We are living through the most dramatic period in British peacetime history since the agitations leading up to the Great Reform Bill – and, irrespective of Brexit, there is more to come. The UK is about to experience a revolution in government.
This will take one of three forms. There could be a chassis revolution, as in ‘The world’s in a terrible state of chassis.’ If the Government were forced into an early election, with the Brexit party on one flank and the Liberals on the other, Parliament would be hung beyond hope of stability. It is reasonable to describe the prospect of such chaos without foreseeable end as revolutionary.
There could also be a more orthodox revolution, if Jeremy Corbyn gained power. In pursuit of truth, Sherlock Holmes advised us to eliminate the impossible. That was easier in his day than it is now. There was a time when Corbyn was risibly impossible. To paraphrase Hobbes on the Holy Roman Empire, he seemed to be merely the ghost of Tony Benn sitting crowned upon the grave thereof. Now, the ghost is gearing itself to leave the graveyard and become a revenant.
But the most likely revolution is a Tory one. Britain leaves the EU. The roof does not fall in; the Government does not fall. Although we would be heading for an early election, there would still be time for some of the intellectual energy currently pent up in the Tory party to be released, with transformative consequences. This should lead to the second stage of the Thatcherite revolution (though that would not be the best way to sell it to the electorate).
Around the beginning of the sixteenth century, Spain and Portugal signed treaties dividing the world between them: cheeky fellows. In the 1980s, there was a similar and more practical implicit arrangement between the Thatcher governments and the British Left. The Tories took monetary policy, fiscal policy in large measure, the rule of law in industrial relations and most of industrial policy.
The Left took the public services. Now, a number of able younger Tories are convinced that their predecessors made too many concessions. They want to repudiate the deal. They are determined on radical innovation, in order to ensure that the public services really do serve the public.
Their argument runs as follows. The best NHS hospitals are outstanding. There are plenty of good state schools. But there are also bad hospitals and failing schools. How do we solve this? If it is merely a matter of money, the public finances are in a good enough shape to shoulder additional burdens. But we suspect that there are other factors, principally ethos and leadership. There needs to be more discussion about all this, but let us be clear about our objective. We want to find out what is wrong and put it right, in order to universalise best practice.
The same applies to schools, and here, there is one single measure that could have a huge impact. There are about 450,000 teachers in the state system. To pay them an average of £10,000 a year more would cost £4.5 billion. That is a little more than half of one per cent of public spending, and the net cost would be lower still, as a sizeable sum would come back in tax receipts. That is affordable, but terms and conditions would apply. First, the money would not be divided equally. There might be £1,000 for a new entrant to the profession while an outstanding headmaster received £50,000. Second, nothing would come of nothing. In return for all this extra cash, teachers would have to agree to rigorous assessment. It should be much easier to sack bad ones. The proletarian wing of the teachers’ unions would protest: let them. The Government should be immovable in its insistence that high salaries must mean high standards and in so doing, it would secure overwhelming public support.
As well as health and education, prisons have already appeared on the agenda. Successive ministers have made it clear that it is not acceptable to spend so much money to make bad men worse: inadequate ones, more inadequate. Here again, energetic Tories want to turn radicalism loose on long-term failure.
There is also a need for new rhetoric. For too often, Tories have allowed themselves to be caricatured as thoughtless opponents of the public sector and its officials. It is time to emphasise that good public servants have nothing to fear from a Tory government and much to gain. More ministers ought to follow Jacob Rees-Mogg’s example and pay tribute to the commitment and dedication that is still widespread in the civil service. Language that should help to raise morale. Better morale means improved performances. This does not mean that we should tolerate waste, which is more acceptable in a hospital than it would be in a hedge fund. One suspects that a clamp-down on bureaucratic waste could easily pay for the additional expenditure on teachers’ salaries, and well-motivated civil servants would be allies in waste control.
All this could be exciting. There is still hard EU pounding to come, but not indefinitely. We can cautiously look forward to a day when Europe will no longer drain all the oxygen out of British politics. After the valley of the Shadow of Brexit, after the dreary blights of May, the Tory party could come back to life and national leadership. After all, it is far better equipped for that task than any of its political rivals.
Over the decades, thoughtful Tories have almost despaired at the ease with which Labour lays claim to the moral high ground while doing so little to deserve it. With Jeremy Corbyn’s help, that might be about to change.