Saturday, 23 January 2021

Remaking the British nation: An interview with Nick Timothy

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.

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