Conservatives must remain vigilant, warns David Davis, even if the Opposition are a farce
The forces of Conservatism appear to be rampant. The problem with appearances is that they can be misleading. An election victory that was unexpected to say the least and a Labour Party in chaos have resulted in exuberance in the Conservative Party. There is a sense that there is nothing to oppose the new Conservative Government’s programme over the next five years.
But there are real dangers. The Conservative Party needs to be mindful of the paper-thin nature of its majority. And history suggests that spending too long in power can make any party hubristic; perspective and policy needs to be refreshed before we lose momentum. We start from a strong base. Since 2010 the Conservatives have a record of which they can be proud. But there is still much to do, and there is a worrying trend of us not learning from our mistakes.
Social mobility has stalled since the 1970s. Opportunities for those from a disadvantaged background are fewer than they were. Inherited wealth and power are still more important determinants for success than ability. For a party that claims to, and needs to, represent everyone in society this is a serious problem.
Our economy, while faring better than those on the continent, still retains its long-term structural weaknesses. Our fiscal position, while improving, remains precarious, our competitiveness is poor and our productivity remains low. And should another financial crisis emerge, a real possibility given the turbulence in China, our relatively high debt-to-GDP ratio could leave us terribly exposed.
Our Union has never been so fragmented. The SNP ran wild at the election, all but wiping out Labour across the border and snapping up 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. The failed devolution settlement is putting ever greater strain on the bonds between the home nations, and the next five years will tell whether or not Britain remains together.
At the same time, we are increasingly uncertain of our position in the world. Rightfully cautious after Libya and Syria, and still war-weary after Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain now lacks confidence in her global position. This is exacerbated by the constant trimming of our armed forces, leaving us unable to intervene abroad, even if we wanted to. There is a worrying sense throughout the country that we are becoming the Great Shrinking Britain.
In Europe, the failing Euro project and the falling popularity of the European ideal are causing conflict across the continent. German influence is increasing at a time when their continental rivals are weakening. We face a critical decision whether to continue down the path to ‘ever closer union’, or whether to break out into the wider world.
Our relationship with America is becoming increasingly strained, as the global importance of Europe wanes, our ability to contribute to American overseas activities decreases, and our economic focus shifts to the East. Britain is at a crossroads, with prosperity one way and slow decline the other, and just as it did at the end of the ‘70s, Conservatism has to be ready with a vision for the country.
The mood music from the Party is encouraging. Tax cuts aimed at supporting those at the bottom of society, and a reduction in red tape to encourage businesses, especially the small and medium sized businesses up and down the country that sustain our economy. There is the recognition that we must help the deindustrialised North catch up with London, and become the economic powerhouse that it has the potential to be. All of this points to a Government that is benefitting the whole country.
But while our economy is slowly being turned around following the disastrous credit-fuelled boom of the Labour years and the subsequent apocalyptic crash, there are still many areas that require significant reform. Our competitiveness is poor, and productivity in particular is chronically low, even when adjusted for our excellent employment rate. Whole-economy output per hour remains significantly below its pre-crisis crisis levels. Had productivity increased at a similar rate to the periods following previous recessions, the UK could now be the richest major economy. If our productivity was similar to America’s, our economy would be almost a third larger than at present.
Competition will be the key. Too many sectors of our economy are too closed to new entrants. High business costs and high levels of regulation help larger incumbents to squeeze out smaller rivals. As a result, inefficient systems and bad practices remain in place. The Government’s plans to expand the mandate for the Competition and Markets Authority to include a greater emphasis on productivity go some way to addressing this. But there needs to be a sea-change in our outlook. We have to be far more supportive of competition across our economy, be supportive of new business and entrepreneurs, and break down the cosy relationship, and revolving door, between big business and Government. We need less corporatism, and more capitalism.
If people are to receive the proceeds of growth that they deserve, then we need to address the problem of social mobility. If we are to improve social mobility, then we must address the roots of the problem - education. It is too late to try to level the field later, at university or in employment. Only by providing the same rigorous and competitive education as provided by the top private schools to all our children can we restart social mobility in this country.
Grammar schools once provided such an education for children from poor backgrounds, until they were all but eradicated by the Labour Party. Since then the Academy system and the Free School system have helped to improve education, but they are still too few in number and too restricted in practice. There is also the other side of the education coin, providing high quality training and skills for those who are unsuited to traditional education. If we can unlock the potential of future generations we will have gone a long way towards securing the future of this country. In addition we will go some way to showing that the Conservatives govern for everyone, and not just for the rich.
Looking abroad, our place in the world is becoming increasingly uncertain. Europe’s influence is fading, and it remains the slowest growing economic area in the world. The days of American hegemony may be coming to an end, with the rise of China, an increasingly belligerent Russia, and a war-weariness borne out of failed military adventurism. The British public is far more cautious, unsure of our authority and security in the international arena.
With the EU referendum taking place within the next couple of years, the debate on our place in the world will take centre stage. If we can reform the EU, so that it is pro-growth, pro-trade, and most of all far less interventionist in the affairs of its member states, then there would be an argument in favour of staying in. But without these critical reforms, Europe will become too inward looking, too restrictive and will ultimately fail. Without reform, it is vital that Britain raise her eyes to rest of the world, and leave the EU.
We must remember all that we have achieved by engaging with the wider world. Now is not the time to become insular. The UK has a long and proud history, and the global results are clear: widespread democracy, the rule of law, and free trade. A foreign policy based on these fundamentals will do much to address the Great Shrinking Britain myth.
It will not be possible to engage with the rest of the world if we are not capable of pulling our weight on the global stage. That means stepping up to our international obligations. We cannot do this without our military capabilities.
We cannot continue with the sort of procurement extravagance we have seen in recent years. There is little point in purchasing cutting-edge equipment if we don’t have enough soldiers to deploy it. If we are to be able to conduct large overseas operations in the future then we need to properly fund our armed services, and increase the number of serving personnel. This will be expensive, but the alternative is that we retreat from the larger world. Should we withdraw, the world will be less safe as a result.
The Left is not as weak as their current travails suggest. With Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, the Far Left has been reinvigorated by his campaign. In the years ahead the country will once again by subjected to the siren calls of a failed ideology. Renationalisation of major swathes of industry, high taxes, expanded welfare, the pursuit of equality, unilateral disarmament. Conservatism must stand ready to face these threats once again. And we can only be ready if we have a full and positive vision of the future of this country.
Failure to do so could see the gains we have made in recent years quickly squandered. With so much still to do, Conservatism’s job is only just beginning.
David Davis is Member of Parliament for Haltemprice and Howden.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 25/02/2016.