Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Parliament has returned to a sea of fresh faces, but unlike you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I recognise hardly any of them. They include my brother-in-law, my hon. Friend Charlie Elphicke, and my former association chairman, my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The party political landscape is transformed and there is a feeling of refreshed optimism, but if we do not apply a new way of thinking to fixing our nation’s problems, the very same old politics will, I fear, return. I shall unashamedly concentrate my observations on economic matters, in my capacity as the Member for the City of London, and on constitutional reform, which I broadly welcome as a long-time and robust supporter of House of Lords elections. I fear that the spirit of the past couple of years has been uncompromisingly ugly for those of us who instinctively support capitalism, free markets and global trade. There is widespread, almost open, hostility to banks, bankers, big business, the wealthy, private education, private health and at times even to the profit motive. That stands in stark contrast to the last time that the Conservatives came into government 31 years ago, when the case for empowering people, the smaller state and individual responsibility had already been made.
The election is already behind us, but I fear that we have a coalition Government in place that lack any explicit mandate to take the very tough economic decisions that are required as a matter of great urgency to get our public finances back on track. The key problem that faces the Government is a lack of public support for the urgent reductions in public expenditure that are now absolutely necessary. In large part, that is a result of the reluctance of the entire political class, during the recent election campaign, to level with the British public about the economic crisis that lies ahead. We are yet to strike at the core of the former Government’s rhetoric, and their narrative remains too dominant for my liking. Labour will now be able to sit on the sidelines and blame the new Government for everything that it postponed addressing. For example, we acquiesce in levelling higher taxes on the wealthy without making clear the very practical reasons why, in an age of unprecedented global mobility, the brightest and best of our young people will simply leave these shores if their plans to create wealth and promote enterprise are stifled. If the coalition is to be a success-and, more importantly, if our country is to lift itself out of this economic mire-we need first to make the case for a smaller, more efficient state through public spending cuts, and, secondly, to be strong enough to make the case for an internationally attractive and competitive tax system.
I understand the public’s appetite for retribution when it comes to the financial services sector, much of which is housed in my constituency, and the feeling that the banking fraternity should take the lion’s share of new taxes. But we must somehow separate sensible measures to curb excess and to share fairly the national burden from very punitive measures that are designed only to twist the knife and that have great potential to drive away the wealth and employment creators of the future.
There has been much talk about revitalising Britain’s manufacturing and export-led growth, but this prompts the obvious question, in the current economic climate, of who exactly will be doing the importing. The UK must be eternally grateful that we have stayed out of the eurozone, but the tumultuous events on the continent, which are only starting to play themselves out, will have a massive effect on us, regardless. After all, that struggling eurozone accounts for 60% of our export market. That is very bad news for the UK. Not only will our European trading partners be importing less, but the likely rapid depreciation in the value of the euro will also detrimentally affect our exporters. One of the most worrying aspects of the UK’s economic performance, particularly in the past two years, has been our failure to take greater advantage of the significant 20 to 25% devaluation in our currency to expand our export markets. That will augur very badly for us if sterling appreciates against the euro in the months ahead.
On constitutional reform, I must confess to being rather less a Conservative and more a radical in this area. In my very first speech in the House, nine years ago, I made very clear my support for a wholly-elected House of Lords, and a few years ago I suggested a set of proposals that would have helped to tie up the anomalies that had been left by devolution and the incomplete reform of the House of Lords. As a result of this interest, I have found very disquieting the recent press reports that the new coalition proposes-in breach of both election manifestos-to ennoble 200 men and women in order to ensure that the composition of the House of Lords is “reflective of the share of the vote” in the recent general election.
Just before the election, I noted that there would be public outrage if a business-as-usual approach to House of Lords appointments was adopted by the political class in the months ahead. In particular, it would be totally unacceptable if any retiring Members of this House who have been reprimanded, been obliged to apologise to the House or had to repay substantial sums following the allowances scandal were now raised to the peerage. The same must apply to the former senior parliamentarians from the Commons who led the absolutely calamitous efforts to prevent the publication of MPs’ expenses through the High Court or the inadequate attempts at reform after the entire scandal broke regarding the employment of relatives at the beginning of 2008. That might be the way that things were done in the past, but it cannot be tolerated now.
It would be unwise to underestimate the challenges ahead for our nation and the challenges that we in the coalition have to take on board. The previous Government left not only a dismal economic legacy, but a discredited political system and woefully inadequate attempts at constitutional reform. An extremely tough road lies ahead, and I fear that the early popularity of the coalition will be very fleeting and that the good will towards it will be very temporary in this country. Accepting that, it would be wise for us to apply integrity, common sense and principle to every political decision that we take. That approach is more likely to receive longer-term political support than the pursuit of an agenda set by public opinion and the media. In looking at both the economy and constitutional reform, I believe we need only take the efforts of the past 13 years as our lesson. Short-termist, incomplete and superficially popular measures have a terrible habit of unravelling before our eyes.