The great renewal

Writers and thinkers on the reset Britain needs after 14 years of Conservative government
July 10, 2024

After 14 years of Conservative government, Britain is undergoing a moment of extraordinary political change. What kind of a country might we create, if given the chance? Prospect invited writers and thinkers to reflect on the reset we can expect—and hope for.

I’m dreaming not of utopia but the will to take the long view

Linda Grant

In August 1938, the poet Louis MacNeice began a diary in verse, which would be published the following spring. The Autumn Journal, as it was called, starts at the end of summer, holidaymakers returning with tans and wallets full of snaps. It lingers on the painful memory of the Spanish Civil War, written as it was before the fall of Barcelona, draws an affectionate portrait of an affair with the painter Nancy Coldstream, and describes a day trip to Oxford for a byelection. In the campaign against the appeasement candidate, Quintin Hogg, MacNeice went there to get out the vote.

He looks out from the window of his flat in Primrose Hill, “Whose summit once was used for a gun emplacement/And very likely will/Be used that way again.” In the final section, he proposes that we dream: “And pray for a possible land/Not of sleepwalkers, not of angry puppets/But where both heart and brain can understand/The movements of our fellows/Where life is a choice of instruments and none/Is debarred his natural music.” And on it goes, a vision of a future beyond the coming war, a prophecy in which his “coward doubts” about socialism are banished.  

As I write this on the eve of the 2024 general election, whether or not the polls have over-egged the result, we can be assured of a comfortable Labour victory. With it, this country will have a government that is the repository of the dreams of many, some of whom will demand the righting of every wrong as can be accomplished with a huge majority. But this time, it doesn’t feel like things can only get better. Perhaps Labour will be able to make a dent in public debt and private insolvency expressed as the cost-of-living crisis, the three-week wait for a GP appointment, the unaffordable rental sector and the vanishingly small chance of buying a home without help from mum and dad. But how will it deal with the war threatening to burst out beyond Ukraine and Gaza, a new worldwide conflict and the threat of an annihilation-level event in the form of climate breakdown? We are, some warn, in the most dangerous period of our history since 1938.

I’ve reached for my copy of Autumn Journal often in the past few months. Its poetic achievement is to describe a personal and political landscape in which the private and the public are of equal value; where it is possible to hope for a reimagining of the human condition. As individuals we are, on average, more progressive than someone living in 1938 might have been, more at ease with diversity, even though Reform has gained from the refusers. But my fears in 2024 are of Britons unable to wrench themselves from the mesmeric present (we are all encouraged to practise mindfulness, 10 minutes in the moment) in order to see what’s in front of us. 

When you’re under the cosh of a no-fault eviction with nothing in your price range to move into, when you’re waiting in agony for an operation that’s cancelled repeatedly, the fate of photogenic polar bears is unlikely to command your attention. Climate change is too doomy, too sciencey; it’s a luxury issue. The extinction level event of Nazism was defeated, and many of MacNeice’s hopes were to be realised with Labour’s 1945 landslide. But, like him, we’re still at the beginning of the beginning. After the chaos and corruption of the past 14 years, I’m dreaming not of utopia but the will and vision to take the long view—“And do not hanker/For a perfection which can never come.”

Linda Grant is a novelist and journalist


None of this is easy—the essential things never are

Justin Welby

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote that we should not see the world in terms of exchange and equivalence, but of abundance and grace. Thinking like this puts the world into a different context. We find ourselves looking at a new five-year term of government and, as after all elections, we wonder if things will change. That’s what made me think of Ricoeur. Abundance and grace are so much more descriptive of reality than the fake clarity of exchange and equivalence that the market offers. Abundance and grace are untidy, full of differences and puzzling paradoxes. Abundance and grace give us different answers on “who is my neighbour?”, and thus someone or some group to whom I owe love in action; or to the question “how do I deal with enemies, or potential enemies?” They cast a new light on matters of defence, overseas aid, the benefits system, the NHS, employment law, climate change and so on. 

These terms demand a change in worldview, not just in what and how we analyse. In their spirit, I suggest four essentials. First, embrace complexity; avoid binaries. Any problem involving human beings is almost always without definitive answers. Wars and conflicts are very often of infinite intricacy and require not simple answers (make peace!), but outcomes that reconcile by changing violent conflict into increasingly non-violent disagreement. That always involves difficult agreements made between people who are not all good.

Second, be honest about the challenges we face, be bold in tackling them and trust the people to reciprocate. This would be the hardest, and likely most controversial, change. We know that increasing national wealth, improving the NHS, bringing peace in Ukraine, Sudan, Gaza and so forth, or any other promise, all require massive mobilisation of ideas and partnerships, as well as brilliant leadership and iron nerves. We know it takes time. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Third, develop generosity of assumption and courage of speech and of action. We will always need generosity and courage for the times when we await results. These virtues lead us to investment in long-term change, as well as seeking to take quick and simple wins. Educational improvements have their roots in a series of decisions that go all the way back to the 1988 Baker reforms. Having raised five children of varying gifts who all attended state schools, we have seen the changes. 

Finally, practise forgiveness, and affirm responsibility and accountability. Things go wrong, people sin, institutions are fallible but necessary. We have drifted into a culture that believes in sinless perfection and human infallibility. But no persons or groups of people are like that. Amid the complexity of threats, the hurly burly of numerous demands on those in authority, they will not always see the bad apple. They will not always ask the right questions or be given accurate and truthful answers. That is human nature.

Culpability is essential for reckless or persistent negligence or wrongdoing. But scapegoating leads to fearful leadership, weak institutions and harm. A leader may rightly be accountable, but forgivable if they understand what has gone wrong—and seek to put it right. That is abundant grace, an honest recognition of complexity, a humility accepting our own limitations, and a willingness to forgive. None of this is easy, but the essential things never are.

Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Canterbury

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Any vision of my daughters’ future is necessarily gendered

Leah Hazard

When invited to envision a better future for Britain, naturally—perhaps selfishly—my thoughts turn to the people who matter to me most: my children. I have two daughters. At age 17 and 21, these young women are just beginning to explore the promise and potential of the adult world. Regrettably, but inevitably, they are also starting to understand the threats, frustrations and limitations of being female in our society. While I might like to think that my daughters can “have it all”—whatever their individual versions of “it all” might be—I know that their existence is gendered, and so, necessarily, must be any vision of their future. 

Parents often say that they can tolerate any of life’s twists and turns as long as their children are healthy; my aspirations, too, are built on this simple foundation. At the bare minimum, I would like to imagine a world in which my daughters can access healthcare efficiently and effectively. They should be able to see a GP if needed without undue delay. If they require gynaecological care, they should also receive that appointment in a timeframe that doesn’t risk worsening their condition. Currently, in England, nearly 600,000 women are on a gynaecology waiting list, with 31,000 waiting over a year. Here in Scotland, I recently waited 19 months to be seen by a gynaecologist. I wouldn’t wish this stressful, and at times dangerous, ordeal on anyone’s children. 

If the arc of my daughters’ lives includes a journey to motherhood, I’d like to see a future in which they can engage with a well-funded and safely staffed maternity service, one led by a culture of compassion and excellence, in which midwives and doctors feel empowered to develop their skills and, where necessary, raise concerns. My elder daughter, now a medical student, will join those doctors’ ranks very soon. I’d like to think her wage will be a fair one, with full pay restoration for her and her colleagues.  

After the arrival of any hypothetical grandchildren, I’d like to imagine that my daughters will have the option of enjoying shared parental leave, in line with some of our more progressive European neighbours. If and when they decide to return to work, they should be offered subsidised, wraparound childcare staffed by well-trained and fairly paid early-years practitioners. Dare I even hope that my daughters won’t experience the “motherhood penalty” of limited opportunities and inequitable wages as they progress in their careers?  

I dare to dream all this and more, and with these dreams, I lay down the gauntlet to any future government. British women are no less worthy of health or prosperity than their male counterparts. This shouldn’t be some idealistic aspiration—it should be a bare minimum. With any luck, our new government might manage to raise that bar for successive generations. They may even surpass my modest hopes.

Leah Hazard is a midwife, author, and activist


Britain must be a good country in which to live, but also to die

Ruth Davidson

At their most basic level, election campaigns are a series of promises about the sort of country we could live in, if we vote a certain way, and scare stories about the bad that might happen by voting another. Much of the basis of the various parties’ promises—or threats, depending on how you view them—is about how we live; the taxes we pay, the houses built for us, the services provided for our needs. 

I want more than that. In the next parliament, I’d like to hear politicians talk about what kind of country we want to die in. Yes, the opportunity of a good life is important—of course it is. But it’s time that we cared enough to discuss our citizens being allowed a good death, too.

When I joined the House of Lords in 2021, I made my maiden speech on the issue of assisted dying, admitting that in my 10 years in Holyrood, voting against a private members’ bill to introduce it in Scotland was my biggest political regret. That bill, introduced over a decade ago, was hugely flawed—its drafting was mediocre and the safeguards not strong enough. It was easy to vote against it without engaging properly with its subject. 

We are a lot further forward now and there are many more examples to study. From Luxembourg to New Zealand, there are 400m people in the world living in countries and territories that have introduced some form of assisted dying, giving people agency over their final hours and dignity in death. No parliament or sub-parliamentary legislature that has granted permission for assisted dying has chosen to rescind it. 

It is estimated that up to 650 terminally ill people in the UK take their own lives each year. An average of one British citizen every week travels to Switzerland for help to end their life. UK membership of Dignitas, the Swiss assisted dying association, has risen to record highs and Britons now constitute the second-largest nationality, behind Germans. 

As more people across the UK care for, support or watch a member of their family or friendship group face chronic or terminal illness, the public mood in favour of new measures shifts. In February, the polling company Opinium asked 10,000 people their views on assisted dying. As many as 75 per cent of respondents were in favour, with only 14 per cent opposed. At this election, it is worth noting the majority support for changing the law in every single constituency in Britain. 

Professional resistance is also changing. Last year the Royal College of Surgeons ended its opposition to assisted dying measures. In so doing, it followed the lead of the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association.  

Issues of conscience are generally not whipped in parliament. That means the political parties allow MPs to vote with their own beliefs. But laws can only be voted on and enacted if parliamentary time is given so that the issues can be discussed. The Liberal Democrats were explicit in their manifesto that they would devote parliamentary time to “fully debate and vote on legislation on assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with strict safeguards”, while the Conservatives linked a commitment to a free vote with ensuring continued support for hospices. 

Assisted dying didn’t make it into the Labour manifesto, but Keir Starmer has said that he is “personally in favour of changing the law”, and that he will make time available for it as prime minister. 

Nobody likes to think about their own death and particularly not of the idea that we might die in pain or without agency. The time to start those difficult conversations is here—and the country is already ahead of the politicians. Yes, let’s make the UK a better place to live, but let’s also make it a country that offers people a good death, too.

Ruth Davidson is the former leader of the Scottish Conservative Party


This country is crying out for proper, serious government

Ferdinand Mount

Policy, who needs it? Fresh ideas, forget it. What this country is crying out for is proper, serious, grown-up, consistent government (insert your own adjectives). Government that makes things work. 

We have not come to this unlovely pass by accident. There is seldom any mystery about why nations fall into exhaustion, poverty and despair. With a decent government, almost any country can come through the worst pandemic or financial implosion. Damaged, yes, but not demoralised or rudderless. A bad government can destroy even the richest country (Argentina, once one of the world’s wealthiest nations, has been a prime example). 

For the past eight years, Britain has suffered a succession of the most chaotic and incompetent prime ministers in its history. Each of them has been driven hither and thither by a fractious, cloth-headed bunch of party zealots who never paused for an instant to consider the consequences. Britain’s present discontents are all directly attributable to the wayward demands of the Tory ultras. 

Our overseas trade continues to be crippled, because Dominic Cummings, the Svengali of the Brexit process, deliberately refused to prepare an exit plan, writing on his eponymous blog that “there is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue”. The “Cummings Swerve” is still in operation. If this year’s dismal election campaign had a single watchword, it was: “Don’t mention Brexit.” Foreign observers are themselves embarrassed to watch our national shame.  

Local councils have been bankrupted by being starved of central funds and by the refusal of successive governments (Labour as well as Tory) to reform council tax. Raw sewage is now so visible in our rivers that we can no longer ignore the damage done by the deliberate shrinking of the Environment Agency and the feebleness of Ofwat, the water services regulator. Both bodies have been in existence for more than two decades, ample time to put right the mistakes of the early years and stop public health being put at risk for the benefit of greedy investors. 

In the National Health Service, cumulative funding shortfalls are producing ever lengthening queues for treatment. Cancer charities reported in May that delays in diagnosis and surgery had nearly doubled over the past year. Covid-19 demonstrated not only Boris Johnson’s blithe let-the-bodies-pile-high instincts but also his indulgence of favoured contractors for supplying protective equipment. 

And what about immigration, the biggest failure of all? Since Brexit, immigration for work purposes from non-EU nations has risen by more than a million. We all have our favourite Rishi Sunak gaffes: calling the election in a thunderstorm without an umbrella; choosing the Titanic shipyard to launch his campaign in Northern Ireland; skipping the final D-Day celebrations. But nothing quite equals his crouching behind that ghastly lectern emblazoned with STOP THE BOATS, which (a) he had no intention of doing, let alone planning for, and (b) was anyway a minor irritant beside the real problem. 

I could name other areas in which we have been rottenly governed over the past decade. But the point is clear. What we need above all is to restore proper standards, not least restoring in full the Ministerial Code, which Johnson so shamefully diluted. 

Some people complained that the Labour manifesto contained no new ideas. That’s just what I liked about it. What I want to see instead are Labour’s paladins of public administration, such as Sue Gray and Pat McFadden, getting cracking on all fronts. I’m no pessimist. I am confident that a properly run government which sets out to restore the damage will make rapid progress. But God, what a shower we have been through, and I don’t mean the one that drenched the last prime minister. 

Ferdinand Mount is an author and journalist

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I hope we can start to look at Britain’s future with honesty

Angela Saini

When I left London for New York at the height of Boris Johnson’s government, it felt like something of a relief. It was shortly after ministers had started warning museums (including some where I worked as an adviser) not to remove statues for fear of looking too woke. Watching my home country from a distance, I wondered for a while if I was the only one who felt that it had slid wholesale into a weird parochialism, verging on the same paranoia seen in the most conspiracy-minded corners of American politics. 

But when I visited, friends and colleagues also complained bitterly about how strange things had been lately. It was like the dynamism had been sucked out of the country and replaced with a nervous hatred of migrants, Muslims and, finally, the tiny transgender minority. Living standards had spiralled downwards for all but the wealthiest. Fellow writers and creatives began to decamp. One of my sisters moved permanently to Germany with her filmmaker husband, barely pausing to look back.

Most of the blame lies with the Conservatives. Like any political party that outstays its welcome, it was a nest of vipers by the end. Their internal anxiety rubbed off on the public, making us believe that we were under attack and that the only answer was to lock down the borders and sniff out supposed traitors. The real threat, of course, was only ever to the Conservatives themselves. They knew their plug was being pulled, and they were dragging everyone else down into the gutter with them.

My hope after the election is that we can shake off the dark spell we’ve been under for the past decade and start to look at Britain’s future with honesty. The country has lost its political and economic standing over the past 50 years, living off the fumes of former empire. Unless it intends to start colonising countries again, stripping them of their resources, its inevitable fate is as a mid-tier economy like the Netherlands or Spain. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a fine place to be, actually, and probably a more natural fit for a country of Britain’s size. We can make this work.

And perhaps, once Britain leaves its hall of mirrors and takes a good look at itself as it really is (not as it imagines itself to be), perhaps then the nation can also open up its heart again. For too long, we’ve been sold the idea that the best of Britain is in the decrepit institution of monarchy, or in James Bond, Union Jacks, village greens and cream teas. In truth, the best has always been in everyday people’s homes, warm and welcoming, suspicious of snake oil and strongmen. My hope is that Britain can once more be the kind of place that gives short shrift to men like Nigel Farage, a place that has absolutely no problem with police officers dancing with drag queens at Pride, that would tell someone abusing a Muslim woman on the bus to go screw themselves. It could be that place where incomes may not be as high as they are in the United States or Germany or Australia, but what we have, we are willing to share. 

In a world in which far-right populists are taking power by weaponising fear, it’s not too late for Britain to become the beacon where that fear is resisted.

Angela Saini is the author of four books, including The Patriarchs, which was a finalist for the Orwell Prize. She is a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We need to ask what’s missing in our political culture

Rowan Williams

There will have been a lot of nose-holding in the polling booths. Our new government is one to which many people are resigned because it is the less toxic and chaotic option, rather than one whose vision has captured them. And the ironic, reverse side of this is the series of inflammatory warnings about the risks of “one-party government” issued with increasing frenzy by the losers. 

It is time, surely, for some joined-up thinking. The question of who holds to account an overwhelming majority in parliament is a good one (mysteriously not asked in 2019 by many who are asking it now), because it keeps on the radar one of the least popular aspects of law-governed democracy—the idea of “losers’ consent.” How does a majority offer a minority enough to give them a stake in the continuing democratic process? When a party like Plaid Cymru—by definition a minority party in the UK context—potentially casts itself as a force able to hold a large Labour majority to account, it is showing a grasp of this ideal. 

But this presses us towards a radical rethink of the electoral system itself. If we are indeed living through a period where historic party identities, even to some extent the conventional categories of left and right, are in flux, the crudity of a first-past-the-post (FPTP) model becomes starkly evident. If we are seriously interested in accountability, there is a case for devising an electoral system that does a better job of it. 

What about the risks of “paralysis by coalition” that are regularly invoked at this point? They are real enough (and daily reinforced for us by the effects of Israel’s current internal political tragedies). But once again, we might try joining things up. If alternatives to FPTP produce yet more stand-offs, what is missing in the wider political culture? Are we doing enough to offer the kind of popular political education that might help us all understand what actual shared decision-making is like? If national politics has become—as it is in such danger of becoming—a spectator sport where headline-catching rather than effective decision-making is the measure of success, we urgently need investment in two things. 

First, very obviously, we need a new approach to civic education in schools. Practice varies a lot—enough to produce a significant number of frustrated young people who would welcome more focused and animated exposure to the issues of society, in and out of school. The Democracy Box, a charity working in Wales through intensive short-term drop-in programmes, shows what the appetite is, and what can be achieved with modest resources. 

But lifelong political learning is at least as significant. So, second, more consultative processes of the “citizens’ jury” variety are needed. If these are seen to make an impact on decisions, they will gain traction. No culture that wants to be truly democratic can indefinitely sidestep the challenge of devising systems in which people learn about politics by doing it—by the immersion in fact-finding, the weighing of alternatives, and the negotiating over losers’ consent involved in any such process. 

What might make our political world healthier? Education, but not one more bolt-on to an exhausted curriculum: experience and exposure; participation; a sense of dignity and agency, as well as an understanding of the pressures of actual decisions. I’m not holding my breath that any party will pick this up soon. But if they did it could result in fewer people holding their noses.  

Rowan Williams is a Welsh Anglican bishop, theologian and poet and the former Archbishop of Canterbury


Keir Starmer must turn public rage into hope

Fintan O’Toole

Keir Starmer may have got more than he bargained for. The deal he offered British voters was cautious and circumspect. The mandate they have given him is vast and historic. The big question is whether he and his government can rise to the level of their own victory.

It’s easy to understand why Labour’s single-word slogan—“Change”—was whispered politely rather than shouted from the rooftops. The years since the great banking collapse of 2008 have been, from the party’s point of view, one humiliation after another. To lose power is bad; to lose it repeatedly to the tragicomic charade that the Tory party has become is traumatic. For anyone with a vestige of patriotism, being forced to watch impotently while one’s country is wrecked by chancers, cynics, liars and lunatics is to have one’s soul sapped by despair.

The resultant anxiety led Starmer to conclude that the only possible political voyage for post-Brexit Britain is one that keeps close to shore, remaining in sight of the familiar landmarks of conservatism. Instead, he has caught the powerful current of public anger felt across Britain, which has swept him into uncharted waters. It is the “tide in the affairs of men” that Shakespeare’s Brutus evokes: “On such a full sea are we now afloat;/And we must take the current when it serves,/ Or lose our ventures.”

Trying to sail against that current will be more dangerous for Starmer than going with it. The propulsive force that has driven this sea-change in British politics is primarily fuelled not by hope but by revulsion. Starmer has to direct that negative energy to positive ends.

He needs to confront the social dereliction that shames a rich country in which five-year-olds are now on average shorter than they were a decade ago, and where one million children are living in destitution. He needs to restore the dignity that functioning public services—most obviously the NHS—gave to the lives of British people. He needs to channel the public’s disgust at the pollution of England’s waterways and seacoasts into support for an environmental revolution. He needs to be honest in addressing the consequences of Brexit, both for Britain’s stagnant economy and for its standing in the world.  

He needs to acknowledge that Brexit itself—and the political circus that accompanied it—highlighted the extreme vulnerability of a polity without a written constitution, with deep tensions between its constituent nations, with an electoral system that produces unrepresentative governments and with utter absurdities like the House of Lords. Wrapping himself in the Union flag and declaring that Britain is great may have served his electoral purposes, but it does not acknowledge, let alone begin to solve, the problems inherent in Britain’s antiquated forms of democracy.

No one expects the new British government to do all of this immediately. But there is also no point in moaning about the mess Labour has inherited. If voters didn’t know about that already, they would not have inflicted such savage punishment on the Conservatives. Starmer and his ministers have to create a narrative of transformation, a clear vision of how a better society is being born.

Britain has felt, in the last decade, like a dying world. In kicking out so mercilessly those who were killing it, the electorate have chosen, in Dylan Thomas’s phrase, to “rage against the dying of the light”. Rage is not a solution, but in the state that Britain is in, it is the most available energy. Starmer should recognise that, if he does not conduct it into concrete hope, it will turn on him too.

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist at the Irish Times and author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain

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Bringing people together can revive a national sense of purpose

Dominic Grieve

It may be the consequence of my removal from party politics, but I have found this general election devoid of any real sense of purpose beyond the removal of a government whose overall record is one of manifest failure. Any reasoned debate about the best future for our country has been notably absent. Instead, we have had an election of soundbites and media focus on the sensational trivia of politics. Is it any wonder that faith in politics and politicians should be so low? 

It should not be so. Democratic politics at its best is about how the politicians we support can match the aspirations of the electorate with difficult realities, to deliver for our common good. We have been fairly good at doing this over most of the last century. Our collective quality of life has been enhanced as a result. But we are now mired in despondency, too often pursuing political fantasies as substitutes for reasoned choices. We have also allowed standards of behaviour in government to free-fall. 

A new government can act differently. The first and easiest step is to restore trust. Giving statutory independence to a commissioner for standards in government, empowered to inquire into alleged breaches of the ethics sections of the Ministerial Code would be a good start. This must be linked to workable and transparent rules to deal with ministers’ and MPs’ conflicts of interest. The prime minister’s power to appoint peers to the House of Lords should be limited by the right of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to reject candidates for unsuitability and the requirement to state publicly the merit and purpose of each appointment. The right of the PM to confer honours outside of the scrutiny of the honours system committees should be removed. The Electoral Commission should get back its full independence as the regulator of democratic process, with proper powers to sanction breaches. A wise government would also see value in improving scrutiny of its bills and statutory instruments by parliament. 

For our economy, we can build on our strengths. We have much to offer in the fields of higher education, science and research and professional services. We have thousands of SMEs that could prosper in the right environment. Yet we often fail to translate this into increased productivity and wealth creation—a problem that goes back decades. We are now living with a collective refusal to accept that Brexit has damaged our goods and services exports, as well as inward investment. The government needs the courage to lead a national conversation. The shared services that we enjoy depend on it. We need to question the centralised model of our government for much of their delivery and what added value our regulations bring.   

In a dangerous world, those with whom we share values of freedom and democracy are key allies. A government that ceases to perpetuate myths of our global military power and reach, one that focuses on the parlous state of our national defences and how we can cooperate with others, could do much for us. 

 But above all we need a new language of cooperative endeavour. We are, as a society, interdependent for our wellbeing on people often very different from ourselves. All have the capacity to contribute positively. Yet we seem focused on attacking others for their views and way of life. We engage in utterly sterile culture wars that bring no benefit to anyone. A government that brings people together can revive a national sense of purpose. From this, much other good can flow.

Dominic Grieve is barrister and former attorney general for England and Wales


I want Britain to be inclusive, welcoming, expansive in its outlook

Pragya Agarwal

A few days ago, I was speaking with my eight-year-old twins about the upcoming election and I asked them what one thing the government should do to make the country a better place. One of them thought about it for a few seconds and very quickly said: “They need to put up big posters and screens everywhere telling people to stop killing animals and we need to eat more vegetables rather than meat.” The other said rather seriously: “Everyone should be able to eat, and the government should make food available to those who cannot afford to buy food and who don’t have money for their family. It is very sad.”

It felt important to me to ask the next generation what kind of world they envisage and what their priorities might be, now or in the future, as they are growing up. Climate change and the environment feel very important to these kids, who are growing up in a warming world. And the lack of equal access to resources and opportunities is something they are not only noticing around them but understand—even at such a young age—that it ought to be a basic right.  

We cannot dispute the evidence that climate change is affecting the most marginalised populations, and we know that it intensifies the impact on women’s health, especially in deprived areas. I have written much about inequalities in healthcare, and this is something that is becoming even more evident with mounting data of how racism and misogyny are embedded in the medical system, impacting not only the patients but also the medical professionals themselves. There are intersectional effects to these inequalities across geography, income, socially excluded groups and specific characteristics (race, gender, disability, class, etc). Women from deprived areas in England are 3.6 times more likely to die from avoidable causes compared to others. The climate emergency is a health emergency. These two things are very much interlinked. 

The extremes of environment will be felt most acutely by vulnerable groups, exacerbating living costs, as well as limiting access to healthcare and amplifying inequalities.  

The recent political era has created a divided country, an inward-looking country, smaller in mindset and outlook. The general mood is cynical. A country cannot flourish in a state of malaise and despondency. I want to look ahead with optimism, at possibilities. I want all of us to be able to do this, to feel hopeful and revitalised. I want Britain to be inclusive, welcoming, expansive in its outlook, not blinkered and narrow-minded, keeping people out. I want to envisage a world where inclusivity—a true sense of belonging for all people in this country no matter who they are—is a key goal, a basic right.  

Things have to change. We need a rigorous public health framework integrated with a sound and scientifically evidenced climate change action plan. We still have an opportunity to do this, as we have more data and research in these areas.  

But, most importantly, I want to hope that the changes we make today will ensure that we will leave a better world behind for our children, where they will prosper and flourish, where they can feel hope and optimism, too. The government can only do this if it creates coherent people-centred public policy, a framework that carves out and demands opportunities and equal access for all.  

Pragya Agarwal is an academic and writer


We need representatives who support the benign responsibilities of the state

David Hare

A rare instance when I have been more than modestly prophetic was when I gave the Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture at Trinity College, Oxford in 2016. My speech predicted the end of the Conservative party, because, I argued, the party no longer made any philosophical sense. The year before, David Cameron had been affirmed at the polls. The Brexit referendum still lay some months  ahead. So my analysis was greeted by the university intellectuals with disbelief. Everyone told me that the greatest election-winning machine in the world was clanking along as normal.

Eight years ago, it was already obvious to me that it made no sense to preach the benefits of the free market while putting all your efforts into preventing the free movement of people. The two freedoms were inextricable. Since then, everything has conspired to prove the point. The Tories have foundered and split, never able to settle on anything. But in retrospect I wish I had also identified a second, equally fundamental cause of their future decline.

It was Ronald Reagan in 1986 who joked that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. It’s a strange sentiment to invoke when you yourself are making a well-subsidised career in the profession of politics. Margaret Thatcher was rightly accused of hypocrisy when she made her ferocious attacks on the state. She, meanwhile, drew a fat salary from the taxpayer without complaint. But Reagan’s hostility was deeper and more dangerous. If you don’t believe in government’s power to do good, why on Earth would you choose to operate in that designated sector? It’s like someone who hates cricket running cricket. Or, as they do now, people who hate art running the Arts Council.

Since 2010, Britain’s prospects have been obstructed by politicians who claim to believe that the state’s principal duty is to step aside and allow the natural genius of its citizens to work things out. It’s a crappy philosophy for two reasons. First, it consigns to history all the most important domestic achievements of the past century—the creation of the welfare state, the availability of medicine, the building of clean and decent housing for the poorest, the spread of basic education—all of which remain conclusive evidence of the splendid things which only the state can do. But the rhetoric of denigrating government is also dishonest because it’s so clearly selective. Even the most state-averse hysteric seems happy for the state to go crashing into areas of their own preference, immigration being but one example. Nor does inconsistency detain them when they demand that the state intervenes to ban certain styles of protest against their own policies. Censoring the BBC by putting government placemen on the board is good state intervention. Getting the trains running or the water clean would be bad.

I’m way beyond the point of caring which party rules. Liz Truss and Boris Johnson didn’t destroy the Tory party. By my reckoning, that was already a work in progress. What our two delinquent leaders destroyed was faith in government itself. All I want for Britain’s future is representatives who support the benign responsibilities of the state and are willing to exercise them. Please: believe in those, or choose another job. 

David Hare is a playwright and screenwriter

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Labour must restore the state

Mariana Mazzucato

The recent election holds the promise of change. But whether new leadership will reverse Britain’s slide into subpar performance on growth, cost-of-living and climate depends on the new government’s commitment to change more than just who is in power. Britain requires a different way of governing.

There are some signs that Labour understands the task ahead, that it is willing to move beyond change as a narrative device. These changes must encompass a new approach to growth and a redesign of the state’s tools, institutions and partnerships.

Since 2010, austerity has taken a human and economic toll. Consequences range from crumbling schools to knife crime. An obsession with managing down debt has led to underinvestment in the drivers of growth. By investing intelligently, the state can expand the economy’s productive capacity, bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio. Britain’s future depends on Labour recognising this, and avoiding the trap of attempting to appear fiscally responsible by underinvesting. Worryingly, Labour’s investment commitments remain modest. The fiscal rules that Rachel Reeves has articulated suggest that Labour will delay vital investments until debt is down and growth is up. This, as I have argued elsewhere, is like waiting for your car to start moving before putting in fuel. 

Alongside embracing investment-led growth, we need Britain’s leaders to prioritise the direction of growth. Labour’s mission-oriented manifesto, inspired by my book Mission Economy: A moonshot guide to changing capitalism, signals a promising commitment to what Keir Starmer has called a “collective national purpose”. The idea is not new, but it has yet to be implemented successfully. Labour’s industrial strategy is a critical vehicle for fulfilling the potential of mission-driven government. Done right, it will bring economic, social and environmental policy goals into alignment. By identifying challenges that innovation is needed to solve, like climate change, this approach can create new market opportunities and pathways for cross-sectoral business investment (which has been lagging), catalysing growth. 

Labour’s commitment to a national wealth fund is encouraging, too. It can take inspiration from the recently launched community wealth fund in the London Borough of Camden. Camden’s wealth fund aims to stimulate community reinvestment aligned with the council’s “renewal missions”. Further afield, Germany’s KfW and Brazil’s BNDES demonstrate what it looks like to design and govern state investment banks to channel capital towards bold objectives. Globally, there is an active discussion about the changes needed to align development banks with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As these examples indicate, finance is not neutral. The goal should not only be to crowd in private investment, but to direct it to align with Labour’s missions. 

Importantly, Labour must change its tune on public-private collaboration. Instead of emphasising “business friendly” stability, the focus should be on working with the private sector in an outcomes-oriented manner. The terms of public-private partnerships must be set with confidence and a commitment to reciprocity. Business access to public sector funding should be conditional on mission alignment and with requirements designed to maximise public value. For example, conditions can mandate affordability and public access, profit-sharing and reinvestment in activities like research and development, while limiting shareholder buybacks (as in the case of the US CHIPS and Science Act). This approach stands in contrast to the piecemeal handouts to companies like Jaguar Land Rover that have characterised recent policy.

Public procurement—a powerful lever for shaping markets that correspond with government priorities —presents another strategic opportunity. Starmer has committed to increasing and better leveraging defence spend for economic growth and security, and to embedding pro-worker requirements in government contracts with big business. He should set his sights on a broader reform of procurement, which accounts for nearly a third of government spending in the UK.  

Finally, Britain has suffered from an underinvestment in the state through austerity and outsourcing to the big consulting firms. This has undermined its ability to tackle tough challenges. Britain needs leadership from a confident, empowered, ambitious government. To bring about change, therefore, Labour must also restore the state.  

Mariana Mazzucato is professor in the economics of innovation and Public Value at University College London, where she is founding director of the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose


Our politics should tackle inequality and rising temperatures

Antony Gormley

Can we imagine a country that is run not by politicians that decide policy and ministers that execute it, but by real debate in a parliament, where issues are embodied in the speakers? Can we imagine a country that is united in common belief over the direction that its evolution is taking (the future?) rather than being courted by petty advantage offered at the time of election (an increase in the family allowance, help with energy bills, promises to diminish hospital waiting times, and so on)? Where is our present politics leading us? 

In the morass of middle-management, and the distribution of always inadequate funds, we seem to have lost the belief that politics can appeal to higher values than those of comfort and security, spiced as these are by all those fears that what is ours will be stolen.

 The world, our world, the one we have made, is in a mess. We should be collaborating with all planetary inhabitants to rebalance it; this is a planetary issue that needs a planetary solution. Brexit was a disaster for Britain, but what it represents is a disaster for the planet—factionalism at a time when we should be working together. We need to mend this rift, work with our neighbours, rebuild all the alliances on education, scientific research, creative collaboration and environmental flourishing that we imagined before the world went bad. We need all of those national instruments of collective creativity, such as Arts Council England, which ensures that our artists flourish, and the British Council, which makes sure its work widens the horizons of its citizens. 

Fortress Britain is a prison, its creation is the monument to our failure. Our children are the living generation who will do what we have so far failed to achieve; that is, to create a politics of proportional representation. Such a politics must tackle the twin challenges of our time: rising inequality and rising temperatures. This is the generation that will reform party politics based on white versus blue collar, a social division that simply does not fit the realities of the cyber age. It will replace this politics with one in which original solutions are given credence and energy. Britain may no longer be great, but we are good at coming up with inventive solutions under stress which can help all living beings. This is the greatest value there is. 

Antony Gormley is an artist

This article has been updated to correct the description of Paul Ricoeur as a Catholic philosopher. He was, in fact, a Reformed Protestant