FDR? Johnson should look closer to home if he wants to succeed in levelling up the country
On the 16th August 1902, The Spectator, discussed in its “Topics of the Day” a new political slogan. “At the present time, and perhaps it is the most notable social fact of this age, there is a universal outcry for efficiency in all departments of society, in all the aspects of life”, the article wrote. “We hear the outcry on all hands and from the most unexpected persons. From the pulpit, the newspaper, the hustings, in the drawing-room, the smoking-room, the street, the same cry is heard: Give us Efficiency, or we die.”
The ‘National Efficiency’ movement, in the years leading up to the Great War, was the “levelling up” agenda of its day. Politicians of all parties spoke about the need to make the UK more ‘efficient’, what we might today call boosting productivity and improving the wellbeing of the poorest in society. Conservatives, Liberals and Socialists all rallied around the flag of efficiency creating alliances which would have been unthinkable decades before and since.
What had stimulated this coming together of aristocrats, business leaders, radicals and academics was a recognition that Britain had lost ground compared with rising powers such as Germany and the United States. A period of intense competition brought home the need to do things differently. Rather than relying on traditional British ‘muddling through’, the advocates of National Efficiency wanted to reform the UK’s political, economic and welfare systems to make the country smarter, healthier, and more productive.
Reading the news about the “hard rain” which is due to fall on the Civil Service and the Prime Minister’s 'Rooseveltism', it is hard not to find parallels between the would-be British reformers of the early 20th Century and their 21st Century counterparts. As usual, our political class would do well to look closer to home rather than looking across the shore to the United States when considering how to put the country back on track.
Just like our current medical emergency had exposed long running structural weaknesses in our country, the Boer War had thrown into sharp focus the inequalities that bedevilled fin de siècle Britain, with particular concern for the industrialised heartlands of the North and Midlands.
The remedies proposed by advocates of ‘National Efficiency’ over a hundred years ago are sadly familiar today. Better technical education. Stronger local government and reformed national government. More effective public services. Greater expertise in science and technology within the civil service and business. Better quality leadership in business and the state. Most importantly, was the call for a plan, what contemporaries called ‘grip’, at the heart of government. Efficientists wanted politicians to be active shapers of the future, rather than passive responders to crisis.
There were many opponents to this agenda. Constitutional purists believed that greater reliance on “experts” would undermine Parliamentary democracy. Gladstonian Liberals thought that a more strategic state would be too expensive and intrusive. Fusty Conservatives did not like the idea of power transferring from traditional elites to the thrusting middle classes. Together, these opponents were able to frustrate much of the agenda. The fact that advocates of levelling up are still arguing for many of the same policies over a century later, indicates how hard it is to reform an ancient state like Britain.
There are multiple factions against reform today, but what makes the job even harder is a sense of defeatism at the heart of our political elite. Whilst in the 1900s, most opponents of reform were against changes on the grounds that Britain was already great and did not need to change. Today opponents of reform believe that Britain will forever be in the slow lane and cannot accept that a better, more dynamic future is possible. The former position is infinitely more difficult to overcome than the latter.
Despite huge amounts of opposition, over a period of around ten years the ‘efficiency’ movement was able to make some tangible improvements to Britain that were vital in preparing it for the trials of the 20th Century. A reformed social security system, a comprehensive restructure of the armed forces and an expansion of technical education were just some of its achievements.
Our current Prime Minister is a keen student of history. So what can he learn from this important moment in British political life? There are two main lessons.
Number one, he needs to avoid tying his levelling up to one big controversial policy. In its early years, the National Efficiency movement was a broad coalition spanning right across the political spectrum – including one of his idols, a young MP by the name of Winston Churchill. Unfortunately, the decision by Joseph Chamberlain to make introducing trade tariffs the central policy of ‘efficiency’, splintered the movement. Not only did deadlock on tariffs distract everyone from broader issues, such as technical education and local government reform, but it also turned some advocates of efficiency off the whole project completely.
Johnson has gone big on infrastructure investment so far, which is hard for people to argue against, but his team know that this alone will not be enough. In our modern politics, it is tempting for leaders to chuck a “big idea” out there, like Chamberlain did on tariffs, to capture the imagination of the public and journalists. Brexit is an obvious analogy, where some Conservatives are banking on new trade deals alone to create growth. Not only does a “big bazooka” approach to end up distracting from other areas of reform, but it also threatens potential alliances with natural partners who do not happen to agree with that one policy. The Prime Minister is doing the right thing by drawing a line under Brexit and switching to other aspects of his agenda. This is an approach he should continue despite how tempting it may be to use this big policy area as a political life jacket when times gets tough.
Despite the National Efficiency movement’s obsession with planning, they were never able to come together behind a coherent strategy. The Prime Minister could learn from their mistakes by bringing together this ideas into a clear publicly available strategy – perhaps a revived ‘Industrial Strategy’ – seeding and linking multiple reforms. This will make it harder for opponents to sink the whole project. Bringing people from a range of political parties together is ideal and was the major strength of the National Efficiency movement. Johnson should reach across the aisle and bring reformist Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians with him in shaping this strategy.
Number two, Johnson needs to focus on institutional reform as much as possible. Big investment in infrastructure projects is essential, but it is institutions which shape the future. The more enlightened advocates of efficiency, such as Viscount Haldane, recognised that new institutions were required for a new age.
Together they helped found a vast array of institutions from the Boy Scouts to Imperial College London. We are still reaping the benefits of this far-sightedness.
COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to reform the UK’s institutions. There is general recognition in the public and in politics that we must do things different after this crisis. A lot of focus has been put on the public sector and there certainly needs to be reform of the machinery of the government. Gove’s recent speech has many parallels to earlier reformers who wanted to encourage more experimentation and decisiveness in British policy. Interestingly, the focus of great consternation within the original efficiency movement was HM Treasury. This bastion of Gladstonianism was constantly accused of throwing up barriers and hobbling reforms through a lack of funding, plus ça change? The Prime Minister has already taken steps to change this through his merging of economic advisors. Could more be done to rebalance government, not just within the regions but within Whitehall, without abandoning fiscal prudence?
The Prime Minister must also carry the mantle which the Efficientists were never able to, reform of British business itself. Low wages, a lack of investment into new methods of science and technology alongside low levels of technical training were a source of grave concern at the start of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, these are the same challenges that reformers are talking about today. Rather than addressing the symptoms, government needs to tackle the root cause, the culture and short-termism of British businesses. Embracing new models of working, as the National Efficiency movement articulated, should not just mean new technologies but also new forms of business – such as social enterprises, which are outperforming their competitors.
If the Prime Minister is able to reform the machinery of government to make it more strategic and focused on levelling up, alongside reforms to British business which encourage greater investment and training then he will have created a sizeable legacy. However, he will need to do more to sell his ideas and convince a sceptical public that this is the real deal. As The Spectator’s 1902 editorial further mused “[d]oes this cry for efficiency represent a real thing, or is it merely the gossip of the booth, the babble of the political auction room, the cant of the hour?” We have been here before. The Third Way. The Big Society.
If Johnson truly wants to deliver his agenda, he should look to these predecessors. The barriers of an ancient state, an entrenched Civil Service, a powerful legislature, a divided country and an incredibly active press were ones that they struggled to overcome, with some success. Conservatives could do worse than learn from their attempts to alter the course of the country.