We are certainly living through momentous times in our politics. We now have a new Prime Minister and Cabinet, who will face many challenges. I’m sure Theresa May has been bombarded with advice and questions, but that is no reason for me not to add my own. So here is my open letter to our new PM.
Dear Mrs May
I don’t know whether the word “congratulations” is appropriate given the incredibly challenging task you have accepted, but anyway I would like express appreciation to you for taking it on – I’m sure you could have an easier time in almost any other job, even as Home Secretary! I know you are very conscious of the many challenges you face, not least those brought into sharp focus today by the combination of the tragedy in Nice and the funeral of your parliamentary colleague Jo Cox. We are living in a time when too many feel that violence is an acceptable, or an unavoidable, means of advancing their ideas or grievances, be it in the world’s conflict zones, at the UEFA football matches, or in the racist attacks that have increased since the referendum, perhaps encouraged by the negative debate about migration.
There can never be an excuse for violence, especially when democratic means exist to address grievances. Nevertheless those who espouse terrorism and racist ideology can find fertile ground for their repugnant ideas more easily where sections of the population are alienated, excluded, marginalised and without hope. Addressing the latter will, I trust, be near the top of your agenda.
Your first speech in Downing Street gave me, and many others, hope with its emphasis on social justice and unity. You talked about inequalities in the life chances of people from different ethnicities and backgrounds. But then you chose to focus on a “working class family” that owns its own home and is “just about managing”. Such people certainly need support, but they are not the ones most in need. There are far too many in our society who can’t get a decent reliable job, or any job at all (despite record high levels of employment), or who can’t find a decent home to rent let alone buy. Many of these are affected by mental illness or disability or the decline of the traditional employers in their home towns. Shelter has estimated that three children in every school are homeless. According to Crisis, more than 160,000 households applied for help with homelessness in 2014/15. In England that represented a 26% increase on 5 years earlier. 29% of children are living in poverty (after housing costs) in one of the world’s richest countries. That is close to 4 million children, and progress has halted and then reversed since 2011. The number of emergency food supplies issued by food banks has risen every year to over 1.1 million in 2015/16, and food bank use is highest in areas where many are unable to work due to long term illness or disability. And the UK has, to our shame, one of the highest levels of inequality and the lowest level of intergenerational social mobility in the rich world (education is the key to tackling this and I’m confident that Justine Greening will address this with energy and commitment).
The UK has been a leader in defining and promoting the global Sustainable Development Goals. I hope you will take these as one of the key metrics for your Government. They combine targets to overcome poverty and exclusion as well as to tackle climate change and ensure good health and education for all – aims which I’m sure you endorse. One of the exciting innovations of these new global goals is that they apply to every country, including the UK. And the unifying concept is one that can be a guiding star in pursuing the social justice objectives you talked about so powerfully on the steps of Number 10 – Leave No-one Behind.
It would be inspiring indeed if you were to take the Global Goals as the overarching principle for your administration. You have already shown at the Home Office, through the Modern Slavery Act, compassionate concern for those most disempowered by their circumstances. That will be a great legacy for your time as Home Secretary. Measurable progress on the Global Goals would be an even greater legacy for your premiership.
These goals could also be ones that help define how we negotiate our exit from the EU – to judge each option against the impact it will have on these goals, both in the UK and internationally.
As you work on the UK’s negotiating stance for Brexit, these values and principles can help to guide your decisions. Please remember that, however loud may be the voices of the more extreme brexiteers, 48% of voters wished to remain in the EU. I’m confident that, among the 52% that voted leave, at least 2% would be marginal, or even regretful, leave voters who would be looking for the least radical option, such as remaining within the European Economic Area, with full access to the single market. If so, together with those who supported remain there is almost certainly a majority in favour of an EEA, single market position. This is also the position most likely to forestall the break-up of the United Kingdom and to ensure that the social problems referred to above do not worsen.
The referendum had a majority in favour of Brexit but there was not necessarily a majority for radical reductions in immigration (as opposed perhaps to more effective control of who is able to enter)(many brexiteers have forcefully denied that their stance derived from a desire to reduce immigration, rather citing the democratic deficit of the EU system) – you know well that we need migrants for the success of our economy and to balance our ageing population profile. I hope you will make the positive case for immigration. And for the UK’s historic compassion for those seeking asylum from war and persecution.
You have a wonderful opportunity to face the many challenges in a positive spirit of inclusion, unity and social progress, as you have indicated is your wish. Nevertheless I do want to raise three very specific concerns and to seek your reassurance on each of these.
Firstly, I am deeply worried by your earlier statements on the subject of human rights. I understand the frustration you faced over the Abu Qatada case, but I hope very much that such frustration would never bring our country to a position where it failed to uphold in full the universal norms and standards of human rights. Leaving the EU does not mean leaving the Council of Europe or its European Convention on Human Rights. The UK has always been at the forefront of the promotion of international human rights treaties and it would be a tragedy of global proportions were we now to renege on our commitments.
You have spoken about the need to empower people. Human Rights exist precisely for that purpose – in particular to protect ordinary people from the unjust or oppressive exercise of state power. Sometimes this may frustrate Governments, but that is surely a price worth paying to avoid giving succour to tyrants and abusers around the world who would take any withdrawal of UK commitments as a licence to ignore human rights norms themselves. How could we stand up in international fora if we have allowed a single case to drive us to undermine decades of leadership on human rights? Please tell me you will remain committed to all international standards and treaties on human rights. And while we are on the subject, how about taking the opportunity to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into UK law?
Secondly, I am worried by your abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Addressing Climate Change is fundamental to the Global Goals and another area where the UK has taken a strong position in international negotiations. Perhaps leaving the EU will allow us to go even further. But I am afraid that this change arises from a lowering of the priority you attach to climate change. I hope not. I can see some positives in moving the responsibility to the business department. Perhaps now the UK can take advantage of the economic opportunity to become a leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency technology. Perhaps support for wind, solar and other renewables can be reinstated and planning restrictions eased? I know that many progressive businesses are ahead of Government in their support of climate mitigation and adaptation measures, being strongly aware of the damage that unfettered climate change will do to their businesses, their employees and their customers. I hope you will engage with these most progressive business leaders and move at a faster pace to scale back the UK’s carbon emissions and to continue to lead on the global stage. Please tell me this is a positive move for climate action, rather than the reverse?
Thirdly, I am extremely concerned for the future of the UK’s international development programme. You have appointed a Secretary of State for International Development who has been a vocal critic of aid and has even suggested the abolition of the Department she will now lead. She has argued for stronger links between trade and aid which sounds like a return to the discredited approach of tied aid. Already, on taking office, she has talked about making sure that “we invest UK aid firmly in our national interest”. Aid and development does surely bring benefits to the giver (and I hope that is the sense of her statement), but that should never be its primary purpose, which is the relief of poverty and suffering among the world’s most poor, disadvantaged, excluded and exploited. I hope that, in appointing Ms Patel to this important job, you have made clear your commitment to uphold the UK’s national political consensus, and law, protecting the 0.7% of GNI development budget. I hope too that a focus on the Global Goals could also serve to guide the decisions of all Ministers, including ensuring that our role in international development continues to focus on the needs and prospects of the world’s poorest. It is good to support the growth of business and GNI in developing countries, including through trade, but it doesn’t guarantee that the poorest will be better able to access food, healthcare or education. Just as in the UK many have been left behind by economic change, so too it is the case in the developing world. Aid can help develop economies, but more importantly it is absolutely vital to protect the most vulnerable.
Domestically and internationally, let “leave no-one behind” be your motto. I hope to hear those words in your next speech, and I will be greatly reassured. You are now our leader. It is a huge responsibility. As you have rightly said, your duty is to lead for all – including for the poorest, for all the nations of the UK, and certainly not only for the 37% of eligible voters who expressed a desire to leave the European Union – and the even smaller number who did so to radically reduce immigration. It also means leading in the world, as Britain has done so often, on human rights, climate change and international development.