Paul Maynard: Here’s why I believe as an ex-Minister that a hard rain may indeed be coming for the civil service

31 Aug

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

When an early morning call from Number 10 is scheduled on reshuffle day, then the writing is on the wall. The only question is where you want to be when you are asked to “step aside” from Government. Clearly not my Commons office – like the rest of the estate, mobile reception is at best intermittent.

I sat Portcullis House, but then thought better of being dumped in front of passing colleagues, so I strolled down the Embankment a little to receive the inevitable. The Prime Minister was friendly and had perfected the art of the rueful rejection. No-one will ever describe it as pleasant – unless they had pre-planned their departure.

Rather than head straight back to Parliament, I strolled across Waterloo Bridge in dismal drizzle. Never has the location felt so far removed from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. I certainly wasn’t in paradise, and rather hoped that the only sunset wasn’t that of my political career. From that bridge, I could gaze upon the Whitehall skyline as if it were some hermetic village, peopled by a priestly caste who floated high above my constituents’ supposedly more mundane concerns, and start mulling over my conclusions about how government does and doesn’t work.

More time in my Commons office then lockdown gave me an opportunity – and how we ex-Ministers seek them – to reflect on whether I felt I had achieved much in office, and whether the machinery of government is best equipped to help ministers do what they both wish and need to do to achieve their lofty ambitions.

Indeed, I felt I had achieved, though others may disagree with the footling nature of my supposed achievements. HS2 anyone? I looked back fondly on my promotion of the “sunflower” lanyard across the transport sector as part of the Inclusive Transport review I oversaw when first a transport minister.

That was until I read Michael Gove’s recent and insightful lecture to the Ditchley Foundation – “inclusive lanyards” came in for a bit of stick as a poor substitute for achieving radical change. The sight of so many such lanyards in supermarkets now has given me pause for thought also.

Gove made so many points which did resonate with me though. Not the least was the need for greater specialism by both ministers and civil servants. As the Major Rail Projects Minister, I literally begged to be sent on some course that might enable me to do a better job of holding delivery bodies to account – yet it was always “just around the corner” until the axe fell.

Excellent officials populated all my three differing ministerial stints, yet many seemed to be in perpetual motion as they moved from role to role, barely staying long enough to finish a project they started. There were exceptions – and they were all the more effective for it.

Ministers are often advised to pick three things to achieve within their average 18 month tenure, but even that degree of longevity seems optimistic these days – so fast is the hamster wheel of ministerial life. You realise things are dysfunctional when you find that you know more about an issue than the officials briefing you, or when you seem to be scheduling farewell drinks for someone in your private office every couple of months.

Individual civil servants are sincere, capable and enthusiastic. I was one of those ministers who knew we were just hot air without people to turn our vision into reality. They are easy targets for ministers lacking that subtle art of both listening and hearing.

However, I remember with enthusiasm that, in opposition, think tanks were a steady stream of innovative policy ideas. In particular, I recall Oliver Letwin’s pamphlet on the conveyor belt to crime – but the conveyor belt of fresh ideas seems to have gradually slowed down.

Within Downing Street, we need to reach out and ensure the hothouse of talent can be harnessed better. We have started to shy away from difficult complexity in addressing our policy challenges on the occasions we do decide to try and deal with them.

But for too long, whichever party may be in government, as a nation we have failed on some of the grand challenges. As a party, we have great ideas and insights, but they fail to see the light of day when they come to be put into practice.

I know ministers are often frustrated that they don’t feel they get the guidance they need as to what the centre wants. Involvement only seems to come when something goes wrong. In Canada, on appointment, ministers receive a “mandate letter” setting out what they are expected to achieve by the Prime Minister. Such a move would be both radical and positive, I believe, in this country. In addition, Canadian ministers don’t have to locate themselves in a departmental silo. The team of officials is built around their briefs – relatively narrow briefs which change as political priorities wax and wane.

So we need to try much, much harder to burst the departmental silos. Whilst some ministers sit across government departments, and the Cabinet Office has at times acted as an enforcer of key themes, on some of the really big thematic underpinnings of policy, Whitehall has not been able to effectively co-ordinate.

Ministerial committees are flabby, too full of a mix of posturing and defensiveness, as ministers defend the turf or score points off colleagues rather than collaborate to achieve. They always struck me as akin to the “boardroom” section of The Apprentice. It isn’t enough just to have someone in your private office picking up the phone to a distant department a small part of whose remit you hold the brief for, if only in theory. Build the structure around the minister’s mission.

That’s why I think we should appoint a pair of cross-government thematic ministers based in Cabinet Office, with the right to attend cabinet, focusing on social justice, infrastructure or inter-generational solidarity – as a test-bed for a new way of structuring Whitehall.

Is the answer to relocate Civil Service decision-making, as some suggest? If it is a case of aping the BBC and transplanting the denizens of Barnes to equally affluent Bowdon, modish Hackney to already-gentrified Hale, then the answer is no. Was the sole reason it was mooted sending the Lords to York was because senior civil servants had found some highly desirable Victorian villas they could afford in Harrogate?

If it is locating, not just processing, PIP claims to Blackpool (hundreds are already here), but those who come up with the processes and financial provisions within which those decisions have to be made, then yes. It needs to be more than a sop to the newly-won constituencies. Indeed, we’d be happy to host the Lords in Blackpool’s magnificent Winter Gardens ballroom where so many of them once strutted their stuff at party conferences.

History is littered with temporary bursts of enthusiasm for reforming the machinery of government or replanting clumps of civil servants in stonier ground. Often this is because it is seen to be an end in itself, rather than measured by whether the fundamental outputs change. Maybe this time will be different – the very scale of the challenge we now face with Covid will force through some radical innovation.

My knowledge of the Wade-Giles romanization methodology for Mandarin doesn’t allow me to confirm whether the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are in fact one and the same, as one endlessly-repeated ‘fact’ that is trotted out states. But even if they aren’t, it has to be how we approach the coming years.

The machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace. A hard rain may indeed be coming, if only because there is no alternative. Far worse, perhaps, would be the ‘spits and spots’ of precipitation beloved of BBC forecasters. Do it properly or not at all.

Algorithm or no algorithm, the UK needs houses. Fast.

30 Aug

Since it was published on this site last Monday, there has been a huge amount of interest in Neil O’Brien’s column, which documented flaws in the Government’s housing White Paper. In his piece, O’Brien criticised an algorithm that will be used to decide how many houses should be built in different parts of the UK.

Algorithms aren’t exactly in the nation’s good books anyway, given the confusion over recent A Level results. But members of the public will be even more wary upon understanding what this latest one could mean. Lichfields, a planning consultancy, has predicted its practical impact (something people usually only discover the hard way), with some astonishing findings.

As O’Brien says of the consultancy’s analysis: “in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.”

Furthermore, the algorithm suggests a “lower number than their recent rate of delivery” for some areas, including Sheffield, Bradford, the entire North East, Nottingham and Manchester. These effects are hardly a winning formula, and there are already signs of Tory resistance.

Indeed, The Times reports that in his video conference with 17 Tory MPs from the greater London area on Wednesday, Boris Johnson was warned that the algorithm risks “destroying suburbia” and “creating the slums of the future”, and that reforms will cause “real harm to the Conservative vote”.

As we’ve seen this year – from difficulties with Huawei to Johnson u-turning on free school meals after Marcus Rashford wrote a letter to MPs – this Government is not immune to having to massively rehaul its policies, and it seems unlikely the algorithm will be accepted, based on the statistics in O’Brien’s article.

Even so, there is no shying away from the fact the country urgently needs hundreds of thousands more houses built, whether it’s an algorithm that designates their location or not. It is interesting to note the objections in the aforementioned video conference, where there were fears about areas becoming built up, and MPs concerned about losses to the Conservative vote. The latter is inevitable, anyway, if the Government does not help my generation (millennials), and those below it, for whom buying a home looks about as probable as winning the X Factor.

One interesting question in all this – which no algorithm can predict – is how Covid-19 is going to change the housing landscape. Clearly many have left cities in favour of space and country air. Whether this change is permanent remains to be seen, but boosting figures in shire and suburban areas may not be such a bad thing, as is the algorithm’s south-centric model of growth in Britain (where, in truth, much of demand is focussed).

As a 31-year-old renting in London (who has somewhat given up on the prospect of home ownership), the Government reforms were the first thing I’d seen to show that MPs actually care about fixing this problem; one that is giving people my own age real anxiety about the future, from whether we will ever have families, to wondering how old we will be when we stop sharing with X amount of strangers.

Of course, any flawed algorithm must be untangled and corrected. But let’s hope that Johnson’s video conference isn’t a taste of kicking the can further down the road. Whatever solution the Government takes to fix the housing crisis will not be perfect. But the worst will be to do nothing at all.

As a government source reportedly said: “This is not something we’re going to step away from. We’ve got a duty to do this for the next generation.” Indeed.

Julian Brazier: How tackling the causes of rising demand would help the Government solve the housing crisis

14 Aug

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Robin Hodgson’s excellent recent pamphlet, explores the critical link between our growing population, and issues like housing shortages and infrastructure overstretch. He has – rightly – won support from some heavy hitting MPs, including John Hayes, in his call for a standing commission – a Demographic Authority – to examine and advise on population issues, along the lines of the Office of Budget Responsibility’s oversight of fiscal matters.

Good as the proposals are, I want to suggest a different intermediate approach for the short term, closer to the Government’s current programme. At a time when it is handling both the Covid crisis and an unusually heavy programme of change, not least from Brexit, there is a danger that a proposal to set up an entirely new body may be simply brushed aside as a bridge too far.

First let’s take a deep dive into the issues. The Government’s commitment to more building is surely right, whatever one’s view of the detail of the proposed planning reforms; this site has carried many articles on how unaffordable housing is in large parts of the UK. It is terrible for young people wishing to set up home, and the collapse in home ownership has played a critical role in the fall in Conservative support among the under 40s. We have to make housing – both to rent and, even more important, to buy – affordable again.

Yet, at the same time a parallel, and almost entirely separate, debate has taken place on immigration, despite the fact that immigration is the major factor in population growth, itself the main cause of increased demand for housing; last year, the Office for National Statistics predicted that the population would rise by another three million over the next decade to around 70 million.

It predicts that four fifths of this will be from migrants arriving and having children, only one fifth from natural change – ie more births than deaths as people live longer. (There is an additional factor driving demand, independent of population size, but smaller in effect: household size is on a long-term decline, as families break up and more people live alone, meaning more homes required per thousand people).

In other words, in the course of two Parliaments, on current projections, we have to build homes for three million extra people – more than the population of Greater Manchester – before a single extra property is available to tackle housing shortages.

It is against this background that our new immigration policy needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency. It contains a welcome end to free movement with the EU, in line with our manifesto promise. We also have pledges from Boris Johnson and Priti Patel to take action on the disgraceful cross-channel trafficking of illegal migrants.

Nevertheless, important and welcome though these measures are, neither addresses what are now the two largest categories of migration: those coming to work (now overwhelmingly from outside the EU) and – counter-intuitively – students who settle and their dependants.

Take workers first. The new points-based approach for all migrants applying to work is welcome but the key is the level of movement it allows. It is right that some categories (such as doctors) should have no cap but surely, at a time when unemployment is rising fast as a result of Covid, wrong that the Government proposes to lower the minimum income level, paving the way for more workers from outside the EU.

Leaving the current Covid crisis aside, a wider point applies. Immigration policy, especially in the field of employment, is set after taking advice from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC).

That body has a remit which is focused almost exclusively on a narrow subset of economic factors, the needs of the labour market. The papers the MAC has published look in a balanced but narrow fashion at the requirements of sections of the economy and regions of the UK, as well as the impact on existing workers. Housing and infrastructure issues – such as transport congestion, water shortages, flooding etc – are barely mentioned.

This is underlined by work MAC commissioned from Oxford Economics, which analyses the net benefit/cost of categories of migrants entirely in “current” terms, ie tax payments made, benefits drawn etc, ignoring the capital (and social) costs of funding new infrastructure to meet a rising population. What is urgently needed is for the Government to extend MAC’s brief to cover housing pressures and infrastructure requirements as well as the job market.

The second major problem with the system relates to students. All governments have recognised the importance of encouraging “the brightest and the best” young people from around the world to come and study in our universities. But here has also been a sustained campaign, orchestrated by the higher education lobby, to take these students out of our immigration statistics.

This would, incidentally, mean abandoning the internationally agreed measure of migration. Much more important, two studies by ONS illustrate why it would be a serious policy mistake. In 2016, one study showed that the influx of students was running at well over double the number of students leaving the UK, (those who had finished their stay and British students travelling to study abroad), a net inflow of 135,000.

The second ONS study in 2018 showed that students and their dependents amounted to almost 30 per cent of all people granted settlement in the UK the previous year. Any serious attempt to get control of migration has to include students.

Under the new (but pre-Covid) rules, any student is automatically granted two years right of abode after finishing his or her course, despite the large surplus of UK graduates; only half of recent UK graduates work in graduate level roles, according to an Education Select committee report – and that was pre-Covid.

This is compounded by the fact that there are no national standards for student entry (domestic or foreign) so any university struggling for funds can accept any student who can get a study visa and can pay the first year’s fees. Worse still, the visa regime is under constant pressure from the universities and others to “relax”. David Cameron closed over 800 dodgy colleges, but we are close to a point where, without proper academic hurdles, would-be economic migrants no longer need them – they can often use a university instead.

So students should be included in our immigration strategy. The policy of allowing a two-year stay needs to be reviewed in the light of Covid and a tight restriction imposed on staying on, unless they have valuable skills not available in the domestic pool. Overdue measures should be introduced to ensure that students do actually return at the end the end of their stay.

In summary, the Government, from the Prime Minister down, is right to identify housing shortages as a critical social ill and boost building. But a policy which seeks to boost supply without doing anything to tackle rising demand, driven by heavy migration, can only succeed if we build on a scale which is probably unachievable.

Even if it did succeed for a while, it would come at the price of overload on public services, heavy congestion, water shortages and even flooding, as flood plains disappear under concrete.

Adopting these simple reforms for applicant workers, advice from the MAC and for students – and improving enforcement – would go a long way to solving the housing crisis and reducing the growing pressure on our infrastructure.

Darren Grimes: Johnson must face down the teaching unions with Thatcher-like resolve

12 Aug

“As Conservatives, we believe absolutely in equality of opportunity – the idea that every child, in every part of the country, should have a fair chance. It is not only the most important thing we can do to unleash the UK’s potential, but is at the heart of creating a fair and just society.”

That’s page 13 of the Conservative Party’s winning manifesto last year; a manifesto that secured Boris Johnson an 80 seat majority, saw seats that had always been red change with chameleon-like ease to boast a shade of blue, banished Jeremy Corbyn to the dustbin of history and ensured we could, finally, heal the divide and Get Brexit Done.

That, my friends, will have all been for nothing if the Prime Minister does not face down the teaching unions with Margaret Thatcher-like resolve. With warnings of Covid-19 growing inequalities between our richest kids and our poorest kids, Johnson will be rejected by the aspirational working class that voted for him in large numbers, whose hard slog is made easier in large part by an understanding that they’re ensuring a better lot for their sons and daughters.

The National Education Union, in providing its half a million members with a “checklist” of 200 safety demands for the reopening of our schools, has proven itself to be more concerned with being a thorn in the side of the Conservative Party over being the guardians of children’s interests. One item on the list asks the Government to answer: “Does the timetable include sufficient creative subjects, and space for dialogue and sustained thinking?”. There can be nothing more outrageous than to play politics with the future of our kids.

While Keir Starmer stands idly by as unions attempt to wreck the future of our children, raising questions about just how tough he would be in the top job, the Prime Minister can stand strong knowing that he has the public on his side if he decides to take on the unions. YouGov found that 57 per cent of Brits agree that schools should open after the summer, with only 25 per cent believing they should not.

Evidence from the Public Health Agency of Sweden, in a document titled Covid-19 in schoolchildren: A comparison between Finland and Sweden, compares two similar countries with very different approaches to lockdown: Finland was conventional in its closure of schools, Sweden famously much bolder in its refusal to countenance such an illiberal approach to its economy and society. The report concludes that the closure of schools had no measured effect on the number of cases of Covid-19 among children: “Children are not a major risk group of the Covid-19 disease.”

In a further boost for science-based evidence, on Monday morning, Russel Viner, a member of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and President of the Royal College of Peadiatrics told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “reopening schools is one of the least risky things we can do.” He then told Times Radio that there’s “at least five studies from around the world” that would suggest “there’s very, very little transmission of this virus in schools.”

How many times have you heard this government boast of how heavily it is following the science, they’re absolutely mad for “the science”! If that’s presently the case there will be absolutely no wiggle room for it not to return our schools to normal without a moment’s hesitation and resist following Labour in kowtowing to union pressure.

While our kids have been banished from our schools, I was delighted to learn of the Invicta Academy, that has delivered virtual lessons in English, Maths and Key-Stages 1-4 via Zoom in the likes of London, Surrey, Oxfordshire and Lancashire. The message from the entrepreneurial and community-minded founders of the project to the obstructive teaching unions is clear: if you try and delay the reopening of our schools, we will find a way to ensure our nation’s kids don’t suffer.

The problem is that it isn’t kids in Surrey or Oxfordshire that will suffer the most. According to the UCL Institute of Education, our kids on average understood 2.5 hours of schoolwork per day during lockdown. This, however, varies widely with 28 per cent of children in the South East doing more than four hours of offline schoolwork a day, compared with only nine per cent in the North East. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 31 per cent of private schools were delivering four or more hours of live online lessons a day, with state schools at a paltry six per cent.

The Prime Minister must be the champion of those who suffer disproportionately from our educational divide and disadvantage that his government’s response to Covid-19 has widened further. If, or when, it comes to future lockdowns, which would be utterly ruinous for the British economy, employment and wider society, our schools simply must keep the doors open from next month.

With less than a month to reopen schools, Johnson needs Labour to back his message

10 Aug

Perhaps no one saw it coming, but the battle to reopen schools during the Coronavirus crisis has been one of the hardest for the Government. This is partly as a result of the teaching unions, which have done everything they can to obstruct the plans, even telling schools not to engage with governmental proposals in June.

More recently the 450,000 member-strong National Education Union (NEU) has compiled a 25-page “workplace checklist” for schools, consisting of 200 demands. The document has been criticised for being “impossible” to meet, with ex-Education Secretary Justine Greening saying that the “NEU needs to focus on finding solutions, not problems.” Hear, hear.

With little under a month to go until schools are due to reopen, the extent to which Boris Johnson is concerned about the situation was obvious this weekend in his article for the Mail on Sunday. He warned that keeping “schools closed a moment longer than is absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible”, adding that “social justice demands” their reopenings. 

It was a dramatic plea to parents, and Labour, spelling out the damage closures are doing, from socioeconomic to health implications.

While a recent YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the British public thinks that schools should fully reopen over the summer holidays, a firm 25 per cent answered that they shouldn’t, and 18 per cent said “not sure”. So Johnson is right to push the issue – today he is expected to visit a school, in which he will repeat his pledge that they must reopen, and there will also be a PR drive from the Government.

In general, the problem the Government has is trying to emphasise encouraging statistics to the population, in regards to risk. It has found it much easier to convey the dangers of the virus – and subsequent need to “stay home” – than the rationale for getting life back to normal.

In regards to schools, a lot of media coverage has focussed on a Lancet study, which said that without a proper track and trace programme, there could be a huge second wave of Covid-19. This was a worst case scenario assessment, yet it seems to have stuck in the nation’s mind, as have the predictions of scientists such as David King, formerly chief scientific adviser to the Government, who warned that “we are nowhere near the point” where school reopenings “can be done safely”. This made several strong headlines, despite the fact King has been shown to oppose the Government generally

The more in-depth evidence suggests that schools are one of the safest places to reopen in society. Data indicates that children have extremely low risk of getting ill from Coronavirus; a study of over 55,000 hospital patients found that only 0.8 per cent were under the age of 19, and crucially they do not seem to transmit it in the same way as adults. Research of Covid-19 in the French Alps showed that a child who tested positive for the virus did not give it to over 100 people they had contact with while having symptoms.

One reason Johnson has to feel particularly confident about school reopenings is extensive research carried out by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health across 100 institutions. It showed that “there is very little evidence” of Coronavirus transmission where pupils have returned, and corroborated a separate review of 35 studies from around the world showing that children and schools only play a “minor role” in the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, there is the fact that many schools in Europe successfully reopened. The UK was incredibly lucky in that it did not go first in this process, and thus could respond to data coming from other countries; if there had been mass outbreaks, you can bet that we would have heard about it. That Europe has been successful in reopenings has largely been ignored in the media – and by the opposition.

Which brings us to one of Labour’s role in the schools crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, many people had hoped for a more united front between the two main parties in fighting the virus. But Starmer has always schools as an opportunity to undermine the Government, recently telling ministers they have a month to fix the Coronavirus test-and-trace system in readiness for reopenings.

Kate Green, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has already refused to say whether schools were safe, despite adding that it was “essential” for them to reopen – at a time when many parents and teachers need reassurances from all political sides. Labour clearly thinks that this approach makes them look caring – extreme caution will always appear the most righteous route – and yet it ignores the evidence that schools can reopen safely, as well as how devastating these closures will be in the long-term.

With the Government having published extensive guidelines to get schools open, alongside the increased data on children’s low transmission, there really should not be a delay in pressing ahead now. And if Labour has objections, to echo Greening’s words, it must focus “on finding solutions”. Surely that is not too much to ask.

Our survey. Almost 75 per cent of members predict a Conservative majority at the next General Election

8 Aug

While it seems a long way away – and the Government has many other things to worry about present – last month ConservativeHome asked its survey panel members what they think is the most likely outcome of the next General Election.

Out of 951 respondents, 74.24 per cent (706) answered a Conservative majority. This was followed by 6.62 per cent (63) for a Labour majority (and the same percentage for a Labour-led coalition), a minority Tory government at 5.47 per cent (52), Tory-led coalition at 3.58 percent (34) and a minority Labour government at 3.47 per cent (33).

Although 75 per cent appears a rather confident estimate for the next General Election, it actually marks a slight shift from January this year, in which a bullish 92 per cent expected a Tory majority.

Obviously this was straight after Boris Johnson’s huge election victory in December last year, and a lot has changed, so it’s not all that surprising that the figure has dropped.

Even so, 75 per cent is no bad position to be in.

Ed West: So far, 2020 has proved my most pessimistic expectations to be horribly true. How very satisfying.

7 Aug

Ed West is the deputy editor of UnHerd, and author of Small Men on the Wrong Side of History (Constable).

As anyone who takes an obsessive interest in politics will understand, there’s nothing more satisfying than being proven right, even if it’s to confirm your original prediction of unending, doom-laden misery.

Pessimism is rooted in my political philosophy, the belief that humans have evolved to have a wildly unrealistic idea of their own capabilities, and are therefore prone to invest in utopian schemes that end in failure.

I spent years writing a book about how pessimism informed my politics, called Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, and the very week it came out, we were hit by the worst pandemic in a century, all the bookshops were closed, and people retreated into their homes. Sure, they were still buying books, but as with the 1930s it was mostly fiction and escapism – people want to read stuff like Gone with the Wind during a depression, or fantasy stuff about wizards and dragons – not Ten Reasons Why You’re Going to Spend the Next Decade Queuing Outside a Soup Kitchen Before Getting Shot by a Nazi.

When the Coronavirus hit, politics seemed irrelevant but then, after the death of George Floyd and the general insanity that followed, it seemed to have returned, more depressing than ever.

Pandemics have often accelerated huge cultural changes; back in the 3rd Century the Plague of Cyprian led to a religious transformation in the Roman Empire. Pagans who had seen Christianity as a fringe movement of a few city folk suddenly found that the new faith was everywhere, and previously upstanding Jupiter-worshippers were joining in the excitable rituals of the new faith. They must have felt bemused, and worried, that all of a sudden tradition had given way and something alien had taken its place. These Christians were everywhere – who knows, maybe even their children could be turned by the cult?

I’d certainly empathise with how these conservative Romans felt, watching the new Woke religion suddenly all-dominant; seeing huge crowds across the world getting down on their knees in collective rituals to protest something happening in a city 5,000 miles away. That they were doing so during a deadly pandemic, when the smallest gatherings were banned for everything else, added to the general apocalyptic air.

But this was one argument of my book: that the decline of Christianity simply results in progressivism becoming most people’s moral lodestar, a process that is seamless because progressivism is a sort-of heresy of Christianity, a point made by a number of writers before.

The almost-complete submission of conservatism in the face of this, even with mobs violating the Cenotaph or targeting a statue of Churchill, also confirmed my previous belief that we were losing.

One conservative response is to say that “there will be a backlash because young people will rebel against the new woke intolerance”. But they won’t. It’s a myth that the youth are rebellious – they’re among the most conformist section of society, which is why secondary school is so awful for so many. Young people have always been enthusiastic enforcers of orthodoxy, from the wars of religion to Mao’s China.

That you or I might find modern progressivism irrational, based on completely utopian and untrue ideas about human nature, makes no difference either. Plenty of 3rd Century polytheists were pretty confident that the people wouldn’t stand for worshipping a common criminal from Judea, or the myriad supernatural claims of his followers. The backlash will come any minute, I’m sure. And when was the last time you met someone who worshipped Jupiter?

There won’t be a backlash, because – and this was my argument – the Left now controls almost every institution in Britain. It doesn’t matter who’s in government, because the generation growing up – including my children – will be bombarded with progressive messages and signals, all equating Left-wing social ideals with morality, and conservatism with low-status, bigotry and failure.

There is no “moral majority” anymore, there is no backlash; the generation born after about 1975 are not moving to the Right as their predecessors did, and those born much later are way more progressive than previous cohorts; younger women in particular are overwhelmingly Left-of-centre, and historically faiths that attracted females tended to predominate through “secondary conversions”, people joining the religion of their spouse. The first Christian Frankish and Anglo-Saxon kings both converted to follow their wives – they were on the right side of history.

And so the most depressing thing about 2020, and in particular June, was how it confirmed all my prevailing beliefs. It was not just that the Left would win, because they had the religious dynamism that ensured victory – the other plaguey historical comparison is obviously the Flagellants, who went around Europe beating themselves to atone for humanity’s sins. It was also how politics trumps everything; on the one hand, there were medical officials declaring that it was fine to protest during an epidemic because racism is a worse disease, or something. On the other, people on my side turning the whole miserable event into a political-tribal issue, even to the point of not wearing a mask to own the libs.

And so my basic thesis that political tribalism has become a second Reformation, and Britain as much as America is in for years of tedious conflict, doesn’t seem to have been proven wrong.

The crisis has also further deepened my belief in conservatism. So for example, while various columnists tried making the argument that “populists” handled the crisis badly, both Hungary and Poland – led by the two most effective national conservative governments – did well, with death rates at one-tenth and one-thirtieth of the British respectively so far. Sure, they still face the problem of keeping the disease out, but as we learn more about the virus we’ll get better at tackling it, and it’s never a good idea to be the first one with a new disease.

What these critics meant was that Boris Johnson’s government had done badly, but the Prime Minister is not a populist, he is at heart a (right-wing) liberal optimist who was aghast at the necessarily authoritarian measures that needed to be taken early. In contrast, true conservatives like Orban see the world as a place of danger, something I’ve increasingly come to think these past few months (you can imagine how much fun lockdown has been for my wife).

The crisis has reinforced my social conservatism in other ways, too. Firstly, small countries are much better at handling this disaster because they can control their borders more easily, and government is closer to the ground. Small is beautiful.

Secondly, the virus has reminded us that what we do doesn’t just affect us but those around us, too. That obviously applies on a life-or-death level to a virus, but even in our everyday choices our behaviour is viral. Most forms of action – marriage, divorce, even suicide – are contagious, as are political ideas and beliefs. Looking at the world of viruses leads to a more communitarian worldview.

Likewise with messaging, which this Government has also been criticised for. Some people really do need to be told clearly what to do, for the good of society in general; cultural as well as political leaders need to distinguish between what is good advice and bad advice.

We’ve sort of come to assume there’s a marketplace of ideas and that impressionable young people should be presented with a selection of choices. In reality, lots of people – even quite intelligent people – are unwise and will make terrible decision that will make them miserable and damage them and more importantly those around them, especially their family. The marketplace of ideas is rubbish, because the worst options are often superficially attractive.

Then there is the enforced slowness of life, which many people have found quite rewarding, especially in cities, allowing more time with the family. Maybe we should have an enforced lockdown once a week from now on – we’ll call it, I don’t know, “the Sabbath”.

Finally, there is the ritual; I thought at first that the Clap for Carers would be very cringey, but it was actually quite moving and beautiful. My kids loved it, and it gave them something to focus on, a heroic ideal and the lesson that others – strangers – care for us. It was also a reminder that we have lost something deep and profound in our culture with the erosion of communal fasts and feasts.

We weren’t designed to live lives of independent loneliness. To paraphrase E.O Wilson: libertarianism – wonderful theory, wrong species.

I’ve also come to grow stronger in my belief that our economic model, which depends on London being the financial centre of the world, is not much benefit to the average British person, who can no longer afford to live in their capital city, and who are also made more vulnerable to the downsides of globalisation.

But most of all, I suppose, it’s deepened my pessimism. While we’ve had 1,000 different takes on what the post-Covid world will look like since March, I’m inclined to agree with Michel Houellebecq when he says that it will be “the same, but worse”.

Waves of media foreboding

6 Aug

Turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, and it seems that almost everyone is talking about the dreaded “second wave”. Two days ago Keir Starmer could be found pontificating on the subject in an article for The Guardian. He warned that the “government must up its game” to prepare for one.

At the same time The Lancet published a study which modelled a worst case scenario of what might happen following the re-opening of schools given the capabilities of the UK’s current track and trace regime. “School children returning to class in September risks triggering a devastating second wave of Covid-19 unless test and trace improves”, read The Sun. Hardly reassuring stuff.

Much of the other newspaper coverage also focussed on doom and gloom, never mind the fact that many schools in Europe have reopened successfully (the media only ever compares us when it undermines the Government, of course), and that even the ever-cautious World Health Organization says that “[t]o date, few outbreaks involving children or schools have been reported”.

No one can be certain about anything in this crisis, and clearly the Government has to prepare for the worst. But the expectation of a second wave around the corner has become almost gospel, so much so that more promising data about the UK’s Covid-19 situation now seems to be ignored. Question the imminent arrival of the second wave and people stare as if you’ve blasphemed or forgotten your own name.

Forecasts around a second wave arriving have been first, spurred by spikes in Leicester and elsewhere (even though spikes are much smaller than waves), as well as based on new figures from the Office for National Statistics. These showed that daily cases had gone up. “Coronavirus infections rising in England”, ran one BBC headline. Time to raise the alarm, one might think, but the data was based on just 24 positive cases among nearly 30,000 people over two weeks.

Today there is already coverage about the fact that France has reached a “two-month high in virus cases”. And yet, it is rarely explained that some of statistics are a result of increased testing, not a worsening situation. If a country boosts the amount of tests it has for something by hundreds of thousands, don’t be surprised when it finds more of that something.

The media likes to focus on cases as a metric of the Covid-19 outlook, as this is the main statistic going up (perfect for dramatic headlines), whereas other data presents a more hopeful outlook.

In the UK, hospitalisations continue to decline dramatically even after lockdown easing. The daily number of admissions reported yesterday was 183 – a big fall from 3,483 on March 31. Deaths also appear to continue on a downward trend, something which seems to be the case even with the very old, according to the latest review of ONS data by Professor Heneghan of Oxford University.

That the UK can detect more cases is a testament to enormous improvements in its testing regime, which is now one of the best in the world, with a total of 12,571,991 tests processed. We should be feeling reassured about this, especially as the more sophisticated the system becomes, the more nuanced any lockdowns will be – meaning that less people have to stay at home. Sure, there have been hiccups in putting it all in place (a massively complex project to roll out, incidentally) but our Covid response tools are undoubtedly getting much better.

One would never get this impression, though, from reading all the news. Some papers seem to constantly examine what’s happening through a pessimistic lens, as if stuck a “worst case scenario” algorithm from the Lancet study.

Yes this crisis has been extremely bleak; people have died in terrible, painful ways, and there are elements that the Government could have done better. Yes, we have to be as ready as possible in case there is a second wave. A winter one would be dreadful, and so forth. Even so, there is reason to be positive about our situation.

Boris Johnson hit the nail on the head when he said the Government was “hoping for the best, but planning for the worst”. “Assume the worst is inevitable and panic”, is what many commentators would rather have us do, and that will never get us anywhere.

Stephen Booth: The UK’s parallel trade negotiations are of unprecedented ambition

6 Aug

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

Brexit is necessarily reshaping Britain’s trade relationship with the EU. Meanwhile, the UK is simultaneously trying to ensure continuity of, or build upon, existing trade agreements with non-EU countries, such as Japan, and reach entirely new deals with partners including the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The UK also intends to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which currently includes 11 countries on the Pacific rim including Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Predictably, the EU negotiations are set to go down to the wire. Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister all signs have pointed to a so-called “skinny” free trade agreement (FTA) or none at all. For this Government, Brexit is primarily about establishing sovereign independence, while the EU has sought to underline and assert its role as the dominant regulatory and economic power.

It is no wonder that politics has trumped economics throughout the Brexit process. The EU is a political endeavour pursued by economic means. The €750bn economic recovery plan agreed by EU leaders last month illustrates the extent to which the UK’s preference for confining deeper political and economic integration to the Eurozone faced an uphill struggle had it remained in the bloc. It is impossible to imagine any British government agreeing to such a dramatic expansion of the EU’s financial firepower or the precedent it has set for further moves towards a common EU fiscal policy.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a UK-EU deal being reached. The latest negotiating round appeared to mark a breakthrough on governance issues. David Frost’s statement welcomed the EU’s “more pragmatic approach” on the Court of Justice and suggested the UK was ready to consider the EU’s preference for one set of governance arrangements, rather than a suite of separate arrangements.

The remaining sticking points are fishing and state aid. Fishing is not significant in terms of GDP but is politically totemic in the UK and certain EU member states. Therefore, a deal must be left to the last minute. Establishing a “level-playing field” on state aid is proving to be the biggest substantive issue to resolve. The EU is moving away from its request for dynamic alignment and the issue now is what domestic regime the UK will propose.

Negotiations with the US appear to have got off to a good start. However, both sides accept that a deal cannot now be reached until after the US elections in November. Therefore, the most difficult areas, such as agriculture, will not be addressed until later in the year at the earliest.

The most pressing issue Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary, discussed on her trip to Washington earlier this week is the removal of US retaliatory tariffs as part of the ongoing Airbus/Boeing dispute, which sits outside the FTA negotiations. The US has levied tariffs on whisky and further tariffs could be extended to gin and other products if the dispute is not resolved.

The prospect of delay with the US has made UK engagement with the Asia-Pacific countries all the more important and pushed accession to the CPTPP up the agenda. Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese Foreign Minister, is in London this week in an attempt to finalise talks on the UK-Japan FTA.

The Japan deal is an important stepping stone towards CPTPP accession, since Japan is the biggest economy within the agreement. The Japan negotiations are working to a condensed timetable because the parties are aiming to ensure a successor to the EU-Japan FTA is in place before the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1, 2021.

The time constraints mean that a UK-Japan deal will be largely modelled on the EU precedent. However, media reports have suggested Japan might be prepared to accelerate tariff cuts for British pork, and Japan is seeking the immediate elimination of car tariffs. The major opportunities for innovation in UK-Japan trade relations is on regulatory cooperation in the services and digital sectors. The FTA can provide the architecture but domestic regulators will need to work together to realise long-term gains.

Another reason why the CPTPP may become increasingly important is that Joe Biden has indicated that he might be prepared to (re-)join the CPTPP if his presidential bid is successful. President Trump pulled out of its previous iteration, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, spearheaded by President Obama. However, this could be a slow process, since Biden’s campaign has also emphasised that his primary focus will be on domestic investment and he has previously suggested he would seek to renegotiate CPTPP if the US were to re-join.

Some have suggested that engaging with the US via the CPTPP rather than bilaterally would defuse some of the thorniest issues, such as agricultural standards on chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef. However, the reality is that while the optics might be different, the UK will face many of the same substantive trade-offs whoever is president.

The CPTPP rulebook is much closer to the US approach – indeed the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) approach – to regulating agriculture than we have inherited from the EU. Blanket bans on agricultural imports, not supported by scientific evidence, will not only be viewed as a protectionist move by the US but potentially by other members of the CPTPP.

The question of agricultural liberalisation cannot be ducked for much longer. Equally, as we noted in the recent Policy Exchange paper, The art of the UK-US trade deal, the issue need not be as stark as some of the hyperbole has suggested. The starting points should be to promote consumer choice, while ensuring consumer safety. The UK already has the right, under WTO rules, to prohibit the import of unsafe food. Labelling, either via domestic legislation or voluntary certifications, can be used to inform consumers of food production methods.

The UK’s domestic and international policies must also work in tandem. UK tariff liberalisation can be phased in gradually, giving UK producers time to adjust to new trading conditions. This would reflect the gradual introduction of the UK’s Environmental Land Management scheme, replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Meanwhile, it should also be remembered that agricultural liberalisation is an export opportunity for high quality UK products, particularly beef and lamb.

In today’s world, trade agreements do not merely set tariffs or regulate cross-border investment. For medium-sized powers in particular, they are important building blocks for wider political relationships and alliances. However, in order to unlock these relationships, the UK must be willing to live up to its rhetoric on free trade.