself a “Brexiteer Heseltinian”. Like Michael Heseltine’s work in Liverpool and London’s East End in the 1980s, Johnson is committed to the restoration of once-proud communities through investment in economic infrastructure, in skills and in the “social infrastructure” that makes places liveable, safe and just. 

Far from a techno-capitalist dystopia – what Pabst calls “data-crunching futurism” – modernity is being pressed into the service of the traditional. High-speed trains and superfast broadband will make local places economically viable. We will save the town and the village by connecting them to the world. And new technologies can enable the affordable construction of beautiful, traditional homes in places they suit. 

The restoration of communities requires a transfer of authority as well as money. In his Manchester speech Johnson acknowledged that Brexit was a vote “against concentrations of power in remote centres”. We are not taking back control from Brussels to hoard it in London. Cities, counties and towns will get greater autonomy and responsibility.

Adrian Pabst and John Milbank’s important book The Politics of Virtue called for a twin reform: better elites and deeper local democracy. The former will flow from courageous leadership in No 10; the restoration of political authority over functional specialists; a streamlined and data-savvy civil service; corporate reform to remoralise business; and the protection of free speech. And we will deepen our democracy by the empowerment of places; investment in economic and social infrastructure; reform of skills and higher education so that success doesn’t always look like getting to London and never going back; and a focus on civil society and citizen responsibility. This is the radical-conservative plan of the Johnson government: neither timid, nor destructive.

Danny Kruger is MP for Devizes. He is a former political secretary to Boris Johnson and chief speechwriter for David Cameron

This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics

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