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Britain can boom again – but only if we smash the can't do consensus

A boat carrying around 50 migrants drifts into English waters
A boat carrying around 50 migrants drifts into English waters

There is a certain kind of commentator – liberal, centrist and oh so certain – who specialises in explaining why things cannot change. From the economy to immigration, higher education to human rights laws, rather than justify why they believe in the status quo, their arguments are about why things cannot be different. Confronted by crises and change, they mistake their own passivity for wisdom.

Unfortunately, this attitude is not limited to the comment pages and social media. Inside Parliament and Whitehall, we hear the same kind of thinking all the time. There are Treasury officials who insist the slow growth of the British economy is inevitable: the unavoidable late stages of development for a mature economy. There are ministers who say they understand the need to stop illegal migration, but the human rights conferred upon people coming here illegally are immutable. 
What these arguments have in common is a loss of confidence among those who make them. A loss of confidence in the policies that got us here, the philosophy and ideology that underpin them, and the institutions that are supposed to deliver them.

Outside an environmentalist fringe, few believe that life without economic growth is something to cherish. Instead of genuinely interrogating why growth has been sluggish – honestly exploring the consequences of monetary policy, the costs of re-regulating entire business sectors, spiralling industrial energy prices, and the lack of public and private investment – it is easier to explain away, spuriously, why it is we struggle. Never mind that America, a third richer than Britain, is still growing faster – some prefer to suggest that there may be some kind of upper limit to prosperity.

There are other examples. Dare to suggest there is a problem with the education and training we provide to people from the age of eighteen, and outrage ensues. Of course few have the courage to defend the lack of options other than university for school leavers. And not many choose to dwell on the poor quality courses, limited career advantages and staggering debt – much of which ends up with the taxpayer – offered by many universities. Suggest a different model and you will be told you are advocating the destruction of vital institutions, important employers in struggling towns, and the life chances of millions.

There is supposedly no other way. And nowhere is this truer than with immigration. Last year, net migration stood at 745,000, bringing a pace of change that is unprecedented, unnecessary, undesirable, and opposed by the public. Yet commentators argue that “identifying specifically who should be barred is no easy task” and “keeping immigration numbers down comes at a cost.” But this is nonsense. Of the 1.4 million visas issued last year to migrants excluding visitors, only 66,000 were for skilled workers. More than 82,000 were for spouses and children coming on family visas. More than 403,000 were for dependants of students and workers.

Few are open that they support immigration at such a scale. Instead, they dance dishonestly around the issue. Some play games with public opinion, pretending that the majorities who tell pollsters that immigration is too high do not necessarily mean they want it reduced. Others argue that immigration restrictions would kill almost any public service or business sector: the NHS, social care, universities, the hospitality industry to name a few. Alternatives to immigration, such as higher wages, better training, workforce planning and investment in labour-saving tech, are always eschewed.

Then there are human rights laws. Instead of being honest about their tolerance for illegal migration, with the Channel crossings and failure to remove foreign criminals and rejected asylum seekers, critics mock the Home Office (breaking the taboo of criticising officials, of course) and say we simply need to make the system work. But this ignores the series of overlapping Catch-22 conditions created by human rights case law. We cannot detain a failed asylum seeker unless deportation is imminent, for example, but getting to that stage is near impossible when the individual can choose at any moment to disappear.

As the Government brings forward its new law this week to get around the Supreme Court ruling against its Rwanda policy, this behaviour – among commentators, politicians and officials – will grow only more pronounced. Ministers must do what it takes to get the scheme off the ground, and illegal immigrants out of the country. Critics may talk up alternatives – usually “safe and legal routes” which unless they were unlimited in number, as US policy has shown, would do nothing to stop illegal immigration – but rather than be open about the logic of their position, most will devote their energy to talking about what supposedly cannot be done rather than what can.

For this is all they are left with. For years the liberals and centrists of all parties had things their own way. Public opinion, social scientists have made clear, lies slightly to the left on fiscal questions and to the right on culture and identity. The liberals and centrists always stood for the very opposite, but got away with it because of the way our party system offers binary choices. Brexit, however, and the leftward drift of the Labour Party, changed all that.

The liberals and centrists love to talk up identity politics for minority groups, but hate the increased salience and relevance of majority culture and identity. But just as important, the rest of their worldview – their commitment to globalisation and their economic model – is falling apart. Confronted by a stagnating economy, declining social trust, religious extremism and terrorism, a dangerously diverging world, the conclusive proof that international free trade is a delusion and the rules-based world order a pretence, and a dystopian future dominated by a narrow and new tech elite, those who built the world as it was before refuse to accept its demise.

To accept it would be to admit the failure not only of their policies but their whole philosophy. All that is left, then, is to deny that anything else is possible. But we need to shake off the complacency, confront the declinism, and remove the ideological blinkers. A different future is there for us if we want it.

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