14 June 2020

Weekly briefing: The real battle to come


Perhaps it was a fitting end to a truly bizarre week in British public life.

After seven days dominated by arguments about memorials and history, yesterday saw a group of braindead thugs turning up to “protect” a statue of Winston Churchill – which had already been boarded up –  from a non-existent group of adversaries. If that wasn’t absurd enough, we had the bitterly ironic sight of some demonstrators doing Nazi salutes at a gathering to lionise the man who did as much as anyone to defeat Hitler.

If the rabble of pseudo-patriots who descended on Parliament Square had been trying to strike a blow in the culture war they could hardly have done a worse job – attacking the police, intimidating bystanders and, in one case, appearing to urinate right next to the memorial for murdered PC Keith Palmer.

Although the Prime Minister and Home Secretary both tweeted a response to yesterday’s events, their political significance should not be overstated. Here was, in essence, a bunch of far-right loons and bored football hooligans deprived of their usual cathartic day out – very menacing, certainly, but not a reflection of who we are as a country.

Away from the fringes, what does this week’s smorgasbord of national navel-gazing mean for the future of our politics? Will arguments about comedians in blackface, ‘controversial’ episodes of Fawlty Towers and statues of slave traders be the start of a lasting shift in our national conversation, or a strange coda to this strangest of years?

I strongly suspect that the answer is the latter. Much of the more extreme behaviour of recent weeks is probably the result of people seeking an outlet because so many of the things we would otherwise be doing are off limits.

Equally, it’s possible to inflate the significance of culture war battles because it’s so easy to find loud, strident voices on either side of the debate willing to say silly things and perpetuate the argument. And, as polling expert Matt Singh has noted, while voters might have an opinion on these issues when prompted, most would probably also tell you that they are far from a top priority.

As I wrote last week, that doesn’t mean sweeping legitimate concerns about racism and injustice aside. But, as Ian Acheson pointed out in a stirring piece on Thursday, there are a huge number of practical things you can do that don’t involve the kind of pointless posturing that has characterised recent events on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for the Government, the critical choices ahead are not about history teaching or statues, but what kind of economy we are going to have when the worst of the coronavirus recedes. Indeed, when the true scale of unemployment and business closures hits home later this year, a lot of people are going to wonder why we spent so much time and energy talking about statues.

As our editor-in-chief Robert Colvile writes in the Sunday Times today, there is a raging battle within the Conservative Party between tariff-slashing free traders and the farming and fishing protectionists.

Much of what Boris Johnson has said and written previously suggests he should come down in favour of the swashbuckling free traders, not least his speech in Greenwich earlier this year extolling the virtues of globalisation.

The recently published UK Global Tariff Schedule suggests ministers are trying to ride both horses at once, offering tariff cuts for some industries while protecting others – a position that does make one wonder, if cutting tariffs is such a good idea in one sector, why not adopt that prosperity-enhancing approach wholesale?

Here at CapX we will continue to make that case forcefully, not out of some kind of abstract ideological dogmatism, but because the practical benefits of free trade – more choice, better products and lower prices – will be more crucial than ever in our post-corona economy.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.