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Westlake Legal Group > Centre for Policy Studies

Rob Colvile: Here’s how to show that the Left doesn’t have a monopoly on compassion

Robert Colvile is Director of the Centre for Policy Studies. His new report ‘Popular Capitalism’ is published today and available at cps.org.uk.

“Like most of the rest of the Left, much of Labour seeks to delegitimise the Conservatives altogether – in other words, rob them of their right to be heard by suggesting that they are beyond the ethical pale.”

I was struck when I read those words by Paul Goodman on ConservativeHome this week – because they were almost identical to ones I had just written:

“Many on the Left appear to believe – and are eager to tell the world – that they have a monopoly not just on compassion, but basic humanity. To be a conservative, in their view, is simultaneously illegitimate and inhumane. It is to hate the poor and love the rich, to put profits above people, to be wrong not just on the facts, but in your heart. And the same is true of being a capitalist.”

That section comes from the introduction to a new essay, published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, called Popular Capitalism. It is my attempt to explain why support for the free market is not just pragmatic, on the grounds that it is the best tool we have yet found to create and share prosperity, but deeply moral – because it trusts people enough to give them more control of their own lives.

Thinking about this, it struck me that arguably the best path to convincing people of the merits of capitalism is to extent Vote Leave’s famous slogan – “Take Back Control” – to the domestic agenda. For politicians to make it clear that their priority is to promote ownership and opportunity, enterprise and aspiration.

The essay, of course, suggests concrete ways of doing this, based on our policy programme at the Centre for Policy Studies. We suggest raising the National Insurance threshold so that everyone gets the first £1,000 a month they earn tax-free; addressing public concerns over the fairness of the welfare system by ensuring that it treats you more kindly if you have proved worthy of trust; addressing the ownership crisis that scars our society by incentivising landlords to sell to tenants, and providing those tenants with the core of a deposit; and freeing small businesses from the burden of tax and administration by offering them the chance of paying a simple levy on turnover.

All of these policies are fully developed, fully tested and – according to our research – extremely popular. But they also say something very profound: that the politicians adopting them really are concerned about the many rather than the few.

One of the most alarming things about the current Labour leadership – aside from its attempt to elevate “Never kissed a Tory” into a principle of moral supremacy – is how adroitly it has stolen its enemies’ clothes. Popular capitalism, in its original form, was a brilliant Thatcher-era coinage, reflecting both the desire to widen participation in the economy (by giving people homes to own and shares to buy), and to make capitalism popular by proving that people could benefit from it.

Today, Labour talk relentlessly about ownership. But where Thatcher told people (rightly) that militant trade unions were preventing them from having the freedom to live good lives, John McDonnell tells people (wrongly) that “the Tories” and “the bosses” are doing the same.

Labour is selling its renationalisation plans, for example, as being about taking from “the shareholders” and giving to the people. To the many, from the few.

Of course, the devil is very firmly in the detail. Labour’s plans for employee ownership of companies, for example, turn out to involve a massive tax grab by the state – and a blocking vote for trade unions on corporate boards.

Or take the nationalised industries. These, Labour argue, should be run by a harmonious alliance of customers, workers (represented via their union leaders), the community (represented via council placemen or Left-wing activists), and the wise hand of government.

But what happens when these interests collide? What happens when the unions want a pay rise that is against the interests of the customers?

And what happens when the customer is dissatisfied? Under a nationalised system, they cannot take their money elsewhere. They have lost control in a fundamental way.

The moral of this story is that competition – in both public and private services – is not just good, but essential. Example after example shows that the key to driving up performance is to put power in the hands of customers and consumers. Because no matter how much you venerate doctors and nurses and teachers, the brutal fact is that any organisation run by human beings will – without a corrective mechanism – come to be run for the convenience of those self-same human beings.

In the two years since I took over the Centre for Policy Studies – the think tank founded by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher – I keep coming back to those original speeches and pamphlets that set the Thatcherite agenda. And one of the most striking things is the moral streak that runs through them – especially through the speeches of Thatcher herself.

So often, she grounds her remarks in a point of moral principle, proceeding outwards to apply that principle to the political environment.

It is a style of rhetoric that sounds utterly alien to modern ears. But one of its main effects was that people very certainly knew who and what she was for. As she told her first party conference as leader: ““Policies and programmes should not be just a list of unrelated items. They are part of a total vision of the kind of life we want for our country.”

It is impossible to overstate the difficulties faced by Thatcher and those around her as they wrested the British economy on to a better course in the 1980s. The fact that Britain has a private sector that basically works, that it has millions more people in employment, that inflation has been tamed, that our lives are not disrupted by strike after strike, that we can afford to pay for our public services – all of these are ultimately down to the reforms she pioneered.

Yet in retrospect, it is clear that the reformers of those days had one under- appreciated advantage. If they wanted to show why they were right, they could simply say: “Look around you.” Their radical diagnosis of Britain’s problems could only be implemented because voters had lost all patience with the alternative.

Today, a free-marketeer invoking that phrase might seem, to harsher critics, more like Ozymandias, inviting those admiring his statue to survey what amounts to ruins. Or, to put it more prosaically, if people today see our society as capitalist, then they see the problems with it as the product of capitalism.

This is why defenders of capitalism cannot be satisfied with the status quo. They need to show how they can make people’s lives better – to accept that their problems are real, rather than telling them that they may not own a home, but at least they have an iPhone.

Arthur Brooks, the outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute, has a beautiful way of challenging his fellow conservatives on this issue. Why, he asks, do you get up in the morning? Is it to entrench the power and wealth of those who already have power and wealth? Or is it to expand the power and wealth of those who do not have them?

If it is the former, he says, you are doing evil. If it is the latter, you are doing good.

All conservatives, in other words, need to dedicate themselves to giving people opportunity. To giving them ownership. To giving them control.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Iain Dale: Johnson – unstoppable now, unless he unstops himself

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

I write this just after hearing the result of the first round of voting in the MPs section of the Conservative Party leadership contest. The Boris Johnson juggernaut is rolling, and many believe it is now unstoppable – unless he stops it himself, that is.

The next ballot is on Tuesday coming, and we know that Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Mark Harper won’t be taking part, since they have been eliminated. The question is, will Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart or Dominic Raab decide that the game is up?

Hancock and Stewart may play ‘chicken’ with each other, as each is likely to gain most from the other’s departure. Both McVey’s and Leadsom’s 20 supporters (in all) may well transfer almost unanimously to Johnson. If Dominic Raab can’t snaffle most of them, you’d think he’d have to acknowledge that his game might be up.

In the published supporter lists, Sajid Javid has only four Brexiteer votes. So, the majority of his votes, if he drops out, are likely to edge towards Jeremy Hunt, I’d have thought.

Michael Gove is still in the race for second place, albeit clinging on by his fingertips. His vote didn’t evaporate, although it’s fair to say that if ‘Cocaine-gate’ hadn’t happened, I suspect he’d now be in second place. His campaignis saying everyone had written them off but it’s still all to play for. That may be beer goggles talking, but a lot of people will be hoping that Gove and Hunt duke it out in a constructive way for the right to take on the man who even his worst enemies would have to acknowledge is the clear winner from the week’s events.

– – – – – – – – – –

George Freeman has a book out this week, called Britain After Brexit, published by the Centre for Policy Studies (and about which he wrote on this site earlier this week).

It’s a collection of dozens of essays about the kind of policies that Britain should adopt in the post-Brexit world. Editing a book like this is a bit like herding cats, since most MPs don’t seem to understand the word ‘deadline’. So credit to him for that.

This week, however, some of those self-same MPs are seeing Freeman in a somewhat different light. Having been the only MP to defect from Michael Gove to a rival candidate over the cocaine allegations, he was described to me by one colleague (and not a Gove supporter) as “an utter tosspotty wanker.” Still – yet another Remainer to add to Matt Hancock’s merry band of supporters, who, thus far, count zero Leave supporters among their number.

– – – – – – – – – –

So far I have done hour long interviews with six of the ten original candidates over the last week. I’ve next got Dominic Raab on Monday, followed by Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove on Wednesday.

A lot of people have asked why Boris Johnson isn’t doing one. He’s been invited, and I remain hopeful that he will agree to a date but, were I advising him on his media appearances, I too would be telling him there’s little to gain by doing anything in the short term.

I doubt very much if he’ll do the Channel 4 debate on Sunday or the BBC debate next Tuesday. If he does, I’ll be battering down his door!

– – – – – – – – – –

A thought occurs to me on Dominic Raab. I suppose it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that the ERG may “lend” some Johnson votes to Raab in the next round. Something similar is reputed to have happened in 2005, when some of David Cameron’s supporters tried to boost Liam Fox’s vote in order that they could fight him, rather than David Davis in the country. It didn’t work, though.

– – – – – – – – – –

As the contest progresses, there will be countless articles (several written by me, I suspect) which speculate on who the new Prime Minister will pick for his cabinet. I won’t go into full speculation mode here, but one bit of advice I would dole out is this.

Ditch all the ministers who “attend cabinet”. Go back to having a cabinet of 22 people and no more. And start as you mean to go on. Reduce the number of ministers across the board. We do not need 95 ministers. We also don’t need so many departments. I might return to that in a future column.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

George Freeman: Our new book. In which forty Tory MPs band together to help revive conservatism

George Freeman is the founder of the 2020 Conservatives Group, the Big Tent Ideas Festival and Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum. He is MP for Mid-Norfolk.

The Conservative Party is in a hole. We need to stop digging. And start thinking seriously about the real causes of the EU referendum result, the grievances it spoke to – and set out a plan to honour that referendum result by leaving the European Union and setting out a bold programme of domestic reforms.

The EU referendum was a massive vote to reject the political status quo and embrace radical, small c conservative reform. The 17.4 million Labour, Conservative and unaligned voters who voted Leave were voting for radical change. The genius of the Leave campaign was its call to “take back control”. It spoke powerfully to huge swathes of the country feeling marginalised by a potent mix of globalisation, post-Crash austerity, an influx of low paid labour from Eastern Europe, the decline of traditional market towns and high streets, fear of economic marginalisation from automation and the gig economy and a deepening despair at a sense of injustice at the gap between the “unaccountable elites” and the ordinary citizen.

Brexit spoke to – and has enshrined – the principle divide in Britain which is no longer between Left or Right, or North and South, but between those with comfortable lives and those on the margin.

This is hardly surprising. After eight years in office overseeing painful local public spending cuts, in the wake of the £700billon bank bailout, MPs expenses scandal and Blair’s dishonest Iraq war dossier which have entrenched a sense of Parliament dangerously detached from the people it serves, the Brexit referendum was a roar for reform. A number of us had been warning David Cameron and George Osborne it was coming.

Handled properly it could – and should – have been a catalyst for that most difficult of political challenges: renewal in office. But Cameron misjudged the mood and treated Leavers with contempt. Theresa May misjudged the mood as a mandate for a toxic combination of hardline anti-business UKIP rhetoric and bureaucratic Brexit bungling.

Now we choose a new leader in the teeth of a deepening public anger and pressure – whipped up by Farage and Banks – the Dick Dastardly and Mutley of British politics – to embrace the “kamikaze” approach of an anti-business No Deal Brexit.

Get this wrong, and we risk the destruction of the Conservative Party for a generation: losing our professional, business, metropolitan and liberal supporters to the Liberal Democrats, our Leave supporters to the Brexit Party and those who just want competence in office to stay at home in despair.

If we are to avoid gifting a broken Brexit Britain to Jeremy Corbyn, John Mcdonnell and Len McClusky, the next Conservative leader has to do three things:

  • Deliver an EU Withdrawal which a majority of moderate mainstream British voters in the centre ground can support
  • Embark on some bold domestic reforms to tackle the legitimate grievances which fuelled the Referendum vote
  • Restore some grip, vision, inspiration and unity to a divided country and Party.

The scale of the revolt against the status quo demands bold reform. Not the technocratic tinkering and endless self-congratulatory initiative-launching of Ministers looking busy on Instragram, but real reform.

This is a 1975, 1945, 1905 moment of profound disruption. The old order will be replaced by a new order. The only question is who will shape it? Can the Conservative Party make this a moment of bold and inspiring renewal in the same way that Mrs Thatcher and Keith Joseph did in 1975, Attlee, Churchill, Beveridge and Butler did in 1945, and Churchill and the Liberals did in 1905 to see of socialism by creating pensions and national insurance?

Too often, we forget that the great institutions we cherish as permanent were once mere ideas – whether the NHS, the BBC, the London Docklands, universal suffrage, the Right to Buy or the privatisation of the old state industries. They were bold ideas which reshaped a whole generation and quickly became permanent fixtures.

When was the last time any modern politician had an idea on the scale of any of these? We now face a genuine battle of ideas with a resurgent hard left and we need urgently to rediscover the power of political imagination.

So what would a bold programme of Conservative reform look like today? In our book Britain Beyond Brexit: a New Conservative Vision for a New Generation, published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, I and forty MPs from all sides of the party – Leave and Remain, North and South, left and right, urban and rural – have set out a collection of pieces to frame that programme.

Our book sets out a range of policy proposals across six defining themes we believe must be at the centre of a coherent and compelling narrative for the New Conservatism: identity, opportunity, enterprise, social justice, security and citizenship.

Of course, many may ask: is the Conservative Party capable of that task, amid the seemingly endless and deepening divisions of the Brexit civil war?

The successes and failures of a post-Brexit new conservatism will be based on understanding the profound societal, economic and technological changes coming at us. Not how we return to the old dividing lines of the 1980s or 1950s, but how we address the profound challenges of our age: issues such as globalisation, digitalisation, genetic engineering, sustainable development, religious extremism and the traumatic rupture of the crash and its legacy on our public finances.

We have got to be brave enough to tackle the big issues of the day. Low and fragile growth. A fragmented health and care system. Structural deficit. Intergenerational unfairness. Deepening anxiety, disillusionment and despair. Rising pressure on weary public servants in creaking public services. Stubborn ghettos of low aspiration and deprivation. Housing unaffordability, homelessness and small town decline. Sluggish infrastructure. Bad planning.

For our elderly – and the families and community of carers who look after them, we need a fair system of funding and providing elderly care. For the young, the urgent priority is addressing housing and the wider issue of economic disenfranchisement. Put simply, we’ve built an economy where the principal mechanism for building economic security – owning a home – is getting beyond the reach of all but the most privileged. Is it any wonder that a whole generation of millennial voters – with little or no chance of acquiring a house or any capital – are seduced by the rhetoric of anti-capitalism?

We face a genuinely historic challenge: are we going to make Brexit a moment of catalytic renewal of conservatism and our nation? Or a moment of annihilation by a new alignment of a new generation of voters?

To avoid a decade of decline in a post-Brexit Britain run by Corbyn, we urgently need a new conservatism for a new generation.

I hope our book will help light the way.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Alex Morton: We urgently need to fix the social care crisis

Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies.

It is hardly news that the most controversial part of the 2017 Conservative manifesto was its proposals on social care. Indeed, they virtually destroyed the entire Conservative election campaign.

But at the same time, we can’t simply put social care in a box labelled “too difficult” and leave it there to fester. The current system is not sustainable – and will become still less so as demographic pressures mount.

There are two major tests that any social care reform needs to pass. The first is that, while we have to ensure that all those who need it receive good care, we should not penalise those who work hard and save. Whatever system we adopt, we need to avoid the “dementia lottery” – and people being forced to sell the homes they have worked all their lives to own and pass on, in order to fund their care.

But there is another test, which is barely even talked about. The current system of funding massively disincentivises the construction of much-needed social care facilities and retirement housing – because the councils that pay for social care see the elderly as a burden on their resources. That, too, needs to change.

Today, the Centre for Policy Studies launches a report by Damian Green MP, Fixing the Care Crisis. We believe it is hugely important contribution to this debate, setting out a way forward that can command genuine consensus.

The essence of the proposal is that social care should copy the state pension, a model that is both sustainable and universally accepted. Everyone gets a decent level of support, but this is topped up with private funding, as people do with their pensions.

Obviously, to relieve the cost pressures on Government you might suggest that people should pay for their own care full stop – but given that 80 per cent of people think social care should be funded by the state, we believe this is a compromise on which everyone can agree.

Green’s model proposes creating a Universal Care Entitlement, a national level of good care that everyone who needs it would receive. This could then be topped up by a Care Supplement for those who want extra, more expensive top-ups. After all, as his report notes, some people prefer care homes with top of the range gyms and bistro bars – it is not the job of the state to pay for these for all!

We envisage the Care Supplement being supported by an insurance system, which could bring in very large sums each year – we estimate £4 billion to £13 billion – since most people will want both better facilities and the peace of mind of ensuring that their family can still inherit most of their assets, especially their homes.

This ends the unfairness of the current system, without creating an unaffordable system where the Government ends up paying for “care elements” which are essentially luxuries. The Universal Care Entitlement does require an injection of government money – we believe around £2.5 billion a year – but we also offer suggestions on how this could be funded.

Under this system, if you pay in more, you get out more – but everyone has a good level of care.

It’s not just about demand, but supply

But there’s another issue that the paper addresses – one which is very rarely talked about, but is utterly vital.

We all know that a big problem with the current model of social care is the massive knock-on effect that it has on the NHS. This new structure would help fix that. But we don’t talk nearly as much about the interaction between social care and the housing market.

Because councils currently worry about attracting older people to their area, they are not keen to build new care homes or provide new retirement housing. This then hits their local NHS – to the tune of at least £1 billion a year in delayed transfers out of hospitals alone.

In the 1980s, when social care was essentially provided nationally, care provision grew by 84 per cent. But once responsibility for funding was transferred to the local level, care home provision basically stagnated – even as the number of older people has steadily grown.

There has also been a fall in social care productivity of around 20 per cent since 2000 – which is equivalent to £3.4 billion a year in higher costs – of which the Government bears nearly £2 billion a year (equivalent to a 25 per cent share of their spending on social care for older people). There is serious evidence most care homes are too small for modern needs, and unable to modernise, but because of the issue around provision, we are trapped in a system where new facilities are not approved.

It’s not just about care homes, but retirement housing. In the UK, this makes up around 0.6 per cent of all homes. This is a fraction of what other similar countries like Australia and the USA achieve – around one-tenth in fact.

When I worked in Number Ten, some council leaders would quietly admit, embarrassed, that they avoided meeting their ageing population’s needs, because they worried that new facilities would draw in older people and this could blow a hole in their budgets.

But the cost of this is high – a year spent in a retirement home saves, on average, £3,500 per person, per year. And the lack of retirement housing means that people have to go from an unsuitable home into a very expensive care home setting rather than a more suitable retirement home with independence, which they prefer and costs less – so everyone loses!

If we built the retirement homes we need, it could save over £1 billion a year within a decade. It also helps fix the housing crisis, by ensuring that more people are moving out of larger homes they no longer need, which growing families can then move into.

By changing the structure of the system from locally funded to nationally, we can encourage councils to draw up proper social care plans, and build the retirement homes we need, without fearing this will destroy their finances. Today’s report proposes to do this by requiring councils to have a target for older person housing and a use class for retirement housing, as well as coordinating social care needs.

The time for this is now

All too often, the “solutions” offered in social care are just asking people to stump up more money without fixing the system or thinking about what is fair. What is needed is a holistic, fair, and politically workable solution.

We think this report’s solutions are something there could be a cross-party solution acceptance of, just as there is a cross-party acceptance for the current pension model.

Each year, the social care crisis becomes more acute and the costs mount to society and individuals. The imminent Green Paper has been kicked down the road over and over again – but in Fixing the Care Crisis there is a potential solution that can put the system right.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Universal Credit. Noble aim, thorny problems. But if it’s to work properly, it must be paid for.

ConservativeHome spoke yesterday to Conservative MPs in marginal seats about Universal Credit.  One particularly switched-on Parliamentarian told us that food banks in his seat hate the new payment and that job coaches love it.  He said that the former claim that it pushes people into debt, homelessness and destitution.  And the latter counter that makes it easier for them to help benefit claimants move into work and get better-paid jobs.

Both perceptions can be true.  It was never going to be easy to make a major change to the system which is reliant on people reporting changes to their income in real time – and new computer systems to enable this to happen.  This helps to explain why Universal Credit, originally intended to be fully operational by 2017, will now not be so until 2023.  The payment poses particular challenges for claimaints migrating to it from what Ministers call the legacy system.  Last autumn, the Resolution Foundation calculated that 2.2 million families were expected to gain under the system and 3.2 million to lose, with single parents especially adversely affected.

The Government has chucked transitional relief at Universal Credit.  Ministers argue that claimants can take on more work to increase their income.  Philip Hammond announced more support and an increase in work allowances in last autums’s Budget.  But the bottom line is that too many people are being paid late: last summer, the National Audit Office said that it a fifth of those expecting their first full payment were in this position.

A Commons vote is due on transferring three million claimants from the old to the new system.  David Cameron had a small majority, but his Government was vulnerable to defeat on welfare-related and many other issues: remember George Osborne’s U-turn on planned changes to tax credits.  Theresa May has none at all.  A handful of backbench protesters could sink the change.  Amber Rudd thus had little alternative but to postpone the vote, and has duly done so.  She will now seek Parliamentary approval for a pilot scheme that transfers just 10,000 people from the old to the new system.

The operation of Universal Credit is complex, but the politics are simple – or straightforward, at any rate.  The Universal Credit system is the brainchild of Iain Duncan Smith’s work in opposition at the Centre for Social Justice.  It has a visionary aim: to roll six benefits into one, make the system more simple and flexible, and improve incentives to work.  Writing on this site last autumn, Alok Sharma, the Employment Minister, complained of the three cliff-edges in the legacy system that deter claimants from seeking work, and reported that 86 per cent of people on Universal Credit are actively looking to increase their hours, compared to just 35 per cent of people on Jobseekers Allowance.

If you are going to appoint Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions Secretary, as Cameron did in 2010, you cannot do so without allowing him to room to implement his scheme.  And if you are going to do so, it follows that the Treasury must take the funding consequences on the chin.  It didn’t.  Think back to that Osborne tax credits U-turn.  The reason for Duncan Smith’s resignation in 2016 was precisely that the then Chancellor was not prepared also to reverse planned savings to disability benefits (which in turn impacted upon Universal Credit).

Amber Rudd is the fifth Secretary of State for Work of Pensions to hold the post since he left – a turnover rate of about one every six months.  She has started by doing what every new Cabinet Minister should do if confronted by a policy problem: namely, to promise that she will listen and learn.  There is more to this than the usual bromides.  Rudd is particularly sensitive to the position of women in the system.  She will campaign for more money for the system: Downing Street’s Brexit-driven weakness may thus well be Universal Credit’s gain.  That she is on broadly the same wavelength as the Chancellor over EU policy can’t do her cause any harm.

Writing on ConservativeHome last autumn, Tom Clogherty of the Centre for Policy Studies identified what new money could do to help realise Duncan Smith’s goal: a report from the think-tank, he said, “advocates bold action on Universal Credit, suggesting that the taper – the rate at which benefits are withdrawn against each pound of post-tax earnings over any work allowance – should be cut from 63p to 50p. This would give a huge boost to the lowest earners, while also giving them a strong incentive to increase their hours and make progress in the workplace”.

Separately, senior backbenchers and former ministers are piling on pressure for an end to the benefits freeze.  A coalition of five former Secretaries of State, ranging from Nicky Morgan to David Davis, made the case last year.  Davis said that the freeze contradicts “the basic Tory notion of having a robust safety net and an effective ladder out of poverty.”  Rudd can be expected to make the same case in private.  Whatever your take, one thing is certain.  If Universal Credit is to be introduced in the first place, it must be paid for.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Tim Dawson: The BBC Murders. How the corporation used anti-Brexit poison to kill Poirot.

Tim Dawson is a writer. He created and wrote three series of the hit BBC sitcom Coming of Age, and has contributed to several other comedy programmes on the BBC and elsewhere.

The BBC has done it again. As the nation seeks a few days respite from division and argument, the BBC has launched their Yuletide adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. Sadly, it exhibits much of what is wrong with both the Corporation and our wider cultural discourse.

Naturally, the story has been reimagined as an anti-Brexit parable. Everything that makes Christie entertaining – the wit, the twinkle, the twee contemporaneous details – have been shorn away. The picture has been washed out: we have been treated to a portrait of a 1930s Britain overrun by fascism. (In reality, unlike on the continent, fascism gained little foothold in Britain; and was more likely to be mocked – with its Spode-like popinjays in their preposterous uniforms – than admired).

Christie herself was of course a Conservative, of the even-tempered Burkean variety. So it’s hard to believe she’d have sympathised with scriptwriter Sarah Phelps’ own strident, Junckerphile left-wing politics. To an BBC executive, this new mini-series’ conspicuous rejection of the source material may confer ‘freshness’: to many others, it will seem disrespectful. Packaging in an anti-Brexit crusade – particularly now – seems tin-eared and crass.

There is an assumption amongst the high priests of the corporation that another sermon on the evils of Brexit/Conservatism/‘Fatcha’ (delete as applicable) is welcome. Yet the relationship between the BBC and its audience is growing ever more fractious. Perhaps the way in which the BBC is funded is fuelling the acrimony – we are supposedly a liberal democracy, but we are forced to pay a regressive tax to maintain a state broadcaster.

More likely, it is the nature of the broadcasting we are compelled to pay for. The corporation has never been more political. From its Christmas blockbuster drama to its woefully underperforming comedy output, to its obsession with diversity quotas – the corporation’s left-wing, metropolitan agenda is at the heart of everything it does. And viewers are switching off in droves.

This is part of a wider cultural trend. Our universities – once world-leading beacons of critical thought – have been reformed by thousands of low-grade academics into left-wing madrassas. On social media, militant ‘campaigners’ hunt down any defiance of the New Orthodoxy, and organise punishment pile-ons. It is ironic that, 50 years after the abnegation of the Lord Chamberlain’s role in censoring live theatre, actors and academics, students and socialists, find themselves at the forefront of a new movement to curtail free thought and expression.

State industry quickly begins to operate in the interests of the producer rather than the consumer. Both the BBC and our higher education sector now reflect this universal rule. Some University Vice-Chancellors are earning three or four times the Prime Minister’s salary. An Executive Producer may expect to earn £200-250,000 a year. Meanwhile, graduates are leaving inauspicious institutions with valueless degrees; and the BBC’s Christmas viewing figures have been so poor that, even in the upper echelons of Broadcasting House – usually impervious to anything so vulgar as public opinion – alarms bells will be ringing.

Conservatives are squeamish about a culture war. But the hard left is waging one, and our only choice is whether to cede more territory or enter the fray. Achieving a cultural rebalance will mean tackling the corporation and higher education simultaneously.

The truth is that we have far too many universities, offering far too many degrees which will be of little value to an employer. Attempting to corral 50 per cent of school-leavers into university has been a mistake; unsuitable for many, and creating a bloated and unwieldy sector which is not delivering to the needs of either students, companies or wider society.

Reform should pivot around marketisation. Universities should be forced to publish details of what graduates from each of their courses can expect to earn and the chances of finding gainful employment in the months after they’ve left. We should encourage sponsorship of individual students by potential employers. Such institutions as the University of Buckingham – a successful private university which offers many undergraduate degrees in two years instead of three – should be learned from, and public universities incentivised to follow their example.

The BBC must also drag itself into the modern world. That doesn’t mean employees wandering around in LGBT+ ally badges (how appallingly patronising), but the organisation engaging with the reality of its position. As Anthony Jay (producer, Thatcherite and co-writer of Yes, Minister) noted in his 2008 Centre for Policy Studies report How to Save the BBC, a corporation run by a liberal elite for a liberal elite will lose the faith of those who pay for it.

He suggested that ‘quality’ should be at the heart of the BBC’s output – and, since quality can only be measured by viewing figures, this meant dropping the left-wing cant and catering to popular tastes. He also proposed that the license fee should be reduced, and funnelled into a slimmed-down range of channels. We could go further – switching to a subscription model which would allow the BBC to continue to pursue its political agenda unfettered, as it would only be beholden to those who choose to pay for it. Ultimately, the corporation can only expect to sit at the heart of our cultural life if it is aware of its audience. That means bringing salaries under control; abandoning the relentless identity politics; and creating programmes which reflect, rather than lecture, the nation.

Entering the cultural melee on behalf of ordinary voters represents an obvious opportunity for Conservatives. The luvvies may not appreciate it; but taxpayers will. It’s as easy as ABC.

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