In this interview, James Rogers, Editor of The British Interest, asks Nick Timothy, a Conservative thinker and former Chief of Staff to Theresa May, the former Prime Minister, about the future of Britain, the Conservative Party, and British foreign and defence policy.
JR: I suppose many interviewers begin by asking you questions about your time as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff. I’m not going to do that. I’m more interested in your ideas and, in particular, those contained in your new book Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism. You are often seen as a different sort of conservative to the ‘neo-liberal’ mainstream of the past thirty, if not, forty years. After Brexit, the Conservative Party’s victory in December 2019, and Covid-19, where is conservatism going in Britain?
NT: It is difficult to imagine things going back to the way they were before Covid-19. We have a Conservative Chancellor talking about a ‘collective national effort’ and a Health Secretary directing ‘the whole resources of the country’ to meet the challenge, while talking up the power of the state. It’s inconceivable that, once we’re through the worst, we should return to the economics and politics of individualism.
I think the mood of the country will be different too. The public will demand greater national resilience and state capacity to protect us from danger. Governments and businesses are likely to want to shorten the stretched global supply chains that serve the modern economy. The National Health Service (NHS), and other parts of our social infrastructure, will need more investment and capacity. And there is likely to be a much more sceptical attitude towards China, which will affect domestic and foreign policy alike.
I also think our personal experiences will shape our future attitudes. We are seeing the importance of local and national institutions. The NHS is the most obvious example, the Armed Forces too, but the BBC has done a great job during the crisis, and lots of local charities and councils are doing important work under pressure. And we’ve seen volunteering and community help on an unbelievable scale. This is what solidarity looks like, and we are not going to forget it.
This, plus the new coalition of voters Boris Johnson won in December 2019, which is more provincial and working class than the traditional Tory vote, means I can see conservatism becoming more communitarian and less libertarian, more willing to embrace active government, and more willing to spend than cut.
JR: In your book, you argue that the form of globalisation the United Kingdom (UK) and its allies have pursued over the past thirty or forty years has had a number of unintended consequences, from leading to ‘a low-productivity, low-skill, low-wage economy’, to producing ‘citizens of nowhere’. What should Britain do to escape this destructive spiral?
NT: I would say there are three things we can do. First, get real about China. A model of globalisation that allows a state as malign as China’s to eat the western liberal economic order from within is clearly a problem. Yet that is precisely what we have allowed over the last twenty years or so. China sets debt traps for countries around the world. It is guilty of overproduction and dumping. It engages in mass industrial espionage. And it is using its role in the supply chain of high-tech products and services to spy and steal.
Second, we need a different attitude to the regulation of international trade. Sure, globalisation has made some goods cheaper, but it has had an enormous effect on western workers. A generation ago, when technology made British companies more competitive, British workers shared in the success. Now, while things like research and development remain here, production and assembly is often completed overseas. The wealth created by the company goes to its shareholders, executives and high-skilled workers. But there are few low and mid-skilled British workers employed by the company at all. This is one factor behind the hollowing out of the labour market, and it is affecting millions of people. Western workers need more protection.
And third, we need to do far more with domestic policy. International comparative studies show that different western countries are affected in different ways by globalisation, which shows we are not helpless: domestic policies matter. We need a better regional policy, including more devolution to mayors, a world-class industrial strategy, more investment in research and development, a revolution in technical and vocational education, different rules for mergers and acquisitions and better corporate governance. And lots more besides.
JR: Now, let’s turn to British foreign and strategic policy. In your book, you argue that the rise of countries like China, India, Indonesia and Brazil means that ‘the world needs a new multilateralism.’ But some of these countries – particularly China – are ruled by deeply authoritarian, revisionist regimes, which cover up the truth or peddle propaganda (as Beijing has done with Covid-19). Is it possible to create ‘a new multilateralism’ when some of the actors involved are likely to use it to enhance their own power or to degrade their democratic competitors?
NT: Well indeed, and I am hardly starry-eyed about China! If anybody was naïve enough to believe we are engaging with a state that shares our values, respects international institutions, or comes anywhere near our norms of behaviour, then surely the Covid-19 crisis will disabuse them of that naivety. We are all paying the price for Beijing covering up the virus early on, refusing to engage with the international community, and allowing millions of people to travel from Wuhan. And now they’re spreading misinformation about the virus starting in America or Italy.
Likewise, I am not Panglossian about international institutions and dreams of global governance. Any attempt to build real global governance will hit the rocks because of the inevitable clashes of values and interests around the world. The tried and tested political unit capable of allowing us to manage those clashes is the liberal democratic nation state. The nation state has to be the world’s essential political unit.
But we still need international institutions – to share information, mediate disputes, ensure legitimate competition between nations remains peaceful. But we have not really built or reformed the major international institutions for decades. The emerging powers – like India and Indonesia, for example – need to have a greater voice at the United Nations. We need new institutions to manage fair and peaceful economic competition between East and West. And we need to protect British and Western interests, in these reformed institutions and new ones. A proposal I make in my book, for example, is for a new institution to allow democratic governments to work together to regulate cyberspace.
JR: You rightly point out in your book that ‘Britain will remain a strong international player…with significant military and security capabilities, and nuclear weapons’. Britain also spends a significant amount of money – albeit less effectively than it otherwise might – on development assistance. How, in your view, should the UK draw these tools together in the 21st century to get its way with the likes of Russia and China, or even, the United States and European Union countries?
NT: It is often assumed that Britain is just an irrelevant mid-sized country these days, without much of a voice. That is completely wrong. And so is that cliché you often hear in Whitehall that we need to ‘punch above our weight’. Our weight is significant enough! We need to get over this inferiority complex.
We also spend a lot of money on our international role. But we do not spend it wisely. When we have reduced our diplomatic reach, and when our military and security capabilities could be greater, we have spent disproportionately on development. I remember in Pakistan being introduced to the Department of International Development’s (DFID) ‘chief economist in Islamabad’. When we asked how many economists DFID had in Islamabad there was much embarrassment. DFID should be folded into the Foreign Office, development spending should come down, and we should commit to spend 3% of Gross Domestic Product on our international capabilities, which would mean more money for defence and diplomacy.
And we need to stop being so naïve. One of the themes of my book is the ways in which the mistaken assumptions of liberal philosophy – and the mutation of liberalism into ultra, extreme forms on the left, right and centre – have caused many of the problems we face today. This applies to foreign policy as much as anything else. Liberalism is universalistic, it disrespects cultural and historical contexts, and like other ideologies it thinks ultimately we are all heading towards the same destination. When you assume the rest of the world is the same as us, that they want to be like us, and will inevitably become like us, you see the world in a naively optimistic way. We need to see the world for what it is.
JR: Thank you for your time in answering these questions!
- Nick Timothy’s book – Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism (2020) – is available from Polity Press.
Due to the negligence of the Chinese Communist Party, Covid-19 has left China to infect almost every part of the world. James Rogers, Editor of The British Interest, and Director of the Global Britain Programme at the Henry Jackson Society, asks his colleagues at the Henry Jackson Society what the implications of this crisis are for the United Kingdom, both domestically, and nationally:
Dr Rakib Ehsan – Research Fellow, Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism
Covid-19 strengthens national cohesion: Some people have to learn the hard way – that with freedom comes responsibility. While most British citizens took notice and respected official advice on social distancing, an irresponsible minority continued to place their individual desires over the broader collective good. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, was left with no choice but to provide a robust political response.
At the same time, the greatest national health crisis for generations has brought out the best in the nation. Following the government’s plea for 250,000 volunteers to support the National Health Service (NHS), an astonishing 406,000 offered their support. Thousands of former doctors and nurses have also returned to assist the NHS in getting to grips with the ongoing crisis. Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty, many corner-shops, greengrocers, and convenience stores – family-oriented local enterprises which form the backbone of communities across the country – have continued to provide loyal customers with a variety of sensibly-priced, long-shelf products.
Once the crisis eventually dies down, these contributions should not be forgotten. For the British people have shown, once again, that their communitarian spirit is alive and well; indeed, the crisis might even strengthen it.
Dr Paul Stott – Research Fellow, Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism
Covid-19 obliges changes to economic policy: Boris Johnson may have considered delivering Brexit, and a programme to bind the electoral alliance that swept him to power last December, the greatest challenge of his political life. How cruelly the fates – and China’s handling of Covid-19 – have conspired against him. He is now a wartime Prime Minister, fighting an invisible enemy. For the first time since the 1940s, the commercial life of the country has ground to a halt.
The model of a flexible, service based economy, with limited industrial policy, appears a thing of the past. Britain’s stuttering rail franchise system, to take just one example, is now in the hands of the government. Half a million new benefit claims were made in a nine-day period. More will follow. Dependence on China, for nuclear power stations or fifth generation telecommunications technology, appears a political, and indeed moral, impossibility. For Boris, steering a middle path between autarky and global Britain, beckons.
Nikita Malik – Director, Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism
Covid-19 presents new challenges for British law enforcement: The police will face a range of new challenges. This first comes from the public. Criminals, for example, are exploiting Covid-19 to sell fake sanitisers, solicit donations, and take advantage of the elderly and vulnerable. The second challenge stems from those hoping to exploit uncertainty to cause more chaos. This includes using health misinformation to build on existing conspiracy theories, which can contribute to a climate of racism: last month an Asian man was violently assaulted in London and robbed by two teenagers who allegedly shouted ‘coronavirus’ at him.
To ensure Covid-19 does not overstretch Britain’s police and security services, more resources need to be dedicated to assist personnel in a variety of areas: spikes in criminality, challenges presented by terrorist groups usurping the crisis for their own publicity, and a spike in hate crimes. Community and civilian efforts will be needed to ensure crimes are reported and risks are contained.
Dr Alan Mendoza – Executive Director
Covid-19 forces Britain to redouble on its global role: There are two options that will develop out of the Covid-19 crisis for the UK’s global role: retrenchment or redoubling.
Under retrenchment, Britain will shrink back from its international commitments. While superficially comforting, it would be a penny wise, pound foolish approach, and would sit uneasily with Brexit. The UK may well financially save in the short term, but a global crisis of this nature will require an outward-looking approach in order to protect our strategic interests.
Redoubling offers a better alternative. There will be new, emerging threats to global security and the trading system that emerge as a result of Covid-19 chaos. Britain can either meet them and seek to control them on its terms, or they will come to the UK anyway on theirs. It is surely better to rebuild Britain’s power abroad as well as at home, than have to do it when it is too late.
Dr Andrew Foxall – Director of Research and Director, Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre
Covid-19 compels Britain to focus on Russia’s renewed disinformation campaign: Vladimir Putin knows a thing or two about a crisis, having caused a number of them over recent years. But he has only recently woken up to the scale of the latest: the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, with Western countries in lockdown, with borders re-emerging between European Union member states, and with NATO struggling to find a role for itself, Russia is likely to conclude that the crisis validates key aspects of its anti-Western worldview – the weakness of democracy, the primacy of the nation-state, and the futility of multinational organisations.
With vulnerabilities in the West’s defence and security architecture clear, the Kremlin will seek to take advantage by exploiting societal divisions, sowing confusion, and weakening democratic cohesion. It is already attempting to undermining public trust in national healthcare systems by exacerbating the health crisis. One way it is doing this is through disinformation.
Matthew Henderson – Director, Asia Studies Centre
Covid-19 obliges Britain to reappraise its relationship with China: Whenever the COVID-19 pandemic ends, it’s already obvious that Britain’s relations with China have to change. The PRC is not a state committed to the rules-based international system, but rather a land and people oppressed by a un-elected revisionist clique whose strategy is to replace that order. For decades the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) cruel misdeeds have been whitewashed by compliant British supporters, whose vested interests have consequently flourished. Thus the UK’s China policy has long been founded on naivete, ignorance, denial, greed and fear. COVID-19 has shown us the truth behind the vacuous ‘win-win’ facade of a cynical tyranny determined to triumph over the values and standards of the free world. Whatever power the CCP retains when the disaster it caused is over, Britain’s policy must grow from fearless, honest assessment of what serves our national interests, and what threatens them.
James concludes: As these responses show, Covid-19 is likely to have a number of lasting implications for Britain’s domestic political situation and its role in the world. But at the same time, Covid-19 has shown – like so many challenges in the past – that retrenchment, whether in the form of isolationism or modesty and introspection, are not viable options for a globally-connected country like the UK. At the very least, Covid-19 reinforces Britain’s need to rework many of the ‘core assumptions’ that have underpinned its domestic and international policies for the past twenty, if not thirty, years. The UK has to put in place new policies, strategies and frameworks for dealing with China more robustly, just as it needs to strengthen the British state and national identity. This will help Britain project itself in an increasingly volatile world and take the measures necessary to protect the British people from threats to their very lives and wellbeing. Unfortunately, Covid-19 will kill thousands of British people; it is a crisis that should not be allowed to pass by without changes.