Nat Wei: We need an energetic, ambitious plan to equip Britain for the challenges of the next decade

18 Jan

Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.

The recent furore in Downing Street and missteps by the Government at both civil service and political levels, and the traditional reluctance of the party to remove a current leader until we know we can definitely win with a new one, means one thing: that come what may we are going to have to get back on track.

It might be under the current leadership this year, or with a changed one in the run up to the next election. The task is the same.

What kind of plan would a rebooted leadership need to follow to try and win back the trust of those voters who put us into government?

Brexit

Firstly we need to truly deliver Brexit. By this we mean not just through the technical legal and economic act of leaving (which itself is not entirely complete since Northern Ireland remains within the regulatory orbit of the EU) but also by addressing the underlying economic and structural reasons why many particularly in Red Wall areas felt the need to leave even if it were to be costly.

Reasons such as the fact that wages have been stagnant for so long, and skills development not sufficiently invested in to help workers withstand the deflationary pressures caused by decades of automation, globalisation, and unrestricted migration. The rising cost of living, which while it has increased wages for many, has not done so quickly or consistently enough to counter the huge energy and other bills those struggling in Middle England, let alone in the lowest income households, are now facing.

And then there is the unaffordability and availability of housing, which is now arguably worsening due to house price inflation outside our biggest cities as people have moved out. This in turn affects the mobility of labour ironically of manual workers who have been so essential to keeping the nation going during the pandemic.

It is not enough to use pre-Brexit levers in a Keynesian manner to build more infrastructure and restrict migration to help boost wages, hoping for a trickle down effect which will take too long to benefit people. You actually have to get your hands dirty and single-mindedly and systematically attack every item in the average family’s household budget, and blow up every orthodoxy you have whether – fiscal or green or state aid related – to deliver for them.

So to reduce energy costs, fire up more gas stations, build more storage capacity, and incubate faster carbon capture to take up the slack from keeping “dirtier” industries going a bit longer.

We also need to put a lot of the related jobs in these new (and older) forms of house building and energy production and so on in areas that need to see and voted for change.

Above all, lower taxes (including VAT on electricity), especially green and transport ones that affect motorists, and deregulate and use the freedoms you have from Brexit to create an even faster growing economy coming out of the pandemic – even if it means losing some of the benefits of access to the EU market in the short to medium term by diverging from some of their rules.

Fiscally you might lose tax income but through faster growth you will get back the income you lose. If we need to change (or revoke and suspend) legislation to make this all happen, let’s do so, fast.

Culture Wars

Secondly, you have to win the culture wars. By this we do not just mean the battle against woke.

We mean be on the side of the white working class and those who feel that the world has turned against them and has become for so long an alien and insecure place where they no longer know what their identity is. One in which what you say can land you in trouble, where funds go to fashionable and trendy causes in both the public and corporate sector, but basic needs and rights are ignored and not listened to.

Amend the human rights legislation to make judges take account of all the rights, of everyone, affected by a particular ruling, not just prioritising those whose rights are most in vogue.

Yes, migration is also an issue here and having an Ellis Island of sorts if you can identify one, costly as it is, may be able to act as a deterrent and be more of an organised way to process (humanely please) those seeking to come here for asylum or illegally through trafficking.

But we also need to take a broader look at why people are coming here due to economic, geopolitical, and possibly climate related displacement (some two billion people potentially on the move) and actively build a new migration system globally to replace the outdated post-war one.

Such a new system might have to include helping foster attractive alternative locations and cities globally nearer to where people are coming from – new Singapores, if you like – to both deter and receive those who have come illegally. In partnership with willing hosts, sanctuary cities could be founded, whether in the sea or in the desert, or wherever else.

This would give foreign policy and international development a new focus that it lacks, aligning it with the Brexiteer vision of global Britain.

Resilience

Finally, we need to ensure we are resilient in the face of ever growing threats to Britain and use our new freedom to be able to act with greater agility.

Like Nelson, whose smaller boats were able to defeat the massive armada, our strength both historically and more than ever is not so much in our size or even our wealth, but our ability to be nimble, lateral, and creative in the face of huge challenges.

This idea of the ‘nimble nation’ is one that can help rally and motivate not just the Red Wall, but the Blue Wall and every other wall, and can provide a focus for all of us coming out of the last decade of disruption so we can face the next with greater mettle and preparedness, and turn threats into opportunities.

Building it will require asking some difficult question, such as:

How do we make our NHS more resilient and figure out how to prevent future lockdowns once and for all? What does it look like to have a more resilient energy system? (Readers of my articles here and on my blog know this is a bugbear of mine.)

How do we tackle legality and prisons to create more agile ways of fighting crime and deterring reoffending?

How can our supply chains be more resilient?

How do we help our children and young people and workers build more resilience mentally and career wise, so they can keep working through lockdowns, were the Internet to get knocked out, or as automation accelerates?

How can our armed forces and society as a whole be resilient to not just traditional warfare, but cyber attacks, and industrial and other forms of espionage, as well as misinformation, without damaging our economy or causing a collapse in trust internally or with our Allies which is a key objective of our enemies?

Finally, what does it look like to have a slimmed down civil service and public sector that can move faster and think of non-governmental or market-based means of solving problems? One which has a greater set of skills from business, technology, and science, and which includes a broader set of decision makers and advisors in it?

Delivering all this is a tall order, but Downing Street and government does not have to do this alone, and in fact we have done similarly seemingly impossible and miraculous things before – some quite recently. The task force lead by Kate Bingham offers a template for including much wider groups of people to help procure and source the ideas, delivery, and innovation needed to make this happen.

So let’s get on with it, too much time has been wasted, and too many mistakes made. To get back on track we need a course correction, and we need to start to act nimbly, before it is too late.