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Ten meagre reasons for cheer amid the gloom

Belated posting of my post-election Times column:

For those of us who want a clean Brexit and who champion freedom and innovation rather than socialism, the election result was a shattering disappointment. It reduced the party that most embraces free enterprise to a minority in the House of Commons and leaves us with a diminished and humiliated government less likely to win crucial concessions from a European Union emboldened to be more punitive — all against a background of teenager-murdering theocracy.

But, as the first shock fades, I am finding a few crumbs of comfort. Not optimism exactly, but glimmers of light amid the gloom. Here is my top ten.

1. When the dust settles, this was a near miss, not a crash. We came within a few thousand votes of electing a version of, and admirer of, Hugo Chávez to run the United Kingdom, but we did not do so. So this was not quite our Trump moment. Thanks to Ruth, queen of Scots, and the fact that even Labour did not realise just how many vulnerable English seats had been left unguarded by the complacent Tories, Britain elected 56 more Tory than Labour MPs.

Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell got close to power, but are still some distance from it. Let us remember that this upheaval came in a vote, not a revolution. For all the contempt for leaders or parties, and all the talk of uncontrollable populism, the mechanism of parliamentary democracy is still in very good health.

2. Scotland is not going independent. The defeats suffered by the Scottish National Party were deeper than anybody predicted, and the result is that indyref2 is dead and buried. The United Kingdom is less likely to break up than for several years.

3. This was not a defeat for free-market policies for the simple reason that the Conservative manifesto was its least free market since the days of mixed economies and Butskellism in the 1950s. “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets”, it said, and while that was a straw man, the message was clear that the 2017 Conservative Party believed in state interventionism almost as much as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The way is still open to the Conservatives to turn Britain into an entrepreneurial and fast-growing economy that brings not just more prosperity but also more opportunity and generosity.

4. This was not a defeat for Brexit, however wishfully many (especially on the Continent) might see it that way. The two parties that did best were both in favour of Brexit. The parties that did worst — apart from Ukip — were the ones that wanted to reverse Brexit, especially the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the SNP. The Conservatives have a pro-Brexit party, the Democratic Unionists, to help them in the Commons. So Brexit talks can go ahead and David Davis, the Brexit secretary, was one of the few Tories to emerge from the campaign with his reputation and influence enhanced. The talks may not reach a conclusion soon, but they won’t fail soon either.

5. The nostrum that the Brexit vote last year was all about immigration has been exposed as wrong. Theresa May’s obsessive focus on immigration, and her refusal to contemplate making an exception for students, has proved unpopular, especially with the young. There is probably a mandate for a version of Brexit that grabs the benefits of trading more with the world while remaining fairly open to immigration — just not discriminating in favour of European immigrants.

6. Jeremy Corbyn will continue to perform badly in the Commons, and his party will still be riven with factions, not least when Momentum and Unite flex their muscles against Blairites. Many sensible Labour politicians were longing to get rid of Mr Corbyn and his loony-left gang and are now saddled with extremism. They did well in the election because they were not writing a manifesto for governing, but a wildly unrealistic protest document that they (and most who voted for it) never expected to see implemented.

7. Although the Democratic Unionists tend to believe in some old-fashioned things such as young-earth creationism and that homosexuality is a sin, there is little chance of any of this making it on to the statute book and they know it. The Conservatives have passed gay marriage into law and are not about to go back on that. A shiny new bridge or two in Northern Ireland and some welfare pledges will be their price, not a Cromwellian reformation.

8. The barnacles of the 2015 manifesto have at least been scraped off the hull. One reason for the election was to escape the specific promises made then in the expectation of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That at least has been achieved. So while Britain has still to work out how to live within its means, and get its public finances in order, the government does at least have a bit more room for manoeuvre on tax and national insurance than it had before. Meanwhile, its precarious parliamentary position suggests it should try to depoliticise the NHS and social care by setting up independent commissions.

9. Project Fear has failed again. Let’s bury it. The next election, probably in 2018, and in all likelihood fought on better boundaries for the Tories, should be contested by the optimistic and authentic Boris Johnson or David Davis, with Ruth Davidson in charge of the manifesto. Whatever happens, Theresa May cannot be allowed to lead another campaign.

10. The political awakening of young people is a good thing, even if they appear never to have learned in school that communism was as big a disaster as fascism. Political parties urgently need to reinvent themselves for the digital age, something Douglas Carswell has been saying for a long time: more Facebook, less door-knocking. I had thought this lesson had been learnt after Vote Leave ran rings round Stronger In during the referendum last year, but obviously it needed rubbing in.

I admit I am clutching at straws a bit with this list. I would have preferred a different outcome to the election, and I still see some horrible possibilities in the present political situation: a recession leading to the fall of the Conservative government and the election of a Marxist one, for example. Nonetheless, crises create opportunities. Let us make the best of this one.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times