Michael Gove is Levelling Up Secretary, and is MP for Surrey Heath.
In his speech to the Labour Party conference in October 2009 Gordon Brown opened with a riff on his party’s achievements – as he saw them – after 12 years in power.
“Look what we’ve achieved together since 1997: the winter fuel allowance, the shortest waiting times in history, crime down by a third, the creation of Surestart, the Cancer Guarantee, record results in schools, more students than ever, the Disability Discrimination Act, devolution, civil partnerships, peace in Northern Ireland, the social chapter, half a million children out of poverty, maternity pay, paternity leave, child benefit at record levels, the minimum wage, the ban on cluster bombs, the cancelling of debt, the trebling of aid, the first ever Climate Change Act; that’s the Britain we’ve been building together, that’s the change we choose”.
Brown was seeking both to remind his party that only with power comes progress and draw battle lines for the election inevitably to come. As the Conservatives consider their record in power over the last fourteen years, what comparable effort to inspire should be made by a Conservative minister?
To listen to some, on both left and right, it might appear an exercise in futility. Critics from the left would assert that the progress of the past has been rolled back and the country is a poorer, bleaker and more benighted place. Critics from the right would mourn opportunities lost to liberate this, unleash that or indeed stand fast against cultural decline.
But the truth is that, in the last 14 years, a remarkable amount has been achieved. Often against the odds and in the face of adversity. And certainly in circumstances far less benign than those faced by New Labour.
Blair and Brown came to power in 1997 with the economy growing, debt falling, employment rising and investment accumulating. The decisions taken by the Conservatives, after the ERM debacle, to put economic stability first had imposed an electoral penalty on them but delivered an economic bonus for the nation. Labour were elected, in part, to distribute that bonus to those the country thought the most deserving – our public services.
Throughout history Labour has been elected to re-distribute economic growth and invest in the public realm. And throughout history Labour has begun that journey in hope and ended it in disappointment. The growth it has inherited, or promised, has been dissipated, or anaemic, and it has left office having neither secured the transformation its investment should have delivered nor having safeguarded the foundations for future growth.
So when Labour left office in 2010, unemployment was higher than in 1997, public and private debt was accumulating, the deficit was ballooning and Labour’s leading figures agreed that, after years of spending, significant cuts in public expenditure were required. Alistair Darling as Chancellor and Ed Balls as Children’s Secretary took Labour into the 2010 election promising cuts.
And it was not even as though the spending they had boasted of had secured the improvements they claimed. Brown’s 2009 claim that there were “record results” in schools was based on a lie. GCSE and A-level results had certainly appeared to improve. But only through grade inflation. The reality of what was happening in schools was laid are by England’s fall in international league tables. While it suited the Government, schools and indeed students to believe that the proliferation of As and Bs was a sign of real improvement, the reality of decline could not be hidden when our children were compared objectively to others.
Similarly, Brown’s boast that there were “more students than ever” in university was based on an expansion of the higher education sector that had become, progressively, financially unsustainable. And other claims were scarcely less audacious but unmerited. The form of devolution in Scotland which Labour had claimed would “kill nationalism stone dead” had just delivered a nationalist First Minister and the money devoted, nobly, to Surestart did not deliver the transformation anticipated – subsequent evaluations found that “For cognitive development” there were no “differences between Sure Start and non-Sure Start children”.
So, before even attempting to consider what the genuine achievements of the last 13 years have been it is necessary to recognise in 2010 Conservatives came to power with an economy weaker than their predecessors, indeed weakened by their predecessors, and with a record in public services that flattered to deceive.
It is also necessary to acknowledge that Conservatives in Government since 2010 have faced, like all Western governments; the long outworking of the 2008 financial crisis, the further polarisation of the public square – amplified by social media, the most serious global pandemic since 1920, the worst war on the European continent since 1945, and the return of inflation as globalisation retreats.
Set against that backdrop, the achievements of the last 14 years are all the more impressive.
A Tory minister seeking to emulate Brown, at least rhetorically, could tell their party conference that Conservative ministers had delivered:
“Better state schools than ever before, more students from state schools at our best universities, more students securing top grades in maths, physics and chemistry, our universities the best in Europe and growing, record numbers in employment, welfare simpler, fairer and better targeted, many more hours of free childcare, a national living wage, same-sex marriage, stronger defence with two new aircraft carriers, new nuclear submarines on the way and a stronger NATO, the fastest decarbonisation of any major economy, world leaders in offshore wind, farm subsidies reformed to increase production and enhance the environment, world leadership in protecting our oceans, Brexit delivered and membership of the world’s fastest growing trade bloc secured, more than £350 million extra a week for the NHS, leadership extended in life sciences, quantum computing and AI and gene technology, crime falling, over 2.5 million new homes delivered and the number of non-decent homes down by over 2 million, the Union strengthened, devolution delivered across much of England, nationalism in retreat in Scotland, the fastest vaccine rollout in the world, democracy’s strongest supporter in Ukraine” and that a Labour Government would risk sending all that back to square one.
Education is one area in which unambiguously positive change has been delivered by Conservative ministers – as even Sir Keir Starmer has acknowledged.
England has risen up every international league table – for science, for maths, for reading – demonstrating against objective measurements real improvement in the skills that matter most.
That hasn’t happened by accident. It happened in the teeth of opposition. Conservative ministers developed, and delivered, a comprehensive programme of reform. Schools were given greater freedom but also held more accountable for their actions.
Academy freedoms were extended from a handful of schools to the majority. Every extension was opposed by Labour who said primary academies would send a chill down parents’ spines. Now no one would want to got back.
Free schools, which had the ability to innovate and challenge local under-performance, flourished. Free schools consistently scored more highly than other schools in performance measurements. And the best school in the land – Michaela – is a free school, only possible because of Conservative policies.
Stronger Ofsted inspections, a more rigorous curriculum, reformed league tables, the ending of false equivalence between soft qualifications and objectively assessed and examined qualifications, the phonics test, maths mastery, an end to modules, coursework and cheatable tests, the expansion of teach first, the movement of teacher training to the best schools, the requirement for trainee teachers to have good qualifications, spelling, punctuation and grammar in primary assessments, times tables properly taught, narrative history strengthened, more of the subjects which give wider choice at university taught, more a-level maths, more a-level physics, more a-level chemistry, more English literature in English literature, more funding for the poorest pupils, with the pupil premium of more than £1,000 per student going to every child eligible for free school meals, and every child in infant classes now also eligible for free school meals.
All of these steps were attacked by opponents of the Conservative Government, each of these tough decisions have been vindicated.
These policies were all driven by a desire to achieve greater social justice – to liberate children from poorer backgrounds, to democratise access to knowledge, to make opportunity more equal – and they are all profoundly conservative – they embody the insights that competition drives up standards, that facts can’t be fudged, that for accountability to work it has to be sharp as well as subtle, that if you want to change behaviour you need to change not rhetoric but incentives, that adult authority needs to be enhanced but an education system is measured on how children learn not how adults feel, that our culture is worth knowing, celebrating and transmitting, that the hard sciences bring more benefits to mankind than the social sciences and true kindness means high expectations not just higher spending.
And that is a common factor that links the Conservative achievements of the last 14 years – a willingness to make hard decisions, to recognise the facts of life are conservative, to achieve genuine progress by telling the truth and to make lives better by embracing the best of competition, innovation and tradition.
So our welfare reforms; the introduction of universal credit and the personal independence payment, the restriction of child benefit to the first two children and the end to the spare room subsidy, have all helped incentivise work and ensured we now have a record number of people in jobs. The ability of universal credit to respond flexibly to real need was brought home by the Covid crisis where millions secured the additional support they required within days.
Welfare reform, again, was enacted in the face of Labour opposition. But the wisdom and durability of those reforms is underlined by Labour’s refusal to say if they would reverse any of them
There is still more to do to ensure we get more people into the jobs which are the best form of welfare – and central to that has been the expansion of free hours of childcare under the Conservatives. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes:
The March 2023 Budget announced further reforms to expand the free entitlement to cover children from 9 months onwards in working families. These reforms will be phased in over the next three years:
The poorest families have also benefitted from the increase in the tax-free allowance and the establishment of the national living wage, which also reduces reliance on welfare and incentivises work.
The Conservative commitment to social justice has taken many forms – not just supporting poorer citizens into work and giving poorer children a better start in life, but also ending discrimination in areas where individuals have experienced prejudice or barriers to fulfilment.
David Cameron introduced same sex marriage, the Inclusive Britain report identified, and removed, genuine obstacles to ethnic minority individuals advancing and school reform has supported children from ethnic minority groups to succeed in greater and greater numbers.
The drive to help the poorest in our society has also been reflected in our success in cutting crime – down by 56% since 2010 and 10% since last year. The poorest in our society are disproportionately the victims of crime and we are protecting them with 20,000 new police officers and a surging of uniformed officers in crime hotspots.
These domestic reforms have strengthened Britain and have been complemented by Britain standing stronger on the world stage – two new aircraft carriers, a fleet of new nuclear submarines on the way, a modernised army and an upgraded air force all attest to Britain’s leadership in defence. That leadership has been exhibited most strikingly in the support we have given the people of Ukraine but it has also meant Britain has become an even more valued partner across the globe – not least in the Indo-Pacific Region, where the world’s fastest growing economies have become ever closer allies.
Brexit was supposed, in the eyes of its opponents, to mean a littler Britain in less than splendid isolation. But the opposite has proven to be the case – from accession to the CPTPP – the fastest growing trade bloc in the world – to the AUKUS deal, COP26, leadership in Ukraine and securing investment from the Gulf, Global Britain has been a strengthened force for good.
Brexit has enabled the UK to demonstrate greater environmental leadership – showing the way in farming reform by shifting subsidies away from the size of landholding to rewarding the contribution to nature, developing the new gene-editing technology that improves yield and allows us to tread more lightly on the planet, moving more rapidly away from reliance on single use plastic than our neighbours and becoming the first nation in the world to establish a blue belt protecting 30 per cent of the seas in our care.
We were already the country with the fastest level of decarbonisation in the developed world, going effectively coal-free even as nations such as Germany and China became more reliant on fossil fuels, and we are the world’s pre-eminent power in offshore wind – pioneering genuinely reliable renewal energy.
Brexit was, of course, a contested victory. But its promises have been kept and its promise is growing. The NHS secured significantly more than £350 million extra a week. Changes to clinical trials promised faster, better, treatments. Outside the European Medicines Agency we developed, and delivered, vaccines more effectively than any other major Western nation. The first arm to receive a vaccine against Covid-19 was British.
Brexit has enabled us to develop our own points-based migration policy so we can choose who comes here to work and on what terms. It has also enabled us to reform financial services to stay more competitive than the EU and incentivise investment in our own industries. And it is allowing us to extend the lead we enjoy in other scientific areas – most notably artificial intelligence where we are the number one centre for investment outside the US and a regulatory pace-setter.
The UK’s strength in innovation has only accelerated post-Brexit. Swedish venture capital firm Creandum notes that the UK is home to the highest proportion of future unicorns – private companies valued at $1 billion or more – in Europe. The UK is the leading player in European tech, attracting the most investment, producing the most unicorns and reaching the highest combined value. The UK is home to 34 per cent of Europe’s future unicorns, also known as ‘futurecorns’.
It is followed by the rest of Europe at 22 per cent and France at 16 per cent, while Germany accounts for 15 per cent of companies considered to hit a $1 billion valuation in the near future. Europe now has 514 unicorns spread across 25 countries and 65 cities. London is home to the most with 105, followed by Paris with 44 and Berlin with 35.
In addition to leading the way on futurecorns, the UK has produced the most unicorns since 2021 and the country’s startups secured the most VC investment in the first half of 2023 across Europe. (Source UKTN)
And post-Brexit Britain is not just more creative, but also more united. Although there is no room for complacency, the SNP’s internal crises are playing out across the media, Irish republican politicians compete to see who can show the most affection for the monarchy, and the UK is the nation in Europe with the greatest level of harmony between communities and the least hostility to new arrivals.
Within the UK, particularly within England, power and opportunity is also being re-distributed to overcome the imbalances of the past. Nine new powerful metro mayors complement the only one – in London – which Labour created, with more to come. Public spending – from the Arts Council to R & D – is now more equitably distributed across England. And urban regeneration – from Blackpool to Sheffield, Wolverhampton to Leeds – is irrigating the soil for the private sector to grow faster and improve productivity across the UK.
All this has been accomplished against a background of an economic crisis inherited, a global pandemic weathered and a European war raging.
Conservatives have much to be proud of in the last 14 years and we can look with confidence to achieving much more in the years ahead under Rishi Sunak’s leadership. Thanks to the tough decisions he has taken, we are reducing inflation, bringing down the deficit, we’ve cut illegal migration and we’re doubling the number of apprenticeships. Our plan is working. Do we really want to go back to square one?