Britain Has Lost a Vision and Is Yet to Find a Role

The leadership black-hole is the real story of this year. The Union was nearly lost because the Westminster elites failed to articulate a convincing, positive vision of why the Scots should back the UK...

"It is a depressing indictment of the main parties that they appear to be allowing Ukip to dictate the turf on which the election is fought. Britain is not an illiberal or racist country. Growing support for Ukip is, instead, reflective of the fact that neither of the main parties has succeeded in building a convincing and positive vision for Britain in the wake of the financial crisis. Chasing Ukip's tail on immigration and Europe is an implicit admission that they have given up on this most important of tasks". Observer leader 12/10/14

The leadership black-hole is the real story of this year. The Union was nearly lost because the Westminster elites failed to articulate a convincing, positive vision of why the Scots should back the UK. They left the referendum battleground wide open for Alex Salmond to beguile 1.6 million people to embrace change. Now, they are losing the centre ground of British politics for the same reason, leaving swathes of territory for Nigel Farage to pose as a populist visionary.

The party leaderships should realise that they are the victims of a historic shock with three eras of British leadership coming to a crashing halt at the same time. Thatcher's era of turbo-capitalism ended with the nationalisation of the banks. Blair's era of moral interventionism ended in Iraq and Afghanistan. Far worse, is that the era of 20th century democracy cannot master the vast social and political changes that Thatcher and Blair unleashed and is itself therefore suffering a slow death.

Westminster tries to throw policy meat at a public eager for different food and better company. Faced with distant partymen trying to outbid each other the public feel alienated by their partisanship and demoralised by their vacuity. It is a serious crisis because this vision vacuum will not be filled for long by yet another mainstream leader with conventional promises. Faced with this triple whammy the public seek a Churchill, not - to quote Borges - two bald men fighting over a comb.

So, this week we will focus on three areas where Britain could show the convincing and positive vision the Observer and others called for yesterday.

First, on Tuesday bad figures should be expected from the European economy. It is likely that Westminster will treat this news by crowing at the comparative success of the UK economy, leaving the public indifferent or hostile to what appears to be economic bungling across the Channel. Instead, the UK should be joining with their peers on the continent to demand urgent action on the change all member states have agreed to. Completing the European Single Market and the American free trade deal will create many new jobs in the UK. This is a battle almost won. Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, the Baltics and Eastern Europe urge a final bonfire of red tape to free product, capital and labour markets. Italy, Spain and Portugal are responding. It takes leadership but the prize is a reformed and job-creating economy of 500 million. Following the UK's success in getting all 28 member states to sign up to reform and with Lord Hill now endorsed, the public should hear and see our determination to push this through. They won't, leaving the barn door wide open to UKIP's defeatism that change can never happen in the EU.

Second, the Ebola crisis needs Westminster to show what it can do with allies. When the Ebola virus was first identified in March as the cause of a series of mysterious deaths in the remote forests of Guinea, Britain led Europe to battle a disease that has now infected more than 7,000 Africans and already killed around half of those. The EU mobilized more money and health workers than the United States, China or anyone else for West Africa. European leaders now meet daily with aid groups in their emergency response unit to track and fight Ebola. Not that you would notice. Without the public seeing or hearing how the UK is corralling Europe to action, public anxieties grow, leaving populists throughout the continent seizing on the crisis to demand sharp curbs in immigration.

Thirdly, on Friday, back comes the referendum bill championed by Bob Neill MP. Following UKIP's by-election success it is possible that the bill will go forward, untroubled by filibustering or amendments. If so, the public will be left with party leaders offering them policy meat - a vote on Europe - without any taste of why, what or when. Presented as a dividing line between the parties, the public will not believe a Westminster that promises to deliver it and will switch off from the parties bickering over it. Without trusted leaders capable of winning political space to argue for Britain leading in a reformed EU, the public's confusion and frustration will endure, leaving UKIP declaring that all is a Westminster stich-up and it is simply better to leave.

Proud Brits want to see the UK step up and engage with these key issues. But, because Westminster can't articulate a comparable vision to the positive, if misguided, populism of Salmond and Farage, 65% of the public believe Britain has no influence, is ignored and strangled by Brussels diktats over which it has no control. The opposite is true. But with MPs incapable of urging the UK to shout about the leadership they do exercise, step up Nigel Farage to curse Westminster, ignore the national interest and paint his own picture of a pint and fag country bobbing and weaving in a dangerous world with no levers of power to pull.

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