‘Fit for the Future?’
Friday 8th December: Although many Labour supporters believe their party has abandoned the traditional base, they recognise that the current leadership has a mission to turn this country into a revolutionary socialist republic with levels of redistribution and confiscation unparalleled. Although neither they nor the country share that view (and many believe it would bring the economy to its knees), Labour leadership has made no secret of where it wants to bring them and the country.
For Conservatives, and I speak as a former Member of Parliament for Wyre Forest, there is a different problem; one encapsulated in the budget. I (and probably others) received a personally addressed message from the Chancellor following the Budget for Britain he indicated that it would do no less than build a Britain “fit for the future”, apparently unaware of the cynicism the public increasingly harbours for Westminster’s claims and promises.
Some of the Chancellor’s statements are more likely to exacerbate popular cynicism (would barely have passed muster with the Advertising Standards Authority). The announcement that he was “tackling the cost of living by boosting your pay and cutting your taxes” seemed to gloss over the fact that the pay boost was confined to the lowest paid, cutting taxes merely reflected adjustments for inflation. The upshot is that the now forgotten “squeezed middle” are being asked to cope on a diet of falling real incomes and recently raised interest rates.
The announcement that “we’re building the homes Britain needs, increasing the numbers we deliver to 300,000 per annum” confused wish and fact, given the failure to “deliver” even 150,000 homes annually over the past five years moves and for many a claim too far given the failure to produce the root and branch reform of a sclerotic planning system which is slowly suffocating the housing industry.
But the Chancellor’s fundraising letter (for that is what its last line revealed it to be) indicated that it’s time for the Conservative Party today to do what it does best, and move to the politics of national ambition and the policies needed for dramatic change.
To be sure the Conservatives have always made a virtue of being a broad church able, from Peel’s about turn on the Corn Laws to its current reluctant acceptance of Brexit, to play practical politics.
Nevertheless, pragmatism is no substitute for policy and is certainly not the kind of rallying cry likely to inspire and convince an electorate all too susceptible to the rigid Statism of Momentum, or the backwoods mentality of UKIP. Traditionally, the British people have been rightly suspicious of ideologues, but they do respect leaders with a sense of mission – whether it is Tony Blair reforming the Labour Party or Mrs Thatcher reforming the country.
It is that sense of mission that the Conservatives need to re-find. It cannot be explained away by a small Parliamentary majority, or by a focus on tomorrow’s headlines, or even by a Prime Minister embroiled in Brexit negotiations of Gordian knot complexity.
But Britain’s future does depend more than ever upon the Conservative Party and government regaining that sense of mission – and fast to give a clear lead, whatever the short term media discomfort, on questions of the age.
Are the inequalities inherent in a high growth free enterprise system offset by higher standards of living for all?
Are a healthy housing market and a Britain “open for business” really consistent with Stamp Duty or transaction taxes which crucify the top end of the residential market and reduce revenue from it? Can the NHS meet the demands for ever more sophisticated treatment, and of a growing and ageing population without structural reform and private subsidy?
Does economic growth best prosper in a much less regulated and taxed society than has emerged over the past twenty years? Is solving the housing crisis ultimately compatible with an intrusive localism agenda?
Above all, can the government break free of the chains of austerity thinking, foist upon us by the grad-grind pessimism of the Office of Budget Responsibility, the legacy of Gordon Brown, a Chancellor who promised us an end to boom and bust? Will it now bring this country forward with a view of the future which inspires and energises, which convinces Britons of their country’s inherent greatness and which reflects, in an uncertain hour, some of the “sunny optimism” with which Ronald Reagan once transformed America? And if Brexit is ultimately to revolutionise our lagging productivity, declining growth and unnecessary feeble exports, will you give business and entrepreneurs the freedom and incentives they need to get moving?
Until I get an answer, Mr Hammond, thank you for your invitation to “please donate today” but for the moment I’ll just pass.
*Anthony Coombs is Chairman of S&U plc and was MP for Wyre Forest from 1987-97.