One of the most repeated criticisms of our political landscape is the absence of any long term political vision. Survival over reflection, short term over long term, disparate issues over coherent vision. Our politics needs a radical refresh to shift away from chronic short termism and mediocrity to something much more compelling.
We’ve all been there – when something has broken in the house and you just move things around a bit or put some Sellotape on it, knowing full well it’s not actually confronting the source of the problem. Fine, my chest of drawers still works but very questionably and probably not for much longer.
In politics, plenty of people agree that what we need is vision, but very few are clear about what that consists of. There is a lot on why we need it, but less on how we get there.
“Visions” do not simply happen. While they are abstract and difficult to define, when they exist, they are obvious and they are transformational. Even in a pragmatic, cautious Britain, the post war government gave us the NHS and the welfare state, and Thatcherism reorganised the relationship between the public and private sectors.
But “the vision thing”, as President George HW Bush called it, cannot be cobbled together by a focus group, or the sort of light touch policy analysis that gets a politician through a TV interview. Last week, we saw the Conservatives try to appeal to two very different voter bases in Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, and in Tiverton and Honiton, in rural Devon, by cherry-picking bits of ideology they thought would play best in each respective area. It fell flat, because voters could smell the emptiness behind the words. There is much more to it than high level brand and messaging.
Instead, it’s about considered analysis of the problems, radical solutions and weaving these answers into a coherent vision for the future of the country. It requires an optimism firmly grounded in pragmatism.
Take the three major revolutions unfolding in Britain: technology is forging the 21st century equivalent of the Industrial Revolution. Every corner of our society and economy will be affected by climate change. And following Brexit, all of our international relationships require careful, thoughtful strategy to ensure a prosperous economic future.
Currently, there is an absence of leadership on the changing face of our workforce, many of the grandiose climate obligations made at Cop26 have still not been filled out, and the government is failing to instil coherence into its international relationships as it risks a trade war with the European Union.
Within both major political parties, in the UK, there is a huge variety of ideology. This is almost always a headache for whoever wears the crown, but it is also a significant strength to British politics; it creates fertile ground for new ideas within the system, rather than forging the path for disillusioned voters to turn to new parties altogether.
Over the last few years, with the shadow of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the economic crisis, there is a misguided belief that our most pertinent issues must come at the expense of our long term vision.
Consider one of these three revolutions: technology. Nearly all the attention in tech policy is on social media and tech platforms. While there are undoubtedly issues to address here, there is too little focus on how tech will change government and society and overwhelming focus on how tech is changing us, as individuals.
Governments should be planning and investing to use tech to enhance the best of traditional classroom learning, transform how the NHS serves patients or reduce the emissions of our food production system. In the process they can handle short term pressures like reducing class sizes, combatting NHS backlogs or reducing our emissions. The perfect example of thinking long and short term at the same time. The same can be said for automation and the future of work, or misinformation and the future of democracy.
Britain is no stranger to challenging the political, social and economic consensus, but right now the boldness we need seems in short supply.