With four years until the next general election, British politics is in a bloody stalemate. The main parties are stuck at 40 per cent in the polls, reflected in the inconclusive local elections this month. The possibility of a 1997-style landslide has faded and even over-confident strategists (on both left and right) have learnt the meaning of hubris.
It’s true that the current divisions in our politics run deep. There is a clearer left-right split than there has been since the 1980s, with new sources of division amplified by the EU referendum: old vs young, city vs country, the so-called Somewheres vs Anywheres. These exist alongside other regional and national anomalies – including the dominance of London’s economy. Brexit legislation and the existence of a hung parliament only increases the sense of paralysis.
Yet there are causes for optimism and hope. We live in a time of opportunity and historical significance. Brexit can be a turning point: it offers the chance for a comprehensive debate on the parameters of British democracy, sovereignty and security. The main parties, however, have failed to reach for something more radical and long-lasting – a new, national consensus. This is precisely what the UK needs, not least because it might deliver the clear governing majority and leadership we need. Most voters believe that Britain is too divided – and that the country needs to be brought together.
Britain needs a ‘new Unionism’, one based not just on the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, but on the regions and peoples within. This is one of the most exciting ideas emerging on the centre-right – and is likely to gain momentum as the summer continues, as the Conservative Party’s brightest thinkers look to bridge the political divides that make up our political landscape.
A new Unionism would not deny the difficulties we face. Two major Brexit-related challenges erupted last week – notably over the Irish border and, at Holyrood, where the Scottish parliament challenged the devolution settlement over the manner in which the EU powers are to be repatriated. There are fundamental issues that need addressing about the discomfort of the smaller nations of the UK, which now live in the shadow of an England that has become less shy about expressing itself.
But Brexit provides an opportunity for a reboot of the Union – one of the most successful nation-states in modern history. Scotland looks more securely fixed in the Union today than in 2014, in part because separating from a UK that is no longer in the EU is much more complex and costly.
A new Unionism must offer more than a loose ‘one nation’ sentiment. It should look at how people can take back control, not just from the EU, but from the UK government – and the vast number of unaccountable regulators and agencies that have sprung up in the past few decades
The reclaiming of sovereignty in everything from fisheries to recycling policy gives this battered old Union the chance to define itself anew. We have already, within the EU, seen important divergences in social policy and public sector management across the four nations. After Brexit, should we consider a new looser arrangement within the United Kingdom as the home nations take advantage of the sovereignty reclaimed? Should we consider corporation tax cuts for the regions?
Answers to these questions require a renaissance in political thinking in which think thanks such as Policy Exchange will play a key role. It shouldn’t just be about Tory thinking: it should be about the country – forging a new national consensus comprising non-sectarian, more respectful approaches across the political divide. Take today’s Policy Exchange’s conference on the Union – including Michael Gove, Ruth Davidson, Alistair Darling and Arlene Foster – where cross-party Brexiteers and Remainers, will tease out the potential for new common ground.
This will take time. But the alternative is what happened in the 2017 election — which showed what happens when policy is not properly road-tested and scrutinised.
Through it all, the centre-right must avoid the trap of policy consumerism – policies designed to segment the electorate (students, pensioners, first-time buyers or public sector works) and pit them against each other in the hope of cobbling together a majority. A new Unionism will require braver, bolder thinking if the United Kingdom is to remain a union of hearts, not just of convenience, for all its nations and peoples.