Britain’s rural landscape is under attack in the name of economic growth – despite David Cameron’s promise to lead the “greenest government ever.” The Prime Minister believes that the key to recovery is to build our way out of recession as was the case in the 1930s. But how much of our glorious greenery will we have sacrificed before we are satisfied with the rate of growth?
One significant cause of the threat to rural Britain is the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Put forward in March 2012, with a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable’ development, it makes it extremely difficult to carry out the mandate of preserving the rural nature of the area in which rurally based Conservative Councillors are elected.
Not only does the nature of the NPPF suggest worrying implications for our idyllic landscape, but it also makes our Council look ‘spineless and inept’ as we were referred to in my first parish meeting two days after I was elected. We can no longer take the rural vote for granted. In my by-election back in May 2013, nearly all of the spoiled ballots I was shown had some reference to the lack of a UKIP candidate standing. Another more recent by-election in my area saw an extremely narrow victory for a Conservative where a UKIP member had stood against him. In most areas of my district, we nearly always see a huge victory against the sum total of Labour, Lib Dem and the Green’s vote combined.
I would not dispute that the vast majority of Britain’s countryside (over 90%) remains untouched, but it is where the development is taking place that is harming the Tory vote. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), over one thousand hectares of green belt land (an area of open land around a settlement on which building is restricted) have been lost each year since 1997, covered in over 45,000 houses, spanning an area that roughly equates to a city the size of Bath. This is happening right on the doorstep of a great number of people who very often elect local Conservative Councillors for the purpose of preventing it. Is it any wonder that 13% of the almost exclusively Conservative Countryside Alliance now intends to vote UKIP in 2015?
The most frustrating aspect of the housing vs. environment issue is that plenty could be done to accommodate Britain’s growing population that would offend very few. Another CPRE report has identified derelict brownfield sites available for building approximately 1.5 million new homes. This would be on top of the 300,000 empty houses in the UK unoccupied for months, as well as the vast amount of land that our nation’s major house builders have permission to build on that could accommodate another 280,000 homes. Somewhat surprisingly, this report came after the last Labour government smashed targets to increase brownfield development by 60% before 2008, eight years ahead of schedule. Furthermore, back in 2011, local authorities identified an estimated 63,750ha of Brownfield land in England, up 2.6% from 62,130ha in previous year. Half of this land was derelict or vacant, with the other half in use, but with potential for redevelopment.
Clearly then there is a case for more ambitious targets in regions across the UK which could be encouraged through corporation tax relief for housing developers. The Conservative Party could even re-consider the Lib-Dems controversial Land Tax which would deter Greenfield development. Many commentators have pointed out that one of the main barriers to brownfield development is the uncertainties around cost, particularly during negotiations surrounding the clean-up operations of the areas on which they are to build, so the government U-turn to abolish Land Remediation Relief is welcome.
Eric Pickles’ recent announcement to grant more power to local councils could not have come soon enough. By making it more difficult to build on green belts, developers will naturally gravitate towards brownfield growth and focus on smaller urban properties that are more realistically priced for the people who need housing most.
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Depending on who you question, there could be any number of reasons as to why the Conservatives are perceived to perform poorly in the north of England. Answers may range from historical issues concerning mining communities, to the belief that we are nothing more than posh toffs who don’t know how much a pint of milk costs.
If you look at information provided by the Electoral Commission, it seems that as of the 2010 general election not all is grim up north. In North West and North East England, constituency results show that significant numbers of Conservative voters exist.
In this case ‘significant’ means 1.32 million Conservative votes to Labour’s 1.8 million (not forgetting of course the Liberal Democrats at 988,000). When considering only the votes of the largest parties, the share breaks down as Lab 44%, Con 32% and Lib Dems 24%.
If a week is a long time in politics, a whole year must be an eternity. The five years between elections in 2010 and 2015 will see the political landscape change significantly. Even if things remain broadly familiar on the surface, those subtle nuances will almost certainly cause headaches amongst campaign managers from every party. The image of the Conservative Party as nasty/posh continues to endure. It is this very image of the Party that causes the biggest issues.
Polling has suggested that a larger percentage of people support the removal of the spare room subsidy than would have been suspected. It also suggests that there is reasonable support for the overall cap on benefits as well. So if the image problem was solved, would an increasing presence of small “c” conservatism (yes, even in the north of England) become an asset to the Conservative Party?
The party is in a Catch-22 situation: it will remain consistently hard to appeal in the north if high calibre individuals have nowhere to be successful. Even if the hierarchy of the Conservative Party suddenly turned entirely northern and working class, it would make little difference. The Party could be as northern and as supportive of the working class as it wanted, but the electorate want more than that. What good is a high profile northerner if they’re not amongst the north? Something the Party needs to work on.
Hope is not lost. Perhaps the most effective weapon will be one of time. The onus shouldn’t be purely on that of the Party, it needs to be the very northern folk who have to push hard. If it becomes too much of a top down exercise, people will refuse to see it as organic and will neither trust nor accept it. The key change will be when “Task Force Tory” stops operating as an insurgency against the overwhelming forces of the Labour party in the north.
Whilst widely dismissed as a bit of a waffler, Russell Brand did at least have a point in terms of people wanting a revolution. Change for the sake of change is not good, but mixing things up every now and again can’t harm things, it keeps us all on our toes. In the areas of the North where Labour are strong, it’s not just the political party that is a concern.
Wherever Labour is strong, you’re sure to find the unions not too far behind. In some cases you might even say that the unions lead the way. Some see the combination of Labour and trade unions as very dangerous, especially when both have for so long had excellent political freedom of movement in the north. Some people may even welcome challenges to this ingrained political nepotism.
Activity to increase support in the north, needs to be more about appealing to the mind and not the heart of a person. The 1.32 million Conservative voters in the north would certainly appreciate a greater focus, though certainly not as some form of pity case. No matter how big a number 1.32 million is, it isn’t anywhere near as big as it could be.
It’s not completely grim up north for the Conservatives, but the solution is not a quick fix. Rush and it will fail. Any increase in membership and success in the north, mustn’t be whisked away to help the heartlands, it would need to be reinvested back in the north. Thing’s won’t be easy, but who likes doing things because they’re easy? Many enjoy doing things because they’re worthwhile.
Several years ago I started working on an article about Afghanistan and the Conservatives, only the research ballooned to such an extent that what was supposed to be a relatively short piece turned into a fifteen-thousand-word Masters dissertation. A sizeable chunk of this research is made up of quotes from speeches by senior Tory figures over the past eight years. This material has proven invaluable when writing about the Prime Minister’s interventions in Libya and Syria, as I have been able to use his own words to illustrate the contradictions in his foreign policy. So when I learnt that the Party had deleted ten years’ worth of speeches and press statements from its website, my immediate reaction was: “Is this my fault…?”
Journalists made sarcastic remarks about Mr. Cameron’s commitment to transparent government – in speeches that were no longer publicly available. A Labour MP took the prize for perhaps the most sanctimonious response: “[I]t will take more than David Cameron pressing delete to make people forget about his broken promises”. What these “broken promises” are, I don’t know; I can’t think of anything on the scale of Nick Clegg and tuition fees. Perhaps it is one of those clichés that politicians use regardless of whether or not they are wide of the mark; I would’ve thought that from Labour’s perspective, the Prime Minister has been consistently heartless…
The reason why all this material was deleted is probably mundane: the site may only have so much space and whoever runs it probably thought that few people would want to read the conference speeches of Iain Duncan Smith. A Party spokesman said as much: “These changes allow people to quickly and easily access the most important information we provide – how we are clearing up Labour’s economic mess, taking the difficult decisions and standing up for hardworking people”. As vital as it is to furnish people with the information proving these clichés, I think the decision was an unfortunate one.
Whenever someone asks to contribute to this blog, I emphasise to them that they must engage with whatever the Leadership has said about the issue they are writing about, as I do with foreign policy. That way, their articles are relevant to the Tory debate. But now that ten years’ worth of speeches and press statements have essentially disappeared from the public space, it will be much harder for them to do so. More seriously, it will be harder not only for me to check if this or that senior figure really did say whatever an author claims, but also harder for the Party to rebut their opponents if they lie about us. If Labour simply made up quotes by senior Conservatives, then the Party wouldn’t be able to furnish journalists with a link to show they’re lying.
If there truly isn’t room for all this material, then I think CCHQ ought to find a new online home for it. Perhaps the Conservative Research Department should get its own website and it can be accessed there, as well as a wealth of other material. After all, it would be an odd Tory Party that didn’t conserve its own history.
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Sir John Major recently spoke out against our country’s “truly shocking” lack of social mobility and the consequent dominance, in politics and other fields, of a narrow section of society.
The term ‘social mobility’ is an unfortunate one, couched as it is in class terms. In reality, it is economic mobility and the ability to progress in one’s career that most concern us in 21st century Britain.
A great deal of attention was given to Sir John’s intervention, not least because many viewed it as an attack on David Cameron and the ‘Notting Hill Set’. Some on the Left have even praised the former Tory Prime Minister as a kind of class warrior. For those on the right of the Conservative Party, branding him as a class antagonist provides a convenient way of concealing Britain’s social mobility problem. Whilst Sir John’s beginnings were indeed humble, it is wrong to think he is calling for some idealist notion of equality.
Absolute social and economic equality are achievable only under authoritarian leadership. The reason for this is simple: equality is not a natural state of affairs; it must be artificially constructed through the workings of the state. Further, under such a system, there could be no social mobility as any individual disparity would represent a threat to state control. Whilst greater economic equality is a laudable aim, it should not be conflated with the means by which to achieve it.
Due to this preoccupation with egalitarianism, the Left are inherently opposed to social mobility. Labour’s attempt to close Britain’s grammar schools was a clear example of this. On the other hand, the Conservatives are the natural party of individual economic and social improvement, chartered under the banner of ‘equality of opportunity’. Yet a truly meritocratic society cannot be achieved when people’s life chances are largely determined at birth.
The issue is not that the majority of the Cabinet were privately educated; it is that individuals from less privileged backgrounds did not have an opportunity to even stand for election.
Sir John is right to raise the issue of ‘intergenerational mobility’, as economists like to call it. It is one of the greatest challenges facing this country’s politicians. Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the world, with statistics consistently showing it to be less socially mobile than other developed nations. A 2005 LSE study found that, whilst the gap in opportunities between rich and poor is similar in Britain and the US, in the US it is at least static, while in Britain it is getting wider.
Furthermore, social mobility is not a purely moral imperative. Britain is suffering an economic loss by not ensuring that the best and brightest are rising to the top. How many potential inventors and entrepreneurs have been lost simply because they did not have the financial means or social networks to flourish?
Although family, social networks and attitudes will always play a role in determining an individual’s success, there are measures which governments can undertake to ensure that individual ability becomes more of a driving factor.
The greatest reason why Britain’s social mobility is in decline is because the better off have benefitted disproportionately from increased educational opportunity. Whilst the proportion of people from the poorest fifth of the population obtaining a degree has increased from 6 per cent to 9 per cent since the early 1980s, the graduation rates for the richest fifth have risen from 20 per cent to 47 per cent.
Education is the key to social mobility, and grammar schools are a beacon beside the lumbering behemoth that is comprehensive education. Michael Gove has made progress in shaking up the education system. Yet Gove runs the risk of fragmenting education in a way that could prove counterproductive to social mobility. Free schools, though perfectly laudable, are generally set up by middle class parents in the suburbs.
Gove would do well to look at Germany. Here, secondary education includes five types of school. The school a pupil attends will depend on their academic attainment, but particular focus is also given to the type of vocational training which will best fit each child’s skills. Whilst in Britain there remains a preoccupation with academic success, in Germany it is recognised that academic and vocational education are equally valuable. It is no coincidence that Germany has been enjoying the kind of export-driven economic success that Britain can only dream of. Germany also performs far better in the social mobility stakes. By adapting the education system to account for the varied skills of its children, Germany provides greater opportunity to those from poorer backgrounds.
A mixed education system, with strong independent and grammar schools, and comprehensive and free schools which channel the talents of their students, will help Britain to reverse its social mobility shame.
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John Major’s intervention on social mobility has caused serious debate on the issue for the first time in far too long.
The former Conservative Prime Minister said that the loss of social mobility in Britain was “truly shocking”. It is clear that this message was intended to force the discussion about the background of the people who currently serve in the Government and the neglect of ordinary people in holding elite positions. Mr. Major – or the “poor boy from Brixton” as he was once dubbed – was state-educated and did not go to university. The intervention was most timely because this is an enormous issue that for far too long has only featured down the bottom rungs of the political agenda.
Social mobility is an issue which has mostly been swept under the carpet in a still class-obsessed society. One of the main problems is that social mobility itself is a concept which is incredibly broad and not easily measurable. Whereas it is fairly easy to rally against welfare cuts or a closure of services at a local hospital, it is very difficult to protest against the lack of state school backgrounds in elite positions because the issues behind it are so deep rooted and complex. It is much easier for a politician to side step the issue of appointing Old Etonians to high office than it is for him to ignore other public crises.
On face value, people are right to criticise the dominance of the privately educated and there can be no doubt that such a bias exists in British society. The deeply shocking reality is that over one-third of MPs, half of senior doctors and over two-thirds of High Court judges come from private school backgrounds despite these schools educating less than 10% of the population.
Britain is a nation with a deeply rooted class bias and this is evident in every aspect of our lives. In our society today, it is a valid question to ask just how many people themselves would overlook the state educated, accent-laden candidate in favour of the privately educated Oxford graduate if it was them burdened with the pressure of responsibility. As an aspiring adult from the Midlands, I’m well aware that my accent and state education could be a hindrance if I should choose to pursue an elite career. Perceptions about those who are from my background are undoubtedly a barrier to getting more people into senior roles.
Solutions to this issue can only be truly advanced if social mobility is forced higher up on the agenda across all political parties. Radical action and much more political capital is needed to be dedicated on this issue alone because without it Britain will continue to exist as a closed shop for those without the right connections.
Recent events in Kenya and Nigeria appear to support the view that terrorism remains as dangerous and prevalent as it seemed after 9/11. Yet this perception relies upon some quite rash assumptions. For example, what is terrorism, actually? If you give this question some serious thought, it becomes apparent that the term is full of confusion. Politicians perpetuate – and exploit – this ambiguity; causing greater harm by diverting attention away from issues which really do need to be addressed.
When people talk of ‘terrorism’ now, they are typically describing non-state subversive groups using violence to spread fear and achieve a specific political aim. That has not always been the case.
The term ‘terrorism’ was (probably) first used on a large scale to refer to actions of the state itself – specifically the Jacobin government of post-revolutionary France. In mid-nineteenth century Europe, it was used to refer to targeted political assassinations. These were far from universally condemned and the label ‘terrorist’ was often worn with pride. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the term really acquired its modern meaning.
Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram would seem to fit the ‘modern’ concept of terrorism. The attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi callously used innocent shoppers as instruments in communicating a message about hostilities in neighbouring Somalia. It was chosen as a venue because it was popular with foreign expats and likely to therefore attract the attention of the international media. Similarly, the recent attacks in Nigeria (including the killing of 50 at an agricultural college in Yobe State) were all the more shocking for their choice of targets – defenceless students and children.
The fact that these militants have grossly miscalculated in their choice of methods is clear from the results which have actually come about. Kenya’s government has not announced any plans to withdraw from Somalia. And the Nigerian government is not to be found cowering under desks and inviting Boko Haram to come in and introduce a national Islamist curriculum. Rather, they have responded by bombing Boko Haram camps and making arrests. This demonstrates not just the futility of the actions of the ‘terrorists’, but also a depressing truth about the inevitable response. Violence will be met with further violence.
Responsibility for the ensuing cycle of violence lies not only with the ‘terrorists’, however. A more or less deliberate trend has been the politicians’ lazy use of the word ‘terrorist’ to describe people and phenomena that we all ought to be afraid of – without really understanding who they are or what they might do (let alone why). Groups as dissimilar as the African National Congress, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the IRA, Basque separatists, and the pathetic Angry Brigade (a small British anarchist group in the 1970s) all get thrown into the same category.
The coalition government perpetuates the confusion over ‘terrorism’, sometimes for political ends. A couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary Theresa May warned that an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than if it remained in the United Kingdom.
The real evil here is that this over-simplification and vagueness rules out any chance of constructive dialogue and an examination of underlying grievances – if any. It is Us vs. Them. As Tony Blair put it in 2006: “This is not a clash between civilizations. It is a clash about civilization…a struggle between democracy and violence.”
Some prominent academics suggest that ‘terrorism’ should be abandoned in its entirety. This will not happen in practice, but what would be welcome is a more careful and contextualised approach.
Terrorism should be understood as a tactic – available to any actor – and one or even several acts of terrorism should not necessarily result in attachment of the label ‘terrorist’ and all that that entails. For example, there is much support for the claim that the carpet bombing of Dresden was an act of terrorism, but few would seriously claim that Britain and the United States are ‘terrorist’ states. Where acts of ‘terrorism’ are identified, these should then be examined in their specific contexts – religious, psychological, cultural, political, strategic – and properly and systematically addressed as such, rather than taking the glib approach that all ‘terrorists’ and acts of ‘terrorism’ are the same.
It may be that, in many cases, underlying causes are irrational and cannot be addressed, but the damaging and lazy use of the ‘T’ word ensures that opportunities to prevent further innocent deaths are missed as a result. The distressing and depressing cycle of violence will not be broken in this way.
This article represents the author’s own views and not necessarily those of any organisation with which he is affiliated.
The Camino de Santiago is the historic pilgrimage route across northern Spain, and as a cultural melting pot it had the misfortune of being dramatised as a ghastly film, packed with characters you’d normally walk a long way to escape.
Fortunately the reality is much better, and when I walked the 650 miles from Lourdes to Finisterre this summer the sole person I consciously avoided was an American college kid who sauntered along singing at the top of his voice while emitting a powerful body odour. That he was dressed only in boxer shorts with feathers in his dreadlocks didn’t help matters.
Nonetheless it’s the people who make the Camino a lifetime experience, and offering some wonderful insights into the differences in mentalities across Europe and further afield. I spent the first week plodding across the Pyrenean foothills in endless rain, without seeing a single soul walking west. Company came in the form of random encounters with the locals, particularly around meals. A priest from India at the Bétharram Monastery wanted to talk about the great batsmen his country had produced as we drank broth while sat on the long benches of the refectory, with the other monks completely confused until we moved on rugby. And the waiter at one of the bistros who resignedly acknowledged that the French way of life was doomed, which seemed pretty reasonable given that most shops seemed only to be open for a couple of hours in the morning, and with local farms still almost pre-industrial in their miniature form.
On the morning of my third day the butcher in Arundy attached a large scallop shell (the traditional symbol of pilgrims en route to Santiago) to my pack, and from then onwards every boulangerie was a chance to warm up and talk to the intrigued locals – although saying I was walking to Santiago felt fraudulent given that Galicia was still a fair few mountain ranges – and 1000km – away.
So making it to the popular starting point of St. Jean Pied-de-Port after a week on the road was a bit of a relief. Passing through the town’s fortified Porte St. Jacques I was met by a cacophony of languages, frenzied unwrapping of new equipment and nervous anticipation of the first major challenge of the main Camino – following Napoleon’s steep route over the Pyrenees. The sharp early morning climb wasn’t brutal enough to stop the wild hand gestures and emotional outpourings of the girl from California. Nor did it stifle conversation with the chain smoking chap from Stuttgart, who didn’t understand that a ‘C’ in GCSE German meant my grasp of his language was limited to menus and the occasional war film, and constructing sentences with ‘potato salad’ and ‘hands up’ didn’t seem conducive to the spirit of the walk, or European harmony.
The route itself is inherently cultural rather than deeply scenic, but that’s part of the joy of traversing a large country – you take the rough with the smooth. The back streets of Spain’s isolated villages revealed some of the Iberian Peninsula’s desperate poverty, interspersed with stonkingly beautiful towns – medieval Viana, where Cesare Borgia is buried, was particularly pretty. Dormitories ranged from charmless municipal accommodation to the isolated medieval pilgrims’ hostels where Mass was celebrated by candlelight. And of course the mountains of Galicia were spectacular, more than making up for the afternoon spent walking past Burgos airport and countless hours of trudging along roadside footpaths.
Hours of conversation with my fellow pilgrims (very few of them British) as we passed though countless settlements also hammered home some important cultural differences. Dutch incredulity at Spain’s lavish yet half-built motorways that intersected our route. The abundance of hairdressers in the smallest of French villages, and American bewilderment at poor European service. The spectacular mountain settlement of La Faba was run by a German confraternity, and for the first time in weeks I enjoyed a clean shower that worked, with immaculate bunks and a laundry service, my thanks for which were met with a blank “What else did you expect? We are German!”
There were – of course – frequent sightings of flagpoles flying the gold stars of the European Union. I pointed out to my Spanish companion that this enthusiasm would be unthinkable in England, much to his surprise. “Really? Surely we’re all brothers?” he asked. “Aren’t you proud of Europe in the UK?” I felt awful breaking it to him that back in Blighty the EU is seen as a cousin at best – the sort you hear very little from during the year, before agonising about deleting from the family Christmas card list.
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You might remember that there was a break-in at Labour HQ. The joke was that the thieves had gone in looking for a policy but hadn’t come back with anything of note.
There’s been talk of “predators and producers”, of “the squeezed middle”, but the only clear instances where Miliband has produced anything like a coherent vision were with his use of Disraeli’s one nationism and his proposal for a freeze on energy bills. Then with the intervention of former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major, Miliband thought he had finally struck gold.
“Many people face a choice this winter between heating and eating” he quoted at a despairing David Cameron. “These are the ordinary people of this country who this Prime Minister will never meet and whose lives they will never understand.” It was, to quote a boxing term, a straight KO and the Prime Minister returned to Downing Street to lick his wounds. So, should we Conservatives be worried by such a performance? Does it herald the change of fortunes Labour activists have been so desperate to see? Hardly.
The Labour leader’s use of Disraeli and Major, whilst good politics, illustrates his Party’s fundamental weakness – simply put, it has no idea who it is or what it’s for. From free schools to referenda, from reducing the taxation on the poorest to green investment, everything that is fresh and exciting is coming from the ongoing tussle between the Coalition parties. The fact Miliband is forced to rely on the words of former Conservative Prime Ministers in his battle with Mr. Cameron shows just how bad the situation has become. Nineteen months from a general election and Labour’s ideas factory is a wizened burnt-out old husk.
Despite endless internal reviews and conversations, it has produced nothing of substance and Miliband’s tenure has seen him hop from bandwagon to bandwagon in a vain attempt to capture the public mood. Chris Bryant’s attempt to get tough on immigration blew up in his face. Tristram Hunt is now floundering over free schools, first backing them then seemingly veering away, and on HS2 I doubt anybody within the Labour Party knows what their policy actually is.
In laying claim to Disraeli’s one-nationism and Major’s compassionate conservatism, Miliband invites us to judge him by their principles. Does his opposition to deficit reduction chime with Disraeli’s observation that “Debt is a prolific mother of folly and of crime”? If he becomes Prime Minister, will he seriously be able to claim that Labour “inherited a sick economy and passed on a sound one” as Major did? Perhaps we can best sum up Labour’s dilemma by paraphrasing Thatcher. You see Ed; the problem with ‘Milibandism’ is that eventually you run out of other people’s ideas. It might be time to get some of your own.
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