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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "David Skelton"

Germany can teach us how to stop being a contemptible nation of supplicants

“When the virus crisis is over, we will have to look at what the NHS can learn from Germany.” The headline on my piece for ConHome on 15th April continues to apply: Germany’s impressive progress since that time, attested by the graphs in the sober reports of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, reinforces it.

But marked success in reducing the figures for deaths and new cases has led to a severe political row in Germany about how quickly the restrictions which drove down the reinfection rate can be lifted.

Some leaders of the 16 federal states, who had previously competed to see who could introduce the toughest measures to control the pandemic, now compete to see who can most swiftly set their citizens free.

Armin Laschet, the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia (population 18 million, capital Düsseldorf), has pushed for weeks for the restrictions to be lifted, and has threatened to reopen kindergartens.

At the start of this week, Saxony-Anhalt (population 2.3 million, capital Magdeburg) allowed meetings between five people who do not live in the same house. Lower Saxony (population 10 million, capital Hanover) proceeded to announce that from next Monday, restaurants, cafes and beer gardens will be permitted to reopen, and that from 25th May hotels and youth hostels can open too.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (population 1.6 million, capital Schwerin) followed Lower Saxony’s lead, and everywhere, the desperate proprietors of beer gardens, restaurants and hotels pleaded with state governments to save them from ruin.

The Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who knows that tourism prompts travel and therefore increases the danger of infection, pleaded in vain for a cautious approach. She lacks the power to uphold strict rules: health, sport, schools and kindergartens are all the responsibility of the federal states.

On Wednesday, she held a video conference lasting four and a half hours, longer than expected, with the minister presidents of the 16 states, and had to give ground.

The states will decide whether and when to reopen restaurants, hotels, cinemas, theatres, concert halls and brothels. The Bundesliga will soon be playing football behind closed doors, and residents in care homes will be allowed to nominate a visitor who can come and see them.

Merkel obtained one major concession. There will be an “emergency brake”: any institution or community which in seven days registers more than 50 Coronavirus cases per 100,000 inhabitants will be placed once more under lockdown.

The row between Berlin and the 16 states looks as if it may have led to an admirable compromise, maintaining national standards while allowing for account to be taken of the highly unequal incidence of the Coronavirus.

But some Germans object to their country being reduced to a “patchwork” –  Flickenteppich, patchwork rug, is the disparaging term used – with different rules applying in different places.

My old friend in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (population 1.84 million), Professor Doctor Moritz Hagenmeyer, an eminent lawyer who is actually much fonder of cricket than of golf, draws my attention to an anomaly which arose at a golf club in the neighbouring state of Schleswig-Holstein (population 2.9 million, capital Kiel), where a small part of the course happens to be on the other side of the border with Hamburg.

Last week, golf was allowed in Schleswig-Holstein and forbidden in Hamburg, so one of the holes at the club had to be shortened from 300 to 100 metres in order to ensure that players did not enter Hamburg.

To British eyes, there is something delightful in such an anomaly. Our own counties, until wrecked by the infamous Heatho-Walkerian reforms of the early 1970s, used to be a patchwork, each locality rejoicing in its historic peculiarities, its long-established industries, its sense of being superior to its neighbours.

This sense of local independence today exists more strongly in Germany than in Britain, and is one reason for that country’s success. Decisions about Germany’s great industries are still taken in the towns and cities where they were born and nurtured.

As David Skelton has recently pointed out, the catastrophe of Britiish nationalisation was that decisions about, for example, the steel works in Consett were now taken hundreds of miles away in London, where it was easier to pretend that under-investment would somehow work out fine.

I may appear to have wandered from the subject of the pandemic. But a mortal weakness of our health system is that the nationalisation of the late 1940s meant the key decisions about investment, and indeed about everything else, would henceforth be taken in London.

Local initiative, though not extinct, was severely discouraged. We were taught as a people to look to London for salvation, and this is what we have witnessed during the present crisis: the contemptible sight of a nation of supplicants, unable to obtain hospital gowns without the say-so of Matt Hancock.

If Boris Johnson wants to revive the northern towns, with their grand but redundant town halls, he must find a way to restore the power of initiative to them.

Only a management consultant would imagine this can be done by copying the German federal system. What we need is a way to recover local power which is in harmony with British traditions. Only then will we be in a fit state to survive the next global crisis.

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

David Skelton: How Johnson can cement the Tory position in the North

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map. He founded Renewal, dedicated to broadening Tory appeal.

In many ways, I’m still pinching myself after the results in the North East last Thursday. My home town of Consett, once blood-red seats like Blyth Valley, and the heart of Tony Blair’s leadership in Sedgefield all voted Tory.

Places that saw being Labour as being part of their cultural, as well as their political identity, emphatically turned their back on Corbyn’s Labour. Friends and members of my family who once almost used “Tory” as a swear word started saying positive things about Boris Johnson a few months ago and could barely hide their distaste for Jeremy Corbyn and his brand of politics.

For years, Labour had been drifting away from their once core vote, taking these voters for granted and ignoring the region. Now they are reaping what they sowed and the North East has excellent MPs who will fight hard for the region, like Rick Holden in Consett and Dehenna Davison in Bishop Auckland.

 Now we have to make sure that what could be a temporary realignment in the North East becomes a permanent and lasting political transformation.

Labour’s heartland voters have been drifting away from them for years, knowing that the party had long ago stopped embodying their values or even sharing their concerns. It was the Brexit vote that crystallised this. The referendum was the first time in a generation that voters in places like Consett and Blyth had been able to make their voices heard on the national scale. The response of the party that was founded to ensure working class representation was to snobbishly dismiss the vote and call for a re-run. Little wonder that voters responded to Labour’s sneering disdain with a clear rejection in many North Eastern seats that Labour once saw as their fiefdoms.

The challenge now is to ensure that this wasn’t a one off loaning of votes and instead turns the North East blue for a generation or more. As I set out in my recent book, Little Platoons, our goal should be to bring about fundamental economic transformation to towns that have been long forgotten and ignored by politicians of both parties. The mission of the Government, once Brexit is achieved, must be to tackle the regional imbalances that means the City of London has GVA per head of £300,000 and County Durham has one of £16,000.

If we can be seen to have delivered this profound change for the better then we can not only hold on to the seats we’ve gained, but also gain newly marginal North Eastern seats such as Wansbeck, Stockton North and Sunderland Central are brought into play as well.

It’s heartening that the Government has already committed to big infrastructure spending in the North East and they should not be half-hearted in their ambition. Northern towns were amongst the biggest sufferers from the catastrophic Beeching cuts and subsequent cuts to transport. This meant towns like Consett and Stanley, with substantial populations, have had to rely on over-priced buses (it costs over a fiver return to get from Consett to Durham) and often poorly serviced roads. The government should ensure that North Eastern towns are no longer treated as an afterthought when it comes to transport links and should consider ambitious plans to use rail and light rail to link up the towns of the North East.

Many of the towns in the North East that voted Tory are also still suffering from many of the economic and social consequences of de-industrialisation. Skilled, dignified work that people were proud of was often replaced with low skilled, insecure work. We should look to re-industrialise some forgotten towns and bring about an economic revival with an ambitious industrial strategy that encourages and incentivises industrial investment. This should include declaring those towns that have been stagnating the most in recent decades as “prosperity hubs” and allowing them to do whatever it takes, including through the tax system, to encourage industrial investment and become specialist hubs for various industries.

These towns should also be at the centre of a vocational education revolution, with schools and colleges working with employers to deliver a robust education based on skill and vocation. Employer-partnered vocational centres of excellence should also be based in these Northern towns. For example, a centre for advanced engineering could be established in Sunderland, in partnership with Nissan.

Finally, the Government should take measures to improve the vibrancy of Northern town centres, many of which have become scattered with charity shops, bookmakers, and discount outlets. The focus on out-of-town retail and business parks should be reversed and measures taken to ensure that town centres again become community hubs, as well as places to shop, work and run a business.

Labour has abandoned the patriotic and communitarian values of the North Eastern voters who once made up the party’s core vote, in favour of an urban hipster socialism. And Labour’s reaction to their defeat last Thursday suggests that they are disinclined to learn lessons. This creates a real opportunity for the Conservatives to make the most of diminished loyalty to Labour throughout the North East and to turn the region blue for many years to come. The kind of measures I’ve suggested should be accompanied by pro-worker policies, such as a higher minimum wage and lifting the National Insurance threshold.

We successfully campaigned as the ‘workers’ party’, and gained a clear majority of working-class voters. Now we must govern as the workers’ party. In doing so we can bring about economic and political transformation to a long-ignored part of the country.

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

Skelton on One Nation, and how Tories must take the lead in reviving towns which have been left to rot

Little Platoons: How a Revived One Nation Can Empower England’s Forgotten Towns and Redraw the Political Map by David Skelton

The rhetorical star of this book is Benjamin Disraeli. He did not invent the term “One Nation” – that distinction belongs, as Lord Lexden never tires of reminding us, to Stanley Baldwin.

But Disraeli is by far the most enjoyable and inspiring Tory for One Nation Conservatives to quote, and Skelton uses him very well. He reminds us that Disraeli rebuked the Whigs, after the Great Reform Act, for trying to establish “a utopia composed purely of wealth and toil”, based on a “spirit of rapacious covetousness”.

The Conservatives are today widely thought to be actuated by a “spirit of rapacious covetousness”, and to care only about the rich. The injustice of this claim does not make it any less damaging.

And the claim is in any case not totally unjust. Parts of the kingdom have been left behind, excluded from the prosperity enjoyed by the rest.

Labour is at least as to blame as the Conservatives for this sin of omission. That is one reason why Labour support in Scotland collapsed: for many decades it had taken its impoverished heartlands for granted.

And it is why Labour is now vulnerable in its English heartlands too.

Disraeli understood the alliance the Tories could make with the newly enfranchised working class. Skelton contends, convincingly, that the Tories can now connect with the patriotic working class which for decades has felt disenfranchised, but which in the 2016 referendum seized the chance to make its presence felt.

In his opening paragraph, Skelton reminds us that “of the 42 former coalfield areas, some 41…voted for Brexit”. He himself is from Consett, in the north-west corner of County Durham, which felt shut out from from politics since the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks on which for over a century the town’s fortunes had rested, and where men were proud to work:

“The steelworks was home to world-leading engineers, metallurgists and chemists and dozens of different types of craftsmen who passed these skills on to apprentices.”

One of Skelton’s grandfathers was a foreman fitter in the works, the other was a miner, or pitman as they preferred to be known, in the Durham and Northumberland coalfields.

There was immense local pride in the Consett works, and local control until nationalisation, which meant decisions about the future were taken hundreds of miles away, and essential investment in modernisation took second place to the need for public spending cuts.

A year after the closure of the works, a third of the men in Consett were unemployed. Low-paid, insecure jobs, for those who could get them, and low-quality training programmes whose chief purpose was to keep others off the dole, did not restore the dignity of labour to these craftsmen, but became a daily humiliation.

Nor did either of the main political parties have much to offer. Labour, a party created by the trade unions, ceased to take much interest in the fate of the working class once the power of those unions had been broken.

The unions could bring the country to a grinding halt: not an ideal state of affairs, but one which gave the working class, or its leaders, undeniable clout.

Here was a ladder of advancement for gifted trade union organisers who could get a political education, gain selection as Labour MPs and rise into the Cabinet. That stream of recruitment has pretty much dried up, and the party finds itself in the hands of an urban middle class which feels a greater affinity with Brussels, Berlin and Paris than with Consett.

Skelton’s chief purpose in this book is to trace the One Nation tradition in Conservative politics, and to argue that it needs to be rediscovered. He does it very well: again and again, one wonders if he has thought of, say, Iain Macleod, and up an apposite quotation pops.

Harold Macmillan is the hero of this account:

“He was probably the last Prime Minister with a genuine belief in ‘Toryism’ and the real importance of balancing economic efficiency with social justice. He had a burning desire that we must never again become ‘two nations’ and was convinced that government and private enterprise had an important role to play, together, in preventing that from happening. He believed in modernising industry and the country, but without the managerial indifference of Heathism or the retreat into liberal economic determinism. His One Nation was a profound belief in the common good and the fundamental national unity that makes us stronger.”

Under Margaret Thatcher, Macmillan’s spirit of pragmatic intellectual compromise started to sound a bit wet. Some of her Government’s successes – the Nissan works outside Sunderland, the start on regenerating Liverpool and the London docks – would not have happened without the state playing a leading role, but this was not the story she and her admirers told.

The Conservatives were gripped, in Skelton’s phrase, by “myopic economic liberalism”, the illusion that if only the Government got out of the way, recovery would occur of its own accord.

In Consett, this was not the case. It was a steel town which now produced no steel, and could not pull itself up by its bootstraps. Its most able and enterprising young people left: they went off to university and never came back.

Forty years on, Skelton reports, Consett is in large part a dormitory town for people who work in Newcastle or Durham:

“In contrast to the beauty of its surroundings, its town centre is still pockmarked by a collection of charity shops, bargain stores (including Consett’s enormous ‘Barry’s Bargain Store’, which has taken over the whole of the old indoor market), travel agents and bookmakers.”

Our country contains hundreds of towns like Consett. Often the handsome old buildings bear witness to former pride and prosperity, eclipsed in recent decades by demeaning and self-perpetuating shoddiness.

Few people with energy or talent want to settle here, or shop here, or set up new businesses. For about half a century many of these town centres have been left to rot, however prosperous and pretty the surrounding villages may be.

Skelton remarks that policy makers in London pride themselves on the regeneration of a dozen cities. He quotes with approval Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, who says

“this consensus that began under New Labour, and was embraced by George Osborne, sees cities as engines of economic growth with surrounding towns at best anchored to them and pulled along in their prosperous wake. This is a model that has neither provided nor defended the things that matter most in our towns: thriving local high streets, shared community institutions like libraries, post offices and community pubs, good public transport, work that gives dignity and meaning, green open spaces and time with families.”

Any Tory who wants to understand how a revived One Nation tradition can help to revive our towns should read Skelton’s book.

In a recent piece for ConHome, he itemised some of measures, including world-class infrastructure, the creation of “prosperity hubs” and a vocational education revolution, needed to transform our forgotten towns. This list, enlarged upon in the final chapter of the book, will not make every Tory heart beat faster.

There is, however, a Conservative with a remarkable command of language, and declared One Nation sympathies, who can take forward the revival of these neglected towns with a brio worthy of Disraeli and Macmillan.

Boris Johnson has recently been at pains to emphasise that we will remain a European nation: rhetoric with which he wishes to reassure Remainers that he does not intend to lead a retreat into barbarous isolation.

But in the forthcoming general election campaign, he will doubtless also seek to persuade working-class patriots who voted Leave, and who feel an intense love of country, that the regeneration of this nation must extend to its unloved towns.

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

Ryan Bourne: To help grow prosperity, let’s focus on people and not places – such as towns

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Stian Westlake describes it as the “Strange Death of Tory Economic Thinking”. Conservatives have ceased telling an economic story about why they should govern, and how. Sure, there’s still the odd infrastructure announcement, or tax change. But, since Theresa May became leader, the governing party has shirked articulating a grand economic narrative for its actions.

This is striking and problematic. From Macmillan to Thatcherism to deficit reduction, the party’s success has coincided with having clear economic agendas, gaining credibility for taking tough decisions in delivering a shared goal. But, arguably, deficit reduction masked a secular decline in interest in economics. David Cameron and George Osborne, remember, wanted to move on to social and environmental issues until the financial crisis and its aftermath slapped them in the face.

Now, with the deficit down, economics is in the back seat. Fiscal events are low key and economic advisors back room. To the extent the dismal science is discussed, it’s as a means to other ends, or a genuflect to “Karaoke Thatcherism.”

In short, I think Westlake is right: the Tories do not have an economic story and, post-Brexit, it would be desirable if they did. So we should thank both him and Sam Bowman (formerly of the Adam Smith Institute), who have attempted to fill the vacuum. In a rich and interesting new paper, the pair set out to diagnose our key economic ailments and develop a Conservative-friendly narrative and policy platform to ameliorate them, even suggesting reform of the Right’s institutions and think-tanks in pursuit of the goals.

Such an effort deserves to be taken seriously, though not everyone will agree with their starting premises. It is assumed, for example, that Conservatives believe in markets and want to maintain fiscal discipline, which bridles against recent musings from Onward or thinkers such as David Skelton.

But, again, the key economic problem they identify is incontrovertible: poor economic growth. Weak productivity improvements since the crash have been both politically and economically toxic, lowering wages, investment returns, and necessitating more austerity to get the public finances in structural order. And the nature of modern innovation, arising from clusters and intangible assets, means that growth that is experienced isn’t always broadly shared.

Their agenda’s aim then is to achieve both concurrently: maximize the potential of the economy by taking policy steps on planning, tax policy, infrastructure, and devolution, to increase investment levels, allow successful cities and towns to grow, and to connect “left behind” places to local growth spots through good infrastructure. None of their ideas are crazy. Indeed, I would support the vast majority of them.

And yet, something bothered me about their narrative. In line with the current zeitgeist, they too discuss “places” and their potential, as if towns and cities are autonomous beings. My fear is this focus – shared by those who want to regenerate “left behind” areas – creates unrealistic expectations about what policies can achieve in a way that undermines a pro-market agenda. Importantly, it warps what we should really care about: “left behind” people, not left behind places.

A people-centred narrative recognises that just as firms fail in the face of changing consumer demands and global trends, so high streets, towns, cities, and even regions will shrink too. As Tim Leunig once said, coastal
and river cities that developed and thrived in a heavy manufacturing, maritime nineteenth century world might not be best placed to flourish in a service sector era of air and rail.

A true pro-market policy agenda would admit -and that’s ok. Or at least, it should be, provided we understand that raising growth and sharing prosperity requires adaptation, not regeneration. That means removing barriers for people either to move to new opportunities or have control to adapt their situations to ever-changing circumstances. This might sound Tebbit-like (“get on your bike”), but really it’s just saying policy must work with market signals, not against them.

Today though, interventions actively work in a sort of one-two-three punch against inclusive growth and adjustment. First, we constrain the growth of flourishing cities. Tight land use planning laws around London, Oxford, and Cambridge contribute to very high rents and house prices, and prevent these places benefiting from growing to obtain thicker agglomeration effects.

This contributes to the “left behind” scandal, but not in the way people imagine. When rents and house prices are higher in London and the South East and we subsidse home ownership or council housing elsewhere, it’s low productivity workers from poor regions that find it most difficult to move given housing cost differentials. As a result, they get locked into poorer cities and towns that would otherwise shrink further. That’s why Burnley, Hull and Stoke are the most egalitarian cities in the country, whereas prosperous London, Cambridge and Oxford are the most unequal, even as inequality between regions has intensified.

Having restricted people’s mobility through bad housing policy, we then impose one-size-fits-all solutions and subsidies which dampen market signals further. National minimum wages, fiscal transfers, national pay bargaining, and more, might be designed to alleviate hardship, but they deter poorer regions from attracting new businesses and industries by trading on their market cost advantages. Then, to top that off, we compound the problem further by centralising tax and spending powers, preventing localities from prioritising their spending and revenue streams to their own economic needs.

Now, as it happens, Bowman and Westlake’s policy agenda is perfectly compatible with assisting  “people” rather than “places,” precisely because it’s market-based. They advocate planning liberalisation, a flexible right to buy, and stamp duty, all of which would improve labour mobility. They prioritise infrastructure spending based on benefit-cost ratios, making investments more profitable with sensible tax changes, and devolving more transport power to regions and localities. All, again, will help facilitate areas adapting to changed economic conditions, rather than reviving Labour’s failed top-down regeneration attempts.

But pitching this as a city and town agenda still risks creating the false impression that the net gains from “creative destruction” nevertheless can be achieved without the destruction, and that all places can thrive in the right policy environment.

One can understand why they framed it in this way. Their aim is to persuade the party and its MPs of their platform. Anti-market commentators would call them fatalistic and “abandoning” places if they acknowledged the downside, as if facilitating more free choice amounts to design.

Successful past Tory economic narratives, though, willingly acknowledged hard truths. Deficit reduction entailed tough choices to curb spending. Thatcherism entailed making the case for letting inefficient industries fail. If a new Tory vision is serious about raising productivity growth and spreading opportunity for people, it will have to confront the inevitable market-based adaptation for some places.

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