Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
A week ago we marked the third anniversary of the 2019 general election. But no one celebrated.
For Dominic Cummings — the lead architect of Boris Johnson’s victory — it was an occasion for regret. Winning a majority of 80, he tweeted, was a “chance to do so much”, but one that was “almost totally wasted.”
Looking back over those three years — and the last year in particular — it’s hard to disagree with him. In fact, one could backdate his verdict all the way to 2010. Where have all those years gone? What did we actually do with them?
Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s decade-plus in power, there has been no wholesale restructuring of the British economy. The broken economic model we inherited in 2010 is still broken.
A fundamentally unreformed NHS continues to consume an ever larger share of GDP. Uncontrolled immigration continues to feed a low-wage, low-productivity labour market. And the housing crisis continues to impoverish an entire generation.
British politics is blighted by a deeply unserious approach to policy-making. It is the reason why successive governments haven’t done enough to solve this country’s problems.
However, the claim that nothing has been achieved springs from the same lack of seriousness — and is simply untrue.
Believe it or not, we have since 2010 occupied our time with more than petty scandals and leadership contests. Things have been achieved — some of them important. Here are ten of them:
Top of this list is getting Britain out of the European Union. If nothing else, Johnson got Brexit done. His predecessor, Theresa May, got Brexit started by triggering Article 50. And her predecessor, David Cameron, made Brexit possible by giving us the choice to Remain or Leave.
Clearly, Dave didn’t expect us to opt for the latter — but at least we were asked.
The Rightist critique of the Conservative Party is that we are the lackeys of the liberal establishment. But in respect to the most important question in politics — who governs — the progressive elites suffered their single biggest defeat since the end of the Cold War.
They’ll never forgive us of course, but, for the time being, this country governs itself.
One of the great ironies of the post-Brexit era is that when “European values” came under actual attack, the western European nation that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine was Brexit Britain. Furthermore, the first G7 leader to visit Kyiv was Johnson.
While the vainglorious French were grandstanding as would-be mediators and the irresponsible Germans were still blocking vital arms exports, the British led the way.
Of course, Ukraine’s most important ally is America. But to maintain the Atlantic alliance on which Europe’s security so clearly depends it is vital that at least some European countries play their part. And in that respect, the EU owes the UK much more than it has the grace to admit.
3) Covid policy
At the start of the pandemic, the Government response was seized upon as Exhibit A in the case against Brexit.
But while mistakes were undoubtedly made, it soon became clear that the rulers of “plague island” had in fact got the big calls right. For instance the furlough scheme, which provided Rishi Sunak with his finest hour, served as a model for other countries.
Then there was our vaccine procurement programme — the exemplary success of which caused the European Commission to lose its mind.
And finally there was the end game: the decision to exit lockdown in the summer of 2021. With the Labour Party in tow, the left-wing of the medical establishment predicted disaster, which of course never came.
What did come was the omicron variant, in response to which EU governments drew up plans for compulsory vaccination. But once again the UK government held its nerve — leading the western world out of the Covid nightmare.
4) Climate policy
Covid wasn’t the only emergency on which our supposedly xenophobic little island has shown global leadership.
No other G20 economy has done more to decarbonise itself than the native land of Old King Coal. That’s thanks especially to the renewables revolution of the last twelve years. The early decision to slash subsidies — and introduce competitive capacity auctions — prompted the industry to slash costs and deploy at scale.
It’s a shame that this wasn’t matched by similar rates of progress on nuclear power or home insulation, but at least we enter this new age of expensive fossil fuels as the world’s biggest producer of offshore wind power.
It’s become fashionable to claim that this country can’t get anything built anymore. But when we put our minds to it, the fact is that we can.
5) London, the global city
Furthermore, it’s not just energy infrastructure that we’re capable of delivering, but transport infrastructure too. The doomster dwell upon the expensive saga that is HS2; but if we look at what’s been happening within our capital city, it’s a very different story.
For instance, the Elizabeth Line opened this year — and has proven an instant success, despite the construction delays. Persistence also paid off at London Bridge, which looks more like an ultra-modern airport than a mere railway terminus. Less showy, but quietly impressive, is the operation of the London Overground network.
Of course, these projects are decades in the planning — and can’t be claimed as the exclusive achievement of any single government, whether national or local. Nevertheless, London in 2022 is a visibly more advanced than London in 2010. It’s transit systems are now decades ahead of New York, it’s only rival as a truly global city.
6) English localism
One day we may realise the wisdom of properly investing in our other urban centres. However, there is one thing that Conservative governments have done for England-not-on-Thames — and that is to reverse the decades-long centralisation of power in Whitehall.
Whereas New Labour devolved political authority to Scotland and Wales with distinctly mixed results, it fell to the Conservatives to remember the English. Furthermore, instead of going down the Prescottian path of regional assemblies, we focused on real communities — negotiating directly with cities and shires to relocalise control over key decisions.
In particular, the creation of metro mayors meant that places like Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Teesside could be led locally again.
Turning once proud cities into powerless clients of Whitehall was one of the greatest acts of self-harm in Britain’s 20th-century history — and almost without precedent in the democratic world. The work of reversing that mistake is still unfinished, but it began in 2010.
7/ Universal Credit
What made the localism reforms so remarkable wasn’t just their immense complexity, but that they were achieved in the face of swingeing cuts to local government spending. For the ministers concerned, it was like completing a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle in the middle of a hurricane.
The same applied to the introduction of the Universal Credit — the most important welfare reform for decades. As if replacing six separate benefits with a single coherent system wasn’t complicated enough, the Treasury singled out the social security budget as a soft target for repeated raids.
Like Greg Clark on the localism brief, Iain Duncan Smith had to push-through his reforms in the most difficult of circumstances — and only succeeded through dogged determination.
8) The Gove education reforms
Another reforming minister who didn’t get the backing he deserved from Downing Street was Michael Gove. As Secretary of State for Education, his reward for passing the free schools legislation, restoring rigour to the exams system, and taking on the education policy ‘blob’ was to be demoted to Chief Whip.
Nevertheless, his reforms have stood the test of time — with institutions like Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela Community School achieving outstanding results.
9) Building better, building beautifully
I hesitate to include this one because, for the most part, it is yet to be fully realised. Nevertheless, the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission was a breakthrough.
Co-chaired by late Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys-Smith, the Commission over-turned the decades-long orthodoxy that beauty doesn’t matter in planning policy. It is, of course, vital — not only in securing community consent for the new homes we so desperately need, but to enhance the quality of life of the entire nation.
If Sunak wants to do more as Prime Minister than stabilise the economy, then he needs to get on with this government’s unfinished business — and fully implementing the building better agenda would be an excellent place to start.
10) Political realignment
To end with, another item I hesitate to include — not because it has yet to be achieved, but because it’s on the brink of being thrown away.
Three years ago, we won our first big majority since the 1980s. What’s more, we did it by pulling off a once-in-a-generation realignment of British politics. We were no longer the party of just one part of the country, but of patriotic Britons everywhere — whether rich or poor, north or south, black or white.
It was a truly stunning achievement — not to mention an awesome responsibility. And yet we fumbled the challenge, lurching from the self-sabotage of the Johnson years to the rapid implosion of the Liz Truss days to the grim sobriety of the Sunak aftermath.
If, after the next election, we find ourselves back in opposition, our first instinct will be to ask what went wrong. However, we’d do much better ask what went right — and why, time-after-time, we failed to follow through.