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Eight ways to unite the nation We've endured too many years of bad government. Let's hope Boris seizes this chance to be a great leader

Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

December 16, 2019   4 mins

I don’t like Boris Johnson. I don’t like his hair. I don’t like the words he uses about women, or gay people, or ethnic minorities. I don’t like how he treats the women in his life. I don’t like his buffoonery or his jokes or his casual disdain for truth. I think his manifesto was shamefully thin. I hate his badly designed buses. But he says he wants to unite the country — and I find I want him to succeed.

Politics is a funny sort of business. Half the time you end up wanting bad things to happen because it’ll help your lot in the long run. Labour moderates see the benefit of Labour’s disaster because it might help them win the party back. Centrist Conservatives wanted Boris to do badly to prove they were right that his politics was toxic.

There are people in Westminster quietly hoping that Boris will fail. They’re hoping the economy crashes, that negotiations with the EU fall into ignominious failure, that his efforts to rebuild the economy of the North will stumble, that A&E waiting times will rise, and that our Prime Minister will make some grotesque gaffe on the international stage that humbles him permanently. Some of these dreamers will even be Conservatives: those of a moderate hue, who want their party back from the Vote Leave tribe.

I accept that they are wishing this with the best of intentions. They believe they would do better, and they know they won’t get power unless and until he fails. But I’m done with this partisan thinking. I can’t take it any more.

I don’t want Brexit to be a disaster for communities in the North to teach them a lesson about the value of experts. I don’t want a recession to prove that economics is important. I don’t want a crappy winter in our NHS to prove the Conservatives don’t care about it. We’ve had enough bad government. Whether he is fit for high office is now irrelevant. He has it. I want him to succeed.

When he launched his campaign, Boris said he would unite the country. I was sceptical he knew how. But with this majority, he has freedom to do pretty much whatever he wants. So I will take him at his word. He wants to unite the country? These are my first thoughts about how:

  1. Hold the union together. Scotland is on its way out the door if we don’t take action. If anyone can understand that the economic arguments are irrelevant, it should be you, Boris. This is about identity. Go to Scotland – go 10 times a year. Wales and Northern Ireland too. Listen. Care. Convene a national conversation between the citizens, not the politicians, of all our nation states about how we renew the union: make it deeper not weaker.
  2. Don’t govern from Downing Street.  You hate Parliament and all those difficult questions. Fine. Get out of London. Go on tour, and take your office with you. I’d love us to move Parliament to Manchester, but you probably won’t do that – so modernise Parliament with electronic voting so you can spend weeks at a time away from London. Make our democracy feel different.
  3. Help us get to know each other. Launch a national town-twinning programme, bringing leave and remain places together through school visits, council exchanges, and cultural events. Expand National Citizen Service and give everyone a right to time off to volunteer.
  4. Reinvent the honours system. Use the Royal magic to celebrate places, as well as people. Let every town get involved in choosing the people to be honoured from their place – instead of having the lion’s share of honours going to Londoners. Create honours for towns and villages, too: the right for every place to be Royal for a year, instead of only Leamington Spa and Tunbridge Wells.
  5. Let people into the policy decisions. You’ve pointed the way with your plan for a cross-party agreement on social care. Don’t leave this to a bunch of politicians. Put it to the people. Hold a real citizens’ assembly, and pledge from the start that you’ll follow the people’s choices. Do you really care whether we create a charge or an insurance system? A tax or a fee? Or do you just care about getting something through so people can live in dignity? If it’s the latter, have the confidence to delegate your authority to the citizens. It’s the only way to get an agreement that will last.
  6. Especially on climate change. Do the same with climate change. These are policies that need to last for 30 years or more. We need to agree them together. You’ll look good as a leader who gets things done, you don’t need to make all the decisions with only blue-blooded Conservatives in the room.
  7. Open your mind to hypothecated taxes. We all know your manifesto means you’re going to be spending a lot more money, and we’ll need more tax. Treasury people will tell you that hypothecation – matching particular taxes to particular spending – is bad economics. But we need to tell a better story about what taxpayers are buying, if we expect people to pay more. So sod the experts – you’re good at that.
  8. Shut up about Brexit. Do as little economic harm as you can, but don’t make a big deal of it either way.  If the nation is going to come together, we need to spend our time talking about the things we agree on.

This is not a partisan prospectus. The temptation now they’ve grasped that precious majority will be to do everything they can to protect it: to change the rules of politics to make life harder for Labour, and easier for themselves. I understand why. But democracy relies on the consent of the loser, more than anything else. That is precious. You’ve beaten them, you don’t need to crush them. Great leaders are magnanimous in victory.

Of course, greatness takes effort. Ambition. Chutzpah — of which Boris has plenty. It’s not the easy road. But why be small, when you can be great?

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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