Emmanuel Macron’s Third Way politics and pro-Europeanism has won over many progressive admirers in Britain. But he increasingly looks like a more right-wing kind of statesman who wants to deliver overdue and much needed pro-market reform. A few months on from his historic victory, disenchantment with Macron has already set in among some on the British Left.
Emulating the quasi-monarchical and non-partisan approach of Charles de Gaulle, which Macron’s aides have labelled as the “Jupiter idea”, has failed to stop Macron’s approval rating from falling to just 36% after his first 100 days in office. The row over his attempt to make his wife “first lady” and cuts to defence spending have not helped either.
But the biggest controversy has been over Macron's decision to choose labour reform as the first big battle of his presidency. Unemployment currently stands at a staggering 9.6%, France’s lowest level since 2012 during the Eurozone Crisis. Job creation has been held back for too long by a restrictive labour code which runs over 3,500 pages. Last month, Macron unveiled five executive decrees which will radically liberalise employment law. They would make it easier for employers to hire and fire, reduce redundancy pay for unfair dismissals, and cut red tape for businesses with less than 50 employees.
Opposition to the plan has come not from the National Assembly, where Macron has a solid majority, but from the labour movement with support from both the hard-left and the far-right. The CGT union, France’s second largest trade union, will be causing major disruption today across France with 4,000 different strike actions and 180 protests affecting public transport and the energy sector. Similar strike action was taken to protest against Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to raise the retirement age in 2010, which was also intended to be the start of a Thatcherite economic programme.
Macron recently stoked outrage in an already fractious debate during his landmark Athens speech by saying he would not “yield anything – neither to the lazy, the cynics nor the extremists”. Opponents of his reforms have seized on these comments, claiming he is calling French workers lazy. As a former investment banker who is widely seen as an elitist who prefers the company of the rich and the famous, this is damaging for Macron’s already diminished popularity.
While Conservatives in Britain will mostly feel indifferent to Macron’s passionate pro-Europeanism, they should watch the progress of his economic reforms carefully. Macron is promising to bring a Thatcherite programme of economic renewal to France. This will not stop with employment law, but also extend to the budget deficit, pensions, benefits, and the railways if Macron’s reformism continues. The coming battles between trade unionism and the presidency will be reminiscent of Britain during the 1980s.
But there are also reasons why Conservatives should be cautious of imitating Macron’s reformism. Most importantly, France in 2017 is very different from Britain in 1979. Globalisation is facing populist revolts from left and right across the West today, whereas the Thatcher years were a vindication of globalisation. The victory of Macron at the polls was also more of a rejection of Marine Le Pen than a wave of enthusiasm for globalisation. According to a recent poll, just 58% of people voted for Macron out of personal belief. The second round of the presidential election saw the highest abstention rate since 1969.
The economic liberalism of Macron also has little to offer for people who feel left behind by globalisation. En Marche! is a movement of, by, and for metropolitan and liberal professionals. This opens an opportunity for the hard-left and far-right to exploit the anger and frustration of workers and farmers who are unhappy with the political system. Failure to address this economic divide could very well sweep Macron from office and help an extreme candidate win the presidency in 2022.
Although Macron emphasises his progressive and modernising credentials, his mission is an essentially conservative one. Macron has to conserve the Fifth Republic built by de Gaulle and protect it from the destructive forces of extreme populism. This will require courage to stick to his reforms, but also the humility to recognise that he needs solutions to address people left behind by globalisation. It remains to be seen what the fate of Macron’s presidency will be, but Conservatives should watch closely and hope he succeeds.
Everyone knows the Conservatives have a youth problem. Part of the problem is the lack of engagement with millennial voters, but dissatisfaction with Conservatism goes well beyond that. Capitalism simply does not work for them as well as it did for their parents. Winning back millennial voters means addressing their concerns and worries, a prominent issue being higher education.
In the wake of the election result and a stream of negative polling regarding young people’s views of Conservatism, the party has been scrambling for ideas. Philip Hammond asked at a 1922 Committee meeting for MPs’ thoughts on how to tackle intergenerational inequality. It looks likely that the Conservative Party Conference or the Autumn Budget will feature the Government’s first practical attempt to put forward policies to tackle this problem.
A major topic in this debate is tuition fees. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to scrap tuition fees and cancel student debt has been seen as a major cause of the surge in Labour’s youth vote. Millennials’ dissatisfaction with the modern economy has made them open to Corbyn’s populist socialism. This is not surprising given how, according to recent research, 53% of millennials think their generation will be worse off than their parents. This goes up to 57% for millennials with degrees, but goes down to 44% for non-graduates.
Damian Green, the de facto Deputy Prime Minister, made the first significant Conservative intervention in this debate after the election. The Government is now considering options such as cutting interest rates on student loans which currently stand at over 6%. The problem with this policy is that it disproportionately benefits well paid graduates who are above the threshold to repay student loans. Raising the threshold would be a more productive approach towards helping people with student debt. But the Conservatives should be wary of entering an impossible bidding war with Corbyn on the question of tuition fees.
It is also unfortunate that mainstream politicians have focused on just one aspect of higher education. Corbyn and his supporters (wrongly) claim that tuition fees have hindered the entry of working-class students into Oxbridge and behave as if there are no alternatives despite consistently high numbers of young people going to university. But there is no reason why non-graduates should foot the tax bill for scrapping or reducing tuition fees. Young people who do not attend university also need support in gaining the necessary skills to get good jobs.
This bias towards helping graduates can be traced back to the Major Government’s decision to convert polytechnics into universities and the Blair Government’s target of getting 50% of people into university. By focusing on universities and the “knowledge economy”, the state has failed to nurture technical and vocational paths to prosperity. Snobbery towards non-graduate education has made many young people study university courses which are not value for money and fail to help them find success in the workplace.
David Cameron and Theresa May have made some changes to this trend. The Government intends to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020 and introduce new T-Levels as respectable and desirable qualifications to help raise standards in technical education. There have been policy misfires as well, such as the University Technical Colleges which have failed to meet expectations. But this should not deter policymakers from what needs to become an ongoing process of reform.
If capitalism is going to work for everyone then it is essential that young people are given the training and skills best suited to their talents and interests. This means ending the obsession with tuition fees and opening new opportunities for people as non-graduates. Unleashing a revolution in higher education which helps young people adapt to a changing workplace and get the jobs of the future is the best way of ensuring millennials do better than the generations that came before them.
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Scotland has a special place in the Conservative mind. As the birthplace of Adam Smith and David Hume, the great Enlightenment philosophers, Scotland has been incredibly influential for Conservative political thought. Unionism is also an integral part of the Conservatives’ identity. So it was with great joy that the Scottish Conservatives won twelve new seats this year, enough to help keep Theresa May in power.
Despite voting firmly for Remain, Scotland is still dominated by the fallout from the independence referendum in 2014. There is widespread exhaustion with a decade of SNP governance which has seen public services decline in quality, especially education. Scottish Conservatives were able to exploit a wave of anti-SNP sentiment after Nicola Sturgeon announced her plan to hold yet another independence referendum. But the optimistic and energetic leadership of Ruth Davidson also helped persuade many Scots to overcome their long held hostility towards the Scottish Conservatives.
This is in stark contrast to the story in England. Disillusion among young voters and Tory Remainers made the Conservatives vulnerable to the Labour surge which claimed key marginal seats like Bedford and Croydon Central as well as Tory strongholds like Kensington and Canterbury. May’s success in reaching out to working class Leavers was not enough to save the party’s majority after an inept campaign. This has given cause for many English Conservatives to look to Davidson as a possible future leader.
While Davidson would certainly make an excellent Prime Minister, her focus is rightly on becoming First Minister of Scotland in 2021. But that does not mean Davidson cannot shape the future of Conservatism. Indeed, Davidson has already begun to use some of her political capital to influence major debates around Brexit, immigration, and the economy within the Conservative party.
Davidson is unashamedly a centrist, as she said in a recent interview. But that does not mean she is simply a defender of the status quo. In a widely read essay for UnHerd which uses Adam Smith as her ideological guide, Davidson argued that capitalism is in need of a “reboot” so its benefits can be spread to everyone, especially the young. As a 36-year-old who has recently married and bought a home after years as a mobile professional, Davidson has experienced the struggles many millennials face as they grow into adulthood.
Ideas have not just come from the Scottish Conservatives’ leader. Emulating that great Scottish Tory Noel Skelton, Paul Masterton believes that Conservatism wins when it supports “the ladder of opportunity”. In a similar vein, This determinedly centrist brand of Conservatism has long been championed by Alex Massie and Chris Deerin in the press.
It is also interesting to note how the Scottish Conservatives have thrived by balancing a coalition of Remain and Leave voters. While Davidson has emphasised the need for Britain to enjoy continued access to the single market, she has still supported Theresa May’s Lancaster Speech policy. She also made a strong effort to win over Scottish fishermen who are pro-Leave and want Scotland out of the Common Fisheries Policy. This balanced approach on Brexit has helped the Scottish Conservatives to attract unionists from both sides of the Brexit divide.
As winners in an otherwise dismal election for the party, the Scottish Conservatives have shown how the national party can successfully adapt to the post-Brexit landscape. It means conserving capitalism and unionism in a way which is inclusive and open in nature but also addresses people who have felt excluded and left behind. Instead of concentrating on personality, Conservatives should remember how principled moderation can win elections.
George Osborne is not loved by his party. The intense attacks on Theresa May during the general election, and since then, have alienated many Conservatives. Osborne’s anti-Leave tactics, which reached their peak with the “punishment budget”, had already poisoned the well. But the former Chancellor still has a legacy worth preserving and advancing, of which the most promising policy is the Northern Powerhouse.
In policy terms, the Northern Powerhouse fits very well with May’s economic vision. By devolving power to city regions and connecting them together through new infrastructure projects, it represents a smart and strategic form of state intervention. It also specifically targets a region which voted for Leave and has felt left behind by globalisation. In a joint article with Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York, Osborne was right to say “rather than seeking refuge in nationalism and isolationism, we believe that a better response to globalisation lies in localisation”.
After his brutal sacking by May, the Northern Powerhouse appeared to take a back seat. There is some confusion as to how much of this was due to enmity towards Osborne or part of the broader attempt to differentiate May from her predecessor. As a born and bred Brummie, Nick Timothy chose to shift the Government’s modern industrial strategy more towards the Midlands Engine. Greater attention towards the Midlands is certainly in order, but it should not have come at the expense of the North of England.
The Northern Powerhouse is not just one of Osborne’s pet projects. It is a ground breaking idea with bipartisan support. Labour Mayors in Manchester and Liverpool are responsible for making the Northern Powerhouse a success at a local level along with the Conservative Mayor for Tees Valley. But if the Conservatives in Westminster let Labour take all of the initiative, then they will miss the chance to make major inroads into Northern seats.
So far the signs are not good. Chris Grayling’s decision to cancel the electrification of three key routes went down poorly, especially when the decision to provide £31 billion in funding for a new Crossrail line in London was announced a few days later. The spending gap between London and the North of England is estimated to be £1,500 per person. Rebalancing the economy cannot be achieved with such a severe gap in investment.
If the Conservatives want to reform capitalism to benefit the “just about managing”, then launching an ambitious infrastructure plan for the North of England should become a priority. They could start by fast-tracking Northern Powerhouse Rail instead of waiting for HS2 to be completed. The powers enjoyed by Transport for London should also be devolved to the mayors of city regions since it is the local level which is best placed to handle increased investment from Westminster.
The EU referendum and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn proves it is time for a rebalancing of the British economy. A vast reserve of talent is waiting to be unlocked in the North of England. Conservatives can reward the aspirations of many by committing to the Northern Powerhouse. Success would make this a truly One Nation government capable of bringing prosperity to a region which has been neglected for too long.
After a long summer of recovery, Theresa May has a renewed confidence as Prime Minister. With the party having no obvious successor and no appetite for another election, May has been allowed to salvage her premiership. The injection of new staff into Number 10 has helped May survive the post-election fallout and prepare for an autumn policy blitz.
It’s clear that May still wants to have a legacy which goes beyond Brexit. Despite the departure of Nick Timothy from government, May is on a mission to ensure that the economy “truly works for everyone, not just a privileged few”. This has meant keeping her Christian democratic platform of reforming corporate governance, introducing a modern industrial strategy, and fixing broken markets.
The chances of May leading the Conservatives into a general election between 2019 and 2022 are slim. But there is still hope for May to lead a positive and constructive policy programme at home which builds upon her pre-election policies as well as responding to issues raised by the election result. Steering a do-nothing government on domestic affairs during the Brexit negotiations would do immense harm to the Conservative party. This is a fact which Number 10 appears to understand.
In this spirit, it will be announced that the public sector pay cap will be dismantled. Ever since Gavin Barwell’s post-election interview, this has been a major topic of debate during the summer. This blog made a small contribution to this debate shortly after election night. It would be a significant boost for the “just about managing” on the public sector payroll, but the key question will be how it is funded. As well as finding money for social care and business rates relief, Philip Hammond will not find it easy putting together his Autumn Budget.
May’s survival as Prime Minister has a particularly strong significance at a time when many Conservatives have focused more on what kind of Conservatism is needed to win the next election, rather than who the next leader should be. May might not lead the party into another election, but she can do much to shape this debate as Conservatives think about how to reform capitalism. Timothy can also support May and defend their brand of “post-liberal conservatism” through his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph.
But Mayism and the broader One Nation wing of Conservatism will not go unchallenged. Moggmentum emerged as the darling of this year’s silly season, but now the prospect of Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming Conservative leader is being taken seriously. In a world where Jeremy Corbyn is one election away from Downing Street, and Donald Trump is President of the United States, this idea appears to be a lot less fanciful than it would have done a couple of years ago.
It is easy to understand his appeal. With Boris Johnson’s brand in the doldrums, Rees-Mogg has become the party’s new feel-good character. His cheery eighteenth century demeanour has not only helped his impressive social media presence, but also inspired engagement from across the grassroots. Rees-Mogg also offers a coherent and articulate worldview rooted in the classical liberal formula of tax cuts and free market economics. The Conservative leadership rules make it unlikely that Rees-Mogg will become leader, but Moggmentum is a sign of how the Tory right could make a comeback under a more credible candidate.
This ideological clash will decide the future of the Conservative party. Conservatism will reform capitalism either on a Christian democratic or classical liberal basis. If May wants the former vision of Conservatism to endure, then she will have to deliver significant domestic achievements which inspire future leadership candidates to embrace Mayism.
As we mature and grow as adults there is a desire to lay down roots. To ground ourselves. One way we do this is by finding a sense of place, somewhere to belong. This is increasingly difficult to do in modern cities. Towers of concrete and glass penetrate the cityscape, packing growing workforces into ever smaller spaces. London is no exception.
As one of the oldest and largest metropolises in the Western world, London has a remarkable past. Like many European cities it began life as an organic and spontaneous creation. Different parts of London display their unique slice of time from the nation’s history, whether it be the baroque beauty of St Paul’s Cathedral or the neo-gothic glory of the Palace of Westminster. But beneath the majesty of London’s public spaces there are the deep wounds inflicted by town planners since the end of World War Two.
Many working class families in London before the war had to endure appalling living conditions in slum housing. Clean running water, central heating, and indoor toilets were luxuries rarely enjoyed. Rising damp, leaky rooftops, and sinking foundations were the norm. But these single or two-story terraced homes had been built on streets which provided a social space where people could interact and connect. Despite overwhelming material problems, working class families were still bound together as robust communities through neighbourhood networks.
It was for their sake that social reformers campaigned for the construction of new, modern homes. The devastation of the London blitz and the beginning of Britain’s first ever majority Labour government gave town planners the opportunity to remedy this problem. But this opportunity was squandered. Old houses and streets were knocked down and cleared out. Families were then uprooted and packed into poorly constructed high-rise tower blocks. The recent disaster at Grenfell Tower has exposed just how unsafe these buildings are across Britain.
Where Londoners once formed robust local networks through regular social contact on the streets, many of these modern tower block estates have been afflicted by family breakdown, drug addiction, petty crime, and entrenched unemployment. Without local networks to support them, families have become more vulnerable, and tower block developments have been one of the significant causes of a decades long social decline.
There have been growing calls for change, on both left and right, in London. The main organisation pushing for change is Create Streets. They have been campaigning for greater street based development, namely terraced housing and apartments, to replace multi-story tower blocks. Create Streets also operates as a social enterprise, providing advice on setting up street based development schemes. Their important work is establishing the intellectual and political case for the revival of streets.
But steady progress is already being made. The Hyde Group’s Packington estate built seventeen Victorian style townhouses in Islington which are being rented at affordable prices for the original tenants. This is a significant step for the return of traditional terraced housing in London. There is also already ample proof of the value of street based development in certain areas of London. Islington and Kensington & Chelsea are both dominated by street based buildings and have, respectively, the first and second highest population densities of any borough in the whole of London. Streets appear to be just as capable of housing a growing population as the tower blocks.
Not only are street based developments more efficient, they also provide urban spaces where people actually want to live and raise families. A survey in 2002 found that 89% of people wished to live in street based houses, such as bungalows, village houses, Victorian terraced housing, and semi-detached houses, instead of tower blocks. There is popular demand for more traditional street based homes and that should not be surprising. Streets provide a space in which neighbours can interact and socialise, sowing the seeds of communal identity and nurturing social capital.
Building more homes is crucial, which raises the question of how and where these new homes should be built. All are agreed that decaying ‘sink estates’, tower block estates which have become centres of social deprivation, and ‘brownfield sites’, neglected land previously used for industrial purposes, are ripe for regeneration programmes. But greater street based development could also be the answer to winning the consent of communities to build on some green belt land to help tackle the housing crisis.
In London there is hope for a return to the street based development of the past. Streets are the arteries which keep the social life of a city flowing. They allow people to interact face to face, make lasting friendships, and create local communal bonds. If we can revive this tried and tested form of urban planning, then individuals and families might be able to rediscover that sense of belonging which is our best defence against the loneliness which defines modern city life for too many people.
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All of the anger and frustration with mainstream politicians has created a wave of anti-politics. There are voters who simply do not trust any politicians and feel disenfranchised, so they choose to use their vote as a protest. Douglas Carswell, in his book Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy, believes the root problem is the party system.
In a sweeping historical narrative from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Carswell highlights moments in time when oligarchies have benefitted from populist revolts which make them appear to be reasonable and desirable. They rule for their own benefit and deny citizens a direct say in how the country is run. Carswell goes on to say that “parties in most Western states have formed a cartel. They have rigged the system, either by drawing up boundaries or creating an electoral system that minimises competition between them, so keeping out any upstarts.”
As a former UKIP MP, Carswell has some experience of operating in populist politics, though very much in his own style which emphasises libertarianism, technology, and direct democracy. Carswell’s solutions are radical. He proposes the replacement of the party system with independent MPs, and introducing instruments such as citizens’ initiative, as well as the regular use of national and local referenda.
This would represent a severe disruption in Britain’s parliamentary tradition. Parties have been key to ensuring the formation of governments to administer the nation’s affairs. Edmund Burke, the first and greatest of modern conservatives, defended the political party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”. They lend coherence to the millions of voices which make up the British electorate.
It is true the party system has not been as responsive as it should be, but it has still allowed the anti-politics vote to be heard. Tony Blair’s decision to join George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq helped the Liberal Democrats surge in popularity as a protest party. After they went into coalition with the Conservatives, the anti-politics vote went to UKIP. Brexit has made UKIP irrelevant, so the anti-politics vote now resides with Jeremy Corbyn, the rebel who railed against the “rigged system” and the media.
Anti-politics sentiment has not been a call for a Swiss-style direct democracy. It is a demand for mainstream politicians to listen. Parties need to find productive ways of reconnecting with their grassroots outside of Westminster. Labour has taken this approach to an extreme with the Momentum movement which has allowed entryism from the hard-left, but it still helped Corbyn win 40% of the popular vote. George Freeman has become a crucial voice in this conversation since election night, and will be launching his “Big Tent Ideas Fest” to turbocharge the conversation about renewing the Conservative grassroots.
The centre-ground does not just exist in Westminster, it also exists in the country at large and it is always in flux. In order to dominate the centre-ground, Conservatives need to be able to respond to the voices of the British people. Reading polling data is not enough. The party has to find new ways of engaging with voters and encouraging new activists. Not only will this promote a healthy democratic culture, it will also help the Conservatives win the next election.
Across Europe and America, populist movements have flourished by exploiting people’s fears over the assimilation of Muslims and the rise of Islamist extremism. It has poisoned an already emotive and sensitive debate, but a valuable and intelligent contribution has been made by Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam.
Murray launches a scathing attack on Europe’s mainstream politicians and accuses them of allowing mass migration, particularly from Islamic countries, to change the cultural fabric of Europe, including Britain, without consulting their electorates. This has left Europe, he argues, with “an existential tiredness and a feeling that perhaps for Europe the story has run out and a new story must be allowed to begin.” The result has been a failure to address people’s concerns regarding the consequences of mass migration.
One of the most appalling examples Murray picks to illustrate his argument is the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal where a gang of men, largely of Pakistani origin, groomed and trafficked at least 1,400 children, mostly white working-class girls, over two decades. For years, the police suppressed stories about the gang for fear of being accused of racism or Islamophobia. There have been similar cases in 11 other areas. Stories such as this have left people disillusioned with the state and its ability to protect the public.
When Sarah Champion attempted to highlight this problem, albeit in clumsy language, she faced a maelstrom of abuse from her fellow Labour members and was forced to resign from the Shadow Cabinet. After defending Champion’s comments on Newsnight, Amina Lone was deselected as a local Labour candidate on spurious grounds. When mainstream politicians shut down debates on these issues, it leaves them open to manipulation by populists.
The three terror attacks committed by home-grown Islamists in Britain earlier this year have increased the relevancy of Murray’s work. Why have people who were born and bred in Britain chosen to murder their fellow citizens, and what can the state do to stop this from happening again? Theresa May has focused on pursuing new anti-terror measures, including a ban on encrypted data, and eliminating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But this has not be enough to satisfy public anger with the state’s failure to prevent these attacks.
Jeremy Corbyn used this to his advantage during the election. In a speech following the Manchester Bombing, Corbyn chose to make a connection between “wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.” To the media, it was shocking that Corbyn was blaming British foreign policy for acts of terrorists. But for voters who are still angry with the Iraq War and other foreign interventions, this sounded like common sense. In spite of his relations with Hamas and Hezbollah, Corbyn managed to shift people’s anger exclusively towards the Government, and away from the rise of Islamist extremism identified by Murray.
But the changing nature of UKIP might bring British politics closer to the anti-Islam populism of Geert Wilders in Holland and Marine Le Pen in France. In an attempt to shore up its support during the election, UKIP unveiled a manifesto tilted towards various anti-Islam measures. Lisa Duffy, one of last year’s leadership candidates, called for a “total ban” on Muslim schools. This year’s leadership race includes Anne Marie Waters, a far right anti-Islam candidate with connections to Tommy Robinson and the EDL. More and more, UKIP appears to be moving away from its eurosceptic and libertarian roots.
Conservatives should fight back against populists with extreme anti-Islam agendas. Bigotry has no place in the Conservative heart. But the problems related to mass migration cannot be allowed to continue. This does not just mean reducing immigration numbers to a sustainable level. It is also about conserving a strong British identity rooted in liberal values and historic traditions which can give everyone a sense of belonging, regardless of their race or religion. Conservatives can achieve this through a “muscular liberalism” which charts a middle way between the extremes.