I spent the weekend before last in Germany as part of the Munich Young Leaders programme, as the only UK representative. While I would not want to play down our own domestic policy challenges, hearing the Ukrainian member of parliament from Donbass did provide some perspective. Global leaders gathered, and one after the other expounded on how dangerous the world currently is, how its challenges seem insurmountable and how it’s almost always someone else’s fault.
I’ve been impressed by the rise of Emmanuel Macron. In Paris a fortnight ago, it was obvious that the president’s team had a clear vision of what they wanted a modern France to look like, both globally and domestically. I couldn’t agree with it all, but I could agree that he had a vision – and he was starting to deliver on it. He is changing labour laws, investing more in the military, doing things people said he couldn’t, all through the prism that so often binds humanity together in challenging times – leadership.
In Munich, I saw the opposite side to that. A European Union refusing to accept the referendum result in the UK. A German defence minister espousing the “responsibility” of meeting Nato defence spending from the stage, while admitting in private that this ambition was years off becoming reality. A British PM being accused of ransom demands for highlighting Britain’s undisputed premier role in Europe’s defence spending and capability.
Donald the strongman
And all the while, Syria burns. If you haven’t seen it, you must watch the acclaimed HBO documentary, Cries from Syria. If you come away from that still feeling noble about your opposition to military intervention after the self-confessed errors of Iraq, I would question your humanity. Vladimir Putin, his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov (whom I met), Bashar al-Assad and other animals are ranging free over a people devastated by conflict for six years now. These cowards respect one thing alone – strength and leadership staring down at them from the other end of the negotiating table.
We lost that in 2013, and have been losing it ever since. The world is so turned on its head that Donald Trump’s actions in the unilateral US strike in April 2017 on Syria – following another use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons on civilians – ironically made him look like he was prepared to stand up for something. Trump, leading the way in moral leadership. Goodness me.
At home we continue to dodge the challenges, too. Every single weekend I knock on doors, and every single person I meet who works in the National Health Service – every single person in Britain, in fact – believes that the NHS is unsustainable in its present form. Frankly, if they didn’t, I would gently suggest that they did not understand the problem.
The NHS is something we are all supremely proud of – and more importantly are prepared to pay for. Polling for an increase in tax that would be exclusively used to fund the NHS was at 74 per cent when I last checked. We politicians can too readily fall into the trap of thinking people are somehow “stupid” to vote for Brexit, or wouldn’t understand the need for a comprehensive review of NHS funding. I strongly disagree.
It is not intellectually possible to argue that those who voted to leave the European Union were unaware of the resulting economic uncertainty. The Remain campaign was explicitly criticised for “overdoing it” in this regard. Similarly, it is not possible to argue that entering a bidding war over who’ll put more money into the NHS – without serious reform – is the way politicians should conduct national debate. It requires a vision. What will the NHS look like in 15 years’ time? How do we pay for social care? What is social care, and how on earth do we look at public health in the round?
Answering these questions requires a hell of a lot more leadership than simply saying we’ll tax and spend more. It requires a higher standard of political debate, and a higher standard from our politicians.
And that is the most galling thing about the present domestic and international agenda. At a time of profound challenges, we are perhaps enduring one of the most sub-optimal generations of political leaders the world has known. We are fixated by polling, social media reactions, focus groups and think tanks: the days of the visionary, bold, courageous leader seem to be on the wane.
A crucial year
I want our Prime Minister to do better – everyone knows that. But Theresa May was good in Munich; robust when challenged, clear in her asks, and she stood out. In many ways, we MPs are to blame. If Theresa doesn’t say exactly what we want, we club together with like-minded MPs and send her a letter, “leaking” it to the press. This is met by another letter from an opposing group within the Conservative Party, demanding she does it another way. What is she supposed to do?
Recent events show the advantages and disadvantages of our political system. The sanctimonious “vanity” vote on intervention in Syria in 2013 – David Cameron pleading with the House of Commons to stand up to Assad – vs the debate on joining the air mission in Syria in 2015, with MPs debating the tactical use of precision strike munitions (one of the rare things I know quite a lot about).
Our system can be wonderful, and allow scrutiny of legislation by all manner of people who have the privilege of being elected. But there is a time for discipline, and a time for national unity. I hope – as we enter into the last crucial 12 months of this tortuous Brexit process – we can see far more of that. The people who will suffer the most, if we get this wrong, have a history of telling their elected representatives what they think of them at the first voting opportunity.
Johnny Mercer’s memoir “We Were Warriors” is published by Pan Macmillan
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left