David Lidington: There’s no alternative to our American alliance. But we also need a new strategic relationship with our European allies.

27 Aug

David Lidington is a former Cabinet Minister and Europe Minister. He is Chair of the Royal United Services Institution (RUSI), and of the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE).

This week at Kabul airport we have seen human nature both at its most heroic, in the risks taken by our servicemen and women to help thousands of Afghans fleeing persecution, and at its most depraved, in the merciless slaughter of innocents by suicide bombers.

Those appalling scenes ram home the cruel truth that we, the West, have suffered a major defeat. The return of the Taliban is a humiliation for the United States and its NATO allies, including our own country. Jihadist networks, not only Isis-K but their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East and in our own cities will take fresh heart. Russia, China and Iran will interpret the debacle in Kabul as further evidence of Western decadence and decline and see opportunities to expand their influence in the world.

Unsurprisingly, defeat in Afghanistan has sent a wave of shock and anger through the British political and media worlds. In particular, recriminations over Joe Biden’s decision to act unilaterally and his scant consultation with coalition allies have gone way beyond the normal language of diplomatic relations. One or two Ministers, who under the cloak of anonymity have bandied around not just vituperative language about the United States but personal insults at Biden, need to be reminded that the burdens of high office include sometimes having to bite your tongue when matters involving the national interest are at stake.

While it is right that this strategic reverse should prompt a hard look at its lessons for our foreign and security policy, it would be a mistake to think that every assumption about the UK’s place in the world has been overthrown.

The fundamental conclusions of the Government’s Integrated Review seem to me still to hold good. Russia is a potent threat to the security of this country and the continent of which we are part. China is both a strategic rival to the West and in some respects an unavoidable partner. Our military strength and our resilience to security threats depends on us being able to renew our capacity for technological innovation. The United Kingdom is a European power with a global outlook and global interests. The alliance with the United States is essential to our own national security.

Policy should include a measured tilt to the Indo-Pacific, doing more with countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea, while continuing to direct the great majority of our security resources and attention to the Euro-Atlantic, working with our allies in Europe and North America. Soft and hard power complement one another and both are important in defending and advancing our interests.

The missing element is a clear strategic plan to act on those conclusions. In this short space, I want to make just two points.

First, that plan should start with a clear-eyed view of our relationship with the United States.

Walk down Bond Street in the West End and you come across a remarkable pair of statues: Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt sitting on a wooden bench. The two men are presented as if in the middle of a relaxed, jovial conversation, the sculptor’s art conveying an impression of mutual trust, friendship and goodwill. The work is entitled “Allies”.

Far too often, British politicians and journalists have fallen for the beguiling romance that this work of art represents, and overlooked the reality that there have been freqtuent clashes of interest and opinion. FDR drove a hard bargain over lend-lease. Truman refused to do Attlee any favours over Britain’s war debts. Eisenhower humiliated Britain and France over Suez. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam. Ronald Reagan sent US forces into Grenada without even telling Margaret Thatcher.

What President Biden’s recent decisions have shown is that “America First” has outlived Donald Trump. It’s not isolationism, but rather a rigorous and ruthless focus on what the White House considers to be the key national interests of the United States and a readiness to dispense with other commitments. We’ve seen it in the shift of American priorities towards the Indo-Pacific under both Democrat and Republican presidents, when Barack Obama insisted that France and the UK take political responsibility for the action in Libya in 2011 and now in Kandahar and Kabul.

The lesson for policymakers in London is not that we should look for an alternative to the US alliance. There isn’t one. No other country or grouping in the democratic world has the concentration of economic and military power of Washington. But Britain, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to work harder to prove to US politicians and the voters they represent that they should see the security of our region as part of the essential national interest of the American people.

Britain’s military and security relationships with the US functioned even during the worst turbulence of the Trump years. The Americans recognise that the UK brings things to the table that they value: our intelligence agencies, special forces, nuclear submarines and not just armed forces but a willingness to deploy them. We need to keep those relationships in the best possible state of repair and at the same time redouble diplomatic efforts to show how important American interests depend on the security of Europe.

Second, we need to establish a new strategic partnership with our European neighbours. We can and should work with like-minded nations around the world, but that should be additional to and not a substitute for an effective alliance with the democracies next door. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that it is greater capability and a greater willingness to act on the part of the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance that could give us the choice of taking an initiative when the United States does not want to be involved. And second, Washington not only wants its European allies to spend more on defence and security, but for them to show greater leadership in parts of the world: Africa, the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which America now treats as at most secondary to its strategic rivalry with China.

A lot can be done through NATO structures like the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea, and through bilateral partnerships like the E3 grouping of France, Germany and the UK. Britain is party too to the European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries.

But as governments in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere keep saying, there also needs to be a new, constructive strategic relationship between the UK and the European Union. In part, that’s because even the big member states think and work in the EU context, seeking to influence and being influenced by EU discussions on foreign and security policy, and also because many of the key levers of soft power: development aid, state capacity building, military and police training, peacekeeping missions lie at EU level.

To make a reality of the slogan “Global Britain” requires us to accept that we need to work with allies, and that we need strong, strategic relationships on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mark Francois: Why, following the crisis in Afghanistan, Johnson must avoid a Love Actually moment with Biden

25 Aug

Mark Francois is the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a former Armed Forces Minister and a Member of the House of Commons Defence Committee.

There is an old saying that hindsight makes geniuses of all of us. However, the events of the last fortnight in Afghanistan have certainly demonstrated a lack of foresight, especially in the Biden White House.

When Parliament was recalled to discuss what went gone wrong, I was one of those who was highly critical of the Biden Administration for withdrawing so hastily, which has led to a strategic defeat for NATO, for the first time in its 72-year history.

Whole libraries have been written about the so-called “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. The term itself was first coined by Winston Churchill, whose very close relationship with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fundamental to the allied victory in World War Two.

Similarly, the very strong partnership between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was undoubtedly essential to winning the Cold War. Although it is often overlooked, a young Senator Joe Biden even supported the UK’s position during the Falklands Crisis in 1982.

Nevertheless, 39 years on, Biden’s address to the American people on August 16 2021 was inherently isolationist. It put US domestic political interests way above foreign policy considerations and America’s relations with its allies, including us.

So, what should we do now? Does our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, need to create a “Love Actually moment” of his own and start making Johnsonian wisecracks about Americans invoking the 25th Amendment? Probably not. But some are now asking can we credibly create a European defence, sufficient to deter a revanchist Russia, without the active involvement of the United States?

NATO now has 30 member nations, a third of which now meet the recommended alliance minimum of spending at least two per cent of their GDP on Defence. According to NATO’s own latest figures, (which helpfully compare apples with apples), Greece is now the highest spender in proportional terms, at an estimated 3.82 per cent in 2021, compared to 3.52 per cent for the United States.

The UK is now fourth at 2.29 per cent; with all three Baltic States a bit over 2.0 per cent. France sits almost exactly on 2.0 per cent, with Italy on 1.41 per cent and Spain, at barely one per cent at all. Still, in most cases this actually represents an increase, since Russia invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

France, which maintains Armed Forces broadly comparable to Britain’s, including its own strategic nuclear deterrent, has increased its defence spending over the last seven years, has bilateral Defence ties with the UK under the auspices of the Lancaster House Agreement and is involved in a number of Anglo-French equipment programmes.

However, the calls by President Macron of France for the creation of a “European Army” have not been met by a sizeable increase in the French Defence budget to help facilitate such a concept which, for a number of NATO nations, including the U.K. is politically unrealistic anyway. Still, the French do maintain professional and operationally credible armed forces, which exercise regularly with our own.

But the great drag anchor in terms of any increased European defence capability is Germany. Although Germany recently signed a low-key bilateral defence declaration with the UK (described by one colleague of mine as, “a poor man’s Lancaster House”) even now the German defence budget has been only creeping upwards, to 1.53 per cent of GDP this year and is not due to achieve the two per cent target for several years yet – much to the repeated annoyance of former President Trump.

Moreover, the German Armed Forces are now a shadow of their former, highly operationally focused, Cold War selves. Much of Germany’s military equipment is in poor repair, with depressingly low levels of operational availability in everything from submarines to fighter aircraft. They are also a risky industrial partner, because of increasingly hostile attitudes to defence exports within the Bundestag.

Similarly, Germany’s close relationship with Russia, for instance in advocating the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, may suit Germany’s peacetime energy needs but does not help bolster NATO security, especially among its Eastern European members.

Much now hinges on the forthcoming German Federal Elections, with the era of the Merkel ascendency coming to an end and the race for her successor seemingly wide open.

Whether the largest party emerging from the elections is the CDP/CSU or the SPD, any subsequent coalition Government which meaningfully involves either Der Linke or the Greens is unlikely to be keen on the sort of very significant increase in German defence spending – and hardening of the line on Russia – that would likely be required to give a meaningful edge to a European Defence identity. Pious declarations are all very well but, as Stalin brutally put it: “How many divisions has the Pope?”

So, where does all this leave us? First, it means that we should look to strengthen defence ties with our European allies – but with a clear-eyed realism about the limits of what this is likely to achieve. For the foreseeable future, the idea that NATO’s European partners could credibly deter Russia entirely on their own is completely fanciful; they just aren’t prepared to pay for it – and even the most junior analyst in Moscow knows it.

That means that we need to try and repair the damage caused to NATO by the disastrous events of the past fortnight. In that context, the Anglo-American link is absolutely crucial. Historically, whoever has been in the White House or Downing Street, Anglo-American links at the diplomatic, military and intelligence (Five Eyes) have remained strong, and we now need to bolster them again. As one example, the previous US Ambassador, Woody Johnson, was a high-profile and popular Anglophile and we need to see someone equally charismatic appointed without delay.

Hard left opponents in Britain have sometimes railed about the “Anglo-American deep State”; well, if such a thing exists, now is surely the time to use all of these contacts to best advantage to bolster Western security.

To those in the American security establishment who have become obsessed with China, we need to remind them that Russia possesses thousands of nuclear weapons too, has invaded neighbouring countries on the European landmass within the last decade.

Russian spokesmen have even boasted about new nuclear torpedoes, which could cause an irradiated tsunami against cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States (and NATO believes these weapons actually exist). Finally, Taiwan, while an important Western ally, is not a member of NATO – but Estonia most certainly is.

The Atlantic Charter, which led, in turn, to the creation of the United Nations, was originally an Anglo-American construct. The American Eagle and the British Lion have stood side by side in defence of the free world for many decades now and we cannot allow any one individual, no matter how senior, to get in the way of that.

Bob Seely: The case against planning revolutionaries – and their flawed assumptions about how to get housing done

18 Jun

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

ConHome has kindly allowed me another article as part of the debate on planning, in relation to Henry Hill’s pieces. I am grateful for the opportunity.

Supporters of a planning “revolution” broadly argue three things. First, house prices in the South are overheated because demand far outstrips supply, so we must build more houses. Second, the North doesn’t need more housing. Third, communities should be deprived of the right to object to development.

There are three flawed assumptions in these arguments.

First, building more homes alone does not solve the affordability problem. There are many other factors, such type of home, interest rates, etc. Evidence? Despite a strong increase in supply from 2013, average house prices have continued to rise – going up 10.2 percent between March 2020 and March 2021 alone. Reversing just this most recent 12-month rise using only housing supply would take 20 years, according to one estimate.

Therefore, there are two routes of action. Either flood the South with so much housing that you force the price down, or find alternatives. The first is economically, environmentally and socially disastrous – as well as politically suicidal – and the problem with political suicides is, as Winston Churchill noted, you live to regret them. The alternative, which I support, requires finding a new approach.

Second, planning “revolutionaries” argue that the relative affordability and lower demand in the North means a) fewer homes need to be built, and b) infrastructure support for housebuilding is not needed.

However, household projections are not an indicator of housing demand but a representation of how many homes are required should current trends continue. In plain English, if you want to change things – and that’s fundamentally what Levelling Up is about – don’t base assumptions on how the current planning methodology works because it primarily reinforces historic trends and projects them into the future. It does not encourage new thinking. The current methodology, 2020 Standard Method, is better than the pre-2020 version and increases targets in Northern cities – as a result of direct ministerial intervention – but it retains the same conceptual flaw.

Third, this model deprives the North (apologies for the generalised terms) of infrastructure funding and helps suppress demand for housing, according to property experts Knight Frank, which explains why, in a valuable document, here. UK public expenditure on housing in the North is already only 17.8 per cent of the total; down from 24.5 percent in 1998-99. The Housing Infrastructure Fund allocated the equivalent of £115 per head in the East of England but only £4 per head than in Yorkshire and Humber, according to Onward research.

Put in plain English, focusing house building on the South, with the accompanying construction and support jobs, infrastructure spend and household spending, becomes self-reinforcing and self-defeating. It continues – reductio ad absurdum – with the hamster wheel of unsustainable greenfield development in the overheated South. It is, in the words of the 1980s band The Talking Heads, a Road to Nowhere.

Even the Government now admits this.

To overcome market failure, we need to throw money at brownfield clean-up and affordable homes. To see Levelling Up as an investment in rebuilding communities and regions. One option would be to tax greenfield sites and use the money for brownfield clean-up. Sadly, the chances of “pricing in” the true cost of greenfield is slim. However, planning should be environment-led.

Third, Mr Hill says communities should not be able to “stymie expansion.” To me, that sounds like an arrogant way of dealing with people. Like most conservatives, I am fed up with those who try to silence others. I never thought I’d hear it from a ConservativeHome columnist, though.

It is also self-defeating. Communities help development happen, as long as they can shape it. One initial study, albeit limited, found that areas with a neighbourhood plan saw a 10 per cent increase in housing allocations. Therefore, working with communities gets better results than treating them as the planning equivalent of a foie gras goose, with evermore housing shoved down their gullets.

However, the development that communities need is not what developers want. An example: 80 per cent of greenfield applications in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) are approved. Yet the majority of property built is “executive homes”, not first-time buyer properties. How on earth does this help first-time buyers? Answer: it doesn’t. Therefore, planning needs to be community-led.

In his previous piece, Mr Hill dismissed community champions as NIMBYs. “Seeing down” voters is dumb in a democracy, as sadly I fear many councillors and some MPs will eventually find out.

So summing up, we hope that the Planning Bill will move to a levelling-up led, community-led and environment-led agenda. We fear that it will contain the same flawed assumptions. I have made a case for change. But we need evolution, not revolution. Ripping up local democracy is a fool’s errand. Venerating a self-reinforcing methodology is a dead end.

We need to do planning better. Let’s start now. I wish ConHome readers a good weekend.

Lewis Feilder: UK laws haven’t been strong enough to protect memorials. But all of that is about to change.

5 Apr

Lewis Feilder is on the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidates’ list, works as a management consultant and is a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces.

One element of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 that has received much less attention recently than others is the protection it introduces against criminal damage to memorials.

Like most people, I was appalled to watch during last year’s protests as the Cenotaph on Whitehall was attacked, Churchill’s statue was graffitied and PC Keith Palmer’s memorial at the gates of Parliament was urinated upon.

I despaired at the inevitability of the perpetrators of these acts of gross indecency – if ever caught – being brought up before a magistrate and being sent on their way with a nominal fine.

The young man who tried to set light to the Union Jack on the Cenotaph was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay only £340 in court costs. It’s pitiful and undermines public trust in the judicial system, but it’s sadly what we’ve come to expect.

As a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, I wanted to know why and began researching the laws pertaining to desecration of war memorials, whereupon it rapidly became clear there simply were none. In contrast to most other Commonwealth Realms, the UK gives no special protection to war memorials, or other types of public memorial.

When damage is purposefully caused to them, prosecutors have to rely upon existing criminal damage statutes, which only take account of the financial value of the damage caused. Where this is less than £5,000, as is the case in most instances of desecration, courts have very limited powers available to them – a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £2,500. This struck me as wholly insufficient and a failure to take into account the public outrage and emotional distress caused by the level of disrespect shown in these cases.

So, that morning I sat down to write what a new law would look like and circulated this to a few MPs who I thought might be supportive. With the image of a young man trying to set alight to the Union Jack on the Cenotaph still live in people’s minds, support was not in short supply and Jonathan Gullis, the new MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and James Sunderland, the former Army colonel and new MP for Bracknell, took up the cudgels.

Support rapidly snowballed and within 48 hours we had 150 MPs’ signatures on a letter to the Home Secretary. Over the next few weeks, we met with both the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, who both gave their full backing to updating the law and instructed their departments to find the best way to get it on the statute books. It was clear we were pushing against an open door.

It had in fact been tried previously more than a decade ago, when David Burrowes, the then MP for Enfield Southgate, introduced a Private Members’ Bill, which was rapidly scuppered by the calling of the 2010 General Election.

Finally now, the law is being updated and the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 will soon reflect that where damage or desecration of a memorial occurs and amounts to an offence of criminal damage, the court will no longer be constrained in its options where the value involved in monetary terms is assessed to be less than £5,000.

The maximum sentence of imprisonment will now be ten years’ imprisonment, reflecting the severity of the nature of the crime. Of course, it remains the role of magistrates to take into account aggravating and mitigating factors in applying these new powers.

While the passage of time might dim our collective memory of those who have served or died for their country, war memorials serve as a permanent testimony to those who must not be forgotten. This change to the law ensures that their memory can no longer be sullied with impunity.

Robert Halfon: The Conservatives were the party of affordable and social housing – and must be again

24 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Conservatives need to remember something forgotten about our past. We were once the party that brought social housing to the people that needed it throughout this country.

In 1951, Tories went into a General Election with the phrase, “housing is the first of the social services”, proudly sat at its heart. Echoes of this could be heard when the PM last summer committed to “not just to defeating Coronavirus but to using this crisis to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades.” The first of which he said was housing. He is right, but I think we can go further with the housing we need.

The 1951 manifesto made clear that access to a good home, an affordable home, was central to productivity, family life and good health. This sentiment – this vision – is as relevant today as it was then. The difference, however, is today we have lost our way in making that vision achievable.

Harold Macmillan, the then minister in charge of delivery, ensured that the Government beat its target of 300,000 homes a year, and good homes at that. I know this, because I am proud to represent a small part, in the form of my constituency of Harlow. Our town was created as part of the post-World War housing boom, started by a Labour government but accelerated by a Conservative one.

These homes were true homes as well. Safe, secure, affordable and designed to be far better than what had come before. New Towns like Harlow were – and some will be surprised by this – incredibly popular. They were also made possible by Government investment in social housing. Housing that ensured everyone, whoever they might be and whatever they did, could benefit from the delivery of this vision that everyone should have a home, whatever their background.

In 1979, the BBC broadcast a show about Britain’s New Towns and visited Harlow. It interviewed both those who had moved out of shoddy accommodation in London, as well as the children for whom the town had always been home.

Harlow had been gifted, by both Labour and the Conservatives, a proud community who lived in quality social housing that allowed them to prosper. Children had a great start in life. They had fields to play in, good local schools to attend, sculptures to inspire them, their own bedrooms for big ideas to be imagined.

Unfortunately, this is where the story of Harlow and of housing takes a turn.

Nobody, not Macmillan, not Churchill, or Atlee for that matter, intended the post-War investment to be the final investment. To build the New Towns and that be that. Yet, in a way, this is what happened. Investment in housing wound down and the focus on the delivery of social housing took a 40-year back seat to reach a position like the one we are in now, with fewer than 7,000 new social homes a year being built.

A failure to deliver a positive vision for housing has consequences. Consequences whereby families are placed into, what can only be described as human warehouses – unsuitable, former office blocks – away from their communities, their families, in an act of social cleansing by predominantly London Labour councils. There’s no room to build a better life. There is one room and in it you eat, you watch TV and you sleep.

Families are in unsafe conditions. Exposed to vulnerable people. Parents are exhausted, taking their children on long commutes to distant schools. This is not how we used to do it. It is not a fair offer – it isn’t a Conservative offer.

Fortunately, the MHCLG Secretary of State is well aware this is not good enough and is taking steps to improve such conversions, demanding quality housing and more say by local councils.

However, this doesn’t tackle the underlying problem: that instead of measuring our housing success in the places we build and opportunities we bring, we engage in a relentless pursuit of “units”. We are doing this the wrong way round. Homes should not be measured in units delivered but in lives transformed.

Temporary accommodation, which is what many office-block conversions through permitted development rights often are, cost councils almost £2 billion in 2019/20. That’s a 55 per cent increase since 2014/15 and is money that by and large we pay to private landlords for providing unsuitable homes.

This is absurd. And we see it right across England. For example, in Blackpool, almost three-quarters of private renters are having to rely on housing benefit and yet the local authority is blocked from applying for grants for social homes due to the current rules. That doesn’t then mean public money is not spent, but instead of spending it on building homes to be proud of, we send it into the hands of private companies.

I share the ambition of the Prime Minister and the Government to unlock home ownership for a new generation. I am proud to be a part of the party that has done so much to champion it through measures like Right to Buy. But I also see no contradiction in being both the party of the home owner and the party of social housing. Quite the reverse.

By building the social homes we need, we may in fact be truly demonstrating that we are the party of home ownership. Not doing so, has made home ownership an impossible dream for too many.

Being stuck in an overpriced private rental market is the real barrier to ownership. According to Shelter, 63 per cent of people in private rented households have absolutely no savings at all. Two in five (40 per cent) of the population have less than £100 in savings. It is just not possible to save for a deposit if your money is having to all go into the pocket of a landlord.

Moveover, overcrowding has massively increased in the rental sector – from 187,000 homes in 2011 to over 300,000 right now. An affordable, social home would be.

Perhaps some Conservatives will be fearful of trusting local authorities with something like building homes – they fear they would be wasteful and slow. Surely, however, just as we can support academies as the model for delivering our schools, we should consider the role of Housing Associations in being a private route to social housing.

But for Housing Associations to succeed, we need a Conservative Government to unlock their potential. Because right now, social homes just aren’t being built. In fact, more than half of local authorities delivered no social rent homes at all last year and 50 local authorities have now gone five years without delivering a single social home.

We need to enable and incentivise better about what we need. Housing Associations are currently building a lot of shared ownership because that’s what policy is pushing them towards. Even without any extra investment we could change this by simple measures like increasing the flexibility provided around grant rates.

For example, the current grant rate for social housing is too low in most parts of the country and that means Housing Associations have to build more market sale and shared ownership to cross subsidise. If we removed the grant rate cap, or raised it, they could build more social rent.

We also need to look at how the current regulations and tax systems benefit the big developers making homes for private sale. The scales are too weighted towards helping the big boys at the expense of the communities they are building in. The recent plan to expand the small sites exception will make this worse. Currently, new developments of up to 10 units are exempt from providing any community benefit or affordable housing. The proposal to increase this exemption to between 40 and 50 units should be reconsidered.

Instead, the Government should look at how that contribution is made more effective. They have said they will replace the current method through Section 106 contribution with a new infrastructure levy, recognising that right now the system isn’t doing enough. However, the proposals need a lot more detail and could benefit from embracing existing good practice that we see in places like South Gloucestershire, where the Conservative-run council continues to be number one in the country for building social housing.

Finally, the Government should listen to the advice it received from the former Cabinet Minister, Oliver Letwin. His review into why homes weren’t getting built pointed directly at the cost of land. Innovative proposals around how to address this by changing the way we interpret phrases like “market value” exist and are worthy of consideration. Not least, because the status quo, in which land can rocket by 275 times its value following the grant of planning consent, are only creating perverse incentives to trade in land instead of building actual homes.

This Conservative government should not be afraid to fix the rules that are currently breaking our country’s housing market.

At the end of 2019, we earned the trust of the country by promising that we would make their tomorrow better than their today. During this pandemic, our Prime Minister rightly promised to build back better. We should, and we can, do all this if we again become the party of social housing.

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”.