Speech by the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP to the Social Market Foundation at the offices of Edelman in London on Tuesday 30 April 2019.
Thank you, James for that introduction. And thank you to the Social Market Foundation and Edelman for hosting and organising this morning’s event.
The SMF notes prominently on its website, “British politics is in flux”. Well, you can say that again. And after several years serving as a minister and very much sticking to my brief under two prime ministers, I wanted to take this opportunity to draw on my experience at the Department for Education and offer a wider perspective on some of the particular challenges that we face.
And by ‘we’, I mean several groups.
I mean the country … as we face up to testing times and seek to find ways to bring people together after years of rancour and division.
I mean the people who run businesses… as trust in business – and in the economic consensus that sustains it – continues to fall.
I mean the Conservative Party… now so consumed by Brexit that our great successes as a government over the past decade – and all the progress we have made as a country – has been forgotten.
And I mean politics as a whole… because what we know from Edelman’s own research is that trust in – and respect for – our political system is falling. And that creates the space for the populists, with their divisive rhetoric and easy solutions, to fill.
That is what we are witnessing today. Populism is on the march. It threatens to upend not just our political system, but so many of the old certainties on which we have come to rely. And it’s on the march for a simple reason: because mainstream politicians have not done enough to listen – let alone respond – to the priorities and concerns of the people who pay our salaries and give us our jobs.
But my conviction this morning is this: it is not too late to turn things around.
For if there is one thing my time at the Department for Education has taught me it is that if you do the hard work nothing is impossible. If you approach each challenge with what Martin Luther King described as the “fierce urgency of now”, change can happen. And a clearly articulated vision, the drive to make it happen, and the determination to see it through can yield extraordinary results.
That is why I believe so passionately in the capacity of politics and politicians to make a difference – to change lives for the better, which is what we all set out to do. Because I have seen it happen. And it is why I recoil when I hear politicians attacking the political process in this country. There will always be disagreements between parties and politicians. But I believe that politics is a noble calling; that people enter a life in politics with good intent; and that politics at its best can provide the forum in which we settle our differences, overcome divisions, and find the compromises that allow us to all move forward together.
Clearly, this may sound like a romantic view given where we are today.
It is widely accepted that we are in the midst of a political crisis, the like of which few of us has experienced before.
We are witnessing a clash between the twin forces of direct and representative democracy which has unbalanced our system of government and thrown it into a tailspin.
But this clash between the two forms of democracy is – like the issue of Brexit itself – about something even more profound. It is about power. And where we believe power should lie.
As much as anything, Brexit is an argument that says power should reside at the level of the nation-state - not at a supranational level where institutions are often unaccountable and typically all too remote.
The vote to embrace Brexit and to leave the EU was partly about the issue of where political power should lie, but it was also driven in large part by people who felt utterly powerless themselves in the face of macro political, economic and social forces over which they had too little control, or none at all. In other words, Brexit was and is about the assertion of power at every level.
And the determination to deliver Brexit is driven by a simple belief: that power should ultimately lie with the people of this country – not with any other body, group or organisation.
In 2016 Parliament and the Government were explicit: the decision whether to leave or not leave the European Union would be decided by the referendum. The people’s decision was final. That is why so many MPs have set aside their own concerns, or have been prepared to compromise by accepting a deal that they think is imperfect, in order to deliver the will of the people. Because ultimately, in a democracy, the people are sovereign. They are the masters. And government is their servant.
It is to the Prime Minister’s eternal credit that she has never once forgotten this fact. Despite all the difficulties, she has always been determined to deliver the will of the people: because she knows that to fail to do so will only reinforce the sense of powerlessness that drove so much of the Brexit vote and risk opening the doors of our democracy to populism.
THE CRISIS OF CAPITALISM
Yet, this is where we are today: confronted by the very real prospect of the rise of a narrow-minded and nasty populism of the right led by Nigel Farage or Tommy Robinson and a romantic but equally nasty brand of populist socialism on the left led by Jeremy Corbyn. A man who seeks to create and exploit perceived imbalances of power; who attacks and demeans the media – and encourages his supporters to do the same; who despises our allies while refusing to condemn the actions of our foes; who uses the language and the rhetoric of the populist as he seeks to set one against the other.
Yet who, despite this, continues to command a loyal following among younger voters and managed to attract substantial number of their votes at the last general election just two years ago to put him on the brink of Number 10. And we Conservatives must not kid ourselves that Corbyn’s brand of socialism is so-outdated and extreme that it will not be attractive to those of all backgrounds and economic circumstances who nevertheless feel ignored by our current polity or whose concerns have been left unaddressed.
This fact was brought home to me recently during a trip to the theatre.
The musical Hadestown is a love story, but it carries a deeply political – and undeniably left-wing – message. It denounces the values of capitalism while venerating the ideals of a socialist society.
And as I watched it being performed, I became aware of a remarkable phenomenon. I looked around me. The theatre was full of what would best be described as middle-class young people. Intelligent professionals. The future of this country. Full of idealism and hope. The kind of people who cheered Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury and gave him their vote two years ago. And they cheered again at Hadestown.
It was a revealing moment for me. Because those young people were essentially cheering the destruction of an economic and social system that has done so much more to advance their goals and values than any other the world has ever known.
The capitalist system has done more than any other to lift the poorest out of poverty, to open the world up to exploration, to inspire the inventions that have transformed the ways in which we connect and talk, expand our knowledge, broaden our horizons. It’s a system that has helped us treat diseases that were otherwise regarded as death sentences; that has supported the expansion of freedom where previously repression and dictatorship reigned; that is developing technology to help tackle climate change. And let us remember that it is a system that quite simply helps us to fund the lifestyles we want and the public services we rely on. That helps us to lead the good life we want for ourselves and others.
No other economic or social system comes close to being able to make the claims that capitalism can make. And yet here we are, in 2019, with an audience of intelligent and informed young people cheering its destruction and replacement with something we know to be much worse: systems that crush the spirit of those with an enterprising bent. Socialist systems that always end in one-party states, with freedoms smashed by the jackboot of the secret police. It happened right across Eastern Europe until 1989 and it is happening in Venezuela and North Korea today. Which is why we should worry when a generation of young people seem oblivious to its horrors.
A host of recent studies have shown a creeping tendency for young people in the West to think that democracy – the very thing we so often take for granted – may not necessarily be the best or most viable form of government. One such study from January 2017 found that a quarter of the young people surveyed agreed that “choosing leaders through free elections is unimportant”.
Given the near unimaginable sacrifice of countless people in the past and in some other parts of the world today, it should come as a profound shock that so many could be so blasé about such fundamental liberties.
THE CAUSES OF THAT CRISIS
This is a political crisis. And it goes to the heart of the crisis of capitalism too as the two things so often go hand in hand.
But if we step back, it is not hard to discern the roots of the crisis. For the evidence is all around. And we – moderate, mainstream politicians – must accept our share of responsibility.
Yes, the capitalist system has lifted people out of poverty and generated millions of new jobs, but it has also created a world in which the average pay ratio between a FTSE 100 CEO in the UK and their employee is 145 to 1. To me and to many, that just doesn’t seem fair.
Yes, the wealth created by the capitalist system has extended educational opportunities and helped to increase our collective knowledge, but it has also fostered a system in which a university vice-chancellor can earn £450,000 a year while students leave university plagued by debts as they start out on their working lives. That just doesn’t seem fair.
Yes, the globalised capitalist system may have broken down borders and fostered a more connected world, but it has also allowed big corporations like Google, Amazon and Facebook to make huge profits and use outdated double tax treaties designed for a mercantilist era to undermine the spirit of taxation that says you should pay your fair share. That just doesn’t seem fair.
Yes, the capitalist system has benefited many – but it is far from perfect. There will always be those who try to exploit it and so Government has a crucial role to play to enforce the rules, to change them where necessary, and so to maintain public consent. Over the last few decades, Labour and Conservative governments have been guilty of ignoring the steady scream of dissatisfaction, anger and powerlessness that is now overwhelming our political system. So it is essential – both for the defence of capitalism as the best system to govern our economic and social life, but also for the future of the Conservative Party as we face up to the threats of populists like Jeremy Corbyn – to seek to swing the balance of power back in favour of those who too often feel powerless in the face of the big economic and social forces that hold sway.
A PARTY THAT STANDS WITH THE POWERLESS
And that means embracing the zeal of the revolutionary and adopting the fierce urgency of now, as we seek to take up the mantle of change.
The starting point is to be clear that the Conservative Party should stand up for all those who feel powerless in Britain today. It should stand for all those who feel they have too little control. It should stand up for the weak and stand up to the strong. It should be the party for all those who feel their voice is unheard as they go about their lives in modern Britain.
We must talk with passion and conviction about the everyday problems of modern life. We need answers to the challenges parents face with the rising costs of child care and the concerns confronting the children of elderly parents navigating their needs for
social care. We need answers to the difficulties of would-be first-time house buyers. We need to take action, and be seen to take action, to deal with this generation’s greatest challenge: the devastating impact of climate change.
I believe that there is much for us to learn from the approach we have taken with education over the past few years. We have broken the stranglehold of Local Authorities and shifted the power to parents and pupils. The academies and free schools programme has revolutionised educational provision in this country partly because those schools know they have to be more responsive to local parental demands. We have introduced greater competition, given parents and pupils an element of control – and outcomes have been transformed.
We have successfully taken on the education establishment and changed the way that reading is taught, pushing our country up the international league tables for reading. We have transformed maths teaching both at primary and secondary, reformed our GCSEs, removed thousands of worthless qualifications that the poorest in society were being duped into taking. Grammar, punctuation and spelling are now being taught as never before and we’re testing to ensure children know their times tables.
There is a great deal more to do. Sometimes I feel as if we’ve only just begun when you consider the fact that in Nottingham, which is the 8th most deprived area in the Indices of Multiple Deprivation, 80% of secondary schools are rated good or outstanding compared to just 50% in prosperous Hertsmere, 243rd most deprived out of 326 local authority districts in that same index.
In other words if it is possible for schools to be good or outstanding in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country, why can’t it be so in all areas of disadvantage? And if it is possible in some areas of disadvantage, why are there some prosperous areas with too many underperforming schools and poor standards?
Why is it that one state school in east London, Brampton Manor Academy, recently reported that 41 of its students have received offers from Oxford and Cambridge but, although the DfE does not centrally collate information on university offers, looking at the 2017 destination tables, there were no students with an Oxbridge destination from Blaby, Bassetlaw, Braintree, Broxborne, Broadlands (in Norfolk), to name just the local authorities beginning with a B; and none from Chorley, Corby, Castlepoint, - you see where this is going! Overall, there were 45 out of 323 local authority districts with KS5 students without a single student with an Oxford or Cambridge sustained destination. A good education is the fundamental building block for a good life. Ensuring that every child attends a good school must be central to the Conservative Party’s mission to stand for the powerless, ensuring the success of our reforms, the opportunities they represent, is spread to every corner of the country.
So there is more to do in Education, but with vision, drive and determination we have already come so far. And it is this spirit – this revolutionary zeal that has informed our education reforms – which we Conservatives must apply across the full realm of political life as we seek to tip the balance of power in favour of the hardworking people of Britain.
There are some who argue that the anger in our political discord is also driven by the pace of social reform that we have seen over the last two decades. Some seem to relish the kind of culture wars that dominate debate between many Democrats and Republicans in the United States.
I am, unashamedly, a socially liberal Conservative. How could I not be? My life has been completed by legislation introduced by Tony Blair and David Cameron to recognise same sex relationships. Having always believed that marriage and family were the cornerstone of a strong, free and happy society, being able to marry as a gay man was the greatest moment of my life. And what have I discovered since? That my joy has been shared by so many of the people I work with every day, by members of the Bognor Regis and Littlehampton Conservative Association, by constituents who I meet at my surgery, at community coffee mornings, in local businesses, out on the street. I simply don’t buy the argument that the British are a moralistic, disapproving and mean-spirited people.
We are a nation that embraces change, gets on with it, and doesn’t worry too much about what other people do unless it gets in the way of their lives. We laugh at, rather than obsess about, what goes on in the bedroom: we are the nation of ‘Carry On’ and ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’. Innuendo is a national pass time. Isn’t it, Mrs?
What people do worry about is a feeling that change is being imposed and they are unable to express a view. That an elite in Westminster has little interest in or knowledge of how change can impact everyday life. Where concerns about immigration are dismissed or ignored, where people feel talked down to, where long held values can become out of fashion overnight, it is hardly surprising that a sense of powerlessness grows.
Tackling this sense of powerlessness over the actions of vested interests - whether in the political class or in large economic corporations - offers a way forward for the Conservative Party.
Let us think, for example, of the role that big tech plays in our lives today – and of the way in which the behaviour of the big tech companies has damaged the reputation of capitalism as a whole.
We embrace all the advantages of new technologies. We share details of our lives with family and friends. We click a button and have almost anything we want delivered to our door. A question that once involved a trip to the library can now be answered by a simple tap on a screen that we all keep in our pockets. As an Education Minister and as a citizen of course I welcome that. And of course, none of it would have happened if we didn’t live in capitalist, democratic societies.
But at the same time, elements of the tech revolution have gone too far. They have produced new concentrations of power. Supranational companies that see themselves as alternatives to the nation-state. Organisations and corporations that think they can’t be controlled.
Now, because the capitalist system still works, these big tech companies may soon have had their day. New start-ups are emerging to take on the behemoths with better, more people friendly alternatives.
Again, this simply wouldn’t happen under a socialist economic system of command and control.
So, we need to support these endeavours. But in the meantime, we need to take action too.
That means having the courage to regulate where we need to regulate. It means enacting policies that disrupt these concentrations of power. And it means ensuring that these companies are paying their fair share of tax.
There is nothing un-Conservative about this. Capitalism does work best when least fettered by rules and regulations that can crush innovation and stifle enterprise. But the free market has always relied on rules and the rule of law for it to function. It relies on the state to provide security, infrastructure, enforcement of contracts, title to land and the protection of intellectual property.
We need to make sure those rules and regulations are fit and proper for the challenges of the 21st century, as Teddy Roosevelt did to tackle the concentrations of power at the start of the 20th century.
But ‘Big Tech’ has become a common target. What about other areas where the balance of power has become inverted and has grown out of all control? Where can – and must – politicians act?
Utility companies who use confusing, complicated policies and tariffs to bewilder and exploit consumers. Who know that they can get away with it because our lives are busy and therefore they have effective power and control. A Conservative Party that stands up for the powerless shouldn’t stand by and let people be exploited by these multinational corporations. There’s nothing un-Conservative about that. We need to show the will and desire to tackle these monopolies of power and give people more control.
Insurance companies who ramp up premiums on the unwary and loyal, hoping we won’t notice or will be too busy to care. Hoping that the busy lives we lead will mean we acquiesce too easily.
Bosses exploiting their workers. Creaming off vast profits while cultivating or tolerating a culture of bullying and intimidation further down the chain. We should be angry at such people and such companies. The unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism of today.
Investment banks foisting investments they know to be worthless on unsuspecting savers in their retail division.
Estate agents promising higher valuations to home owners in exchange for higher commissions knowing full well the ultimate sale price would be less.
House builders, increasingly dominated by just a handful of companies, building homes of questionable design and resulting in thousands of complaints about poor construction, while making ‘super profits’ that the free market is meant to be designed to compete away.
Banks which are supposed to provide capital for new businesses and young people wanting homes but which are caught deliberately driving small business to the wall and which refuse young people mortgages because of their own malpractice in the past – denying a generation entry to property ownership, the foundation of a capitalist system. Is it any wonder that a musical rendition of a non-capitalist society sounds so appealing to that generation?
AN AGENDA FOR A BOLD RENEWAL OF CONSERVATISM
It should be our task as a party to act with urgency to correct these abuses and address these injustices, driven by a determination to speak out for the powerless at all times. It must be our mission to restore trust in the political system and in politics as a noble calling; something that with vision, drive and determination can change lives for the better.
To do so is not to validate Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. It is to thwart them. For if we fail to do so – if we fail to address the very real areas in which the capitalist system is failing – a long period of left-wing, socialist government is surely on its way. And it won’t be long before the cheers fade and the idealism is at an end.
This is an insight as old as Conservatism itself. Change to conserve has always been our mantra. Make change where the system is failing to preserve faith in the whole. As Burke put it “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation”.
So let us harness that insight and embrace this agenda for a bold renewal of Conservatism. Safeguarding and shaping the future by addressing the challenges of today.
A party for the powerless with a revolutionary zeal to pick up the mantle of change.
Determined to take on vested interests and monopolies of power.
Determined to stand with the people every step of the way.