Friday, May 24, 2024
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This is not what the country voted for


THERE were of course many reasons why the British people voted against the siren advice of almost the entire Establishment to leave the EU in 2016. The concept of bringing back control was powerful, as was the feeling that the UK had become overly regulated by laws not of our desire or making and so was increasingly chained. 

Concern over migration and cultural change undoubtedly played a part too: a feeling that Britain was slowly being lost coupled with a residual patriotism. Perhaps there was a further factor – people simply did not like the direction of travel, with the EU clearly amassing more and more power and very weak democratic control. One did not need to be a genius to see the end point.

In 2019, frustrated with outrageous parliamentary obstruction, the people again spoke. Johnson was the man to ‘get Brexit done’. His narrative was to trust the people and for a less obtrusive state. He seemed to cock a snook at political correctness, as it was then called (woke culture and white privilege were but an academic sideshow which no sane person would have heard of in 2019). He implied that taxes would be low and that Britain’s potential would be ‘unleashed’. Policy on the environment, such as it was, made it into page 55 of the Conservative manifesto. It was an afterthought, and a tangential one at that.

The people loved what they heard. They voted for Boris (many really did vote for him and not the dreaded Tories) and his carefree, idiosyncratic, individualistic and optimistic vision. Brexit Party candidates stood down against sitting Conservative MPs so that Liberal Democrats could not gain from a split vote. Johnson won a majority of 80 and the most Conservative seats since 1987.

Then it all went wrong. Within three months of his election victory a mysterious virus arrived from China and post March 2020 the world as we knew it was cancelled, to use the modern linguistic term. 

I would have expected a Conservative government to adopt a light minimalist approach to such an event, trusting the people, leaving decisions to families, encouraging debate so that the best path would emerge. The sort of approach Sweden took. Respectful of others, careful but not obsessive, and aware that life must go on as best it could. 

Instead it’s been fear, threats, masks and a near-total censoring of debate cunningly overseen by Ofcom which has stifled sensible investigation. Worse, 18 months later many of our freedoms still have not been returned, with the Prime Minister’s latest threat being that we might do it all again this winter ‘to save the NHS’. 

Moreover, Johnson’s government has outspent almost all others with furlough, Test and Trace and billions handed to the public sector as productivity collapsed. The state grew out of all proportion. The result? An entirely predictable disastrous economic performance, the second worst in the G20 with only Spain pipping us for the wooden spoon.

The NIC tax rise may have become the icon that has broken trust in this government. The truth is that taxes had been steadily rising under Conservative rule since 2010, but the combined increases in National Insurance, Corporation Tax and Dividend Tax coupled with the freezing of benefits make it clear that any pretence that Johnson’s Government believed in the individual over the state was an illusion.

Worse, the money raised will doubtless make very little difference to the quality of social or health care, and we suspect they will come back for more. Already there are warnings that council tax will need to rise yet further to pay for social care. How much is too much? The highest tax take in 70 years, Mr Sunak?

But while tax may have been the clear illustration that this was not a Conservative government, the truth is that in almost every respect this government has chosen the Left/liberal approach, ignoring the overwhelming wishes of those who voted for it. 

On the environment, a conservative approach would be to encourage innovation and market solutions. Ministers would have trusted the people. No, this government grandstands, doubling down on ‘net zero’ at potentially extraordinary cost to the consumer for highly uncertain gain. It announces a ban on internal combustion cars by 2030, imperilling hundreds of thousands of jobs, while the technology for electric cars, let alone the infrastructure, is to say the least uncertain. Whether I buy a traditional combustion car, an electrical car or a hydrogen one is my call, Mr Johnson, not yours. Yet we face bans, taxes and regulations conducted under a phony debate where proper scrutiny is impossible because all the political parties and most of the media claim to believe the same thing.

The irony is that even if one accepts the science behind climate change, which is considerably more contested than is claimed, Britain’s virtue signalling will make not one jot of difference other than adding hugely to the costs of households and industry. The UK accounts for 1 per cent of global emissions, and frankly what we do is irrelevant compared with China or India. Irrelevant. 

On the public sector, the government’s record is abysmal. Gavin Williamson may have been sacked but the damage is done at the hands of the teaching unions. Huge disruption to education over the last 18 months with untold damage to children’s welfare. But A*s for all, devaluing education and achievement. Quite extraordinary. 

Public spending is like confetti yet still we have immeasurably long waiting lists, desperately poor procurement and public sector unions running rings round ministers. A friend, a reasonable chap in the civil service, told me his department was ‘working on a plan to try to get people back at their desks one day a week’. He didn’t see the point when I spluttered ‘One day a week?!’ I don’t think that is unique.

On HS2, a slavish desire to waste more than £100billion on yesterday’s technology that no private enterprise would entertain, without a mile of track yet laid. 

On regulation, a key promise from Brexit, I await a bonfire. I suspect I shall wait for quite a while. Can any reader point to one area where the glare of the state has become less obtrusive? I can’t think of one.

Perhaps worst of all, no more than a feeble attempt to tackle a militant and extreme woke culture in the public sector and media. Macron was clear that no statues would fall, and he was absolutely right on that. Our government’s weasel words occasionally stand up for Churchill but in reality a blind eye is turned to the attempt to re-write our history. Quotas for this and that, apologies and embarrassment. I don’t think that is what the Red Wall voted for, but maybe I am wrong.

Doubtless some will argue that Covid-19 changed everything but the truth is that this Government has broken its word in almost every area. Its instinct is not minimalist or conservative. It thinks it knows best, with its spend, tax, regulate and control. 

What it is doing is crushing the spirit of this land, destroying optimism, hitting the life chances of the young with stop-go education, closed schools and meaningless prizes for all. It is increasing fear. 

It is little wonder that the Labour Party is so silent. Johnson’s government has done the opposite of the promises in its manifesto, which were so warmly endorsed by the people, by moving far to the Left. This cannot continue if this country is to have any sort of free and prosperous future. We urgently need a government that is humble and knows it does not have the answers, but facilitates the people to provide them. A government that trusts the people rather than crushes them, that does not micro-manage every area of life and that seeks to reduce the role of the state and taxation, not increase it. 

Where shall it come from?

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Ewen Stewart
Ewen Stewart
Ewen Stewart is a City economist who runs the consultancy Walbrook Economics. He is director of the think tank Global Britain and his work is widely published in economics and political journals.

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