WHY is this government so unimaginative, so lacking in daring, courage or intellectual subtlety? Given three years to come up with exciting new ideas, what we have got to date is mostly ‘Continuity May’. The visionary free ports initiative aside, the Tory approach on any given issue seems to be a patrician mixture of corporatism and full adherence to the hairshirt bansturbation culture we are all heartily sick of, with crude caps and bans proliferating faster than a blue-chip consultancy’s billable hours for HS2.
While we are on that subject, HS2 symbolises everything that is wrong with this administration’s derivative, unimaginative approach. If you must spend huge sums on a new railway, a far more interesting and Brexit-centric idea would to resurrect the late Andrew Gritten’s Central Railway project. Running from Liverpool and Manchester to Sheffield and London via the trackbed of the old Great Central main line, it was envisaged as a double-decker freight railway carrying transatlantic goods from the port of Liverpool through the Channel Tunnel, probably at the fraction of HS2’s cost. Substantially reducing lorry traffic and cutting a day off shipping times, it could make Liverpool a serious competitor to Rotterdam. A help to transatlantic post-Brexit global trade, green, increased capacity, Northern-focused (unlike HS2) and reversing Beeching era cuts to the rail network – all in one policy! Then there are all the exciting new modes of transportation that are emerging: driverless cars, hyperloops, magways, passenger drones. Driverless cars aside, the government doesn’t seem interested in looking at the feasibility of any of them or the infrastructure and regulatory environment that may help to nurture such initiatives. If post-Brexit Britain could lead adoption in new technologies, then it might help make the promise of advanced manufacturing and economic rebalancing of our economy closer to reality. What we get instead is outmoded train lines that are an answer to a non-problem, and the dreary negativity of bans on both petrol and diesel cars, and now coal fires.
Lack of subtlety, original thinking and cynicism invades even those policies Brexiteers broadly approve of, such as the Australian points migration system. As the proposal stands, plainly watered down as it is at the behest of corporate lobbying, the outcomes of the reduced cap are likely to be far from optimal. That a constructive, balanced immigration policy requires creative thinking is not in doubt: as Robert Shrimsley wrote in the Financial Times, there is a natural tension between the two visions of Brexit Britain as ‘start-up nation’ or ‘cohesion country’ where immigration is concerned. Perhaps a solution would be for work visas to have an escalator tax attached to them: after a honeymoon period of say, five years, the cost to organisations employing personnel on work visas would increase with each passing year. This would preserve the low costs, access to skills and flexibility needed by new ventures while giving powerful incentives to more mature organisations to plan for and properly support the training of the indigenous population, such as those pioneered by the JCB Academy.
My point isn’t to say these ideas are the right ones, but that this government isn’t even asking the necessary questions. Instead, it has inherited its ragbag policy portfolio from elsewhere: HS2 originated under New Labour, the Australian points immigration system from UKIP, and as for environmental and energy policy, the less said the better.
So why the failure? After all, whatever one may say about the Tory Party, it certainly isn’t short of intellectually capable people. It is, I am afraid, disappointing but not at all surprising, and lies in the very basis of Tory culture: as I constantly argue in TCW, the party is patrician and parasitic: it has an instinctively low view of the electorate and exists merely to perpetuate itself in office. On HS2, you can almost hear them say: ‘A bright shiny train set will appease all those flat cap-wearing, whippet-walking Northern duffers, while the real cheesecake from all that spending will be funnelled to our kind of chaps in the big consultancies.’ When confronted with any given policy issue the party rarely asks: ‘What is the best solution we can implement given the political realities and resources available?’ but ‘How can we triangulate this to preserve our own political capital and thus extend our time in office?’ A party with such an opportunist, cynical ethos was never and will never be capable of grasping the transformative potential of the Brexit revolution, so let us all think how best to replace it with one that will.