Sunak must choose between protectionism or global strength to remake Britain
Two centuries ago, the UK faced a similar crucible to today: changing economic times and geopolitical turmoil meant that hard choices confronted successive Conservative governments which failed to make the transformations needed. In an era of economic change brought about by the First Industrial Revolution, there was a surprisingly familiar debate.
Against the backdrop of new paradigms of business, the Conservative Party was fighting an internal war over the Corn Laws. The government of that time prevented the import of grain through massive tax duties – plunging millions of Britons into food poverty and strangling free trade.
Then prime minister the Viscount Goderich failed to understand how the world was changing, and why such protectionism hurt the UK – which had transitioned into a different role, politically, socially and economically. Within a decade, a new prime minister, Robert Peel – a former chancellor of the Exchequer – had reforged the Party, understood the economic and political realities of his day, and made the changes the UK needed to make it a world superpower.
Today, it isn’t the price of bread that is the sign of global change; rather, it is the price of electricity. And in today’s Britain, Rishi Sunak must play the part of Robert Peel. He faces surprisingly similar problems – of a disunited Conservative Party, a UK in transition post-Brexit, and an economic reality that threatens the social fabric of the country.
First of all, Sunak must reunite both party and country, which is in need of strong direction and thoughtful leadership. Robert Peel’s decision to repeal the Corn Laws united the country – even the opposition Whigs – and has stood the test of time.
Secondly, he must turn a weakness – the weak pound, inflation and recession – into an economic strength by taking advantage of our economic realities to build an export orientated economy, and balance budget responsibilities with government expenses. It is best that we own this economic reality, and use it to help our businesses become globally competitive.
Third, Rishi must act now to prevent the rise in the price of energy – by building new capacity through investment in nuclear and renewable energy, as well as new interconnectors, and improving our electric grid. Britain’s national self-image, and British people’s lives, will be severely damaged if this winter sees millions of Britons plunged into cold and darkness due to sky-high energy prices and a lack of native generation capacity to bolster our energy imports.
Fourth, he must begin a new era with our neighbours post-Brexit – especially with France. France is not only our largest energy trade partner; it is the gateway to wider participation in European projects in the post-Brexit era. Sunak’s government must not fight the battles of the last war, and instead focus on strengthening economic and political ties between the European Union and an independent Britain.
Finally, Sunak must continue Britain’s crowning achievement of foreign policy of the last decade, which has undoubtedly been the pivotally important support that Boris Johnson provided to Ukraine. Britain has led the way at every step: From British Javelins in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers that defeated the Russian blitzkrieg, to opening training camps for 10,000 Ukrainian troops on British soil – Britain’s contribution to Ukraine cannot be overstated.
The Conservative Party has been called the most successful political party in history – and it is through the actions of reformers, like Robert Peel, that it has weathered global shifts better than the long-dead Whigs. It is an era of global crisis, and the UK cannot naively try to be a paradise in the middle of a global storm. But what we can do is understand, as Robert Peel did, that there is the opportunity for real reform out of global turmoil.