Greg Clark MP: We need a new generation of leaders in local and national government with the courage to face up to our deepest problems
This is an edited extract from the inaugural Bruce-Lockhart Lecture by Greg Clark MP, published this week by Localis. Greg Clark is Minister for Decentralisation and also the Coalition's new Minister for Cities. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregclarkmp.
Winning the peace
Last year saw the formation of the first new coalition government for seventy years. As we look ahead to the next election what are the lessons we can learn from the previous coalition – the wartime government of 1940 to 1945?
Of course, there can be no exact parallels with the Second World War. No challenge we face today matches those faced by Churchill’s administration. But what we can say is that Britain faces its greatest fiscal crisis since the war; and that while our struggle is not for national survival, it is at least for national solvency, which in peacetime is about as serious as it gets.
Looking back at the ultimate fate of Churchill’s Government, what are the lessons for the current Government as it looks ahead? Inevitably, we are drawn to the general election of 1945, in which Churchill presented himself not as a party leader, but as a national leader – offering continuity and asking that he be judged on his wartime record. But despite leading his country to victory in the greatest conflict in human history, Churchill and the Conservative Party were overwhelmingly defeated at the ballot box. This is a warning from history to which we must pay heed. If even Winston Churchill could win the war, but lose the peace, then so could we.
But how? How can a government guide its people through a time of crisis and yet be rejected at the end of it? Looking back to 1945, there are two inter-related explanations:
The first of these is that in overcoming such a crisis, sacrifices must be made. If it is shared fairly, people are willing to pay the price, but only in return for the hope of a better future. A party that offers the most compelling vision of that future is well on the way to victory.
The second explanation is that crises don’t happen by accident, they are rooted in the mistakes of the past. Dealing with the consequences may be the immediate priority, but a longer-term reckoning is needed. The country will look for a post-crisis Government that has repudiated the mistakes of the past and offers a fresh start.
Earning our living
One of the less damaging effects of a really bad crisis is the shattering of old illusions. As Warren Buffet once said, “it’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” I think it’s time we told the naked truth about the problems we face today. The underlying factor that links them all is this:
We have forgotten that as individuals, and as a nation, we have to earn a living. We have to produce as well as consume. Make as well as take. That might seem like common sense, but in the last decade or so we have taken leave of our senses. Time and again we have failed to bring production and consumption into balance. As a nation, we need to ask – and answer – the question: how are we going to earn a living? This requires us to commit ourselves to modernising the productive side of our economy.
The foundation of that must be education. When China and India are producing graduates in their millions we cannot simply assume that we in the west will have the better educated – and therefore more productive – workforce. As Shadow Energy Secretary before the election, I was constantly told by some of the most brilliant and successful engineering firms that the constraint on their growth was not orders, but the availability of new recruits with sufficient skills in maths and science to enable them to advance in the workplace. That’s why the pace and urgency and ambition of Michael Gove’s school reforms are so absolutely vital. And it is why we need to be clearer that the purpose of our higher education reforms is to make sure that the courses that British undergraduates and postgraduates take are well taught and of a high quality so that they produce positive returns to individuals and the country – and not unserviceable debt for both.
Of course, we cannot hope to earn our living as a nation when so many of our people are unable to earn a living as individuals. Despite the years of plenty, the economic growth and record government spending, the previous Government failed to solve the problem of long-term worklessness – especially among young people, but also more generally.
In seeking to tackle poverty and inequality, Labour focused on the redistribution of income, without paying sufficient heed to how that income was earned. In doing so, incentives to work were undermined. Now, the current Government has to tackle these unresolved issues in the most difficult of circumstances. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that “those who would exchange liberty for security deserve neither.” One might also add that “those who would accept a little more dependency for a little less inequality end up with plenty of both.”
But there is hope – something for which we have Sandy Bruce-Lockhart to thank. His great vision as leader of Kent County Council was based on the principle of independence – the idea that there is nothing inevitable about widespread, chronic worklessness. He believed that incentives to work can be restored and obstacles to work overcome. And what’s more he acted on that belief, pioneering a new approach under the heading of the Kent Supporting Independence Programme.
Its watchword was integration, because dependency on the state is not a simple relationship. Individuals have to deal with countless agencies, offices and departments – as if they weren’t individuals at all, but a collection of unrelated problems to be unbundled and farmed out to disconnected bureaucracies. Sandy turned that approach on its head. He drew together public, private and voluntary bodies across the county and united them around the principle – and practice – of supporting independence. And rather than simply cutting welfare bills as end itself, he secured Treasury agreement to retain some of the savings in the County and reinvest them in the prevention of dependency.
A right of initiative
Sandy was a master negotiator, securing agreements from the Treasury that would have been denied to many ministers at the time. However, even he was only able to get so far; Whitehall intransigence was to prevent the Supporting Independence Programme from achieving its full potential. The greatest tribute we can pay to Sandy’s memory today is to tear down those barriers to local innovation.
I’m glad to say that progress has already been made on this front, not least with the Localism Bill currently making its way through Parliament. But we need to go further still. If we are serious in believing that Westminster and Whitehall do not have the monopoly on good ideas – as I am – then central government must act on that logic. The General Power of Competence in the Localism Bill overturns the historic position that local government exists, literally, to do those things that central government requires it to do. Instead, local government will be able to do anything that it wishes unless it is expressly forbidden by Parliament.
To follow that logic, I believe that councils – acting in cooperation with other local agencies – should be given the right to make proposals to the Government as to how things could be done differently. This could be over the provision of services or it could be about pooling budgets in return for a set of commitments on outcomes. Councils should, in other words, be able to propose a deal. And rather than requiring everything to conform to a national template, central government should approach each proposal constructively. Indeed, central government should operate under a clear presumption that, unless is can provide an overwhelming case to the contrary, it will actively facilitate these local initiatives.
We need a new generation of leaders like Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. Men and women with the courage to face up to our deepest problems, the imagination to seek lasting solutions and the determination to turn vision into reality. I believe that such people can be found within every community, in local government, our public services, the business world and civil society – and that, given the chance, they have the potential to transform this country. So we need to choose: will we prop-up the discredited power structures of the past or do we allow the best of Britain to come to the fore? Winning the peace depends upon our answer.