Finkelstein shows that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well

5 Sep

Everything in Moderation by Daniel Finkelstein

One of the many merits of Daniel Finkelstein’s collection of his columns from The Times is that it sent me back, for purposes of comparison, to the two other collections by writers for that paper which I happen to possess.

Taking Sides, the first selection of Bernard Levin’s journalism to be published, includes his account of his mother’s troubles with the North Thames Gas Board, written in 1973. Rather to my surprise, it still made me laugh out loud.

Best Seat in the House: The Wit and Parliamentary Chronicles of Frank Johnson, edited by his widow, Virginia Fraser, includes the piece read at his memorial service by David Cameron, which was written in 1981 for Now! Magazine and begins:

“Unsuccessfully, as will now emerge, I had resolved from the outset that there were two subjects which had received sufficient airing on this page and would not be mentioned further: Wagner and Mr Roy Hattersley.

“Concerning the one: nobody in his right mind would deny his capacity for the sublime, his surges of lyricism, his sheer weight and scale, but there is also his torrential prolixity, his essentially outdated nineteenth-century attitude towards his art, his foggy symbolism and an epic tedium which modern audiences should surely not be expected to endure. These are some of the drawbacks of Mr Hattersley.”

Again I laughed out loud. Johnson was an even finer comic writer than Levin. They were among the wittiest figures of their time, gave enormous pleasure to their readers, and are now passing into the obscurity which awaits even the most celebrated journalists.

Finkelstein is not so brilliant a stylist as his two illustrious predecessors, but it is right to place him in this tradition, for since the age of eight, when he started to read The Times for its football coverage, he has been a devoted reader of that paper, and treats it with the high seriousness, one might say the reverence, which is required if one is going to do one’s best work for it.

He is now 58, has contributed to The Times since 2001, and brings to it several qualities which neither Levin nor Johnson possessed. One is a knowledge of politics as conducted on the inside: Finkelstein has worked closely for David Owen, John Major, William Hague, George Osborne and David Cameron.

His columns are informed by his experience of what works, and more importantly, what does not work. On 4th October 2006 he began a piece with the words:

“I am worried about David Cameron. I fear he will have too much policy. I am concerned that there will be too much substance and not enough style.”

Finkelstein proceeds to an exposition of political parties as “identity brands”:

“Voters make choices in order to make statements about themselves, to establish their own identity, as much as they do because of anything the parties offer them.”

I am allergic to the discussion of parties as “brands”, but Finkelstein does it so well that I always read him on the subject. Apart from anything else, he has invariably read some book, on, say, game theory or social psychology, which I know I shall never read myself, and has extracted valuable insights from it, which he proceeds to share with his readers.

The principal task of the social scientist is to establish, by the most laborious research, the truth of propositions which were already known, by anyone with a modicum of common sense, to be true.

Finkelstein gives us the best of this social science, without himself degenerating into a deluded policy wonk. As he goes on to say in his piece about brands:

“Policymaking…is a bit of a con. Manifestos pretend to be an entire programme for government when in reality even the most detailed of them only cover a few items. Voters don’t make judgments based on these programmes and they shouldn’t either.

“What matters is not such bogus ‘substance’, it is the governing style of the prospective rulers. Are they strong or weak? Interferers or liberals? Atlanticists or Europhiles? Moderates or extremists? Localisers or centralisers? Tax cutters or big spenders?”

And he applies this insight to the then Labour Government:

“Labour has spent much of the past five years undoing stupid things it committed itself to in opposition and then did in its first five years. The problem with politicians, you see, is not that they don’t do what they say they will, but the opposite – they try to do what they said they would do, even after realising it wasn’t a good plan.”

I’m sure Boris Johnson – who barely appears in these pages – would agree with every word of that. So would Lord Salisbury, who said “the commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies”.

Like all good columnists, Finkelstein acknowledges his duty to entertain the reader. For New Year’s Eve 2014 he reflects on how much time he spends writing individual replies to emails, and devises a number of standard replies to the most common emails:

“Thank you for your email. I would be happy to help you with your PhD on ‘Idiots who have given the Conservative Party electorally disastrous advice’. Please thank your supervisor for thinking of me. Since you need only four hours of my time, we must fit in a meeting. It might be difficult in the next twelve months, as it is election year, but I will make every effort to organise it. It would certainly be easier for me if I didn’t need to visit you in Sheffield.”

If Finkelstein had wanted to be a comic writer, he might have been in the Stephen Leacock class. But the charm of his columns lies in their mixture of deeply felt politics with a sense of his own absurdity.

Max Beerbohm said Trollope reminds us that sanity need not be philistine. Something similar might be said of Finkelstein. He reminds us that a devotion to compromise, moderation, loving one’s parents and getting on with one’s neighbours need not be philistine: are among the pillars of our civilisation.

He defends the suburbs, including Brent Cross Shopping Centre, and made me feel a bit snobbish for disliking that place so much.

And although he makes almost no references to English literature, not even to that eminently political playwright, William Shakespeare, Finkelstein knows more about our political history, and our 55 Prime Ministers, than just about any other columnist now writing.

When he suggests that “the British voter never gets it wrong”, and the right party has won every election for the last 80 years, he is not indulging in windy idealism, but has at his fingertips the arguments needed to support his case:

“You see, for all that the Conservatives fell apart in the 1992 Parliament, I still think it was clear that a Kinnock government would have been worse. No one needs to tell me how bad things got by 1997, because I was there (I always insist on the retention of that comma). But I still assert with confidence that the voters did the right thing putting the Conservatives back in power.

“Neil Kinnock was entirely unsuited to being prime minister. His endless whirling speeches showed that. As John Major pricelessly commented, as Kinnock didn’t know what he was saying, he never knew when he had finished saying it.”

A collection of newspaper articles is like a box of chocolates: one fears that if one scoffs the whole lot at a sitting, one will end up feeling sick.

But with Finkelstein, I kept on saying to myself “I’ll have just one more”, and didn’t end up feeling sick at all. I felt that moderate, decent, pragmatic, intelligent conservatism is alive and well.

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

– – – – – – – – – –

It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

– – – – – – – – – –

The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

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So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.

Garvan Walshe: Italian governments have failed to revive Naples for centuries. What are the lessons for Red Wall seats?

30 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. 

A mad weekend dash for sun has just taken me to Naples. The city, its old historical centre, continuously inhabited long before the Roman Empire, lived up to its long-standing reputation for liveliness and chaos.

From the tiny alleys on a Roman street plan overlooked by eight or nine storeys, the abbeys built by Angevin kings, decaying masterpieces of baroque architecture, to fishmonger-restaurants with live produce and massive loins of tuna selling for €10 a kilo, and traffic that makes Rome’s resemble a sedate town in Baden-Württenberg, forty-eight hours there subject you to constant sensory bombardment.

The energy offers the thinnest of disguises of poverty we think vanished from Western Europe. The better-preserved old districts look like East Berlin; the worst reminded my companion of her childhood in Communist Albania. Prices, as well as physical conditions, reflect people’s limited purchasing power.

Below the Port’Alba (a city gate named after the Spanish viceroy notorious for his brutal suppression of the Dutch revolt) hang two nets to prevent falling masonry killing pedestrians that pass through it. The second net has been hung to catch the rocks that pierce the first one. It’s a city heavy with the pall of lost greatness, unable to pay to maintain the memory of its glorious past.

This can’t merely be attributed to the destructive effects of organised crime. Palermo, for instance is in far better shape. Rubbish collection, once a disaster, now compares favourably with that of Brussels.

The city betrays evidence of attempts to revive it through physical and cultural infrastructure. A smart new subway station adjoins the main railway terminus, though the square above it resists attempts to gentrify it with a success only matched by Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.

A whole new commercial neighbourhood, the Centro Direzionale, replaced former warehouses with Canary-Wharf style towers. The National Archeological Museum and the art gallery in the former Bourbon Palace of Capodimonte are superb and show signs of plentiful public investment.

Rather, they show the limitations of public-spending-led regeneration that concentrates on physical capital, and present a warning of how the Government’s attempts to revive the economy in the “red wall” seats could go wrong.

At its height under the Spanish and later the Bourbons, the Neapolitan economy thrived because of its position as a political centre. The aristocracy extracted wealth from the peasants on their estates and used it to commission palaces, paintings, and other luxury goods, and for political patronage.

This stimulated a strong service-based economy that fell into decline following Italian unification. Though, as Italy’s largest port it had docks, it never had much industry.

The financial and legal services that had served the Kingdom of Two Sicilies were displaced by Milan and Rome, leaving a void as big as the decline of industry in Manchester or Sheffield. Post-war Italian governments tried repeatedly, but without success to fill it. They could reallocate resources from the north, but never managed to get a southern economy to grow on its own.

Naples also stands out as being the largest European city never to have had a home-grown governing class. It has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish and finally Bourbons, before being reluctantly integrated into modern Italy.

The Bourbons stifled the enlightenment while post-unification Italy focused its energies on the interests of the industrialising north. Anyone who has spent time in the North of England will recognise its identification as unruly, authentically peripheral and ungovernable: the ironic rejection of central authority a badge of honour that covers up the fact their city doesn’t exercise it any more.

Here’s the first trap into which infrastructure-based redevelopment falls: it is liable to be seen as charity for which its recipients, already struggling with a chip on their shoulder, are supposed to feel grateful.

In this respect Naples has much in common with the de-industrialised communities that form the “red wall”. They lack infrastructure, of course, but it is control over the means to define their own purpose that matters more. They lack the political institutions to revive themselves, not only the money to pay for it.

But to receive money is also to give up power: to the ministries in Whitehall and Rome that control the funds, and want, on behalf of the taxpayers to which they are accountable, to ensure the money is well spent (the principle applies even more strongly to the EU’s Covid rescue package, in that the taxpayers and spenders are accountable to entirely different publics).

The second is that it mistakes the results of economic regeneration for its causes. Successful attempts at revival, like Dresden’s or Manchester’s for example, involved making the places attractive for ambitious and creative people to move to.

Now, as Richard Florida and Daniel Finkelstein have observed, that the age of capital-intensive mass manufacturing is over, people don’t move to jobs, but jobs move to where the people are. This means that expanded to include schools, childcare, decent housing, good entertainment and other things that make it easier to have a good life in a town or city, matter more than glitzy new stations. Get these things right and private capital will follow.

This is not to say that depressed areas cannot benefit from financial help, but that if public spending-based revival is to work, it has to be done in a way that enhances the power of the communities into which it is invested, rather than turning them into recipients of the end result of central government cheques paid to large infrastructure companies. If not we’ll end up with a load of melancholy mini-Napleses, but without Neapolitan food, sunshine, or views of Vesuvius.

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.