“It can’t go on like this”. We chose that strap line for this conference partly because it’s from the film ‘Withnail and I’ but mainly because it’s true. It can’t go on like this. I want to talk about three things today: where we are, how we got here, and how to solve the situation we find ourselves in.
First, where we are. Brace yourselves – the government hasn’t balanced its budget in over 20 years. This year we will borrow over £200,000 million. The national debt now stands at £2,388,000 million – the highest ever. We’re addicted to a drug called debt. We haven’t had a positive balance of trade in goods since 1985. No-one will talk about it – not least those who caused it. We save too little, invest too little and produce too little. We consume too much – particularly from imports. And look at those imports – often from factories using slave labour.
Household debt is rampant and use of food banks common and yet a quarter of food is wasted in the home and 9% before it even leaves the farm. Our rivers are polluted with sewage, our fields degraded with nitrates, our seas are over fished and yet we can’t even begin to feed ourselves.
Meanwhile back in the city there’s an epidemic of knife crime, but no honesty about the main cause, which is family breakdown. We have a young generation renting not owning, denied a house to start a family, their wages syphoned off each month in high rents. This is met with silence from the so-called conservatives that govern us. These people can’t even control a national border. We have aircraft carriers costing billions but thousands of illegal crossings in the Channel. I had no idea Albania was so unsafe…
I’m unaware of any nation in history that’s survived very long without a border – but this is an experiment the Tories seem determined to try. As Sergeant Wilson might say, “Is that terribly wise?”
We have a massive unsustainable Ponzi scheme – otherwise known as the University Industrial Complex – which creates millions of pounds in student debt that’ll never be repaid. Vice Chancellors get rich but under their noses freedom of speech and freedom of thought and inquiry is dying in the academy.
And back in the real world there’s a shortage of doctors, engineers, plumbers and builders because we can’t be bothered to train them. Why? Because it’s easier to rely on immigration. And after inventing civil nuclear power in the 50s our government, pathetically, begs the French and Chinese to build power stations – in the same way as they ask foreign states to run our railways. Shameful. Do they honestly believe the French would return the favour? Certainment pas.
In sum, we’ve lived off debt for 40 years and that’s about to stop because the era of cheap money is over. And the added problem for Europe is that the era of cheap energy appears to be over too. I think the unserious people who got us here should be run out of office. Question is… who will replace them?
I’m going put a flag in the ground. I think the root of our problems are cultural: bad ideas, bad ideology, short-termism, unseriousness. Basically, the hallmarks of runaway liberalism. An obsession with rights over responsibilities. A preference for the global over the familiar and of other people’s culture over your own. The loss of a life in common and of social solidarity. The elevation of personal feelings over empirical facts. The racialisation of everything – putting differences over what unites us. The deification of the free market. An indifference to what is made where and by whom. And a stubborn refusal to plan. In fact, the demonisation of planning. The result? Debt, inequality and division. Liz Truss is basically the death spasm of this type of thinking. But as Epicurus might console us, it’ll be painful but it will pass.
You’ll find no better example of bad ideology than in housing. It was Tawney who said: “The solutions to our problems are rejected not because they’re difficult but because they’re simple”. That’s very, very, good. The cause of the housing crisis is simple. It’s the deliberate destruction of state-sector capacity in housebuilding combined with large-scale immigration. That’s it. And the solution is to correct both. But ideology prevents the great minds who govern us from grasping this. Consequently, each year we spend £17 billion on housing benefit – dealing with the symptoms – but only £9 billion on building houses. Madness.
Ideology of this kind has destroyed something else – the Brexit coalition. It’s over. The libertarian right only had one idea for the post-Brexit world: unilateral free trade. Nothing is more likely to destroy this country.
A good example of this type of thinking is Liz Truss’ Japan trade deal of last year. Any good? If it was so, it might be. If it were so, it would be. But as it isn’t, it ain’t. It’s not a good deal. Let me run through it…
Last year Japan exported goods worth £7,422m to the UK. We exported £5,954m of goods to Japan. We have a bilateral trade deficit of £1.4 billion. Truss’ trade deal is predicted to increase Japan’s long-run exports to us by 80%, but ours to them by only 17%. Question? Can Liz do maths? I know the Chancellor struggles… That trade deficit is going to get much bigger. As Peter Shore once said: “You can’t go on borrowing that”. A surer way you will not find of getting poorer…
It’s very odd. Libertarians see trade deficits as a badge of honour. As if borrowing billions each year is a strength, like a crack addict boasting he’s got another fix. My point is that if Liz Truss thinks Japan is a good deal what does a bad one look like? This is child-like, empty, cargo-cult Thatcherism. And it’s got to go.
Let me turn to another cultural pathology – anti-Britishness. The loss of the Queen last month made us ponder the span of her reign. One reflection is that – despite her efforts – we’ve become a more divided country. Isn’t it curious that so many of our cultural leaders denigrate this country?
An example. Tom Daley, the Olympian, made a BBC film about homophobia in the commonwealth. It’s a problem. Pakistan and Nigeria are not at the vanguard of gay rights. The cause of all this hatred, he asks? A British law from 1923. In a tight field that’s one of the silliest things the BBC has ever put out. Possibly even sillier than The Ministry of Silly Walks… Someone’s to blame – and it must be the British. I’ve no doubt that Daley is sincere but he’s an expert at jumping off a plank into water. An expert on why Nigeria hasn’t had its own version of the Wolfenden Report he is not.
I want to turn now to the question of short-termism – the tendency to constantly take easy, immediate options in preference to long-term rewards. This is very, very costly. A good example is UK energy policy.
We face an energy crisis which our rulers failed to anticipate or prepare for. The proximate cause is Russia’s reprehensible, self-defeating invasion of Ukraine, but we need to dig a little deeper. We used to build nuclear power stations in this country. But we stopped. Why? Because we no longer wanted to. The Tories closed down British Nuclear Fuels in 2010. And just a few years later they were chatting up the Chinese Communist Party and the French to build them for us. What would Clem Attlee think of that? I think if you don’t care who produces our power or who runs our railways you’re not fit to govern us. You know, the real tragedy is that we now don’t have the base load power we need. Truss’s energy bailout will cost £200 billion. We could’ve built enough nuclear power to provide most of our electricity for that. And we’d have reduced carbon emissions too.
I don’t despise the Tories. I despair of them.
We’re living through industrial decline caused by cultural decline. You can’t have an industrial economy without affordable energy and Labour and the Tories wanted neither – so stuck they are in the grooves of decline. But my real point is this – the decline doesn’t consist in not building nuclear power stations. It consists in not wanting to. That’s the problem.
Labour and the Tories have stripped away common purpose – and we need to get it back. And isn’t it interesting that Starmer’s Labour Party is actively against the public ownership of our utilities? What is Labour for? Eddie Dempsey is right, by the way. Labour’s been taken over by liberals. Starmer is like a woodcutter without an axe to grind – even for woodcutting.
The next thing I want to cover is un-seriousness, which you see everywhere. The NHS is always under strain but few consider the demands we put on it. True, it probably does too much. Thank goodness the Tavistock Clinic closed and isn’t maiming young people. But in reality the NHS is a sickness service because we’re increasingly ill. How can it keep pace? One in three Britons is overweight and suffering from diabetes or pre-diabetes, a condition which consumes 10% of the NHS budget. In some areas a third of children starting primary school are obese. Supermarket shelves are as stacked with junk food as our streets are with scooters delivering pizza. The government response? Well, it was thinking about banning 2-for-1deals on Mars bars… pathetic.
“If you see anything that’s not quite right. See it, say it, sort it.” Have you heard that? I’ve seen something not quite right… on the South Coast. Thousands of young men arriving in boats uninvited, unvetted and unchecked. You’d have to be blind – or a Liberal Democrat – not to see this for what it is: an invasion. An invasion that’s now costing £5 billion a year and over £40,000 for each illegal migrant. You could send them to Oxford University for less…
Quote: “You cannot live with people upping sticks and just simply moving across national boundaries because they think they’ve got better prospects of a richer and a healthier life there.” That’s David Owen. Quite right.
In truth, the government doesn’t want a secure border. The Rwanda Plan is a publicity stunt and if it weren’t they wouldn’t have left the legal means in place to undermine it. This is very, very dangerous. Without a border the social contract falls. Sharing will collapse and you end up with the type of clannishness you see in failed states. Historians will reflect that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent it.
Is it time for some solutions? How do we solve these problems?
Humbly, I have eight suggestions.
First, start by supporting the family – the foundation of society. And be honest that for children and society, on all the data, the best model is the traditional family. SDP Policy: couples raising children together should benefit from full sharing of tax allowances. That’ll give parents more precious time with their children. “You can’t have the family farm, if you don’t have the family,” as Chesterton noted. Apparently it’s now terribly controversial to quote Chesterton. It’s too late now… I’ve been doing it for years. And on the family, you can’t be pro-family then object when workers ask for wages fit to raise a family. There’s a reason the RMT’s on strike today – they haven’t had a pay rise in three years.
Second, face up to the housing crisis. Solve it and you start to deal with the cost of living crisis. Expensive housing is not socially useful. It’s harmful. The solution: stop mass immigration and get the state back into the business of building homes. It is that simple – if your isn’t mind is addled with ideology. I asked the SDP Policy Team for the three ingredients to solve the housing crisis. I got them: new entities to build the homes, powers to assemble the sites, and money to build by taxing planning gain – that uplift in land value after planning permission has been granted. To be sure, SDP housing policy is radical. It will upset some people. There will be fewer yachts and Lamborghinis…. but it’s a price we’re prepared to pay.
Third, re-build our manufacturing base – the foundation of our towns and cities. In the 60s and 70s you could raise a family of four on a weekly industrial wage of 40 hours. Four on 40. Not any more. And no – you don’t get growth by magic just by cutting tax and wishing it. I wish I could play for QPR… No. You need a plan, an industrial policy. Back British manufacturing in every Department of State. Buy British products, re-shore industry and plan a programme of targeted import substitution. We must make, buy and sell more in the UK and we can if we want to.
And adopt a sensible trade policy with tariffs to protect key industries too. On tariffs… if you even mention them people accuse you of wanting to run a Bennite siege economy or that you’ll start a trade war. You’re in a trade war now – every second, every minute, every hour of every day.
Fourth, return the utilities – the natural monopolies – to public ownership. Scottish Water is publicly owned and its purpose is simple – to supply the public with water. When I turn on the tap in Scotland it’s not obvious to me that things would be better if a merchant bank loaded it with debt or if dividends were syphoned off to foreign owners. Not at all.
Fifth, reform the voting system. Nothing causes short-termism more than First Past The Post. Labour and the Tories can hardly think past this week’s headlines let alone a parliamentary term. They can’t solve the problem because they are the problem. They’re a symptom not a cause.
Sixth, get a grip of the national border. Adopt SDP policy on overseas detention. Do that and the illegal crossings stop. Then concentrate on more deserving cases such as women and children in refugee camps. And always remember, we’re not asking for much. We have the right to a secure border. As John Howard once said in Australia: “We will decide who enters this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Seventh, get serious on animal rights and the environment. No one else will. Get control of our territorial waters and introduce a maritime environmental policy which leaves parts as ‘sea wilderness’. This will allow fish stocks to recover to seed neighbouring zones. And build a British trawler fleet so we have some control of what happens.
Finally, get sensible on labour market planning – starting with the NHS. If you only train half the doctors and nurses you need you run into trouble. And get serious about the causes of ill health – the demand side. Here’s a cost-free measure. Start a fitness regime in schools. One hour compulsory exercise per day. Ban sweets and packed lunches and offer good, free school meals for all. And get children to drink something called… water. People will say you can’t do that. Oh yes you can – and you’d be very foolish not to.
In sum, the answer to bad ideology is good sense. The solution to un-seriousness is to get serious. The cure to short-termism is long-termism. Have a plan.
A few years ago a young man stood for election in Leeds. He got a few hundred votes. Labour beat him. They got thousands. Now most people would have given up but Wayne Dixon isn’t most people. And the SDP isn’t like most parties. We fought and fought until that Labour majority was reduced from thousands to hundreds. And this year the dam broke. We took the seat from Labour in a landslide, getting more votes than all the other parties put together. A landslide which ‘The Yorkshire Post’ described as “one of the most shocking election results Leeds has ever seen”.
Except it wasn’t shocking. It’s what happens if you have clear principles, work hard, never give up and offer the public something decent to vote for. It was an overnight success… five years in the making. And let me tell you there weren’t too many dry eyes that day.
Some may think it a small victory but 32,000 people in Leeds now have a first rate SDP Councillor. When I walk down Middleton Park Avenue I’m in SDP territory – and that’s a good feeling. And now Wayne is joined by Cllr Richard Bright in Derbyshire.
What happened in Leeds can happen nationally but it’s vital to understand what we’re doing. The SDP in the 80s started at the top and worked its way down. We’re doing exactly the opposite and it takes time. Labour took 24 years to get into government. Under Jo Grimond the post-war liberals took 20 years to re-emerge. The Greens and UKIP took the same. I think we can do it more quickly but there are staging posts and the next election is key one. We’ll need candidates in every region of the country. Our aim is clear – the best SDP result in a generation. I’ve always been realistic with you. That’s achievable.
Yes – it is a Long March but we’ll get there. Why? Because there’s a lot to love about the SDP: our history, the strength of our philosophical foundations. Our loyalty to each other – even in foul weather. The fact that Rod Liddle says the sound of red wine being poured into a glass is the sound of the SDP… But most of all it’s because our political offer is unique. A party that defends free speech, knows what a woman is but also knows what a national housing programme is, what industry is, what animal rights are and what a national border is. That’s a powerful combination and no one else can offer it. No other party offers left-leaning economics and respect for tradition. Frankly, we are better social democrats than Labour and we’d conserve more than the Tories.
These are challenging times for the country we love. I have an uncomfortable feeling that Liz Truss will not be leading us to the border of heaven. People need something better and they’ll find it in the SDP.
We’ve proved we can win. My advice? Keep going. Win again.