By Joseph Kelly
Way back in 1933, US President Franklin Roosevelt coined the term “the first hundred days” as a time to measure the success of the important initial period in a job.
Since then it has developed a near-talismanic status, being used in just about every walk of life as the safety line that new appointees have to cross.
No doubt our new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, will be pondering the veracity of the ‘first 100 days’ theory – after taking power last Tuesday, his 100th day falls on October 31st!
For Johnson and his new Tory cabinet, it’s going to be an epic but uncertain sprint, and few can predict what kind of country we’ll be waking to on 1st November.
Boris Johnson’s victory, and the hasty appointment of his new cabinet, was pretty much the last gasp of parliament before the summer recess.
However, there’ll be no sun loungers for politicians this year. Over the Welsh border they’ve already had to deal with the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in what was always going to be a litmus test of the political zeitgeist.
Thanks to Theresa May’s catastrophic decision to test her parliamentary majority, the balance of power in London remains on a knife edge.
Then On 29th there’s the Conservative Party Conference at which, on 2nd October, Mr Johnson will have to give the absolute speech of his life, before heading to the EU summit in Brussels on 17th for last ditch attempts to negotiate our hopefully orderly departure from the EU on 31st October.
Beyond his frantic 100 days? There are countless issues that will need to be addressed, as our parliamentary system emerges from years of Brexit stagnation, and public confidence in our present political system has degraded to less than zero.
Perhaps most fundamental, but most unlikely to be addressed, is the very nature of British politics itself.
Generations have grown up with a combative, binary form of lawmaking that has rarely delivered much meaningful good to the average voter.
In her final Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons last week, Theresa May even applauded our “adversarial parliamentary democracy” and forms of political debate in which she said gleefully that: “no quarter is sought and none is given.”
This may be the noble history that has forged parliamentary legislation behind closed doors, but times change, and such exchanges and political mechanisms are now on full public view, and have been exposed for what they are – irritable party point scoring that is almost entirely negative, and produces little public benefit.
In recent years public engagement with politics has declined steeply, such that ruling parties and legislators often crawl into office with a mandate from less than a quarter of the country.
(Even our new Prime Minister was able to secure office with just 92,000 votes, in a population of 67 million.)
Restoring faith in our political system has been a concern for decades, but the Brexit debacle has plunged the country into an entirely new level of trust deficit, as the entire political community failed spectacularly and very publicly to enact the will of the people.
Johnson has promised to rectify this and take us out of the EU on 31st of October. This won’t heal the deep divisions that the referendum created, but it may just save the last remnants of democracy, and restore some faith in the political establishment.
Beyond this, there are issues affecting many key areas of life in the UK that will need to be addressed urgently:
As well as restoring public faith in our political system it’s critically urgent that the government rebuilds business confidence. Leaving the European Union under any conditions will have dramatic effects on the way commerce and trade operates, but his need not be catastrophic, or derogatory.
There’s an old maxim that ‘business finds a way’, and the government will need to reconfigure how business functions both at home, and globally.
It would also be hugely beneficial if there was a ‘root and branch’ re-evaluation of the moral underpinnings of commerce, rejecting both socialism and unrestrained capitalism – dare we say, towards the models of distributism, subsidiarity and agrarianism advocated by Catholic social teaching?
Improving and rethinking roads, rail and other geographical connections will have to be a top priority for legislators, especially in a post-Brexit world which will demand an increased focus and reliance on home industries.
Forget HS2, which is an expensive folly aimed at underscoring the increasingly unjustified primacy of London as our epicentre, but maybe endorse Boris Johnson’s plans for high speed rail links across the north west (which is not the ‘north west’ at all, but the central belt of Britain.)
Many of our prime manufacturing abilities remain rooted in the Liverpool-Manchester-Humberside belt, and communications here, especially by rail, are worse than appalling.
We will need to rebuild self-sufficiency wherever possible, and manufacture more of our own goods. Lost skills will need to be re-learned, and perhaps the government should also see our older citizens not as a liability and cash burden, but as an educational and commercial asset on account of their vast experience and knowledge.
There also needs to be a very serious re-assessment of UK manufacturing in the context of consumer demand.
For too long we have been vastly over-producing goods to meet people’s ‘wants’ rather than people’s ‘needs’.
Large areas of manufacturing are also being driven by the need to preserve jobs, rather than demand for product. No-one wants to be unemployed, but again Catholic social teaching warns against promoting ‘useless employment’ vs ‘useful work’.
Immigration policy will also be an issue that any government will be unable to avoid. Whilst immigration has been a hugely positive benefit to this country, it has also led to an unhealthy reliance of poorly paid overseas and casual labour, with many businesses only being viable on the back of such exploitation.
Selecting who is going to be our new neighbour on the basis of their potential labour and income contribution to the UK economy is a morally dubious strategy in the first place, but add to that a reluctance to open our country to genuine refugees from the most severe violence and destitution, and you have a mechanism that respects almost no-one.
Experts say it will take at least £3billion just to reverse the cuts that have happened in education since 2010. This has led to a deep and damaging crisis in teacher recruitment, with many becoming overworked and burnt-out, or leaving the vocation completely.
Alongside this, hugely muddled teaching initiatives and controversial and ill-thought out policies on moral and sexual ethics enforced by the state have seriously undermined confidence in the education system, and have threatened the primacy of the principle that parents are the first educators of their children.
For Catholic schools in particular there have been hugely difficult challenges in operating under a ‘render unto Caesar’ regime. Government funding is vital to most RC schools, especially as dioceses increasingly struggle to provide financial support to their schools, but it carries compromises.
Whatever your politics on faith education, the government would be in a serious mess without our many Catholics schools, who educate tens of thousands of children every year to the highest standards, and take a significant burden off the government.
Any government wanting to restore confidence in our education system is going to have to take several steps back from the classroom, and allow teachers and parents to recover the education of our young citizens.
It’s also going to have to stop interfereing with faith schools and accept that we area significant part of the ‘inclusivity and diversity’ landscape.
There is a deep crisis in social care across the UK, that goes far beyond just the consequences of budget cuts.
The government is forcing people to work longer, and for some that will effectively mean no retirement at all.
Successive governments have also failed miserably to reform our healthcare system, which has become little more that a political football. Retrieving the vision of Eneurin Bevan will take a lot of cross-party negotiation and consensus building, but this mustn’t fail, as the health (and therefore the wealth) of our nation is at stake.
This reform will need to start with the immediate dismantling of the Universal Credit system, which is has failed miserably, and is causing dreadful hardship and impoverishment to many.
FAMILY LIFE & MORALS
In the pursuit of appeasement, recent governments have actively encouraged the breakdown of the ‘family’, prefering instead to support the primacy of individual needs and wishes.
Future governments will need to learn the use of the word ‘no’, and understand that the centrality of the family is not a passing social phenomenon, but the basis upon which human existence has evolved and functions.
Much of the government’s strategy on sexual morality is also deeply flawed.
Abstinence, fidelity and moderation are words that nowadays hardly get a mention in this area, and the emphasis has shifted to remedial actions that endorse, rather than change or improve, human sexual behaviour.
This strategy is already creeping into the classroom, as our young citizens are taught the ‘benefits’ and ‘virtues’ of contraception, sexual health checks and early life inoculations against sexually-transmitted diseases.
Masquerading under ‘sex education’, this misguidance is actually a deep betrayal and desertion of the young, who deserve to be told there are meaningful alternatives to uninhibited indulgence and contra-medications.
Thankfully we are starting to recognise the urgent need to reduce our impact on our planet, but Government has to reverse the uncontrolled consumerism that is creating waste in the first place.
Persuading people to consume a little less so that others may have a little more’ could be the biggest single challenge any government faces, but addressing this is almost certainly the basis of resolving most of the other social and financial problems we face.
• In next week’s Catholic Universe: the dilemma of the Northern Ireland backstop. Available at your parish from Friday, priced £1.50.