Where's the vision thing, Dave?

The coalition can't justify the radical action required for Britain because they're fighting in the New Labour framework. This is why Cameron must articulate a wider vision for the future

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A man of conviction politics? Not how it looks from the outside
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Ryan Bourne
On 8 June 2012 11:09

Conventional wisdom says that cutting the 50p rate was politically toxic; that a bungled budget meant the Coalition lost the badge of competence. Many ceased to believe government was ‘on their side.’ The public aren’t really interested in ideology or visions, so this theory goes. They just want a Government that will deliver on its promises, oversee economic growth, fulfil its public finance objectives and improve public services. Since there is little evidence of this so far, the Government’s record is reflected in poor poll rankings. It’s that simple.

This is a convincing narrative. But its accuracy depends on how deep you think Britain’s problems are today. Is competence the right response to the challenges we face? Or will we only regain prosperity with radical change and renewal?

In benign conditions it is of course possible for Governments to be rewarded for good management alone. But when major reforms are needed, a coherent ideological vision of what you are seeking to achieve is imperative to secure public support. You have to take the country with you. The history of the Attlee and Thatcher governments shows that real change can only be achieved through winning the battle of ideas.

Major surgery is necessary. Our economy is stagnant, with the growth of the past ten years having been driven by cheap credit and public spending. Much of the plan to repair our public finances has now been rolled over into the next Parliament. We have one of the highest combined public, private and company debt burdens. An entitlement and compensation culture permeates vast swathes of the public consciousness. Many of our public institutions have been discredited and there is widespread anger at the fallout of the financial crisis. Labour’s synthetic concept of fairness still lingers and makes necessary policy decisions politically unacceptable.

The Coalition won support for deficit reduction on the basis that it was a necessary evil, without challenging the status quo. But now the recovery hasn’t come as quickly as hoped, support is waning. This, in part, is because the parties have not articulated any wider vision for the future. They can’t justify the radical action required for Britain because they’re fighting in the New Labour framework. Far from winning the battle of ideas about how to reshape Britain, the Coalition hasn’t even reached the battlefield. As Tim Morgan’s paper for the CPS explains today:  “There is, as yet, no sense of a cohesive ideological alternative to the facile, superficial and now-discredited agenda of New Labour.”

The reality is only a coherent philosophy allows you to deal with the huge challenges the country faces.  The creation of a moral and intellectual consensus allows you to take the radical measures to inspire change and renewal. Despite this, Cameron’s team continues to regard ideology as a dirty word, despite all the evidence that an unwillingness to define your beliefs accentuates public cynicism about politics. We’ve seen recently that pragmatism leads in turn to opportunism, flip-flopping and u-turns.

Ask anyone what the Coalition stands for beyond a notional aim of reducing the deficit and you will meet with a blank expression. It’s not difficult to see why. You have a Government that on the one hand preaches localism, but dictates from Whitehall over bin collections. That pays lip service to devolving power but supports the usurping of nation states into a single European fiscal entity. That seeks to tackle dependency at home, but ramps up the international aid budget and pontificates to Germany that they should bail out other European nations. That argues the 50p rate had large disincentive effects (I agree), but creates high marginal rates further down the income scale through the tapering away of child benefit. That wants to make difficult spending decisions, but leaves the most obvious luxuries of pensioner benefits untouched. That wants to encourage charitable giving, but also to cap it and then changes its mind on capping it. That argues it will reduce our energy bills by raising them. I could go on…

Far from incompetence being the underlying reason for the Coalition’s unpopularity, I would argue that the incompetence seen recently is itself the result of a lack of coherent vision. A lack of ideology. Without a clear set of objectives or principles, policy making becomes short-termist, opportunistic and ill thought-through.

Naturally, I would love the government to come out and say they believed in small, limited government, low taxes, national self-determination, individual freedom and a liberalisation of public services – all of the concepts that made Margaret Thatcher’s governments so successful. But any new policy thinking must recognise that we aren’t in the 1980s. Though some of the challenges today are similar to those faced in 1979, many are different. In particular, Tim Morgan’s new pamphlet identified three different challenges thrown up by the recent crisis.

First, the centre-right needs to reclaim the virtues of capitalism. As yet, there has been no robust response from the Government on the role genuine capitalism has in enriching our lives. This doesn’t mean defending the corrupted, notionally-capitalist system that we have today. We must recognise that with real living standards falling for most of the population, support for the current economic model is falling. The left has effectively labelled this a crisis of ‘capitalism’ but we must highlight how capitalism-in-practice today bears little resemblance to capitalism-in-principle. We need a mission to restore capitalism to first principles, and to undertake thoroughgoing reforms so that the system benefits everyone.

Second, we must reclaim ethical politics. The Labour party’s warped sense of morality and fairness puts conservatives and liberals on the back foot in policy discussions. Was it “fair” to plunder the pension-funds of hardworking individuals? Where was the “fairness” in piling huge debts onto future generations? What was the “fairness” dimension of the massive extension of state surveillance? New Labour’s “fairness” gave the state a monopoly of moral rectitude. Fairness as the politics of envy still abounds as a result, worsened by the politics of austerity. Anger at the rich is dangerous for enterprise and success; anger at the poorest risks undermining social cohesion. The only way to counter this is through the genuine reforms to capitalism outlined above and by the utilisation of new language to express values of tolerance, individual liberty and just rewards.  Success should be celebrated, and we should stop judging everything in relative terms.

Finally, we must overcome the increasing government and corporate power over the individual. This entails a wide-scale fight back against the growth of bureaucracy and regulation. But it also means re-examining issues of civil liberties, where the state continues to intrude on our lives. We must find some killer ideas which empower the individual; advocating a message of responsibility and self-reliance can be persuasive only if the rights of the individual are boosted at the same time.

A Government which meets these challenges, sticks to its principles and brings coherence and clarity to the policy table – that is what is needed for the economic and social problems we face today.

Ryan Bourne is head of economic research at the Centre for Policy Studies, who today publish The quest for change and renewal: how to fill the centre-right ideology gap by Dr Tim Morgan. You can watch a short cartoon introducing the report’s themes here.

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