To build a more agile Britain, our leaders need to help us buy back better
By Lord Wei of Shoreditch on 4 September 2022
The leadership contest we have just witnessed was like the political equivalent of Squid Game but without the bathos. The battle lines were relatively clear and on a 2 by 2 chess board with the degree to which you are fiscally conservative mapped out on the one hand (from being a high spend/high borrowing candidate on one end, to a low tax/low borrowing candidate in the other with high tax/low borrowing and low tax/high borrowing in the middle), and cultural conservatism in the other (from mildly woke and globalist leaning, to full on anti-woke anti-immigration, whether legal or illegal, Brexiteer candidate).
All so far so normal for a Tory party contest. But if we deeply analyse the problems we face today, it would seem things have moved on. The post-Brexit, post-Covid, post-Boris world is now one in which "wicked" problems abound, as I have written before, and the usual solutions whether cultural or fiscal, important and necessary as they are, will not always cut it. We face a coming crisis of all authority, whether in the EU, Westminster, of government generally whether central or local, and in business, in our institutions, even in our own workplaces and homes. We have geopolitical tensions, climate anxiety, an energy and resulting economic crisis and all manner of unknown unknowns hitting us simultaneously.
In this context we need a government that can not only help us become more resilient, and less handcuffed by bureaucracy and indecision, but one who can help look ahead and harness all of our intuitions and talents to avert crises before they hit us. Getting caught short again, whether you favour higher or lower taxes or want to fight a culture war or not, is ultimately what we elect leaders not to do (too often) - to defend in short these Isles and our way of life. We need leaders at every level to help us build a more agile Britain, because even if we cannot be the richest country in the world anymore, or the biggest (if you include the former Empire we had), we can perhaps still be the nimblest. The most agile country will still fight another day, and in today's world, those countries still standing are tomorrow's winners.
In this context what specific skills or qualities do we need? Some might argue that transparency and honesty and integrity are of paramount importance. Or an ability to connect with old and young given how problematic demographics is becoming. Or to be collegiate and able to connect with people across the Tory and wider national divides. These are all valid criteria. But one, above all, I believe is now needed, and it might take you by surprise: the ability to help us buy back better.
The truth is we are now fighting a war to find solutions that do not yet fully exist. As with the Vaccines Taskforce, so ably led by Kate Bingham, we have on multiple fronts got to procure solutions to issues such as the cost of living, energy, healthcare waiting list, defence, and even transport and housing, that are going to often require outside innovation, rather than new state spending or regulation, and spend a lot of political capital getting obstacles, laws, and resources either out of the way or aligned to help supercharge them. We even have had to nurture local manufacturing facilities and supply chains for our vaccines, that's how hands on the likes of Sir Patrick Vallance and others have had to be to tackle the pandemic.
These kinds of thorny issues, which if unaddressed quickly lead to governments being accused of not being able to deliver (and ultimately falling), are ones where the cost of inaction or delay end up being much higher than any funds we might spend (and yes even at times lose), in fast-tracking solutions. Solutions such as localised waste to energy boilers where you literally take your garden and plastic waste and pyrolise them at or near your home to cover your water and heating costs with hardly any emissions (now on track to be much cheaper than even heat pumps with a sub 3 year payback period). Or creating a more diagnostics led NHS where people take charge more of their own health using technology and more localised and popup facilities with support teams to help for example to make high risk patients' homes less injury prone (broken hips are the largest source of patients on our waiting list). Or instead of just relying on old style costly railways, harnessing future self driving freight and worker vans to create a UK wide network of brownfield based interconnected villages above car parks and unused land for key workers and their families to live and work in, whilst repurposing public transport to support pedestrians and scooter riders (with scooters that stop before they crash using mini LIDAR).
In each example we will need to use our new procurement flexibility post-Brexit to single mindedly supercharge solutions, preferably with a relevant Taskforce behind it each led by a similarly skilled Binghamesque Chair with a mandate to buy back better, and departments and stakeholders coming together to rapidly make decisions and release resources. A quick, final worked example will illustrate the point. Currently almost all electric cars in the UK use unidirectional chargers based on what are called Type 2 configurations (roughly analogous to a three pin plug and socket vs an EU or US version). But the power of electric cars as millions buy them is their ability to discharge back to our homes to smooth peak energy usage normally late afternoon and early evenings - which if enough of them do it would enable us to make a massive dent in total energy requirements at peak - and ten nuclear reactors worth at peak by some estimates. We either need to get car makers and the charging infrastructure industry to switch to other already bidirectional socket systems such as Chademo, or rapidly develop Type 2 bidirectional charging capability faster than on their existing roadmap, with limited state support if necessary. Any intervention will likely save billions compared to subsidising household bills indefinitely. And in each case we give our private sector, startups and large firms alike, the chance to become specialised world leaders faster, before the US and China with their massive local markets, funding, and support, catch up.
Such nerdy case studies are likely to be the future bread and butter of a switched on leadership, government and Party. The upside is most of these solutions will save us money so we can pay less tax and borrow less, be good for the environment while lowering the cost of living, and give us greater national security and resilience whilst giving us future headspace to end our culture wars - by simplifying, rebalancing, and clarifying the law versus creating too many new ones, instead of just thinking the law or more money is the solution (which increasingly often it is not). This implies leadership with the mindset of or sympathetic to the Engineer, not a people who are just good with words and with media and party management, but leaders who can deliver, who have a STEM friendly mindset, but also who can get on with people and empathise with the challenges of daily life in Britain.
Churchill famously harnessed Atlee to run the country while he ran the war, who then went on to rebuild the country during the onset of peacetime. We need Atlees of our own, but one's this time who are able to build a post-welfarist, pro-entrepreneurial state, and who ready to help us be the nimble shopper we have already started to become, able to rapidly help us buy the solutions needed for the 21st Century, whether you live in the city or on a farm. We need leaders who can help us conserve our way of life, defend these Isles and the livelihoods of those in it, whilst enabling us to be a bringer of solutions that the world desperately needs.