Ben Roback: COP26 may be the only saving grace for Sleepy Joe’s presidency – in a thoroughly chaotic year

3 Nov

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

At this stage in his presidency, one gets the feeling that trips abroad are a welcome reprieve for President Biden. The political tide continues to turn slowly against him, and the list of domestic challenges is growing. A bruising defeat in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, a stalling legislative agenda, and sinking approval ratings are enough to give the president three big headaches as he returns from COP26 on Air Force One.

When will ‘America is back’ start to mean something?

Biden has carried a consistent message as he tours world capitals and global conference like COP26, delivering three simple words: “America is back”. He is right, and US presence at global forums like COP26 is an important reminder that American once again recognises an international leadership role. But on the other side of the coin, the shambolic departure from Afghanistan proved that Biden’s foreign policy agenda might yet turn out to be as unpredictable as Donald Trump’s.

Biden relies perhaps too heavily on just “showing up”. In his closing remarks, he fired a veiled criticism at presidents Xi and Putin for ignoring the climate conference. “We showed up… and by showing up we’ve had a profound impact on how the rest of the world is looking at the United States and its leadership role,” he added.

With John Kerry by his side as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, this president is uniquely well placed to be the driving force in a truly global fight against the irreversible impacts of climate change. The irony of the presidential motorcades clogging up Glasgow’s streets will not be lost on climate activists, nor the arrival and departure of Air Force One.

Is it enough just for the United States to show up? It is not reasonable to expect the power of the president to be sufficient for adversaries like Xi and Putin to change their minds on coming to COP. But having shown up, there was no major or game-changing intervention from the United States. With so many world leaders in one place, it is difficult for any one individual to make an impact or leave their mark. It is possible that the sheer saturation of power in the room results in an altogether forgettable event. After all, everyone is largely saying the same thing.

What was clear at COP26 is that, notwithstanding his good will and convivial demeanour with allies, this president lacks the presence of a Trump or oratory gift of an Obama. Poor attention to detail and an inability to stay focused during speeches has long been levelled at the presidential septuagenarian and dozing off with the eyes of the world watching is an unfortunate coincidence for the man whose opponents call “Sleepy Joe”. Biden can claim to have had a successful summit, but soon enough just “showing up” will need to be replaced with meaningful action.

The three big issues facing the returning president

Biden’s current malaise can be best split into three.

First, electoral defeats. The timing of COP26 was awkward for Biden given it coincided with a handful of elections at home. In New Jersey, the battle between incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey and Republican Jack Ciattarelli is still undecided. The Republican led by just over 1,000 votes out of more than 2.36 million cast in a race that Democrats had expected to win.

The more stark result of the night came in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin defied polling and historic trends to defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe. In the short term, it presents a major warning sign for Democrats heading into the 2022 midterms.

Youngkin has arguably created a winning formula for Conservatives running in towns, counties and states where Trump’s popularity amongst the voting population is low, but high amongst registered Republicans. Youngkin walked a meticulously fine line between mainstream Republican talking points – culture wars, ‘critical race theory in schools, and an ailing presidential agenda in Washington – while embracing Trump from a safe distance. He neither criticised the former president nor stood next to him in rallies.

Democrats expect to suffer in next year’s midterms, if nothing because historical precedent dictates that the incumbent party customarily suffers a bloody nose from the electorate at the first available opportunity after winning the White House. Virginia’s loss is unlikely to prompt a major strategic rethink at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or in the White House, but one should never underestimate the impact of a shock local result.

After all, Downing Street ripped up its entire housebuilding strategy for the country after losing Chesham and Amersham. But it will alarm Democrats running in districts and states formerly considered “safe”, while putting wind in the sails of Trump who endorsed and campaigned for a victorious candidate in a state that he lost in the general election by 10 points.

Second, a stalling legislative agenda. Democrats have spent weeks arguing amongst themselves about the finer details of the White House’s vast Build Better Act. The overnight electoral setbacks will add volume to the voices arguing the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill needs to slow down its legislative timetable and better engage centrists instead of pandering to the left.

Third, sinking approval ratings. A stalling domestic agenda is usually manifests into election losses. According to FiveThirtyEight, a majority of Americans (50.8 per cent) now disapprove of Biden whilst 42.8 per cent approve. There is some comfort in knowing that, in the October of their first year, Trump’s approval was lower at 37 per cent and President Obama’s similar on 53 per cent (Gallup). But whilst Biden’s term average to date is a more respectable 51 per cent, but his popularity is on a clear downward trend.

Biden can reasonably claim to have had a good COP26 summit. He relies perhaps too heavily on just “showing up” purely based on the fact that his predecessor too often either failed to show up or used global forums to agitate against international institutions. But with COP26 behind him, Biden returns home to a divided America and, more pressingly in the short term, a deeply divided party.

Interview with Kwasi Kwarteng: “My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives”

1 Oct

Eloquent, ebullient and frequently bursting into laughter, Kwasi Kwarteng did not look as he gave this interview yesterday morning like a minister in the middle of a crisis.

He is confident the petrol supply situation is “getting better”. Britain, he says, is making the transition from a low-wage economy with high immigration to a high-wage economy, which is what people wanted when they voted for Brexit, and although various business associations are resisting this change, it will happen quite rapidly.

As Business Secretary, Kwarteng is opposed to tax rises: “I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.” He calls himself “a pragmatic Thatcherite”, outlines how that philosophy can meet present-day challenges, and expresses no sympathy for gas suppliers who have got into difficulties: “Why on earth did they enter the market?”

Kwarteng communicated the genial toughness which is evidently intended to characterise the Johnson Government’s approach to business, with those who merely want to preserve the status quo granted no sympathy.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS, pronounced “Bays”) is housed in a dreary modern building at the end of Victoria Street, but from Kwarteng’s office on the eighth floor enjoys a spectacular view of Westminster Abbey.

He said that unlike Angela Rayner, he would never use the word “scum” to describe political opponents, and neither would Boris Johnson. In Kwarteng’s view, it is sometimes best just to stand back and let the Labour Party argue with itself about subjects which are of no interest to most people:

“I think the best approach is for us just to simply allow the Left to have these incredible navel-gazing debates on identity politics, because actually Critical Race Theory is not something that comes up on the doorstep, it’s not something that’s going to put food on anyone’s table.”

Kwarteng, profiled on ConHome after his appointment in January, said his department is not there to act as “a cash dispenser”, but to enable private investment. He is heartened to have confounded the head of Goldman Sachs, who predicted that after Brexit no one would invest in Britain.

The Business Secretary began by discussing what should happen in the coming days in Manchester:

ConHome: “What’s the conference all about?”

Kwarteng: “The conference is about focussing us to win the next election. It’s only two and a half years, tops, until May ’24, and we’ve got to focus obviously on trying to consolidate our coalition, and that’s all about economic opportunity, that’s all about the Prime Minister’s phrase talent is everywhere but opportunity is still focussed in a few areas.

“And that’s the intuition behind the levelling up, that phrase, if you like.

“My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives. We believe in markets, we believe in individual responsibility, we believe in the ingenuity of the individual to come up with ideas that can transform society.

“It’s very difficult sometimes to make that voice heard, when we’ve had all the interventions that we’ve seen with respect to the Covid response.

“And just to illustrate that, I was elected in 2010 and the deficit then was £160 billion, something like that, and it seemed like a huge amount of money, we were talking about Greece, we were talking about bankruptcy.

“We’ve just spent in one year, ’20-’21, £350 billion on Covid support, well over twice what the deficit was. And no one batted an eyelid.

“And there’s that great phrase in one of my favourite books, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes, and he says that before the war we spent millions, after the war we spent hundreds of millions, and we discovered we were all so much richer, so [laughing] it was a completely different order of spending and nothing bad happened.

“And our job I think is to try to get back to some kind of – and I know the Chancellor’s very much on this – to try to get back to some sort of fiscal discipline.

“But it’s hard. There are lots of competing pressures. You saw David Davis say with the foreign aid cuts, their argument was we’ve spent hundreds of billions, what’s a few more million?

“The way I see BEIS, and I’ve talked about this a lot, we can’t see BEIS as a cash dispenser. Officials think of BEIS sometimes as if it’s DWP, or as if it’s the Health Service.

“But it’s an enabler. We should think about the money we spend as enabling private capital investment. If you speak to Michael Heseltine, he’s quite good on this stuff, he talks about his career and he says he was never in a big spending department, he always saw himself in departments which were driving private economic growth and investment.

“So he was Defence Secretary, he was sort of equivalent to Michael Gove, I mean he wouldn’t want me to say…”

ConHome: “Is it too late for you to bring Michael Heseltine back in some form, by the way?”

Kwarteng: “Look, I mean, we have differences over Brexit, I’m not going to bring him back in tomorrow. But he was a great minister, and I enjoy talking to him.”

ConHome: “Brexit was a vote for many things. It was in part a vote for lower migration of a sort, higher wages, a different economic model.

“Isn’t what’s going on with this difficulty with the petrol fundamentally about the sort of economy we want. The road haulage people, like some of the fruit pickers, like some meat processors, basically want to go back to the old ways.

“They want Government to issue hundreds of thousands of visas, and they’re trying to use public pressure to get you to change course.”

Kwarteng: “That’s absolutely right, and I’ve said this a number of times, certainly privately. The reason why constituencies like mine [Spelthorne] voted decisively for Brexit, 60 per cent to 40 per cent, was precisely this issue.

“I remember three weeks before the referendum in 2016, I came out of Staines station and someone came up to me and said ‘I’m voting for Brexit.’

“And I said, ‘Oh, why are you doing that?’

“And he said, ‘Well I haven’t had a wage increase in 15 years,’ and he was someone who worked in the building trade, lots of people do work, certainly in my constituency, in that kind of self-employed, small business, logistics, construction world.

“And that was in his mind what this was all about. And so, having rejected the low-wage, high-immigration model, we were always going to try to transition to something else.

“What we’re seeing now is part of that transition. You’re quite right to say people are resisting that, particularly employers that were benefiting from an influx of labour that could keep wages low.”

ConHome: “Aren’t you therefore in a very difficult political position, because they have a kind of weapon, which is the queue, the shortage.

“All you can do, other than take various emergency measures, is tough it out.”

Kwarteng: “I think this is a transition period. As economists would describe, between Equilibrium A and Equilibrium B there’s always going to be a transition period.

“I think it could be quite short. I think what we’re seeing already is quite a lot of investment in the UK. I’ve got a list on my board of lots of things we’ve announced, of investments.

“The head of Goldman Sachs said to me three years ago, ‘No one’s going to invest in the UK because of Brexit.’

“And then about three months ago I said to him, ‘Look at all the investment.’

“He said, ‘Ah, that’s because your assets are cheap [laughter].’ They can hop on the left foot and then hop on the right.

“And we’re seeing investment, we’re seeing success. You speak to investors around the world, they’re all very interested in Britain.

“Not just because of the success they saw with things like the vaccine rollout, great science base, great intellectual capital, but also they see us as a less highly regulated, if you can believe it, jurisdiction than many others around the world.”

ConHome: “How long will this transition take? Because a counter-argument would be it would take a few years to scale up…”

Kwarteng: “No, no, the whole issue of immigration into the UK was something that happened, this particular issue of immigration from the EU, was something that started in 2004, and completely transformed the way we did our economy.

“In fact, the Romanian extension was in 2013, I remember Mark Reckless and Keith Vaz, they were on the Home Affairs Select Committee, they went down to Luton and welcomed these people.

“And that was only eight years ago, and then three years after that we voted for Brexit. I think in terms of the global economy, I think you can see very rapid shifts.

“I think in a year we could be in a totally different place to where we are today.

“I’ve just been speaking to people in the steel industry and they’re saying there are high steel prices, they think they are going to sell lots of product, Liberty are going to do a financing deal that I’ve read about in the newspaper.

“Three months ago, these people were saying this is a disastrous situation.

“So in terms of the economy, I think things can turn round very very quickly, and in five years’ time I don’t think we’ll be talking about this. We’ll be talking about other things.”

ConHome: “Will petrol stations be back to normal by the…”

Kwarteng: “Yes, they are. I’ve got some data here.” [Cameron Brown, Kwarteng’s special adviser, quickly removed two sheets of paper bearing what look like coloured graphs.]

ConHome: “Is that the hand-out? Is that for us?”

Kwarteng: “I think things are stabilising, is the word we use. And I think it’s getting better. There’s been an intense period of anxiety and a lot of pressure.

“That was an extraordinary thing about the power of the media. If I look back on Monday 20th September, my two issues there were carbon dioxide, and the shortage of it, and the gap with the energy suppliers.

“Those were the two issues. This petrol forecourt thing literally flared up I think on the Thursday, there was a leaked conversation, the thing was splashed in the paper on the Thursday.

“There was a full-blown crisis by the weekend, which is now stabilising, and I am hopeful that it will recede, but let’s see.”

ConHome: “Are there any circumstances in which you could conceivably imagine referring to your political opponents as ‘scum’?”

Kwarteng: “No, never. I don’t know whether she was as they say under the influence, or tired and emotional. I don’t know what that was all about.

“Famously it was Aneurin Bevan who said ‘they are lower than vermin’, but he was sober and that was a deliberate piece of insult.

“I don’t think it’s helpful, talking about scum. I think she’s trying to speak to that visceral tribal anti-Tory thing, to shore up the base, but in terms of the wider electorate, I think that doesn’t really work in Britain, that kind of name-calling.

“I don’t think it’s very prime ministerial. The funny thing is, she tried to say the Prime Minister says these things.

“Boris never says things in anger. All of those phrases, they’re either dressed up in the fancy-dress costume of metaphor, or there’s an ironic thing.

“I can’t remember him at any time in 30 years saying ‘So and so is scum’. There’s no venom in the way he uses words. So I think equating that with the Prime Minister is completely inaccurate. He never abuses people in the way that Angela Rayner did.”

ConHome: “No, he doesn’t. Nor does he say, as you quote Margaret Thatcher saying on page four of your book, Thatcher’s Trial: ‘Moral qualities were the secret of our economic success.’ That’s another thing you can’t imagine Boris Johnson saying.”

Kwarteng: “The whole first part of that book is rooting her philosophy in a kind of Manichean Methodism. That’s intellectual history.”

ConHome: “So what are you? Are you a Thatcherite or a pragmatist?”

Kwarteng: “I’m a pragmatic Thatcherite.”

ConHome: “She was a pragmatic Thatcherite, actually.”

Kwarteng: “She sort of was. The thing that fascinated me about doing research about her is she did have this Manichean, you’re either with us or against us, good/bad, black/white, very binary way of thinking.

“But within that, you’re right, she was pragmatic, and she picked her battles when she could. I’m struck by the way in her first term, everyone says they only got going in the second term, in the first term they did some pretty radical things, like get rid of price controls, get rid of exchange controls – I mean, that was a big deal – and some of the privatisations.

“I think to be a Thatcherite in 1985, and to be a Thatcherite in 2021, are always going to be slightly different things. The context – and this is what I love about history – there’s always a context to these things.

“In 1985, you’re trying, essentially, to denationalise, because you’ve had 40 years of quite sclerotic, unimpressive growth, and a huge expansion of the public sector, that can’t respond to innovation.

“In 2021 we’ve got a triple whammy of Brexit, where we have to think about how we’re going to reorder our legal subsidy control, that sort of stuff; you’ve got Covid, which was an unprecedented situation in which the whole world reacted to a global pandemic in a way it never has done; and then you’ve got the whole Net Zero agenda, which whether I like or not, whether you like it or not, is part of the law of the land, we have a legal obligation to try to decarbonise our economy by 2050.

“So these three things frankly didn’t exist in 1985, and we’ve got to navigate them, and we’ve got to use our ideas, our brains, our philosophy if you like to deal with that situation.”

ConHome: “One of the issues that keeps coming back is tax. In the run-up to the Health and Care package you said ‘I don’t see how we could increase National Insurance’, though to be fair you then made some qualifying remarks after that, to suggest it might be possible.

“The point is, very plainly you really didn’t like it very much.”

“Do you think we’re near the point, with a pretty high tax burden as a percentage of GDP, that we’re basically running out of room to raise taxes?”

Kwarteng: “I will frame my answer to your question, or your thoughts, very broadly.

“I’ve never understood how we incentivise economic activity by increasing tax. I always come back to that. We can talk about raising taxes in the short term to deal with a short-term crisis.

“But broadly, higher tax is basically a tax on economic activity.”

ConHome: “What’s the first thought that comes into your mind when you hear the Chancellor say, ‘We’re going to put up corporation tax?”

Kwarteng: “He is I think doing a fantastic job. It was only just a little bit more than a year ago that people were saying there’s going to be massive unemployment, there’s going to be a huge kind of catastrophe.

“And I think he’s navigated that really nimbly. And that’s all I would say on that.

“But broadly, do I believe in higher taxes? No. I don’t believe we can tax our way to wealth.”

ConHome: “And you don’t think we’re near a point where having put up a number of taxes…”

Kwarteng: “You’re doing a really good job of getting me to stray outside my portfolio [laughter]. But I’m not going to go there. I am a low-tax, small-state, what’s the Gladstonian phrase, let…”

ConHome: “…money fructify in the pockets of the people.”

Kwarteng: “That was very clumsy.”

ConHome: “It’s memorable.”

Kwarteng: “Fructify in the pockets of the people. I’m a great believer in all of that. But you know, he didn’t have to deal with Covid. And actually he probably wouldn’t have bothered. I mean he would just have let the thing rip.”

ConHome: “The present Prime Minister is much more Disraelian, actually.”

Kwarteng: “He’s more like Disraeli arguably on public spending as well.”

ConHome: “Disraeli would have said Gladstone was worse than Covid.”

Kwarteng: “Absolutely.”

ConHome: “The wind sometimes doesn’t blow, though it does today, as we can see from the flag on the top of Westminster Abbey. And sometimes the sun don’t shine. Is there a risk that this drive to Net Zero will compromise security of supply?”

Kwarteng: “I think that’s a perfectly legitimate question, and when I answer these questions I pivot back to the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan, The New Decalogue as he calls it.”

ConHome: “That was a satire.”

Kwarteng: “He said it ironically and I’m saying it ironically. And in that, there’s a clear commitment to nuclear power.

“Now I think our nuclear power story has been a shame, because we had early advantage, we were very good on nuclear power, but we simply haven’t invested in it enough in my view over the last 40 years.

“And I think that’s a key missing piece of the puzzle, in terms of energy security.”

ConHome: “But what about security of supply, is that going to be all right?”

Kwarteng: “I saw Iain Martin today in the paper. This is not a supply issue, OK, it’s a distribution issue.”

ConHome: “At the moment, yes.”

Kwarteng: “It has never been a supply issue.”

ConHome: “And will not become a supply issue?”

Kwarteng: “I do not believe it will become a supply issue. It’s like an old-fashioned bank run. But actually, in terms of security of supply, that has never been an issue.

“The point is getting the supply distributed properly, and of course with the HGV driver issue that’s been more challenging.

“In terms of the energy issue, the gas suppliers essentially came into the market with a price cap and then they failed to see that if wholesale prices were significantly above the price cap they’d be out of pocket, and some of them didn’t even hedge for that.”

ConHome: “The price cap stops it being a proper market, doesn’t it?”

Kwarteng: “Yes, but why did they enter it?”

ConHome: “Why did the Government impose the price cap?”

Kwarteng: “That’s a very good question, but once it’s there, why on earth did they enter the market? They still thought they could make money.

“And then when the wholesale price was much higher than the price cap they complained, but I said, ‘The price cap was there when you entered the market, you should have sold oranges or something, or entered another business.’

“They knew what the situation was, and then some of them expected government bailouts, and thankfully that hasn’t really had any resonance, because people could see that they entered the market, they’ve been caught, the tide has revealed that they were wearing nothing, and I’m afraid some of them are going to have to exit the market.

“Having said all that, some of the smaller companies have really driven innovation in the market, so the price cap has allowed for greater competition, has allowed for new entrants, and now, some of those entrants who haven’t been as well-managed are having to leave the market.”

ConHome: “This is probably the moment to sneak in the fracking question. It comes up a lot. People on the Right say look, we have this shortage, why haven’t we fracked?”

Kwarteng: “So I was very pro-fracking. My first summer as Energy Minister, we had Cuadrilla fracking in Lancashire, and I remember speaking to the MP, and he was a pro-fracking person, and the limit I think was 0.5 on the Richter scale.

“This thing came in at about 2.9, and walls were shaking and plates were falling off them.

“And someone said we’d never have had the coal industry if we’d had that approach, which may or may not be true, but the coal industry started in whenever, 1650, and we’re talking about 2020 when we have a full democracy and all the rest of it.

“So we said that we would impose a moratorium and when we had new evidence that this could be done without too much disruption we would look at the moratorium again.

“And I think there were too many communities that were being disrupted. We’re a small country. The fact that it can work in the United States, and it works successfully, it’s what a thousand times bigger than England? Something like that.

“They would frack in a hundred places, and maybe one would be successful. But we don’t have that luxury here.

“There’s also geological questions. I know a firm that Tim Eggar was involved with, they fracked all over Poland and it didn’t work.

“So I get the whole fracking thing, but I don’t think it’s the answer. I think more nuclear is the answer. I think a wider range of renewable technology and things like tidal stream, those sort of things, can help us as well.”

ConHome: “The Government takes Critical Race Theory seriously enough to have a minister go to the Despatch Box and say it shouldn’t be taught in schools.

“Why is it that Kemi Badenoch seems to be the only Conservative among a mass of MPs who takes Critical Race Theory seriously?”

Kwarteng: “No one knows what Critical Race Theory is. If you ask 360 MPs what Critical Race Theory is, how many do you think on our benches would be able to give you a coherent answer?

“To be fair to Kemi Badenoch, that is part of her brief. She was Minister for Equalities even when she was in the Treasury.

“And she’s got a particular approach, I think a very robust approach to a lot of this sort of thing.

“I think the best approach is for us just to simply allow the Left to have these incredible navel-gazing debates on identity politics, because actually Critical Race Theory is not something that comes up on the doorstep, it’s not something that’s going to put food on anyone’s table.”

ConHome: “Are you saying it’s not a problem in any way?”

Kwarteng: “I’m saying I don’t see why we should engage with it. Even your readers, people who subscribe to ConservativeHome, I’d be amazed if more than about five or ten per cent know what Critical Race Theory is.

“I’m trying to run a business department that affects the whole of the UK economy. My views or otherwise on Critical Race Theory are singularly irrelevant to how I do my job.”

ConHome: “Can only women have a cervix?”

Kwarteng: “What did Sajid Javid say? I agree with him.”

ConHome: “I think he said it defies science.”

Kwarteng: “All these things, I know they’re very important to a minority of people, but they’re not really levelling up issues, they’re not about the prosperity of the UK, they don’t deliver jobs.

“It’s the worst kind of rabbit hole which I don’t think sheds any light on anything, it doesn’t improve people’s lives.”

ConHome: “Can you deliver levelling up, Net Zero, industrial strategy, skills, without more localism – without more elected mayors?”

Kwarteng: “Really good question. I think you’ve got to have more local involvement. I think the Prime Minister’s view, which I share, is we shouldn’t get into a theological debate about the structures and what the people are called.

“We’ve got to just deal with what we have. Because if you were very rationalistic and Napoleonic about it, dare I say, you would just spread the combined mayoral authorities across the UK.

“You’d divide the UK up into mayoralties and then you’d have a little mayor with a little badge.”

ConHome: “You’d have a Mairie.”

Kwarteng: “Exactly. We’re not going to do that, so we’ve got to work with the structures, and some of them do work very well, the mayoralties, some county councils work very well, we’ve got to work with the kind of patchwork that we have, we’re not going to rationalise things in a kind of centralised way.”

ConHome: “If Johnson wasn’t Prime Minister he’d be finishing his book about Shakespeare. What book would you be finishing?”

Kwarteng: “I’ve already got one on the stocks about the Congo called Masters of the World, and it’s been there since I’ve been made a minister. I’ve done the research, so it’s simply a question of cleaning up the text.”

Free speech and the culture wars. It’s Fox to the rescue.

23 Mar

Lockdown has been a miserable time for everyone, but dare I say what’s made a lot of people feel even worse is the ongoing culture wars. There doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by without someone being “cancelled”, from Piers Morgan leaving to GMB for questioning Meghan Markle’s account of her time in the Royal Family, to Davina McCall being attacked for defending men, to, yes, the demise of Mr Potato Head. The silent majority has been wanting some leadership here.

Enter Liam Fox. Yesterday, quite unexpectedly, he delivered a brave and much-needed address at the Adam Smith Institute titled The Perpetual Battle for Free Speech. It covered an enormous amount of ground, from setting out the historical and current importance of free speech, to criticising Scotland’s Hate Speech Bill, to Fox confessing his guilt at not defending Jo Brand, who came under fire for a politically incorrect joke. I recommend readers watch it below:

Why did this matter? For lots of people, Fox’s speech will be reassuring as a measure that the Government is paying attention to the culture wars. In recent times, MPs haven’t seemed exactly enthusiastic to get involved. Take Boris Johnson, for instance, who Sam Coates from Sky News asked earlier in the year “is Joe Biden woke?” Yes, it was an awkward question. Yes the PM didn’t want to insult the President of the United States. But his response – “I can’t comment on that” paired with a pained facial expression – emphasised a general tendency to tiptoe around the culture wars/ free speech debate/ whatever we are calling it now.

Part of the reason MPs don’t want to get involved in these matters is, of course, the pandemic. Who wants to defend Piers Morgan when they are sleep deprived or have thousands of emails about Covid-19 restrictions? But it’s also a tricky area to navigate and easy to get “cancelled”. As Fox said in his speech: “The first question that anyone today might ask is ‘Why would any politician in their right mind voluntarily enter into the minefield that is the Free Speech debate’.”

It increasingly seems to me that MPs don’t have much choice in the matter, unless they want to stop watching TV, reading papers and basically tune out of the news. We seem to be going through what I call the “Twitterfication” of society, meaning that any idea and sentiment that looks “popular” on social media now moves into the real world, in a way that’s incredibly out of sync with what most people want (as I have previously written about here).

Conservatives have some good ideas for dealing with the culture wars, and some tough fighters (Liz Truss’s speech about the Fight for Fairness, for instance). One of the most interesting ideas for defending free speech comes from the Department of Education, which set out rules for universities to follow on this topic, and has essentially used funding as a bargaining tool in the matter (“if you don’t protect free speech you will not get it”, is the plan).

These are important steps, but we need MPs to share opinions too. Ultimately we’re in a battle of ideas, and the Government needs to talk more than it does legislate. Although crucially, Fox points out that this battle is “everybody’s business. Whether it is online abuse, the bullying mob of the intolerant, the cancel culture, no platforming or unwarranted government intervention, it is up to us all to speak out in defence of those at the receiving end, whether we find the prospect comfortable or not.”

Often the culture wars are framed as a “Conservative” issue; that Tories want one, and so forth, a thesis that seems completely unsupported by how few want to get involved. The truth is that these matters transcend party lines, and require everyone across the political spectrum, MP or otherwise, to stand up for a tolerant society where people can share and debate their worldviews. Furthermore, we cannot allow people who try to “cancel” others or close down debate describe themselves as “liberals”. It is simply not true.

Either way, Fox’s intervention was a great step forward. It brought me back to my time studying social psychology, where I learnt about how people can challenge “the crowd” (ours now on social media). Most of it simply comes down to one person speaking up, and then others follow. Let’s hope Fox’s speech gives many people the impetus to get loud.

Protecting free speech. University legislation will help. But ministers need to speak out more.

16 Feb

Today the Government will unveil bold legislation to promote free speech at universities.

It includes proposals for a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion, who will highlight the importance of free speech and investigate when it’s been infringed in higher education, fines for universities that fail to uphold free speech, and the widening and enhancement of academic freedom protections at English institutions.

This is an important step in protecting free speech at universities – places that have arguably become more famous for censorship than student curiosity in recent years. Take last year when Oxford University cancelled Amber Rudd for an event (as part of a “Trailblazer Series for International Women’s Day). That the former home secretary could be “no platformed” was a wake-up call to say the least.

Furthermore, research suggests that the current climate is having an impact on students’ learning experience. Last year Policy Exchange found in its report, titled Academic Freedom in the UK, that only four in 10 leave-supporting students felt comfortable to discuss their Brexiteer beliefs in class (versus nine out of ten for Remain-voting students), along with other examples of people being “stifled by a politically-homogeneous culture”.

The Department of Education has said it wants to stamp out unlawful “silencing” on campuses; in short, its proposal is designed to ensure every student and academic, from Marxists to Brexiteers to otherwise, has an actual “safe space” to discuss their politics.

It is not the first time the DfE has tried to protect free speech at universities; in July 2020, Gavin Williamson warned “if universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, and brought out a policy that required English universities to tackle censorship in order to receive a Government bailout (to help with the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic).

Will the latest legislation do the trick? It should be said, first of all, how terrible it is that we’ve got to the point where institutions need reminding of the importance of free speech, which is central to learning. It does not bode well that the next generation of civil servants, lawyers, doctors and everyone else spends three years in institutions that have normalised groupthink and fear of Amber Rudd.

But here we are – and the legislation should, in theory, stop the problem getting any more out of hand – giving new protections to academics over their right to free speech. Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure the legislation does not become a form of cancel culture in itself – inhibiting university’s decision-making abilities – and it must be carefully applied.

It’s worth looking at how the free speech legislation fits into a wider context, too, in the Government’s unofficial “war on woke”. Although Boris Johnson has been keen to stick out of the culture wars – when he was recently asked if Joe Biden was woke, he looked like he wanted to run a hundred miles away – Munira Mirza, Director of 10’s Policy Unit, is highly engaged on these issues, and we have started to see some powerful rebuttals in the culture wars.

Take Liz Truss, who recently attacked “identity politics”, in her recent “Fight for Fairness” speech, and writing for The Mail on Sunday, warned of people “behind pernicious woke culture (who) see everything in terms of societal power structures”. Kemi Badenoch, too, has been incredibly brave – warning of the dangers of Critical Race Theory and its reductive assumptions about people.

This may seem far away from the university debacle, but it shows that the Government is taking the culture wars seriously – and has tools up its sleeve to combat some of the most illiberal ideas in our society masquerading as social justice. Many voters have been delighted to see a fightback – Badenoch won our speech of the year, and Truss was not so far behind, in a sign of how much this matters to Conservative voters.

Even so, the Government must go even further in defending free speech and the Enlightenment values. A lot of the culture wars cannot be “legislated out of”, but are about stating one’s position over and over again – to make others feel safe to do so also.

Indeed, part of the reason we have seen cancel culture accelerate is because people have become scared to stand up to proposals they do not like. Recently, for instance, a Brighton hospital told its midwives to call “breastfeeding” “chestfeeding”, and I counted one Conservative speak out about it. And so the radical agenda continues, without an opposition. Yes the university legislation will help, but we need more voices too.

Mark Lehain: The Government can’t afford to surrender in the war on woke

20 Nov

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

While the media and Westminster insiders have been excited about all the Cummings and goings at Number 10, one has to wonder what the rest of the country makes of it.

My hunch is that people care more about rising unemployment and falling incomes than who is up and down in Downing Street. That said, even if personnel changes had not occurred, we are about to enter a post-Covid and Brexit transition phase, and so it is fair to consider what the Government should do from here.

Among a whole range of other urgent issues, the country will have to confront the decimation of the private economy and public finances wrought by the pandemic and measures taken to combat it. Things will be challenging, to say the least.

So it’s quite understandable that some are arguing that as part of Boris’s Johnson’s Reset, the Government should stop its (so far modest) attempts to address the left-wing political and cultural biases that have spread unchallenged through so much of life.

They argue that it is a distraction from the business of economic recovery and government delivery, and that it is divisive at a time when the Government needs to bring people together. I think they are wrong for two very important reasons.

First of all, as a wise person once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And until recently, Conservative-led governments did little to address the spread of divisive values and ideas from academic faculties and leftist movements into the civil service, executive suites, and elsewhere.

Wary of appearing unkind or stuffy, a blind eye was turned as universities discouraged freedom of thought and imposed niche ideologies on staff and students. Ministers stayed quiet as children were taught by their schools that “white privilege” is a fact, or told by groups such as Mermaids and Stonewall that their sex is whatever they feel it is.  And they did little to challenge the sneering and condescension by the arts, media, and others towards those who didn’t share their outlook on life.

The facts of life are (small-c) conservative but, time and again, opportunities to point this out were avoided. Conservatives didn’t start the fire – that was the radical left – but neither did they try to extinguish the flames as they burned through society and scorched the common ground.

Only recently have ministers started to challenge the metropolitan grip on quangos, pushed back against Critical Race Theory, reminded schools that they should be politically impartial, and told museums they shouldn’t bend to the whims of activists. All this shouldn’t be remotely controversial for anyone in the centre ground of politics. They’re modest moves to allow some diversity of thought in sectors otherwise captured by groupthink – not Tory takeovers.

So this Government can focus solely on economic and environmental policies, and pretend that values and culture don’t matter. But if it does, woke ideas will continue to hollow out institutions, turn people against one another, and ultimately undo any other good work it does.

The other reason as to why I’d encourage Downing Street ‘21 to persevere with challenging the cultural hegemony is that it makes good political sense: it is where the vast majority of the public are.

It’s not that people are opposed to improving the lives of trans people or examining ways to reduce disparities in health or education outcomes by different communities – far from it. They lead rich and diverse lives, have friends from all backgrounds, and families of all shapes and sizes. They care deeply about others, and want to do their best for their community and country.

They just don’t want to be told that they have to do this in a certain way, or hold specific views, or “educate themselves” to see the world as determined by academics who’ve never had to turn a profit or balance a household budget.

Research at the Campaign for Common Sense has found this again and again – on everything from political correctness, to comedy, to protests, historical statues, and the BBC. In contrast to the impressions given by the media, arts and political sectors, across all ages, socio-economic groups, and regions, people hold common sense, down-to-earth views on values and culture.

I saw this as a parliamentary candidate in the north east last winter. I was repeatedly told on the doorstep that politicians patronised voters who didn’t share their views on things. People also said that under Johnson they felt they were finally being listened to. In so many ways, Brexit was a proxy for the desire for their views and communities to be respected, not treated as something to be made better by others.

Whoever has the ear of the Prime Minister when things settle needs to bear this in mind as they plan the next stage of things. Labour and the Lib Dems are still obsessed with niche causes, and Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox are waiting in the wings to peel away voters if the government drifts that way again too.

Come the next election, Brexit will have been long done. However, the voters who delivered such a stonking majority in 2019 can be held together, but only if Johnson and his team show respect for them and their values.

So the war on woke must continue – both to bring people together as a country and an electoral coalition. It might mean a few awkward conversations for people at posh dinner parties, but it’s the right thing to do. The next few years are certainly going to be interesting times.