Can US democracy learn a lesson or two from Britain’s steady parliamentary system? A conversation with British MP Jesse Norman.
The mainstream media in the US has paid scant attention to the recent changing of the guard in the British government. And yet, given the current state of our politics, we might learn a lot from the peaceful transition of power that just took place, as Boris Johnson left office and Liz Truss was installed as Britain’s new prime minister.
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we are joined by Jesse Norman, a Conservative member of the British Parliament. Norman, a rising star in the British House of Commons, holds a doctorate in philosophy from University College London and was just this week appointed as minister of state at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. His 2013 biography of Edmund Burke received overwhelming praise, as has his biography of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics.
Norman takes us through the details of his own key role in the ouster of Boris Johnson, and the mechanism by which Truss was chosen as Johnson’s successor. He sheds light on what he sees as the new prime minister’s freshness, directness, and lack of bluster, in stark contrast to Johnson.
He also offers some insights into Truss’s political philosophy, which, he says, cannot easily be “put in a box.” Although her views have evolved from a more liberal outlook in her youth to an almost libertarian mindset today, he says she has always maintained a steady focus on individual freedom.
As for his own take on British politics, Norman explains his growing conviction that “consumers,” i.e., the working class, must be given more protection against what he calls the power of “producers.”
With about two years to go before Britain’s next general election, he imagines the Truss government concentrating on three or four key issues — inflation, housing, energy policy, and market competitiveness — while honoring Britain’s deep commitment to Ukraine and countering Russia’s attempt to use oil and gas as weapons of war.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. If you watched only MSNBC or CNN or Fox on Tuesday night – if this was your only source of news for the day – you truly would not know that the UK, a country with whom the US has a so-called special relationship, has a new prime minister. And just maybe as Americans are still litigating and arguing about an election two years ago, the elegant and smooth transfer of power in the UK is both a site to behold and a reminder that in a democracy, the peaceful transfer of power is still one of the most important single parts in making that democracy work.
And if that isn’t enough, there was the broader question of what a new UK government means to the US, to Europe, to the world, and most of all, to the people of the United Kingdom. Newly minted prime minister Liz Truss has emerged as the leader of her Conservative Party and become the nation’s new prime minister. She’s Britain’s third woman prime minister, and she has assembled a cabinet that is both based on meritocracy and would make any diversity, equity, and inclusion executive blush with envy.
But this is not just about global perception. Prime Minister Truss has inherited a nation mired in inflation, struggling with both the accessibility and cost of energy, still navigating the post-Brexit landscape, and struggling with both employment and the burgeoning cost of the nation’s national health service, as well as high taxes and a war raging on the European continent. To try and walk us through all of this, I’m joined by a British conservative member of parliament, Jesse Norman.
Jesse Norman is widely regarded as one of the rising stars in the British House of Commons and was just this week appointed Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in the Truss government. He holds a PhD in philosophy from University College London and is the author of brilliant biographies of both Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. He served as financial secretary to the treasury from 2019 to 2021 and has served as a member of parliament since 2010. It is my pleasure to welcome the Rt Hon Jesse Norman here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Jesse, thanks so much for joining us.
Jesse Norman: Jeff, it’s an absolute pleasure. Very lovely to talk to you again, and to be able to analyze these fascinating developments we’ve had in Britain.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. You were one of the earlier folks to come out for the resignation of Boris Johnson. You had been a supporter of his for a long time. Talk about that first, why you felt it was time for him to move on?
Jesse: Well, it was a very difficult decision for me because I’ve known Boris for more than 40 years, and we’ve always been friends and our families have been friends, we’ve been on holiday together, so I know him very well. And so whenever it gets to the point of writing a letter of no confidence on that kind of basis without a lot of prior reflection and soul searching. But by the time I wrote, which was actually some way before the eventual moment of his departure from office – four or five weeks before, when it was by no means obvious that it was going to happen and many of my colleagues were deeply concerned but were holding their fire.
The reason that I wrote was that there had been a series of events that had crystallized in my mind, and I thought very obviously in a way that could not be easily controverted.
And so I thought it was important to put those down on paper and explain publicly why Boris should not continue. And if I may, Jeff, I’ll just touch on what those were.
So the first had to do with a specific scandal in Britain over the last year or so, which has been called Partygate, which is the revelation that at a time when Number 10 and the prime minister were sending very, very strict messages to the general public to stay at home, not to go out, not to see their loved ones, not to engage in all the normal aspects of social life and social interaction, family life – at that time, there was in fact, a whole series of social gatherings and parties in Number 10 Downing Street itself. And Boris had himself been present at several of these, and that caused a feeling of great revulsion amongst the general public. And of course, it was weaponized by different parts of the political spectrum: people on the left but also many people of what you might call a quiet, silent majority, small-c conservative disposition, were very concerned about that and they were undoubtedly mobilized in a way that did not do the prime minister any favors.
So I thought it was really important to put that on the record, but also to go beyond that and to say that there had been some investigations, and to say that it wasn’t just about that. It was also about substantive policies that were not succeeding and were almost certainly impractical, and really about punching a certain culture-war bruise. And then finally – and this will have a particular resonance, I think, in America – about the emergence of a presidential culture in Britain.
The British are completely allergic to this idea because of course we have a parliamentary democracy. The prime minister has no national mandate. He or she has a mandate only from his or her electors in their district, in their constituency, and then as a member of parliament and as prime minister from their fellow MPs.
And so the idea that Boris was promulgating, the people around him were promulgating, which was that, on the basis of the 2019 election, he was like, “A president had a national mandate, could not be removed from office without a general election.” These things are completely foreign to our constitutional tradition. I thought it was very important to nail down what had gone wrong.
And all of that, to me, added up to a very clear verdict, which was that – in terms of the way he behaved on Partygate, as it was called, and in terms of current policy and the inability to achieve certain things that conservatives needed to do, and in terms of this creeping constitutional presidentialism – I was very sorry to say he had to go. And with that letter I put online, I normally get about three likes and five retweets on Twitter, so by the time I got to 15,000 retweets and 35,000 likes, I was beginning to realize that actually, I’d struck a bit of chord.
And I think it did become the document that people used when they were reflecting in a kind of independent centrist way, not partisan, but a centrist way about the prime minister’s position. And then, of course, about five weeks later, he did something that completely confirmed all the worst fears people had had about his blustering, and I’m afraid somewhat disingenuous fibbing style. And that’s I’m afraid was when the roof fell.
Jeff: What were your concerns about a leadership battle within the Conservative Party? These things, while it seemed to go smoothly, these things, when they start, one never knows what twists and turns they’ll take and what impact it might have on the ongoing policy of the Conservative Party.
Jesse: Yes, that’s true. When we have leadership contests in Britain, they very rarely happen while the individual is prime minister and, as it were, when the party is in government, and therefore it’s the departure of an existing program. We have had two in the last five years, but that’s a great rarity in general. And this was one that was a fully contested leadership election and both individuals remained in the race to the very end, which hadn’t happened the previous time around. And as a result, the previous one had been artificially shorter.
So this was really about six or seven weeks of discussion debate, internal voting to choose two candidates within the Conservative Party, parliamentary party that took about a week, little bit longer, and then in accordance with the constitution of the Conservative Party, it was then put to the membership, which is 180-odd thousand people. And there was a series of hostings and debates so that they could become fully informed about the nature of the two candidates, and the two candidates will be put on the spot and held to account.
And that was a very interesting process. It went on, I think, longer than anyone would’ve wanted, but at the same time, these were national debates. They were being analyzed and reviewed and discussed by people way outside the Conservative Party, and they achieved a certain degree of national cut-through. And so people now, I think even if you’re not a member of the Conservative Party, do feel they have much better understanding of the two candidates.
And out of those two, actually, the front-runner amongst the MPs did not prove to be the one whom the party members had chosen, and that is an important fact in its own right. And Liz Truss, who was selected, has now, in fact, overtaken her rival in the number of MPs. But she literally started yesterday, we had her in Prime Minister’s Questions today and it was fascinating because I think the Labor Party had been thinking, “Well, this is someone whom we can very easily attack and we can use some of the disagreements during the ED, during the campaign process in order to attack her.
And actually she proved to be extremely effective and more than capable of repelling the attack made on her by the Labor Party. And very interestingly, she brought a freshness and a directness and a lack of prevarication and a lack of bluster that I think many people will have found enormously refreshing.
Jeff: The New York Times had a profile of her yesterday, and one of the key takeaways from that was really as somebody who often went against the mainstream, who was always looking for different or disruptive ways to approach problems. Talk about that.
Jesse: You probably know, Jeff, that The New York Times is in a very strange place and is reporting more of…
Jeff: [laughs] Indeed.
Jesse: …Britain at the moment. It’s amazing. It seems to have been– I’ve got nothing but respect. I lived in the States for six years. I know The New York Times well, I read it for years, and it’s going through a process of– I don’t know whether it’s Brit hating or just Brit conservative hating, but it’s a very strange thing. So Liz Truss is someone who has argued and articulated positions that are of a distinctly and genuinely libertarian view throughout her political career.
And even when she was a student politician – which she was, growing up – she was a member of another political party, the Liberal Democrats in Britain. But what is interesting is that even in that move from then to the Conservative Party, she has not lost a conception she has of personal individual freedom, both in one’s own life and also politically and economically. And I think that is enormously attractive to a lot of people.
And she isn’t, in any straightforward way, someone you can put into a box. She grew up in Scotland and Leeds, and she went to a comprehensive school [i.e., not a selective school – editor’s note], but she also went to Oxford, and she’s got quite a strong Northern accent. So yes, she doesn’t fit into these standard cookie-cutter conceptions of what a conservative is supposed to sound like. But what is interesting is that intellectually – ideologically, if you like – this strong commitment to freedom has always distinguished her.
And one of the really interesting things about politics now is going to be how that sense of freedom manifests itself. And it’s very recognizable to an American because there’s a strand of libertarian thinking in America, which I think she would find enormously congenial. And, of course, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t support and doesn’t respect many British institutions such as the NHS, but it does mean that she brings a stringency to wanting to put things to a market test, to open them up, to make them more transparent, to make them, if possible, more competitive. And I think many people will find that – and I personally, in many ways, find that – highly attractive.
Jeff: And you touched on that a little bit or at least got to the heart of it, the core of it, in an op-ed that you wrote recently, saying that there really needed to be more focus on consumers over producers. What did you mean by that? And how does that fit into this framework that you’re talking about?
Jesse: Well, it’s such an interesting question. My point was that in Britain, at the moment, there’s a tremendous preoccupation, for perfectly understandable political reasons, with what you might call the big fiscal judgments, how much protection should be offered to the least well off, to community organizations, to small businesses, if at all, whose energy prices may be going up by five or six times – and we have a significant section of the population that is simply not going to be able to afford it. The rise in energy prices vastly exceeds their disposable income, so something is going to have to be done to respect and support those people if we’re going to get through this.
And in its own way, it’s as testing as the pandemic was. And you [in the US] had your payroll protection scheme or paycheck protection scheme, and we had a thing called the furlough scheme, which I ran myself out of the treasury, that turned out to be enormously successful, I’m pleased to say. But people are expecting that scale of government response when you get this scale of tremendous health or economic shock. So that’s the context.
But I was saying there was an awful lot of things you can do. And I think it’s very consistent with the Liz Truss view of the world that her government could do that – it does not involve spending enormous amount of money. It just involves making public services, both provided by the state and provided by the privatized industries and by regular companies that act almost as utilities to improve the user experience and customer service.
And actually sitting behind that is a bigger focus, which says, look, we’re not going to focus as much on, as it were, the producer interest. We are going to focus on the individual end-user. And I’ll give you examples. So in Britain, we’ve had a problem: people wanting to get a passport recently from the government or wanting to get their driving license renewed, but we’ve also had tremendous problems with people trying to avoid exigent mortgage or financial charges or just trying to change travel tickets on apps and websites, an enormous array of different things. And, of course, these hit the least well-off the worst because very often they can’t afford to have people, they can’t buy the executive service, they can’t buy the, what you might call, the person to stand in line for them. They have to deal with the cost.
And it’s all really important that a conservative government puts itself in the position of those ordinary working men and women, many of them in my constituency, and just asks the question, how can we support those people and how can we make the system work better for them? And then behind that, how can we make our markets more competitive? And how can we redress the imbalance between what is often a highly technologically enabled central company and a very widely dispersed group of purchasers or clients? And I think there’s a much bigger competition and markets agenda there over the next few years.
Jeff: How does that fit in in the hierarchy of things that need to be addressed given the problems that the new government and the country is facing today, particularly the twin problems of inflation, which has gone out of hand in many respects, and also of high taxes?
Jesse: The effects of the war and the constraints on supply imposed by the recovery from COVID have meant that wage inflation, but also raw materials inflation and energy costs have spiked to levels that we have not seen since the 1980s in this country. We’re talking of 10 percent, 11 percent. People are talking much higher than even that in Britain. So there’s a serious issue of inflation. And that goes alongside the specific problem about how people are going to afford energy costs over the next 12 months through the winter and the rest of it.
So those are going to be front-and-center of the government’s emergency response. But then there’s also a big issue about how you lift national productivity. And there’s a big issue about housing, how you get a more functional housing market, more housing to people who are in need of it, who are maybe buying for the first time or looking to trade or looking to realize some value – and a housing market that’s quite over demanded and undersupplied and quite congested.
And then the other problem, of course, has to do with family formation, loneliness, early years, education. So I’d say those are four of the big problems that the government’s going to be facing in a couple of years to run, two and a half years, or say, two and a quarter years in this parliament. I think there’s only going to be time and attention to really to deal with three or four big issues. But I do think that sitting behind them needs to be this question about orientation towards consumers and market functioning.
And of course, one of the reasons why energy costs are so high is that various attempts have been made to manipulate energy retail markets, and they’ve had some fairly catastrophic results. And so in a way, it’s natural to start thinking about how we can get a better deal for consumers by also looking at the deeper way in which markets have not functioned very well.
And – if you’ll excuse me, Jeff, a bit of a plug – if anyone’s interested in the take on how markets function now, and some of these concerns about rent extraction and unfairness asymmetries of information and power, I talk about this in my book on Adam Smith. And one of the things that comes out of a Smithian view of this – and I think many Americans will understand that the genius of Adam Smith is that it does cover many of these things – is that markets are all different from each other.
The energy market is different from the financial markets, and financial markets are different from each other, and they’re different from consumer goods and white[?] goods and the rest. And so it really does demand quite a sophisticated policy-making agenda from government in order to address these problems in a really integrated and collective way.
Jeff: And to what extent does the manipulation of energy prices as a result of the war in Ukraine have an impact on all of this, and does it make it more difficult to solve these problems in these market-driven ways?
Jesse: Yes, it undoubtedly does. And of course, when one’s thinking in traditional terms, one tends to think of war or actual conflict between nations, and then one thinks of trade wars, that is to say you put tariffs on steel and I’ll put them on food and drink, whatever it might be. But this is a different thing. This is the carrying on of war through trade. War itself through trade. That’s what Mr. Putin is doing. He is trying to use oil and gas as a weapon to divide and impoverish his enemies.
And of course, it’s really important that the US and the UK stick together. And the UK, as a longtime ally and friend of the United States, is able then to act with its European partners and an awful lot can be overdone in thinking about the EU. We still work incredibly closely with the French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, the Dutch, major European states; in fact, all European states. So we really do need an integrated approach in dealing towards Russia in a joined-up way.
And that’s going to involve a recognition that different states are going to have different concerns and different impacts, and they’ve got to be managed in a way that presents a united front because, if we get divided by President Putin, that would be catastrophic for everyone. And of course, you then get into a situation in which some people can get played off against each other and you’ve started to get a lack of a unified front, and then at some point, potentially, the collapse of a political will.
And I think if there’s anything we need now and anything we need to do to support Ukraine in its valiant struggle against this completely unprovoked Russian aggression, it is to stand tall and stand together both on the issue of oil and gas but also on the issue of supplying the Ukrainians with the weapons and the other things that they need to be effective.
Jeff: And to what extent does the hangover from Brexit still play a role in the politics and policy in the UK right now?
Jesse: I think it’s very easy to overstate the problem because yes, we have come out of the EU. Yes, there are some important continuing issues we have to manage of trade and of the relationship with Northern Ireland and Ireland. But actually, the security and defense side has never been part of this concern. And even throughout the Brexit process, it was recognized in all signs, security, defense, intelligence sharing, and coordination should be kept separate from that. And that remains extremely strong across the UK and Europe. And of course, the Five Eyes System of intelligence gathering that we have developed with [inaudible 00:24:19] around the world remains intact as well. And is something on which all parties rely. So there is a kind of structure there that is thoroughly resilient, thoroughly effective, and very badly needed now.
Jeff: Member of Parliament, Jesse Norman, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast and for giving us these insights into what’s happening in your country and your government.
Jesse: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much indeed, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.