Isabel Hardman

Coffee House Interview: Chris Skidmore on Britannia Unchained, ‘lazy’ Brits, and how the government should be unpopular

Coffee House Interview: Chris Skidmore on Britannia Unchained, 'lazy' Brits, and how the government should be unpopular
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Before it had even appeared in reviewers' postbags, the book that Chris Skidmore co-authored with four other Conservative MPs had created quite a stir in Westminster. 'Brits so lazy', said the Sun, about a chapter in Britannia Unchained which describes the British as being 'among the worst idlers in the world'. That claim provoked rage from left-wingers, with Labour's Chuka Umunna calling on David Cameron to 'distance himself' from the comments, which he said were 'deeply insulting'.

But Skidmore seems entirely unperturbed by the outcry. In fact, when we meet in his Westminster office, he seems quite taken with the idea that politicians should take a great deal of unpopularity on the chin. He praises his favourite country, Canada, whose politicians were able to 'take a hit' when restoring the country's economy.

'I think Canada would be a country that has immense potential and has an identity that it can be proud of because it got itself out of its own mess. And the bravery, the sheer determination of the politicians there, an acceptance we don't  quite yet have in British society to actually be unpopular, to sort of say we will take a hit but we'll do the right thing and if you do the right thing in life, you'll have to make a difficult decision.

'I think when history comes to be written, George Osborne will be seen as a very interesting transformative figure in that he is prepared to be unpopular in order to do the right thing for the country.'

He says a poll published that morning showing Labour 15 points ahead of the Conservatives was 'surprising' because 'I honestly thought that we would be 20 or 30 points behind in the polls: Thatcher was far, far behind in the polls at certain stages in her career'.

Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity is the second book this group, comprising Skidmore, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss, has written since they were elected in 2010. The first, After the Coalition, was 'written at breakneck pace' to draw up a Conservative vision for what a majority Conservative government should do in the future, and to stamp on any talk of a pact between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at the 2015 election. Kwarteng brought the group together, based partly on each member's ability to commit to something and see it through. They saw the first book through, and embarked on the second one shortly afterwards.

While After the Coalition examined the future direction and policies of the Conservative party, Britannia Unchained compares the country's position to that of the rest of the world. The six chapters use examples of how other countries have raced ahead, while Britain begins to stutter in the slow lane. 'We're determined to break out, to look at Germany, Canada, Israel, to try to arrive at a new point for the centre-right,' Skidmore says. 'The Conservative party has always had this fear of being seen as the so-called Nasty Party. I totally discount that. The fact is you have governments on completely different parts of the political spectrum being bold, accepting the challenges of the future and meeting them head on.'

Though the chapters in the book do not carry the names of the MPs who wrote them, each took responsibility for writing one chapter themselves. Skidmore's was entitled 'Buccaneers', and contains a striking story about Bernard Bar-Natan, an Israeli military medic who invented a new emergency bandage which has been used all over the world, including in the treatment of the victims of the Tucson shooting, in which congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head. The chapter praises the 'chutzpah' culture in Israel:

'Though traditionally a somewhat damning term, in the context of risk and bold business acumen it takes on a more admirable note. There is a distinct cultural tendency amongst successful entrepreneurs to challenge conventional wisdom, and act with daring to exploit new opportunities.'

As much as being about what governments can do to foster environments that encourage risk-taking and chutzpah, Britannia Unchained is also about a change in attitude. It criticises the high regard in which reality TV stars and singers are held by schoolchildren, and in a rare moment of nostalgia for the energetic, forward-looking narrative, looks back to a time when teenagers aspired to work in teaching, finance and medicine. This is all very well, but Conservative MPs are hardly going to recommend that the government works to change people's mindsets. When I ask how he sees that change coming about, Skidmore suggests that 14-year-olds choosing their GCSEs are not sufficiently mature and informed to be given individual responsibility.

'People often say, well this is what pupils want to do, but we give pupils too much choice at 14, you know, I sometimes think, well you can vote at 18, get married at 16, one of the most important decisions in your life is what you choose in your GCSEs. And I know so many people who I meet who say I wish I'd chosen differently at 14. That condemns them for the rest of their life.

'We have got to have a relentless drive towards getting out of this opt-out society. It doesn't happen in other countries and the thing you see in the book is that these are countries we're racing against, are slowly beginning to lap us. We can try to catch up, but if you want to go down that other path, if you want to go down the path of kindness as we say in the book, you have an educational establishment that is too kind.'

Like many of his colleagues, he is a fan of profit-making schools, arguing that introducing a profit motive will complete the education revolution taking place under the minister he formerly advised, Michael Gove. Another area of reform he is proud of is the NHS. Skidmore oversaw these changes as a member of the health select committee, and hints that he was uncomfortable with David Cameron's decision to move Andrew Lansley in the recent reshuffle. 'It was a shame, I think that Lansley's knowledge of the NHS, even his Labour counterparts admitted, is second-to-none,' he says. He also believes the government's £26,000 benefit cap for workless families is currently too high and his constituents are astonished by the amount paid out. What would be a better cap? He gives an answer in such a low voice that I can barely hear him, but when he repeats himself, it turns out that £15,000 - 17,000 would be his preferred amount.

And what about those 'idlers'? A review by Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research for the New Statesman said the authors themselves had not done the hard graft when making assertions about the British work ethic. Portes wrote:

'You don’t need to plough through the book and itemise the factual errors or slipshod research to see just how lazy they’ve been.'

Skidmore shrugs off the criticism:

'Well, it's a 116-page book, there's 433 footnotes to it. I go back to the point about data, there's statistics, it can be backed up. The point, the broader point is that Jonathan Portes and the NIESR, you know, this is the problem we have with political discourse is that as politicians we want to get across a message and I think he was critical about it - I don't know how well NIESR pamphlets sell, but people aren't interested in looking at medians and graphs. We have a duty to try and broaden that message outside of the think tank zone.'

He's now writing a pamphlet for the Free Enterprise Group on welfare for later in the year, and has a battered original copy of the Beveridge Report on his desk, which is piled high with papers. But that's not all: there's also a book on Richard III in the pipeline, and another on the NHS. No-one could accuse him or his colleagues of being idlers.