Recent speculation about the Conservative leadership is typical of the politics of an era in which populism and trivia trump (no pun intended) rational discussion of the most testing questions.
Any choice between May, Johnson, Davis and Rees-Mogg feels something like making a selection from a Brexit colour chart. There’s only an option between hard and soft Brexit, or posh and not quite so posh.
No one presents an inspiring but plausible post-2019 vision of the role of government in a digital age and how economic fairness can be facilitated (Ms May has at least addressed such issues, only never to successfully fully follow through with policy). The witticism of Johnson and Rees-Mogg is a Tory leadership issue; localism – as a means of empowering the population – is not.
This is not a criticism solely of the right. Labour appears drunk in an idealist fervour in which money can be thrown around and all the problems go away. The comments of a senior trade unionist at its party conference in relation to Birmingham City Council’s refuse strike that “it is not good enough for them to talk of hard decisions – that has no place in a socialist party” rather encapsulates Labour right now.
It is hardly surprising Jeremy Corbyn has caught the imagination of a younger generation. Across the West governing status quos have appeared clueless at supporting their populations. Few workable but fair, fresh ideas emerge from upon high.
If our greatest problem is ensuring fairness – in terms of distributing both wealth and opportunity – in an era of dizzying technological and economic change that pays no heed to governance boundaries, it is hard to believe Britain’s attempted revival of the nation state will prove successful.
The American solution of electing a billionaire to cut the taxes of the few in his own income bracket, and build barriers, may be even more unwise. The widespread revival of nationalist and populist politics, and blaming of immigrants, is thoroughly depressing.
When national leaders lose the plot it’s time for local and regional leaders to step into the breach. In the UK at least, they have seen their powers shorn and their financial freedom diminished. While, of course, they have no more ability to turn tides than their national counterparts, they are not necessarily as hamstrung by convention.
The central focus of the PM’s conference speech was a paltry £2bn for social housing. This drop in the ocean is too small to make a real difference. The fact that it was Ms May’s flagship announcement demonstrates her lack of bravery and how bad economic news restricts her room for manoeuvre. It is no surprise that councils are set to snub the offer when the scale of the challenge is far greater than that. Councils will have to use their own guile to address big issues such as housing, not look to the centre.
Any Conservative leadership contest this side of Brexit would surely result in more of the same. We can only hope that after 2019 there can be a far-reaching debate of Britain’s new course.