This can be a year of reinvigoration for Britain if we are true to our freedomloving principles
‘Take Back Control” was the Brexit clarion call. Politicians must heed the demand. 2019 will see us return many powers from Brussels to Westminster. But this year we should honour that command domestically, too.
People won’t want powers being handed back from bureaucrats in Brussels to be given to bureaucrats in Britain. Our aim should be to give the British people greater control of their lives in all regards. In practical terms, that requires a three-pronged agenda: combatting Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas for a state-on-steroids; delivering a growing economy; and finding more areas in which we can transfer powers from the government to the people.
The stakes are high. Commentators, riffing off shadow chancellor John McDonnell, talk about the turn against free markets. In the abstract, capitalism is unpopular. But free markets are an expression of free will. As the Sunday Telegraph’s bold Campaign for Capitalism has highlighted, markets allow people to make their own choices, and to own their futures, rather than be told what to do by a distant authority.
Despite Labour’s fetish for nationalisation, most of the services Britons love are privately provided, from coffee shops to Spotify. Choice is a national instinct. This capitalist bedrock of our prosperity and security is threatened by a Labour Party that wants to overthrow the whole system.
As free-marketeers, Conservatives should unashamedly pitch this battle as one of freedom versus Corbyn’s control. We should pitch to the young who are setting up more businesses, and who want more personal responsibility and lower taxes than their forebears. We should back the power of new tech to transform lives and empower individuals, and resist those who want to shackle it. Business should join us. We are fighting a Labour Party whose avowed enemy is capitalist bosses, whose instinct is to see income as a common pool resource, and whose leading figures find profit morally repugnant.
But to do so requires us to be true to our ideals. We have a responsibility to give people greater control today. The best way to do so is to increase their financial well-being, in turn giving them more spending power and choice on how to govern their lives.
Traditionally, Conservatives have argued that low taxes are a route to self-determination. I agree. It is vital we keep taxes low and the size of the state in check, to allow people to spend more of their own money. And even if we opted otherwise, it’s bad politics to think we could ever win a spending bidding war with Labour.
But with fiscal pressures to come from ageing, the far more important challenge is to raise growth rates as high as possible. With strong growth, all other challenges become easier – from the public finances, to the fact that with greater personal financial security comes better public health and an improved environment.
This year’s Spending Review will set government budgets from 2020; and it’s vital that, accompanied with supply-side reforms, we use it as a catalyst to unleash the economy.
We will conduct a zero-based capital review – examining all major investment projects across government and judging their contribution to future prosperity. We will also look at how budgets contribute to human capital, including how much they genuinely boost aspiration and opportunity.
In reviewing this evidence, we must be prepared to junk the white elephants, the programmes that haven’t worked, and roll back mission creep, where government involves itself in areas the private sector can deliver. Growth and bang-for-buck must take precedence.
Maximising the size of the economy is about much more than just effective spending and taxes. Fast growth requires getting into the weeds of regulatory and competition policy, and taking on the vested interests that often shape policies to their own benefit, at the expense of consumers.
We must use best-practice around the world to improve the way we regulate important goods and services or deal with market failures. Could we increase competition and reduce prices in energy by simplifying our approach to lowering carbon emissions? Could we improve the quality and affordability of railways through regional railway companies that own the train and the track, as in Japan? Are there lessons for us from Canada on private finance in infrastructure? From Shanghai on delivering a top-flight attitude to education? From the US about-turn in regulatory direction and the manufacturing revival? German nurseries and delivering childcare more cheaply? A government serious about growth and reducing living costs must be constantly animated by these questions.
But the most pressing market in need of attention is surely housing. Ownership is important for people to feel they can control their own destiny. We have had the welcome news that 25-34 year olds are now more likely to own property. But we still have further to go. The economist Matthew Rognlie argues that the recent increase in wealth inequality can be explained through divergence in housing wealth. Fixing our planning system and opening up more land is crucial for social opportunity. We should be looking at the way Toyko has made its houses more affordable through a more liberal planning system.
But if we are truly to deliver a “Take Back Control” agenda, it cannot just be about economics. The state should not encroach on people’s lives unnecessarily, interfering in lifestyles or preferences. Of course it needs to provide essential services, public goods and defence of the realm. But when decisions do have to be taken, it should be by those who are accountable to the electorate, not unelected quangos.
The most basic question in politics is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best. The public voted for Westminster over Brussels. As Conservatives, we should lean towards the individual, the family, and the local over central government authority.
I’m confident that 2019 can be a year of renewal. If we agree the Prime Minister’s deal, Brexit can revive our politics and give people control over the destiny of our country. We have a chance to reshape our institutions, and to deliver freedom and prosperity, not just for our generation but for many to come. But for this to happen, we must have confidence in our cause, take the fight to Corbyn and his false socialist utopia and, above all, be willing to give back control ourselves. Let’s grab this opportunity.
We can learn from Japanese railways: taking lessons from successes around the world will improve our spending and our lives