Imran Ahmad Khan: Now is the right time for the UK to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy

22 Dec

Imran Ahmad Khan is Member of Parliament for Wakefield and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Foreign Affairs.

The UK has seldom faced such an array of challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak damage to our lives and businesses. Brexit negotiations have uncovered numerous flaws in our institutions, our negotiating skills, and our knowledge of our closest neighbours. The Presidential elections in the US have re-sparked divisive domestic issues. A rising China and a revanchist Russia, both of whom seek to expand their sphere of influence, now present an alternative, illiberal, world order.

Despite these threats, the UK’s recent foreign policy has been marked by missed opportunities and withdrawal. The UK’s weak presence at Davos and the Munich Security Conference in 2020 sent a signal of disinterest. Foreign leaders from countries in Asia, South America and Africa have lamented British disengagement from issues. European leaders have also debated strategic autonomy in Berlin and Paris, while London has remained silent.

Britain has a chance to reverse this deficit. Brexit presents us with the opportunity to deploy new tools of statecraft in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. The recent surge in defence spending – £16.5 billion over four years – will rebuild our pared back military capability. Upcoming commitments in the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific point to new arenas for British influence. Bilateral relationships, although attenuated in some cases, remain strong, and cooperation with the Commonwealth on issues of importance is close.

Now more than ever, a coherent, holistic strategy is required that will unite and enhance our capabilities to advance Britain’s position in the world, her interests, and her values.

What does Britain want?

Her Majesty’s Government’s principle role is to ensure the security and prosperity of her citizens. The British people not only expect this, but recognise the UK’s moral duty to prevent atrocities against oppressed and persecuted peoples, and promote stability across the globe.

These objectives are only achieved through the construction and defence of a world in which Britain is a leading and respected authority. This position does not have to stem from seizing the trident of global power or ruling as a hegemonic power.

Rather, Britain can achieve this through working within a group of like-minded nations that understand our values which set the parameters of the world order. Where there is a hegemon, we ought to influence them. When Britain wants to ensure freedom of navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb, or a free trade agreement with Japan, it helps to be listened to, and for our advise to be carefully weighed upon by military and diplomatic powers.

A critical part of this strategy has relied on maintaining good relations with the US. For decades, we have striven, buoyed by cultural similarity and shared history. The character and extent of American power is changing rapidly and significantly. Our strategy must consider this.

Why must it be Britain?

The defence, maintenance and championing of British security and prosperity internationally is critical. Yet as the current international order comes under strain, questions are raised as to whether Britain should pour its efforts out upon the world stage, and indeed why.

There is a very simple answer – no one else will. The US faces domestic challenges. The special relationship with Washington has weathered worse, but President-elect Biden will likely be distracted with ensuring an economic and institutional recovery. The European Union presents itself as a putative world power, but significant challenges and internal divisions demonstrate some of its many flaws.

Regardless, authoritarianism and illiberalism does not go unopposed. France, in collaboration with Sahelian nations and the UN, leads the charge against terrorism in North Africa. Japan provides development funding across Asia. Australia has stood up to Chinese influence, and has matched their rhetoric with a major increase in defence expenditure.

These actions are predominantly motivated by national interests. It is clear that no one will defend and champion our national interests on our behalf. We must do so ourselves.

What should be done?

Britain cannot enforce the rules of the international order alone. Through acting as a contributing nation for multilateral groups with different geographical and operational remits, Britain can maximise its influence and capacity to achieve geopolitical objectives.

There are circumstances in which Britain would act as the leading authority. The Joint Expeditionary Force that brings together eight northern European nations under British leadership is an excellent example. In other cases, Britain would play the role as a principal lieutenant, supporting and enabling a partner nation to achieve a common objective. Appreciate how British mine countermeasure vessels supported US efforts in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab El Mandeb.

Simply being a member of many organisations would improve British influence, providing us a greater understanding how other nations deploy their capabilities.

Our strength has always been as a convening power; we ought to accentuate it.

Using our leadership in the Joint Expeditionary Force to help France recruit more troops for Task Force Takuba, a pan-European special operations unit in the Sahel, would be one example. In turn, Paris may well help us convince Germany to take a stronger position against Iran, winning us plaudits in Washington.

Relationships like these are the very foundation of diplomacy and international strategy. As we forge our new path outside of the European Union, it is crucial that we fully understand and utilise this concept in order for Britain to position itself as the foremost, flexible, international power.

Our value should come not only from our military or economic strength, nor chiefly from our historic competencies, but rather because the UK has a unique capacity to act as a hub for dozens of overlapping webs of commitment, alliances and amity.

Such a policy would generate increased international political capital and create greater manoeuvring space for British diplomacy. Such space, and such capital, is sorely needed if we are to protect and promote our interests in an increasingly unstable century.

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “the international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the Cold War.” Britain, for all its often reflexive pessimism, has many valuable assets it can use, and important interests it must protect. Now is the right time to evolve a sharper and tighter foreign policy, based on a cool appraisal of the international partnerships and associations which really count. A new strategy which reshapes old alliances, forges new connections, takes advantage of Brexit, and which focuses on key priorities.

Britain’s relationship with the EU: no love affair, followed by a bad marriage and a stormy divorce

12 Dec

Reluctant European: Britain and the European Union from 1945 to Brexit by Stephen Wall

This book could also be called “Life as a Continuous Negotiation”. It shows with great clarity that when Britain entered the European Economic Community, as it was then known, the advocates of joining indulged in wishful thinking, as more recently did the advocates of Brexit.

There was no love affair before this marriage, no honeymoon after it, and the divorce is proving pretty painful too.

In 1979 Helmut Schmidt, an anglophile German Chancellor, asked Oliver Wright, the British Ambassador in Bonn, why the British had spent the six years since we joined haggling like Italians about sums of money which ought to have been beneath our notice.

There had been years of haggling before we joined, and there was a lot more haggling to come, for Margaret Thatcher was only just beginning her campaign for the British rebate.

Stephen Wall, who joined the Diplomatic Service in 1968, saw much of this haggling at first hand, for he was an adviser to five Foreign Secretaries and three Prime Ministers, and also served for five years as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU.

How did he stand it? This book is intended mainly as a dispassionate account of Britain’s European policy over the last 75 years: an aim it more than meets.

But it also offers hints on how to survive official life. One method is to enjoy the comic side of things. Here is one of the best anecdotes with which Wall enlivens his text:

“My father-in-law [Norman Reddaway], a young diplomat in the post-war British Embassy in Rome, had accompanied his Ambassador in 1950 when the latter, on instructions from London, called on the Italian Foreign Minister to persuade him of the ill-advised nature of the proposed Coal and Steel Community. The Minister, Count Sforza, listened politely. At the end of the Ambassador’s reasoned case, Sforza smiled tolerantly. ‘My dear Ambassador,’ he said. ‘There are times at the opera when you should enjoy the music and not worry about the words.'”

There is much to be said for the Sforza approach. Enjoy the music and don’t bother to translate the lyrics.

It was not, however, an approach which Wall and his colleagues felt able to adopt:

“We British worried intensely about ‘the words’. With no overarching written constitution, the words of Parliamentary Acts were all we (and the courts which interpreted them) had to rely on.”

One detects the note of suppressed hysteria which runs through the story of Britain’s relationship with Europe. It mattered desperately to get it right: here is the principal, and entirely honourable, motive which drove so many members of the Diplomatic Service to devote their careers and very considerable minds to the problem.

And yet, as Wall’s account brings out, brains were not enough to arrive at a solution. He starts in the Frick gallery in New York, staring at the Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

Here are “the two sides of the schism that was the Reformation”: Cromwell “the piggy-eyed, clever thug”, versus a representative of European civilisation:

“More was a Renaissance scholar… He was the friend of the Dutch philosopher and scholar Erasmus. They both saw themselves as part of an international, and especially European, cultural and spiritual order: that of Christendom. For More, the son of a lawyer, and himself the most senior guardian and dispenser of the law in the England of his day, the Church and State were umbilically linked and the laws of God and the laws of Man had to be in harmony. When Henry VIII sundered that harmony by declaring himself Head of the Church and breaking from the authority of Rome he was not, in More’s eyes, simply rebelling from a pontiff who was more of a temporal ruler than a spiritual one. Henry’s action was, as More saw it, an assault on the very foundations on which the English state was built.”

Wall is descended rather wonderfully from Norman foot soldiers who settled in Derbyshire, where their name “gradually morphed from Du Val to Wall” and they became yeomen farmers.

His mother was a Catholic, he was brought up as a Catholic, and he points out that the EEC was “largely conceived by Catholic Christian Democrats”, who signed the Treaty of Rome on 25th March 1957, the Feast of the Annunciation:

“For Britain, on the other hand, the idea of a supranational authority – beyond the control of national parliaments – was, and remained, conceptually alien and politically nigh on impossible to contemplate. We live with that political reality to that day.”

Wall is too intelligent and fair-minded to suggest that all virtue lies on the European side of the divide. He describes how the six founding members of the EEC created, “in an act of pre-emptive and ruthless self-interest”, the Common Fisheries Policy, before the British, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Irish, all of whom had large stocks of fish, were allowed to join.

The budget was likewise rigged against the British, who found themselves paying for a system of agricultural support for French farmers, an injustice which took many years of haggling to put right.

In 1987, Julian Bullard, the British Ambassador in Bonn, wrote a dispatch to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which included the words:

“I would plead that at least more thought should be given to the style of British policy in Europe. The plain speaking of the House of Commons does not translate well into Continental languages, especially in countries that live by coalition and compromise.”

Over 30 years later, what Bullard said remains true. Abrasive language of the kind often heard in Westminster just doesn’t register in Germany: is politely discounted as simply not serious.

Yet if one adapts one’s tone to take account of German susceptibilities, one is liable to make no impact, and to lose one’s British audience.

Wall admits that Margaret Thatcher made a remarkable impact not only in Europe, especially in that part of the Continent still held by the Soviet Union, but in the United States:

“A visit to Washington by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan rated a few lines in The New York Times. The first visit of Thatcher as Prime Minister, for which I was the gofer late in 1979, dominated the headlines and the TV news. Her address to both Houses of Congress electrified the audience. I spent the first ten years of my Foreign Office career doing my bit to represent a country in visible decline: widely seen as the sick man of Europe. All that changed with Thatcher.”

Tony Blair emerges less well from this account than one might expect. He contributes a single, mendacious paragraph to his memoirs on the subject of joining the euro, is heard by Wall agreeing to misrepresent Jacques Chirac’s views about Saddam Hussein, fatefully promises a referendum on a new European treaty, and pretends that he shares the vision of the EU’s founders.

The moral of this admirable book is that forms of words, however carefully chosen, are not enough to bridge the divide that runs through Britain, and has done since the Reformation.

So although Wall says almost nothing about Boris Johnson, for whom he never worked, he does draw the impassable chasm into which any Prime Minister is in danger of tumbling: one to which the present occupant of Number Ten sometimes seems, with his carefree insistence that politics should be enjoyable, to be applying the wisdom of Count Sforza.

Alberto Costa: There are too many barriers to Britishness. Post-Brexit, it’s time for a more welcoming citizenship policy.

10 Dec

Alberto Costa is the MP for for South Leicestershire.

Citizenship, being British, plays a foundational role in our society. It is a shared bond between us. Yet successive Labour and Conservative governments have neglected citizenship policy to such an extent that it’s been hard to tell if its aim has been to encourage people to become citizens or to try to deter them. We are now presented with an ideal moment to put that right.

With Britain having left the EU and with a new, points-based immigration system in place, our Prime Minister has an opportunity, as part of his Global Britain agenda, to be banging the drum for Britishness and a more positive, welcoming approach to citizenship for those who wish to settle and contribute to the UK.

The independent inquiry into citizenship policy, which I chaired for the respected think tank British Future, publishes its report today, setting out practical proposals for reform. Discussing these issues with the inquiry panel – which included fellow Conservative MP Steve Double and Fraser Nelson, Editor of The Spectator, as well as Andrew Gwynne MP from the Labour benches and voices from civil society – has strengthened my belief that we can galvanise a broad consensus for a positive citizenship agenda.

Research for the inquiry found two thirds of the British public agreeing that if someone decides to live in Britain long-term, it is a good thing if they have an opportunity to become British by taking citizenship. So it makes sense that UK citizenship policy should welcome those who want to make this commitment to our country and who pass the various tests of eligibility: speaking good English, being of good character, and knowing about the UK’s customs and culture.

Just as the new points-based immigration system draws on the experience of Australia and Canada, we could learn much from their approaches to citizenship too. The Canadian handbook for new citizens opens with a warm message of welcome from the Queen. However, Her Majesty does not appear in our Life in the UK handbook until page 121. It is a symbolic point – but we could very simply and easily emulate that welcoming, positive tone towards those who are seeking to become British.

If we agree that becoming British is to be welcomed (and I would hope all Conservatives would welcome full integration of those contributing to our country), citizenship should not be placed beyond the financial reach of, for instance, many social care or NHS staff and their families, nor be so complicated that most people can’t apply without a lawyer. If we believe that it can aid integration, we should make it easier, not harder, for children born here to become citizens.

British citizenship is special – but we do not make it special by setting unnecessary barriers. ConservativeHome readers may be shocked to learn that the cost of citizenship in the UK is the highest in the western world. Indeed, the combined cost of applying for citizenship in Australia, Canada, the USA and France still does not add up to the cost of a single application in Britain. The fee of £1,330 is almost four times the cost to the Home Office of processing an application.

As part of the latest Global Britain agenda, as Conservatives we are now seeking to attract the brightest and the best through our new points-based immigration system. A positive citizenship agenda would encourage those whom we are now seeking to attract and who have chosen our country as the place to contribute, settle, raise a family and pay their taxes, to take that extra step and consider citizenship. It should review citizenship policy – covering eligibility, processes and costs – to secure the benefits that citizenship can bring for shared identity and integration.

And at the end of the process when people do eventually become British citizens, we should welcome them and celebrate their becoming British – not hide the events away in some gloomy council building. New, high-profile citizenship ceremonies – held in iconic British locations such as the Palace of Westminster, Edinburgh Castle or Old Trafford – would send a clear message that this is something of which we can all be proud.

Our report goes on to propose an annual, high-profile ceremony where Her Majesty the Queen and the Prime Minister award honorary citizenship to a select number of people who have been outstandingly brave or made a great contribution to life in the UK, either as an individual or because they represent a particular group whose contribution is valued, such as NHS staff or those who helped develop the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine.

Debates about migration, and who can come to the UK, have now been largely settled. It is time to focus on the people who have made their lives here, and on ensuring that a Global Britain embraces those who want to contribute to our shared society. So it is my hope that the Prime Minister, and indeed all of us as Conservatives, will seize this opportunity to take a new, pro-Britishness approach to citizenship, welcoming those who have made this country their home.

Liz Truss: The naysayers doubted the speed of the UK’s deal with Japan. But it’s here and takes us closer to the CPTPP.

10 Nov

Elizabeth Truss is Secretary of State for International Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities. She is the Conservative MP for south west Norfolk.

When the British people voted four years ago to leave the European Union, it was a vote of confidence in our great potential as an independent trading nation.

Since taking back control of our trade policy, we have begun securing deals that support our values across the world and bring home economic benefits.

For a concrete example of this, look at our Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan – which I was proud to sign last month.

The naysayers thought that the UK would take years to agree its own deal with Japan, but our negotiators worked in record time to do it in a few months.

Our deal goes further in a variety of ways that are important for British economic interests, which is why we can hail it a “British-shaped” deal.

Our high-standards deal with Japan features exactly the type of modern provisions we want which benefit our forward-leaning industries, including cutting-edge digital and data provisions.

TechUK agreed the deal creates “significant opportunities for trade and investment in both of our countries”, and CityUK found the provisions for financial services “raise the bar for trade agreements in services”.

Meanwhile, low tariffs on for agricultural products, alongside increased protection for iconic British goods, such as Welsh lamb and English sparkling wine, came as “very positive” news for the National Farmers’ Union.

The new opportunities secured in this deal have been welcomed from the creative industries to Scottish salmon fishermen.

But the benefits go wider than the economic value, which will deliver more jobs and investment across every nation and region of the UK.

As like-minded democracies, we can also better support our shared values – freedom, human rights and our natural environment – as we work together to uphold a rules-based global trading order.

This deal paves the way for what could be the most exciting step yet for Global Britain’s independent trading story: joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

This partnership of 11 Pacific nations make up one of the most dynamic and vibrant trading areas in the world.

Over 32 years after Margaret Thatcher warned Europe that it “never will prosper as a narrow-minded, inward-looking club”, we would be joining a truly broad-minded and outward-looking club in the CPTPP.

Members benefit from tariff-free trade on 95 per cent on goods and modern rules covering industries of increasing importance for our economy such as services, data and digital trade.

Last year, we did £112 billion worth of trade with the countries in this area, which include many of our friends and family like Australia and Canada. Together, we can do so much more, building a modern trading order across the Americas and Pacific with the UK at its heart.

As the biggest economy in the CPTPP, Japan’s support for our accession – secured as part of our newly-signed trade deal – will be key.

Securing access to this club and a strong free trade agreement with the United States would give British business unprecedented and deep access to over 40 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product. That would equate to over £27 trillion pounds.

And that is before we account for our continued terms of trade with our European friends, with whom we continue to seek a relationship centred on free trade between sovereign equals.

Some will share my excitement about our great trading potential, but others will be understandably anxious as we look to a new future as a full-independent trading nation and deal with the fallout from Coronavirus.

Despite these unprecedentedly challenging circumstances, we can make the most of the unparalleled opportunities ahead together. That is why we want to bring the whole country with us – from families and farmers to businesspeople and consumers.

Our values-driven and value-generating approach, which I outlined last week at Chatham House, has already been proven to deliver. And there is much more to come.

Taking back control of our trade policy means the British people are back in the driving seat.

We are now free to seize this opportunity and to turbocharge our trade-powered recovery.

Going global allows British business to find more customers for their high-quality goods and services. In turn, British consumers can look forward to more choice as they enjoy the best the world has to offer at competitive prices.

Together, the UK can spread prosperity worldwide, supporting freedom, democracy, human rights and a cleaner planet in the process.

Hopefully, even naysayers will want to get on board with that.

From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

31 Oct

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.

Andrew Bowie: We need to rediscover the quiet strength of British patriotism

5 Sep

Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

It is ironic that one of the most distinctive British traits is a desire not to be seen to be overly patriotic. Not for us the flag waving, star-spangled brashness of our cousins over the pond; nor for the Brits the haughty, aloof self-confidence of our Gallic friends on the other side of the channel.

No, for us, a quiet, polite pride in who we are and what we stand for. Understated, unspoken, inoffensive, British.

A couple of minutes silence in November to commemorate our war dead; a parade one morning in early June to celebrate the birthday of the Queen; the closest the United Kingdom gets to national commemoration, celebration or recognition of who we are and what our nation has achieved.

Compare to the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris or the 4th of July fireworks in the USA.

Britain never needed these displays of greatness. Our nation was not forged from war or revolution, nor liberated from tyranny and fascism. Never have we suffered invasion and the indignity of occupation; we were not liberated from a foreign power. Never have we, unlike the Founding Fathers or Charles De Gaulle, had to reinvent ourselves, rebuild, or build anew our national identity.

To be British was understood; our greatness self-evident and accepted. We didn’t need to shout it from the roof tops. This is the country that abolished slavery, that fought with our Commonwealth, Empire, and allies to free the world from oppression, Nazism, and Communism; helped found the United Nations and NATO; and stood as a beacon for the poor and dispossessed of the world as a symbol of hope that good will, forever, overcome evil.

Of course, there are moments in our national story that we cannot be proud of. Our cities and empire grew on the back of the vile trade in human life long before we abolished it, and peoples across the world suffered from episodes of ill-judged and aggressive expansionism and exploitation at our hands and the hands of other European powers. We must understand and accept that in history, there is not, ever, one single view.

But I think, one of the glories of modern Britain is that have been, unlike many other countries with similarly blemished histories, confident enough in who we are to be able to reflect, debate, and discuss the rights and wrongs of our past without feeling ashamed of who we are or who what we represent.

So why this recent bout of uncertainty? Why this national vacillation about what Britain is? For what reason are we deemed to be in the middle of a culture war when in many ways the celebration of different cultures is what has made this country great since it was created through the binding together of our island in the Act of Union in 1707?

This week’s debate on whether or not the BBC should allow the singing of Rule Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms is symbolic of the national lack of confidence in ourselves. A lack of certainty in the future – in who we, the British, are. In what our country is and what we want it to be.

In Scotland, the SNP agitate for separation. On streets in our great cities, protests erupt and previous national heroes are held up as symbols of imperial oppression. People are questioning what Brexit means for our national identity. It is a time of confusion for many.

But I also know that this is a great country. A truly great country. A country that leads the world in so many ways. In foreign aid and charitable giving to the poorest on our planet. In combating climate change through government action, such as our determination to reach net zero carbon emissions or in the investment and research into green technology at our renowned research institutions. Our universities are the envy of most of the world. On the sporting field, in theatres, galleries, film and television and in technology, this country punches above its weight.

Our Armed Forces remain respected and relied upon by our allies, ready to fight and defend our friends and promote democracy and the rule of law wherever and whenever we are called upon to do so.

Ours is a tolerant nation. A proud multi-cultural nation. Survey after survey has found that Britain is one of the least racist and most accepting countries in the world. That is not to say that racism does not exist, and where it does we must call it out. but compared to many of our European neighbours, we are more welcoming and understanding than most. We are one of the most LGBT+ friendly countries in the world.

We have so much work to do. We must address our imperfections. We must examine this national downbeat mood. We must answer why we so lack confidence in who we are that our national broadcaster can contemplate not devoting fifteen minutes of one Saturday evening to a patriotic sing-song.

We must bring our country together; our people together. Uniting our country. That, for me, is the great challenge of this Government – of our generation. That is what ‘levelling up’ means.

I would not recognise a country that was more aggressively patriotic. More flags are not for me. I like the quiet, unspoken pride we share in being British.

But I am confident in Britain and our future. And if we can be confident in who we are and what our national mission is, then we have no need to erase our past. Let us instead build on it. Good and ill. Victory and defeat. Fair and unfair. It is our history. We should own it just as we own our future

Dean Russell: As a volunteer in my local hospital, I saw at first hand the damage done by NHS fearmongering

1 Sep

Dean Russell is the MP for Watford and a member of the Health & Social Care Select Committee.

Concurrent with Matt Hancock’s recent announcement about the creation of the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) came the usual reactionary political cries that this means the NHS is under threat of privatisation.

The sad truth is that whilst politicians are repeating old myths like a broken record, they once again fail to look at the actual record of the NHS under the Conservatives since its inception in 1948; in doing so, they are causing genuine distress to those who are most vulnerable.

I understand that old habits die hard when it comes to political fearmongering; however, in the efforts to win votes through these repeated false claims, they are only hurting the very people they claim to protect – health and social care workers.

The problem with these entrenched and unfounded claims around NHS privatisation is that politicians make it difficult to be open about where issues exist within these large institutions, which, in turn, means that front line staff are the worst hit.

Just this week, I was fortunate to spend a day with St John Ambulance and meet hospital staff who they had been volunteering alongside during the crisis. They all made the point that that pre-Covid the levels of red tape and bureaucracy needed to enable St John Ambulance to help volunteer on wards would have been too immense ever to see it happen.

The nature of the Covid crisis enabled the NHS to be allowed to utilise the assets that an organisation like St John Ambulance teams can provide. This additional workforce during such an unprecedented crisis has provided invaluable support to NHS staff. I am confident if any Conservative politician had tried to suggest this last year, they would have been lambasted for attempting to undermine NHS staff or for putting the UK on a “slippery slope” towards privatisation.

Since March, I have volunteered with my local hospital – something I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to do as it enabled me to support the frontline in action.

What struck me at the height of the crisis was how impacted NHS staff were by some sections of the media and those who engaged in baseless NHS political point-scoring. When the news was reporting the country was running out of PPE, despite the fact my local hospital had stock, I could hear the concern in the voices of some staff that they thought they were about to run out imminently.

Like the rest of the country, NHS staff, too, are watching the news day after day. When they hear a constant flow of the absolute worst-case scenarios presented as the norm, it understandably affects their anxiety levels.

Whilst the NHS has been presented with challenges it had never faced before, the unhealthy obsession with scaremongering poses a threat to NHS employees mental health and the morale of the nation.

Our NHS is the most prized possession in the Government’s arsenal, and it has become a proud cultural symbol for Britain. The uncorroborated and alarmist claims by part of the media and fed by some politicians deny honest and nuanced debate about the issues facing the NHS and social care both during Covid and looking long-term.

One of the many reasons I am proud to be a new MP as part of the 2019 intake is because of our Party’s renewed focus on health social care. During Labour’s time running the NHS, use of Public Finance Initiatives (PFI) increased to the point that even The Guardian described its crippling effects on hospital budgets.

It was Hancock who wrote £13.4 billion off hospital debts, much of which had accumulated due to PFI contracts. It was formerly Chancellor Phillip Hammond who ended the use of PFI and PF2 contracts. It was the last Labour government who privatised Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which the Conservatives then took back into public ownership in 2015.

More recently, the opposition has found itself at odds with the CMO and BMA over attempts to change testing policies through an amendment in Parliament. Even during the early history of the NHS, it was Labour who introduced prescription charges along with charges for spectacles and dentistry.

As a member of the Health and Social Care (HSC) select committee, I don’t shy away from being critical myself. I am aware of the need for transformation in many areas. It has been clear to me that the parity of esteem between physical and mental health, for example, needs addressing much more robustly. As does the parity between NHS and social care workers.

The good news is I believe the decision-makers for these areas have heard this call loud and clear from the very top and are focussing on solutions.

The announcement by Hancock mid-August regarding the creation of the NIHP was an important step that sadly once again had to battle against the noise of opposition repeating the old “privatisation” rhetoric.

For anyone who listened carefully, they would have heard this critical line at the end of the speech. The Secretary of State said, “It (NIHP) will work hand in glove with the NHS, and it will use the most modern, cutting-edge digital and data analytics tools at its core.” Such remarks are not about privatisation, but about a new era of agile government supported by highly capable health agencies.

The easing of unnecessarily bureaucratic systems, the harnessing of technological capabilities, the rise of telemedicine and enhancing the powers of frontline staff should now become the new norm for healthcare.

We have also seen a robust partnership with AstraZeneca and others with the vaccine development, the use of private healthcare facilities for public purpose and the building of the Nightingale Hospitals’ at a record pace. The Government will enable the NHS to spend £10 billion over the next four years on private hospitals to tackle waiting lists.

Not one aspect of this has been a drive towards privatisation, but a more collaborative way of working that aims to benefit patients and staff.

I am not arguing that the Government shouldn’t be put under intense scrutiny by the opposition – in fact – I welcome it. We must end this knee-jerk media scaremongering that only puts fear into the most vulnerable and those working on the frontline.

What we need is a visionary approach to healthcare for this century if we want to seek ways improving patient outcomes and being the best possible employer for Health & Social Care staff. 65 per cent of the NHS’s history has been under a Conservative government, and privatisation simply has not happened under our watch.

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”.

Daniel Hannan: Sweden settled in for the long haul, and now doesn’t need to worry about a second surge

5 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

You know who isn’t worried about a second wave? Sweden. Covid cases may be rising worldwide but, in that stolid, sensible monarchy, they are down nearly 90 per cent from peak. “I think to a great extent it’s been a success,” says Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist. “We are now seeing rapidly falling cases, we have continuously had healthcare that has been working, there have been free beds at any given time, never any crowding in the hospitals, we have been able to keep schools open which we think is extremely important, and society fairly open.”

Uncomplicatedly good news, you might think. Yet the overseas media coverage of Sweden is brutal. Its fatality rate is endlessly compared to the lower rates in Norway and Finland (never the higher rates in Italy or Britain). Many commentators sound affronted, as though Sweden were deliberately mocking the harsher prohibitions imposed in most of the world.

The nature of their criticism is telling. To condemn Sweden for its relatively high number of deaths per capita suggests a worrying inability, even after five months, to grasp what “flattening the curve” means. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, an epidemic will end up reaching roughly the same number of people. That number may differ from country to country for all sorts of possible reasons: age profile, weather, family living patterns, openness to international travel, incidence of obesity, past exposure to different coronaviruses, differing levels of genetic immunity.

But it won’t be much affected by lockdown measures. To put it at its simplest, flattening the curve doesn’t alter the area underneath the curve. No country can immobilise its population indefinitely; so all we are doing, in the absence of a medical breakthrough, is buying time.

The UK lockdown was intended to string things out while we built our capacity. “It’s vital to slow the spread of the disease,” said the PM in his televised address of March 23. “Because that is the way we reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment at any one time, so we can protect the NHS’s ability to cope – and save more lives.”

Sweden judged that it could manage to keep its hospitals functioning with only relatively minor restrictions – and it was right. With hindsight, it seems likely that the UK could have got away with a similar approach. Not only did our Nightingale hospitals stand largely empty throughout; so did many of our existing hospital beds. The expected tidal wave, mercifully, did not come – probably because the rate of infection, worldwide, turned out to be lower than was first feared.

No one should blame public health officials for erring on the side of caution. Still, it ought to have been clear by late May that we could start easing restrictions. We knew, by then, that the infection rate had peaked on our around March 18 – that is, five days before the lockdown was imposed.

But, alarmingly, liberty turns out to be more easily taken than restored. The easing of the lockdown was achieved in the face of public opposition: British voters were global outliers in their backing for longer and stronger closures. The media, never having internalised what flattening the curve meant, failed to distinguish between preventable deaths and deaths per se.

In March, according to the official minute, “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.” As far as I can tell, it has never rescinded that view. The question is not whether there will be some post-lockdown uptick in infection rates – releasing an entire population from house arrest is bound to lead to an increase in all sorts of medical problems, from common colds to car crashes. The question, rather, is still the one we faced in March, namely can we be certain that our healthcare capacity will not be overwhelmed.

Given what we can see in Sweden – and, indeed, in developing nations which lack the capacity to isolate their teeming populations – it seems pretty clear that we can.

Yet the original rationale for the closures has somehow got lost. Commentators now demand the “defeat” of the disease, and hold up league tables of fatality rates as if that were the only gauge by which to measure the performance of different countries. Covid, like everything else, has been dragged into our culture wars, so that one side revels in excessive caution, ticking people off for the tiniest lockdown infractions, while the other argues that lockdowns don’t work at all.

The case against the lockdown is not that it was useless, but that it was disproportionate and had served its purpose long before it was eased. Confining an entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing a disease – any disease. The question is how high a price we should be prepared to pay.

Sweden seems to have got it right. It banned large meetings and urged people to stay home where possible. But, beyond one or two targeted closures, it broadly trusted people to use their nous. Because it judged coolly at the outset that there would be no immediate vaccine, it never got into the ridiculous position of being unable to restore normality in the absence of one. It settled in for the long haul, understanding that the disease would be around for a while, and that acquired immunity would be part of the eventual solution.

The figures for Q2 growth are published later today. Yes, Sweden will have suffered. The distancing measures taken by most Swedes, and the global downturn, will have taken their toll. Still, my guess – judging from retail figures, credit card activity, employment rates and other extant data – is that Sweden will comfortably have outperformed most European countries, as well as avoiding the costs of furlough schemes and massive borrowing.

It may turn out, when all is said and done, that the international variable was not the eventual death toll so much as the price exacted from the survivors.

Sunder Katwala: Gandhi does not quite fit the bill of recognising ethnic minority Britons on our currency

4 Aug

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

There is a certain irony in Mahatma Gandhi being the dominant face of India’s currency. There was talk from the moment of independence of Gandhi replacing the image of the king on the money of the new Republic, though it took some decades for that plan to come to fruition.

A special commemorative 100 rupee note was produced as part of the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s birth in 1969, but it was only during this era of India’s post-liberalisation boom after 1996 that the austere home-spun Mahatma became routinely the image and watermark of modern India’s new high-security banknotes. It is still only Gandhi who appears on Indian banknotes, reflecting both his role as the spiritual father of the nation, and the lack of consensus whenever additional figures have been proposed.

Now Gandhi may be set to achieve an unusual double, following reports that the Royal Mint proposes to feature him on British currency too. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is supporting a call to recognise ethnic minority contributions in those celebrated on our currency.

Sunak wrote to the Royal Mint that “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities have made a profound contribution to the shared history of the United Kingdom. For generations, ethnic minority groups have fought and died for this country we have built together; taught our children, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly; and through their enterprising spirit have started some of our most exciting and dynamic businesses, creating jobs and driving growth”, in requesting that they bring forward proposals to reflect this on coinage.

The Chancellor’s intervention was a response to the “We Built Britain Too” campaign, coordinated by former Conservative candidate Zehra Zaidi and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, of which I am a supporter. The campaign had hoped to persuade the Bank of England to feature the first ethnic minority Briton on a banknote.

Despite broad cross-partisan political support across right, left and centre, the Bank of England took a perfunctory and dismissive response to the campaign. The Bank’s remit includes “recognising the diversity of British society” in its choices, but it has considered this primarily through the lens of balancing artists and writers with engineers and scientists.

It seems entirely possible that we will have reached the post-cash society before Britain’s ethnic diversity enters onto the Bank of England’s radar. The support of the Chancellor and the Royal Mint will make a crucial difference to this happening on coins first.

It is not quite the case that no ethnic minority face has ever featured on British coinage. For example, the first black British army officer Walter Tull featured on a special £5 coin, part of a limited edition first world war centenary set in sterling silver and 22 carat gold, for the First World War Centenary.

But no ethnic minority Briton has featured on legal tender, or on the notes or coins that any of us might spend at the shops. The campaign is not proposing any specific individual – wanting to see a process of public engagement and debate – but suggestions including Noor Inayat Khan, Mary Seacole and black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, the first black British voter in the 1774 general election, have been suggested.

Gandhi does not quite fit the bill for the campaign’s aim of recognising ethnic minority Britons. Though he did not live almost of his eight decades of life as among the king’s subjects, though the central mission of his life was that this should cease to be the case. He saw India become independent, and the trauma of Partition, but was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu supporter of the far right RSS within six months.

To the British public, Gandhi is a famous name, one of the great figures who shaped the 20th century and of very few names that would mean at least something to most people. Standing alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as British leaders are a handful of international figures: Hitler and Stalin as the villains of the last century, while Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are cast as its secular saints. No other figure from the end of Empire – including Nehru in India, or any other figure from Ireland, Asia or Africa – has any similar level of public recognition.

So Gandhi’s iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity and sustainability, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism, “to be the change you want to be in the world” used for myriad causes.

A simplistic deification of Gandhi risks losing the complexity of the man and his times. He was a pacifist, who helped Britain to recruit Indians in the First World War as a strategy to earn Dominion status, and whose philosophy could drive the British from India but lacked answers to address the menace of Hitler and the Holocaust in WWII.

His arguments with Nehru over India’s post-Independence path illustrates how part of Gandhi’s appeal as an icon in the West can reflect a problematic romanticisation of Indian poverty. Gandhi was a crusader against caste and for India’s untouchables, and developed his strategies in campaigning for Indian rights in South Africa, but held dismissive prejudices against the black Africans, as his leading biographer Ramachandra Guha has set out. “Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology”, as Patrick French wrote in his review of Guha’s Gandhi before India.

So Gandhi too has been challenged by anti-racist campaigners. We should recognise that there are no flawless heroes. The school curriculum should interrogate every controversy, so that we understand them, warts and all. Yet we can not set standards for the recognition of past achievements that not even Churchill or Gladstone, Gandhi or Mandela can attain, or we would surely have no statues at all.

That Gandhi’s statue now stands in Parliament Square – joining the statesmen of previous ages, along with the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett – is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging the justice of Gandhi’s and India’s cause. It places his campaign against British rule as part of the story of British democracy, whose traditions and arguments were used by Indian Nationalists to tell the British that it was time to go.

The statue was welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled it. The proposal to feature Gandhi on coinage may also be considered an important gesture of Global Britain’s commitments to the Commonwealth – and the warmth of its bilateral relationship with a rising India today – but this is a different, parallel proposition to the case to recognise British ethnic minority contributions.

This timely change would be one simple response to the growing appetite to deepen the public understanding of the history of race in Britain, and how that has shaped the country that we are today. Most people don’t want that to turn into a culture war over the history of our country. If the focus is almost entirely on who might be removed, we risk neglecting to ask contributions we want to recognise better.

This constructive campaign to reflect significant ethnic minority contributions to British history on national symbols, like coins, symbolises how our generation can contribute to broadening Britain’s national story in an inclusive way. Zaidi says her hope is that “it helps build cohesion, inspires young people and unites us as a nation that we all have an equal stake and contribution in society.

Having as open as possible a process of public debate about the potential candidates would maximise the educational value of this positive, symbolic change.