Robert Sutton: Conservatives have abandoned free market principles in the quest for environmentalism

27 Oct

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

A trend over the last decade in British politics has been a convergence of the major political parties towards near-consensus on environmental issues. Their thesis is that our current economic system will lead us towards environmental catastrophe; that the only way to avoid such catastrophe is radical innovation of that economic system; and that it must be the Government which leads this radical innovation.

Despite the impression given by media coverage and the doomsayers of the Twittersphere, these clauses are neither internally undisputed nor natural consequences of each other. Global warming is a generally accepted phenomenon, with a strong empirical basis in historic climate data and a convincing theoretical basis in our understanding of the physical chemistry of the atmosphere.

What is much less well understood is the future trajectory, the range of possible outcomes, and what policy positions might be inferred from those uncertain outcomes (for those unclear about the distinction between scientific models and reality, the current pandemic has given us some important lessons.)

That has not halted the political convergence on the necessity for urgent action. But for the Conservatives, the adoption of the rhetoric of climate catastrophism and the unquestioning call for an eco-friendly planned economy puts us in an internal ideological conflict with one of our most valued principles: that no central economic control can outperform the efficiency of the free market in exchanging resources, maximising returns on labour and assigning value to products and services. Government interventions invariably introduce inefficiencies. The best way to encourage innovation is for governments to cut regulations and generally stay out of the way.

Yet this principle seems to have taken a back seat as the proclamations of the most pessimistic of environmental oracles dominates the policy conversation. The proposals suggested in the 2019 Conservative manifesto pointed towards an economic intervention of a scale not attempted by any government since the Second World War. There is an assumption that the principle of the free market is flexible if the goal of the economic intervention is sufficiently noble.

One red flag was the apparent interchangeability of the major parties in their pledges for the 2019 general election. The Conservatives stood for “reaching Net Zero by 2050 with investment in clean energy solutions and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and pollution” and “investing in R&D; decarbonisation schemes; new flood defences…; electric vehicle infrastructure…; and clean energy.” These enormous government spending plans were proposed despite the simultaneous claim that “we believe that free markets, innovation and prosperity can protect the planet.”

Labour had similar prescriptions: “More rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills and whole new industries to revive parts of our country,” while scalding Conservatives for “leav[ing] the fate of whole industries and communities at the mercy of market forces.” The Liberal Democrats predictably followed suit, but with the added promises to plant over 100 trees per minute for the foreseeable future and an entirely unenforceable “legally binding target” on emissions for future parliaments to promptly ignore.

None of these proposals recognises the true economic or human impact of such an artificial remodelling of our entire society. Nor have they provided concrete plans for how these radical transitions might be carried out (with job losses being strategically ignored.) And those new jobs which are flaunted are unlikely to be efficient or self-sustaining. Once government support is pulled, they have a habit of promptly drying up as the reality of weak demand sets in.

The Government has a moral obligation to take sensible steps to build a regulatory environment which supports the protection of our natural one. But there is no amount of cutting red tape which will make buying a Tesla instantly affordable to the masses or will allow electric vehicle charging points to pop up on every street corner overnight. The mass repurposing of territory for solar, wind and hydroelectric requires that land be taken from someone and kept for the foreseeable future.

These barriers cannot be lowered quickly through deregulation alone. There are considerable economic, technological and logistical problems. However much some argue for state intervention on an unprecedented scale to rebuild our economy as an eco-friendly arcadia, there is no way this can be done on a short time-scale without great pain and waste. The bloat of a government attempting to rebuild our entire economic machine in an idealist vision would be horrifying to anyone calling themselves a fiscal conservative.

Green conservatism’s flaws are tied to the ideological fragility of one-nationism. In trying to be all things to all people, we have sacrificed free market economics at the altar of environmental catastrophism. We have abandoned a basic principle of our ideology for a policy position which has yet to be clearly articulated. To embrace the radical goals of the environmental lobby would require imposing further market distortions at a time when the economy is already haemorrhaging from the self-inflicted wounds of the Government’s severe and unremitting Coronavirus response.

The current government has struggled to articulate a positive vision for environmental policy. As such, we are forced to act as a brake on the radical proposals of left-wing organisations who have the media and public rapt, slowing the movement but inevitably drawn in their direction.

Conservatism is about more than tempering the madness of the left. We need an honest and consistent position on this most pressing of policy issues. Facing up to the absurdity of our current inter-party arms race to see who can come up with the boldest pledge to save the planet would be a good place to start. Net zero by 2050 sounds nice but is conveniently beyond reproach or scrutiny for at least the next six parliamentary terms.

A transition to a low-carbon economy will happen at some point. The limit to the reserves of fossil fuels necessitates this. But it must happen organically. Using state aid to drive the transition is incompatible with innovation. The British automotive industry of the 1970s was an example of the stagnation which occurs when a government permits market distortions in order to achieve political means: the workers, consumers and companies each suffer.

Some would argue that the dichotomy between environmentally-motivated economic intervention and free markets is a false one and that we can, in some unspecified way, have our cake and eat it too. This implies a flexible understanding of at least one of these principles. Conservatives should advocate for a realistic and distinct stance on environmentalism, and one which does not require the sacrifice of our key principles.

Robert Sutton: The Coronavirus. We must stop pinning our hopes on a vaccine – and learn to live with it

14 Sep

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

The phase three trial for one of the leading contenders for a Covid-19 vaccine has been paused. The collaboration between Oxford University and AstraZeneca has been put on hold after a patient became unwell.

The official line from the Government and developers has been that this is perfectly normal procedure – such setbacks are common in clinical trials, and we should not worry prematurely. Matt Hancock has described it as “not necessarily a setback,” while an AstraZeneca statement said it “is a routine action…In large trials, illnesses will happen by chance.”

This is true, and we do not have any reason to believe the incident is a significant issue for the trial. But it highlights a disturbing vulnerability in the Government’s current strategy.

That a pause has prompted so much speculation shows how heavily we have become invested in the idea that a vaccine will be the solution to the current pandemic.

The development of a number of promising candidates has been used to justify the economic and social disruption which has been imposed to counter the virus’ spread. That we will be promptly able to eradicate Covid-19 once we have a working vaccine is assumed by many, including those in Government steering the response, to be a given. Boris Johnson has said he expects a “significant return to normality” by Christmas.

While never explicitly stating it, this Government’s entire coronavirus response has been based on this assumption that the Coronavirus is a short-term problem to which a vaccine is the solution. Hancock reiterated only a few days ago that “the best way out of this coronavirus pandemic remains a vaccine.”

If it were to be condensed into one of the three-line stanzas which attempt to communicate to the public the ever-changing guidance, it might be: “Lock everything down; get everyone vaccinated; beat the coronavirus.”

But what happens if we are not able to achieve that second step?

The technical, social and political challenges in producing an effective vaccine over such a short timeframe are myriad. Even if the Oxford vaccine does prove to be safe and effective and enters mass production by early next year (which is a big if), getting the public to accept it widely will be a challenge at a time when faith in the Government’s handling of the response is low.

A programme to vaccinate the majority of citizens across the UK will be extraordinarily difficult. Achieving sufficiently high coverage to prevent further spread and to protect vulnerable individuals requires a high level of compliance. If too low a fraction of the population is vaccinated, it will have little effect in preventing further spread. But many younger citizens will not be interested, as the threat to them is so minimal. Others will be concerned about the possible side effects of a vaccine which has been rushed through production at breakneck speed.

Yet for vaccination to be successful in protecting vulnerable populations, these groups must be included. And with many on the Conservative backbenches already uncomfortable with the Government’s growing encroachment on civil liberties, it seems unlikely there will be sufficient political capital available to force citizens to comply.

Even if we manage to produce a safe and effective vaccine and achieve mass inoculation, return to life as normal will not be as simple as flicking a switch back on again. Disruption to industries and supply chains will take time to subside, and in some cases the damage will be permanent.

The Government should spend less time thinking about life after Covid-19 and more time planning how to safely life and work alongside it. The coronavirus is unlikely to be gone by Christmas, and in the meantime, we must consider if the self-inflicted damage caused by this government’s response could begin to outweigh the threat of the virus itself.

Rob Sutton: When a Coronavirus death isn’t a Coronavirus death

19 Jul

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

The official Covid-19 death figures produced by Public Health England (PHE) may have been inflated. The revelation that their daily count included all fatalities following a positive test, regardless of the time interval since the result or whether it was the most likely cause of death, risks undermining one of the key metrics steering the Government’s response.

Judgement has been swift, severe and bipartisan. The Government has been trapped in a pincer movement of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Some on the right argue inflated statistics have led to economic disruption and the restriction of individual freedoms. Leftists point to it as another indication of a disorganised government response. Publication of daily figures has been halted and Matt Hancock has ordered an urgent review.

The criticism might seem fair. Why should there be any difficulty in counting deaths from the Coronavirus? The political fault lines exposed by the pandemic have brought scepticism to every aspect of the scientific community’s role in policymaking. Every figure and calculation, from test accuracies to the danger of asymptomatic patients to the effectiveness of masks, has been questioned. We might hope the death toll is one thing which can be agreed upon.

Yet the calculation is not trivial. Difficulties arise from numerous technical, clinical and political considerations, and these considerations have shifted during the pandemic. Deaths can be counted based on the confirmation of a positive test result or the judgement of a medical professional in cases where testing has not been performed.

Different types of tests might have different interpretations. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the gold standard and is more likely to indicate a current infection, but it requires expensive equipment and technical expertise. Antibody tests are relatively cheap and easy to perform, but a positive result might indicate infection weeks or months prior. Their accuracy also varies.

Where testing is not available or has not been performed, the clinical challenges of defining a Covid-19 death are more pronounced. It must be decided on a balance of probabilities whether a given patient was infected. Many who die from the Coronavirus have comorbidities, and it can be difficult to decide whether the virus was the main cause of death or a contributing factor.

Public health officials, policymakers and statisticians must consider these factors. Should they only record those who have tested positive or should they include cases where there was clinical suspicion? Should we include positive results from PCR, antibody tests, or both? Should recorded deaths be those where it was the main cause, a contributing factor, or (as in the case of PHE) in all cases where there is a positive test result on file?

Deepening the problem is a lack of international consensus on best practices for different countries. Different countries have different levels of healthcare infrastructure and testing capacity, a one-size-fits-all approach is unpractical and would risk distorting true figures. This should have been established early on in the pandemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been busy fighting its own battles. There has been little opportunity to develop an international consensus on how to count deaths while battling on multiple controversies. Its ability to provide global leadership has thus been compromised.

In the vacuum of international medical leadership, political considerations have been added to the technical and clinical difficulties of counting deaths. The focus of our government should be simple: to obtain the best available data and the knowledge to effectively use it to save lives while protecting the economy.

Instead, perverse incentives have made an already challenging technical exercise into a political minefield. No government wants to look bad when compared to international peers, and overcounting risks inflating the statistics and leading to embarrassment on the world stage. Having the most comprehensive testing program sounds less appealing when it also means counting the most deaths.

Our policymakers are therefore pulled in different directions. We now face a situation in which the limited resources of PHE are being further stretched to run a recount in the hope that we might deflate our disturbingly high death toll. One can imagine better ways to invest these resources.

Feigning shock and pointing fingers is profoundly unhelpful at this point. There are clear actions that should be taken promptly. Amended figures should be released and anonymised data provided for scrutiny. Methodology for calculation should be explained unambiguously and a consensus formed as to how to record data moving forward.

If a major discrepancy is found in the new figures, policies which were based on those numbers should be reviewed and changed accordingly. Instead of bouncing the blame between PHE, SAGE, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Cabinet, we need to acknowledge the difficulties inherent to the problem and act to ensure our decisions are guided by the best available data.

Robert Sutton: Top Tories on Twitter. Case Study 6) Dehenna Davison

4 Jul

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School

Number 24 on the Top Tories on Twitter list: Dehenna Davison

In the 2019 intake of new MPs, Dehenna Davison stands out. At number 24, she’s the highest-ranked of the new members on this list.

Since her election, she has moved a long way ahead of the competition, with over twice the follower count of the second highest (Joy Morrissey) of the freshman Conservatives. Her current ranking also puts her ahead of many big names, including Liam Fox, Esther McVey and Brandon Lewis.

Davison is the first Conservative to represent Bishop Auckland, taking it by a swing of 9.5 per cent. The seat had been held by Labour since 1935. And she’s been working hard to solidify her hold on the seat.

Davison takes after Jacob Rees-Mogg, her former boss and Leader of the House, in her ability to cultivate a strong social media following. With high-profile appointments already under her belt, it’s highly likely that her success will only continue. As a newly elected member of the Home Affairs Select Committee and a member of the Immigration Bill Committee, her constituents will be satisfied to have elected a member who has taken so quickly to her parliamentary duties.

She has stuck to the party line and her attacks of the opposition have been sharp and well-delivered. At other times, her tweets are deeply personal and give her followers an insight into her life outside of the House. Davison has been the stand-out performer of 2019’s new intake of Conservatives. Expect big things ahead.