I WAS much impressed by Heidi Allen’s first speech when she left the Conservative Party to join the Independent Group, now known as the Change UK Party. How could the Conservative high command have ignored such a prodigious talent? But I’m afraid I was very much underwhelmed by her performance at a Beer and Brexit debate on May 14th, organised by King’s College, London. Ms Allen is now the acting leader of Change UK. But even as her job title has grown she seems to have shrunk as a politician. Gently interrogated by Anand Menon, the reigning Brexit guru at King’s, she produced a succession of bland and vague answers that suggested that she’s not capable of either rigorous thought or vigorous organisation.
Ms Allen regurgitated a splattering of good-government platitudes about how Britain needs to be much better at harnessing expertise. Politics should be run more like a business. Parties should take an inventory of the skills and talents of each new intake of MPs. Parliament is run like an old-fashioned gentleman’s club, and so on and so forth. There’s some sense in this—particularly about the skills inventory. But isn’t calling for politics to be run more like a business a bit old hat for a party that presents itself as a change-agent? Donald Trump ran on the promise of using his skills as a businessman to shake up Washington, DC in 2016, and Silvio Berlusconi said the same about Rome in the 1990s. And isn’t the boss of Change UK rather badly placed to call for a more business-like approach to politics? The party has lurched from one disaster to another: failing to establish a brand; faffing about over its name; publicly disagreeing over policies; producing ridiculously slip-shod campaign literature; and, in every way conceivable, allowing itself to be out-performed, out-organised, and out-thought by what is supposed to be the party of out-of-touch bigots, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Change UK looks as if it will get the Palme d’Or for the most risible projects in recent political history. For a moment it looked as if Tom Watson and the Labour Party’s Social Democratic wing might stage a mass walk-out and join the Tiggers (as Change UK members were known when their nascent party was still the Independent Group). But Mr Watson chose to stay and fight and the Tiggers had to rely on the force of their personalities rather than on numbers. The trouble is that this is far from enough: the founders of the Social Democratic Party back in 1983 were big beasts who were capable of making the weather. Change UK is a collection of small beasts who will probably be swept away by the storm.
TO EDINBURGH—that wonderful study in stone as poetry—to debate the future of capitalism with Stewart Wood, a Labour peer, courtesy of Reform Scotland, a think-tank. To be honest we struggled to find big things to disagree about. There is broad agreement across the political spectrum about the toughest problems facing Britain: the over-centralisation of economic and political power in London; the long-tail of low-skilled workers who are trapped in low-paying jobs; the cult of short-termism; financial engineering; the lack of respect for the manufacturing sector. And yet the British political class is instead focusing on policies that are as divisive as possible: on the right, leaving the European Union, and on the left, massive state intervention in the “commanding heights” of the economy such as re-nationalising the utilities and taking 10% of the country’s biggest public companies. While we squabble over what is contentious, we fail to address what we agree about.
SCOTLAND AND England are arguably further apart politically than they have been at any time in the history of the Union, and not just because the Scots voted to remain in the EU and the English to leave. The Labour Party once specialised in projecting Scottish politicians to the heights of power in Westminster—Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Smith, Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie. The Liberal Party and its various off-shoots had deep roots in Scotland as well as the English provinces (think of Jo Grimond and Charles Kennedy). The aristocratic wing of the Tory Party also boasted deep Scottish connections: Alec Douglas-Home had an estate up there and even David Cameron could boast a Scottish name and Scottish shooting buddies.
British politics is now as English as it has ever been. The only Scotsman in front line politics is Michael Gove, the adopted son of a Scottish fishmonger, and a man capable of reverting from Oxbridge English to Aberdeen Scottish if need be. The people occupying the great offices of state (the prime minister, the chancellor, the foreign secretary) all seem to be in a competition to see who can be the most southern. The Scottish Labour Party has all but died from complacency and mediocrity and the national party has been captured by a clique of London MPs: Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry both have seats next door to each other in Islington and Dianne Abbott and John McDonnell both represent London seats. The Scottish Raj that once ruled over its southern neighbour is scattered to the winds: Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have returned to Scotland and Tony Blair is in a private jet somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.
Political life in Scotland is dominated by a Scottish National Party (SNP) that has no real relevance down south (though it has 35 MPs, and Ian Blackford, their leader, manfully makes the same speech at Prime Minister’s Questions every week about how Britain is taking Scotland out of the EU against its will). The liveliest issue up north at the moment is the upcoming trial of Alex Salmond on charges including sexual assault and attempted rape. (He says he is innocent of any criminality.) This is dividing the SNP—and Scottish politics in general—between admirers of Nicola Sturgeon, who began her political life as Mr Salmond’s protégé but has since turned against him, and Salmond loyalists who think he is being unjustly accused. The squabble could weaken the SNP’s (increasingly death-like) grip on Scottish politics and prepare the way for significant advances for either the Tories or the Labour Party, with profound implications for the next general election down south.
The other great issue is Ruth Davidson’s re-emergence on the scene after several months on maternity leave. If things had gone well with Brexit, Ms Davidson would be re-appearing just as the Tory Party was putting Brexit behind it and turning to the question of where Britain needs to go now it is leaving the EU (Ms Davidson is a remainer who has reconciled herself to delivering the will of the people). But the Brexit problem is even more fraught today than it was when she went on leave—and the Tory brand is far more toxic. Ms Davidson resisted enormous pressure from within her party to loosen its connection with the Conservative Party south of the border. With Brexit lurching from disaster to disaster and the Tory Party increasingly associated with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, she may rue her decision.