13 August 2023

Weekly Briefing: Cheer up – and get real


After five years at CapX, and four as editor, I’m very sorry to say I’ll be stepping down at the end of next week. So for my last Weekly Briefing I’d like to reflect on my time in this wonderful job. (I hope you will forgive some mild self-indulgence on this occasion, safe in the knowledge that it’s the last you’ll be hearing from me!)

One of my first pieces upon arriving here five years ago was a rejoinder to the many gloomsters and doomsters. Picking up on the late Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness, I reminded readers that although we live in an age of hyperbole, catastrophism and the widely shared conviction that everything is going to the dogs, there are still many reasons to be cheerful.

It’s safe to say the years since I wrote that piece have challenged even the most congenitally optimistic of observers. Though rightwingers could cheer the demise of Corbynism and the eventual securing of Brexit, on the whole British politics from 2018 onwards has been a period of mostly bile and gloom. 

All the more reason, perhaps, to widen our gaze a bit and look anew at some of the global ‘reasons to be cheerful’ – from declining infant mortality, to access to education, better healthcare and the miraculous advances in computing technology that we take for granted. Human beings’ extraordinary capacity for innovation and progress often goes unnoticed, and I’m glad CapX is one of the places you can still come to read some occasional good news amid the quagmire of glumness.

And it’s also true that for all the confident eschatology of protestors and pundits, be it about climate change or AI, the one thing most humans remain spectacularly bad at is predicting the future. Indeed, the history of science and letters, let alone political punditry, is littered with totally duff prognoses about where society is headed.

The fact we might not be heading for Armageddon is a pretty low bar for socio-political satisfaction, however. And we need to get real: in the here and now, Britain’s political economy is failing badly. As this recent FT data visualisation neatly illustrates, the UK is a middling country with one very affluent city. Our living standards are way behind our cousins across the Atlantic and appreciably worse than European peers like France and Germany.

We can don rose-tinted glasses and hope for a technological deus ex machina, but that is not going to wipe out the high cost of housing or raising a child, both which are stopping lots of Brits from living the lives they want to live. That situation, that stifling of life chances, is also intensifying the sense of disconnection both between the generations and between voters and the political class.

One crumb of comfort is that housing and childcare costs are at least higher up the political agenda than they were when I started – better late than never. But that’s just a starting point. Pointing fingers at one politician, council or party would be easy enough, but the truth is that virtually our entire political class is still in hock to a system that primarily works to protect older people’s property wealth (not to mention the cursed triple lock).

There is not one British political tradition that should find this situation acceptable. For leftwingers it’s so manifestly unfair and deleterious to social mobility it barely needs spelling out. For liberals it’s an infringement on people’s basic ability to live life as they see fit, for social conservatives it’s a threat to the very fabric of our society.

So whoever is next in government ought to dispense with the endless inane distractions of campaigning groups whose chief interest is getting themselves media attention, and make reducing all of the costs of living the overriding mission for the rest of this decade (and probably beyond).

I’d like to end on a personal note. I’ve learned an enormous amount doing this job in the last five years – from my wonderful, talented and very kind colleagues at the Centre for Policy Studies, from CapX’s many brilliant contributors and from you, our learned and passionate readers. Thank you all very much indeed.

A particular thank you to two people: first, to our editor-in-chief, Robert Colvile, under whose leadership the CPS and CapX have gone from strength to strength. Second, to my successor as editor, Alys Denby, who has been a wonderful colleague and friend for the last three years. I could not be leaving the site in more capable hands.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.