Am I the only one thinking this is a God-awful election campaign? With the polls on a knife-edge it’s become more like an Arsenal Vs Chelsea fixture – with the focus being, not on winning, but on not making mistakes, avoiding the loss. The two main parties are supposed to be travelling the country on their election buses, but appear – instead – to have “parked the bus” (a football expression meaning to throw everything at defence without trying to score).
Certainly, both lack vision. Of course, “vision” is something of a cliché in politics – perhaps rendered passé in an era jaded by economic fragility and post-Blair weariness at his hijacking of the “cool Britannia” vibe (as well as Cameron’s “big society” non-starter). But the vision of Britain’s economic future is there none the less: it’s one I see every day. It’s just not being articulated by either party – preferring instead to focus on the failings of the other side and the perceived dangers they represent.
So what is this vision? Here I sit in my small office in the back streets of London’s East End and it’s a vision I see all around me. Essentially, it’s of an entrepreneurial Britain in which individuals have the guile and confidence to generate their own futures – alone or with partners; freelance or as a company – selling their creativity and endeavour (in whatever form) to the world, and generating bucket loads of jobs into the bargain.
It’s of a workforce of savvy, self-actualised people that have direction, want to pursue their own objectives and have the will and, importantly, the skills and space to do so. It’s an economy open to all, broadly hospitable and certainly respectful. Yet it’s also engaged, questioning, articulate, solutions-oriented and – more than anything – productive. And it’s of a Britain that’s at ease with itself but edgy enough to excite. It’s multicultural, self-developmental, innovative, creative and cool. Sure, there’s stress: not everyone gets on and some issues (such as gentrification) are explosive. But it’s a Hegelian tension creating invention and progress.
Amazingly, this isn’t some cloud-cuckoo vision dribbling from a politician’s mouth. I’m describing what’s actually happening NOW in London’s City fringe – an arc stretching east from King’s Cross through Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Hackney and Whitechapel to Southwark in the south (with plenty also happening in Brixton, Hammersmith, Stratford etc).
And it’s not just in London. I was in Manchester last week and noticed the same entrepreneurial vibe. I hear similar things about Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh – and it’s been apparent in places like Brighton, Oxford and Cambridge for years. Even towns like Poole, Slough and Blackpool have become entrepreneurial hotspots.
This is Britain’s economic present and future: there’s an entrepreneurial revolution underway – one to match the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. A miracle-economy of growth-creating, job-generating, small, creative, companies (in all fields – food, finance and pharmacy as much as tech and media) that are meritocratic, rewarding, enlightening and (heaven forbid) fun. Once again, Britain’s becoming the workshop of the world – though this time the work’s fulfilling rather than exploitative. It’s digitised, networked and relying on brain not brawn.
So why have both parties given this future-view of the UK little more than lip-service? Because this election is being fought on the ideological territory that concerned our parents’ generation. And it stinks. The Conservatives see their missing voters as the ageing East Coast grumblers attracted to UKIP’s atavistic message of “wanting their country back”. These voters would walk the streets of Shoreditch in horror: at the many languages and cultures seamlessly mixing and synergising, at the disrespectful atmosphere of creative destruction all around them, and at the Sodom and Gomorrah liberalism bursting from every doorway.
Meanwhile, Labour is wary of the free-market entrepreneurial capitalism on display. This is a can-do, self-motivated, crowd with little time for the statist interventionist welfarism of the left. The values of the Unite union leader Len McCluskey (a dominant figure in Labour’s current leftward drift) are as alien to the new economy’s pioneers as the grey-vote UKIPers of Clacton and Ramsgate. And that prevents Labour embracing entrepreneurialism (or even fully understanding it).
In fact, many of the iMac generation entrepreneurs (and future entrepreneurs) like the left’s principles and social liberalism. But they find the high-tax dirigisme – and anything interfering with a free labour market – a turnoff, hence their lukewarm view of the current Labour Party (despite some respect for Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary). And while they like many of the Conservatives’ policies, they can’t abide the patrician old-school-tie insincerity of the privileged elite that run the current Conservative Party (who have, anyway, made little effort to woo them – again, making me wonder whether they fully understand what’s occurring).
This vision – of a socially and economically liberal society and a workforce pursuing individualistic self-actualised goals often through entrepreneurialism – remains popular with an enormous swathe of the under 50s (as shown in a 2013 Economist survey) while being ignored – or, worse, disliked – by the two main parties.
Perhaps the Greens could accost this vision? Certainly, they have the young-vibrancy, cultural-tolerance and liberal-creativity required. But they’re so heavily redistributive that, again, they’re unlikely to become the political voice for a future that – unless the politicians screw it up – will happen with or without them.
Of course, that’s the danger. That – by chasing the grey/class-war vote – the politicians wreck this positive view of Britain’s economic future. Make too many moves in the wrong direction – in order to shore up their “base” – and this vision will evaporate in a puff of protectionist over-regulation, high-taxes and/or cultural intolerance. It’s a fragile thing, after all: just ask France (who’ve lost it), America (who’re losing it) and Germany (who’re trying – with some success – to acquire it). But Britain has it: in spades. We’re the very country that has seen the future and embraced it – at least, those that matter to the UK’s future have. So why oh why are the politicians ignoring it?
Of course, as an outsider I find this political ignorance of Britain’s economic future doubly frustrating. After all, this is the outsider economy. It’s for individuals to find meaningful lives through skill acquisition and by working for their own account (even if, short-term, this requires the apprenticeship of employment) – exactly as I describe in The Outside Edge. It refutes the vested interests of big business as well as the unionised public services. It’s an economy of outsiders by outsiders, for outsiders, which may explain why the two main parties – run by consummate insiders attached to insider vested interests – not only don’t get it, but don’t seem to want it.
As the US journalist Joseph Sobran said, “politics is the conspiracy of the unproductive but organised against the productive but unorganised”. Since I first became enfranchised (in the 1980s) no UK election has so reflected this depressing dichotomy.