This has been yet another turbulent year in our domestic politics. Poor by-election results, international tensions and Conservative party unrest- these are just some of 2021’s legacy. Several aspects of the difficult year end can be attributed to Covid, but as economists and statisticians continue to point out, a significant part of the current economic concerns comes also as a result of spectacularly poor planning for Brexit. Even the Conservative’s restive right can now complain that we were all led into a form of Brexit without a practical plan. Now no one seems to be happy with the outcome. The sunlit uplands remain shrouded in mist and a fog of nebulous rhetoric.
Charting a sensible economic and political way ahead requires some tough choices now. There are no easy options. This requires, first and foremost, critical analysis of the problems in order to see how progress can be made. We must recognise that “take back control” is still a myth. Exporters and businesses struggle with a thicket of new red tape. Those concerned with the levels of immigration despair as the Home Secretary failure to control the flow of desperate souls crossing the Channel and worry as she seeks authoritarian powers to evict UK citizens. Many business leaders and farmers wonder at the spectacular disappearance of truck drivers, agricultural labourers and catering personnel, key trade deals remain elusive - copy-paste deals with economically immaterial nations fail to make good the fall in EU related trade. The Northern Ireland protocol festers, the relationship with France stagnates, the fish fight dominates more legitimate economic and diplomatic considerations…… this list can go on. However, whatever the path that has brought us to where we are, this is today our common and shared point of departure.
There is no argument for turning back the clock. Nevertheless, Amersham & Chesham, followed by the North Shropshire by-election result, point to political trouble to add to the uncomfortable economic and business mood. Doubts about government competency and professionalism are now growing even amongst key supporters.
The question is where next? As a southern Conservative with traditional views on business, economics, issues of planning and competence, a belief in the need for stable and constructive dialogues with international partners, I feel like a marginalised member of a once famously pragmatic and adaptive party. Yet the optimist in me suggests we must be approaching something of a reset moment. With a divisive Lord Frost leaving the diplomatic stage, there is now a chance that some problems can be resolved in a sensible way. After Frost comes the thaw?
There is also a dawning realisation that globalisation, the motor of much of the UK’s past success, is now taking a new form. Regional alliances are being reinforced as economic tensions spill into military and deeper political fissures. The idea that Britain can ‘do its own thing’ on a pick-and-mix basis, cosy up to an increasingly fractious Trumpian ‘Anglosphere’ or look to the amorphous and economically irrelevant institution of the Commonwealth is clearly unrealistic.
This is not to suggest that Britain as a medium sized economic and military ‘power’ can’t assert itself and its individualism in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, we need to better understand today’s more complex geo-politics, tightly bound as it is with macroeconomic forces not previously seen. This is no time for insular thinking rooted in nineteenth century nationalism, or moulded by early 20th century conflicts.
The challenge is not of course restricted to Britain. Western nations generally seem to be suffering a string of democratic and popular upheavals. Worryingly, these are weakening several of their key alliances including NATO and the EU. The West appears to be increasingly disunited and lacking coherent leadership. In recent times, only Germany appears to have transitioned sensibly from its Merkel era, but still shows precious little appetite for leadership commensurate with their economic influence. Worryingly the US transition from Trump to Biden seems to be stalling, setting the nation up for another dose of incoherent Trumpism and further fracturing the West.
Britain must quickly adapt to new and moving realities. This demands sound analysis as the basis for proper policy responses. Now would be a good moment to ditch some of the rhetoric-laden, boosterish verbosity peppered with flying pigs that cannot serve as a substitute for detailed policy. The Conservative Party must reembrace pragmatism, reset its agenda, rebuild vital international relations, re-engage with business and re-establish its belief in data, facts and sound analysis. All of this will form the basis of competent government. This is certainly not the time for factions to drive a hard bargain in pursuit of narrow ideologies. Any further breakdown of a balanced Conservative agenda will create fault lines that may have very unpredictable electoral and economic results.