23 May 2021

Weekly briefing: Trees, trains and trade deals

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A tree, a train network and a trade deal – each tells us something distinct but related about sentiment, symbolism and substance.

First, to east London, where a new housing development has been put on hold because, horror of horrors, it would mean felling the Bethnal Green Mulberry – an old tree that doesn’t even stand up straight, but whose historic value apparently matters more than people having somewhere to live in our comically pricy capital. You’d be hard-pressed to conjure a better example of the toxic combination of misplaced sentimentality and well-organised vested interests.

Well, not that hard-pressed. Lobbyists for British agriculture must run the NIMBYs close for the most effective special interest in British politics. From ‘chlorinated chicken’ to a ‘tsunami’ of hormone-fed beef apparently coming our way from Australia, the National Farmers’ Union has created a compelling but largely evidence-free narrative that opening up our market is a threat not just to farmers, but to the health of the ordinary British shopper.

On the plus side, a tariff-free deal with Australia is going ahead. The problem is the Government has decided on a 15-year implementation period – ample time for the forces of protectionism to dig in their heels, or for a future government to U-turn. The huge delay smacks of a worrying reluctance to really push ahead with radical but politically tricky reform. The same thing seems to be happening with planning, where the Government’s original, very positive plans now risk being watered down in the face of the NIMBY-industrial complex (whose ranks include a great many shire Tories).

This half-in, half-out compromise perfectly captures the tensions and contradictions of this government. Even with a huge majority, a toothless opposition and an economy in need of drastic repair, the Conservatives still seem to lack the courage of their convictions. That’s partly down to genuine ideological disagreement, but it also suggests fear of upsetting any element of the Tory electoral coalition. The trouble is that avoiding a scene may be good politics now, but it creates a blueprint for inertia.

It’s not so much an absence of substantive policies, as that there is no clear rationale tying them together. Given that lack of ideological coherence, it’s understandable that the Government is majoring on symbolism.

The ‘levelling up’ agenda is a case in point. As a recent academic paper argues, it “may succeed through redefining redistribution to be more about status, recognition and standing” than equalising economic outcomes. You can see how this redefinition might take shape: some marquee infrastructure here, some relocated civil servants there, and a narrative of renewal can take hold without a Thatcher-esque programme of difficult but necessary reform.

An understanding of symbolism has also animated the plans announced this week for Great British Railways. There’s not a huge amount for free marketeers to get excited about here, although it’s worth noting that talk of re-nationalisation is overblown. Private companies will still operate services and, as Henry Hill pointed out on CapX, much of our network is already effectively nationalised.

The formation of GBR does show, however, that ministers are belatedly realising what nationalists have long known: that symbols and branding are integral to a sense of identity. A transport network with unashamedly British branding won’t save the Union on its own, but it’s the kind of thing the Government ought to be doing a lot more of.

So symbols and sentiment certainly do have their place, but they are not a substitute for coherent policies or economic improvement. And ultimately, if the NIMBYs and special interests carry on getting their way, no amount of political showmanship will compensate.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.