In the past fortnight, I have been out on the doorsteps of Basildon and Barnsley, and in both towns people’s anxieties are the same. They are concerned about the pace of change and the complexity of the challenges we face. They are worried about how their children will secure meaningful employment and get on the housing ladder. They are fearful of the future and see only entrenched austerity and years of struggle ahead.
Not since Gordon Brown’s response to the global economic crisis in 2008 has the UK had the strategic leadership it needs, and not since Clement Attlee reconstructed Britain after the Second World War, has the country had such a need for leadership.
With the vote for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the advent of “post-truth” populism, and the rise of the far-right across Europe, our country needs that leadership more than ever.
As we negotiate our departure from the EU, politicians from all parties need to bring an end to a decade of tactical politics and demonstrate an ability to think strategically. Our leaders must strain every sinew to enhance rather than undermine our international standing.
Being outside the EU will reduce the UK’s ability to act as a bridge between North America and Europe; to mitigate this we need to both maintain our relationship with the rest of the world and complement it through a new one with the EU. Foreign policy is about much more than just immigration and trade. It is also about common values and collective risk.
David Davis must protect the cooperative approach we have to shared security threats; Boris Johnson must not let Brexit undermine our commitment to the UN and Nato; and Theresa May must defend multilateralism in the face of populism, nationalism and the appeal of demagoguery and strong-man politics.
Our international reputation is at stake. Those who successfully campaigned to leave the EU must now end the constant criticism of the EU’s existence. Johnson and his fellow Cabinet ministers must stop offending our neighbours and insisting that the EU is doomed to fail. Instead – just as we ask European neighbours to respect our decision – we must respect their commitment to maintaining the union.
It is in our strategic interests that the EU endures, and it is in our national interest to work with our European partners long after Johnson, Davis and Liam Fox have gone. International strategy should be premised on decades not days.
The most important test of the Government’s Brexit strategy will likely be its impact on jobs, the economy and living standards.
For six years Cameron and Osborne repeatedly employed only short-term political tactics. Now, five months into Theresa May’s Government, it is becoming clear the country is at risk of the same happening again.
To steer us safely through the next four years – and set the conditions for what is beyond – May, Philip Hammond, Johnson and Davies must look beyond in-fighting, egos, micro-management and misplaced soundbites and instead place the UK back on a strategic footing. Failure to do so will diminish us further.
George Osborne’s “long-term economic plan” was always more soundbite than strategy. Instead of the much-promised economic recovery, it has produced a low-wage, low-investment, high-debt economy in which productivity is stagnating. This is a product of years of under-investment.
Yet instead of the promised “reset”, Hammond has again offered only austerity – indicating the same lack of long-term strategy that has seen the Government fail to invest in the future and served only to undermine our public services and increase our national debt.
May and Hammond must now develop a plan to prepare for life after the EU, and no longer try to cut their way to a stronger economy and a fairer society.
To do this, a new economic strategy is needed: one that understands the need to eliminate the deficit on current spending and to reduce national debt, but is also prepared to invest in the future, through the skills, industry, innovation and infrastructure needed to rebalance and prepare our economy for life outside of the EU.
For too long the UK has drifted, with no clear goal, ambition or strategy. May must become a leader in more than name only, end the poor decision-making of the Cameron government and prevent further damage to our economy, our influence and our international reputation. Failure to do so will further mark this decade as one of expedient politics and ill-considered decline.
That would do nothing to address the fears or improve the futures of the people of Barnsley, Basildon and the rest of the Britain.
Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central