September 10, 2012 1:25 am

Britannia Unchained

An uneven manifesto by five young Tory MPs gives a useful sign of how British politics may develop in the next decade
 

Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, by Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£12.99

In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, an elegiac novel set in the white heat of the Thatcher revolution, there is a scene in which a dandyish 20-something Conservative blithely predicts “the 80s are going on for ever”. Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, five young Tory MPs who came of age in that decade, are intent on proving the cad right. Britannia Unchained, their manifesto, lacks Hollinghurstian grace and subtlety but it is a useful sign of how British politics may develop in the next decade.

Unlike the cloying autobiographies churned out by the ghostwriters of Washington politicians, books by British MPs have, now and again, marked important ideological shifts. Benjamin Disraeli’s Young England trilogy helped define “Social Toryism”. Anthony Crosland’s The Future Of Socialism encouraged the Labour party to shake its Marxist shibboleths. The Orange Book , co-edited by David Laws, was an attempt to put the liberal back in the Liberal Democrats. Britannia Unchained can be seen as a call to end the Conservative party’s wishy-washy Cameronism. Instead, the authors recommend an approach that is economically libertarian, eurosceptic (but not rabidly so) and intolerant of the feckless and work shy.

The book’s premise is that Britain can learn from other countries. Canada’s genuinely prudent fiscal policy made it more resilient when the financial crisis struck. Singapore’s children are maths whizzes compared to our innumerate nippers. Israel’s chutzpah and venture capital market suggests Britain still neglects its nascent tech sector. Australia is less burdened by regulation, Brazil is more optimistic and California does not fear failure.

Little of this will be new to policy makers and the authors do not pretend otherwise. More fanciful are some of the assertions about Britain’s ills. Labour’s spending on public services was not “all paid for by taxes on world leading financial services”. The claim that “standards of state education have fallen” is disputed by results data. “Radical political views are gaining support,” they write, though May’s local elections suggest otherwise. It is either untrue or too early to say that social mobility has “stalled”. Britain has enough problems without needing to exaggerate.

In any case, for the authors, “the malaise lies deeper than government policy can address”. They argue that the country’s plight is sociological, not economic: “Britain has ... suffered from a diminished work ethic and a culture of excuses.” Cushy benefits, celebrity worship and reality television have left Britons idle, the MPs say. Although David Cameron has flirted with strident moralism, his “Big Society” was ultimately an optimistic vision. In Britannia Unchained, the country is going to hell in a handcart full of Iceland frozen food.

This marks a shift in Conservative thinking, not only from Cameron but also from the paternalism of Heath, Macmillan and Disraeli. Britannia Unchained prescribes shock therapy for the country: welfare cuts and Beecroft-style labour market deregulation. The book’s most telling line is: “In Britain, there has been too great a tendency to attribute results to fortune or background.” I would call that tendency, “evidence”. In Britain your future income and job is more strongly associated with those of your parents than in most rich countries. It is not declinist to say that poverty is more complex than a lack of effort (or for that matter, a lack of money).

Britain is in recession. The government, like its predecessor, is still fumbling around for plans for transport, energy and housing. An irony of Britannia Unchained is that many of the countries it lauds, such as Singapore, Brazil and Israel, have states that are far more interventionist than Britain’s. Another lesson from the developing world could be that “state capitalism” works. Britain is a rightly liberal country but it wouldn’t hurt the government to have a strategy.

The authors of Britannia Unchained may remain, like Hollinghurst’s louche character, bit-part players on the political scene. But their energy and independence suggests they will apply more pressure to Cameron than stately backbenchers. The rise of Paul Ryan, wonkish Republican right-winger turned US vice-presidential candidate, is also a sign of changing times. Labour strategists believe that any Conservative move rightwards would allow Ed Miliband to occupy the centre ground. But he should be careful that the centre is not moving rightwards, too. Polls suggest young Britons are less statist and more liberal than their predecessors. They are worried about the future, cynical about established power yet keen to do good work. Whichever party can crystallise these views will reap the benefits.

The writer is the FT’s executive comment editor

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