Conservatism’s greatest failure is the despair it has created about Britain’s future | Will Hutton

Britain’s economic and social challenges are now so monumental that they require a response on a transformational scale. Tackling failing capitalism and a society seriously disfigured by inequalities and the collapse of public services relies above all on rejecting the laissez-faire economy of the last 45 years. But the most serious failure of conservatism is the despair it has created about Britain’s future. Without an achievable and inspiring vision of our future, we cannot achieve the first base: a resumption of sustainable growth.

The prerequisite for growth is investment that boosts productivity. It’s a truism. Britain is not investing enough. But no company invests in a larger economic, social and political vacuum. Neither does the government, for that matter. The heart of the right’s failure is that it has no plausible story to fill this gaping void. The right, with its vision of British exceptionalism, rooted in the lost glories of free trade, empire and victory in the two world wars of the 19th century, is grotesquely out of step with what Great Britain is all about. -Brittany today, how contemporary capitalism works and what vision could inspire the most. of our entrepreneurs and our employees.

Yet for the past 14 years it has defined the national debate, trying in vain to copy the market fundamentalist revolution initiated by Margaret Thatcher, and in doing so destroying an obvious partial solution to the issue. Britain should be part of Europe and its economic and political structures. Instead, conservatism gave us Brexit and an attempt to transmute a very European country with social democratic values ​​into a Hayekian utopia. This convinces no one except a shrinking echo chamber of ideological obsessives and eccentrics.

In contrast, postwar conservative politicians had survived the shock of the 1929 financial crash and the forced abandonment of the gold standard. They had to accept decolonization and the end of empire as inevitable. By this time, most party members knew that any idea of ​​a “global Britain” strutting on the world stage was ridiculous. Leaders knew then that the future lay in a common cause with Europe.

Membership of the Common Market, which morphed into the EU, effectively answered the question of national orientation, although at the time the argument was presented more in terms of economic benefits than a response to existential question of Britain’s national purpose. The launch of the single market in 1993 had a particularly stimulating impact on the United Kingdom, which became an increasingly attractive destination for multinational investors. The UK car industry has reinvented itself thanks to investment from European and Japanese car manufacturers with the aim of exporting to the EU. Financial services also boomed, with the City of London becoming Europe’s financial center.

On the eve of the financial crisis, Britain had become a fully fledged European economy. UK investment levels were equivalent to the G7 average. British household incomes were actually higher than in France or Germany. London in particular was becoming the New York of Europe – not only its de facto financial capital, but also its services capital.

But not enough has been done to ensure prosperity is shared across the country, despite the European Investment Bank’s aggressive lending to Britain’s poorest areas. The UK’s deep problems – the corporate governance regime, the structure of the financial system, the propensity to create monopolies – were hidden. But no leading politician and only a handful of businesses have spoken about the EU as an engine of prosperity – let alone its central role in Britain’s destiny.

Then the financial crisis shook the economy with a shock that was multiplied by Brexit. The UK’s productivity gap compared to France and Germany has worsened almost tripled since 2008. Typical household incomes are now 16% less in the United Kingdom than in Germany and 9% less than in France. The City of London is experiencing accelerated decline. If Britain had remained in the EU, by 2030 we would have been an equal, albeit very different, economy to Germany. As things stand, the post-Brexit decade will be lost. It’s a tragedy.

Turning the economy around requires, above all, an intellectual and cultural readjustment – ​​an honest recognition of what Britain can reasonably be and an agreement to claim exceptionalism only when it is deserved. Conceited boasts of being “top tier” or “world class” in almost any field, even if they wildly contradict the truth, should be ridiculed and buried.

Take the empire. Portugal, Spain, France, and the Netherlands all built large overseas empires. Britain’s was certainly the most important, but it was part of a wider European story of overseas expansion. Magellan circumnavigated the world 50 years before Drake. Amerigo Vespucci was one of the first travelers to what he called the New World. Abel Tasman arrived in Tasmania and New Zealand a century before James Cook. Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain opened Canada to Europeans.

Nor was the British Empire great, liberal and generous, as some wild-eyed conservative historians have claimed. We may have left India with a national railway system, but little is said about the crucial role that Britain’s monumental trade surpluses played with India in the 50 years before the First World War , strangling its textile industry in order to control its gold, in maintaining its railway system. sterling on the gold standard.

Like other European powers, Britain’s overseas expansion was based on exploitation, extraction and racism. Portugal pioneered the transatlantic slave trade, from Africa to Brazil, but after the mid-17th century the British overtook it and became the leading country in Europe. main slave trader. Bristol and Liverpool prospered thanks to the income from slavery.

Nantes, the third largest slave port in Europe, commemorated his apology for victims of slavery in 2012. Little by little, and too often against right-wing resistance, Britain is taking similar, albeit belated, steps. Liverpool now has a slavery museum. Tate Britain recently re-hung his paintings, carefully outlining their associations with empire and slavery. The National Trust in 2020 outlined its approach to colonialism and slavery, identifying some 90 properties in its care that had such links.

This is not a denigration of our past, as some MPs have claimed. It is an essential element of the necessary recognition of the realities of empire and its deep and continuing impact on our culture and our institutions. If Britain is to become what it can be – a leading progressive European power with a strong economy and a just society, committed to European peace and reaching net zero – she can no longer be trapped by her past. This is not about “undoing our history”, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in the House of Commons in April 2023, when pressed to apologize for slavery; it’s looking him in the eyes to keep your feet on the ground. We build a future not by inventing a fantasy country of yesteryear, but by rooting ourselves in shared truths.

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