Coffee House

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

21 September 2012

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.

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  • evad666

    The plebian among us need to recognise yet another patrician oligarch in the current Senate.
    We also need to recognise the potential theat posed by the creation of hereditary oligarchies and the real threat of a self serving imperium.
    This would without doubt conduct further theft from the citizenry both the libert iand cives.

  • David Lindsay

    Even before this book, he stood no chance of holding his seat in 2015. But he is interesting as a kind of token figure among that book’s authors, a white, public school Tory active in the C of E. The rest recall the founders of neoconservatism.

    Elizabeth Truss is a very recent liberal (indeed, Liberal) Leftist, doubtless as anti-monarchy and as anti-marriage as ever, and in that case correctly identifying neoliberal economics and neoconservative geopolitics as serving her constitutional and social agenda perfectly. Several other recent promotions from the Blues rather than the Yellows are similar: an assisted suicide enthusiast who came up through the NUS and the SDP; people who both joined and left the Labour Party long after I did, which means that they were still in it well into the last Parliament; and so on. Scoop Jackson lives.

    The rest are people from profoundly privileged backgrounds who nevertheless identify as ethnic outsiders waging war against the British equivalents, and even relatives, of the upper-crust WASP Republicans who never let them into their fraternities or their country clubs. They loathe Burkeanism and Angophilia as much as any signatory to the PNAC ever did.

  • TomTom

    He also knows very little about Canada……especially that what took place there was against buoyant world growth for a resource-based economy. Ontario today has real problems and getting worse. Alberta and BC may have a future as energy and mining suppliers to China but Canada as a whole has a huge real-estate boom that will crash and burn and banks with strange balance sheets in Caribbean tax havens.

    These simpletons who read a Readers Digest article think they know what really happens – but they are just looking to appear a 5-cent intellectuals and get a TV programme. This man is so lightweight he needs guy ropes

  • Daniel Maris

    Talking of “lazy” workers is an absurdity. Are the Nepalese “lazy” because their economy is less successful than ours, because they are dirt poor? Which of us is going to call a woman who walks several miles a day to fetch water “lazy”.

    It would take a lifetime to work out who is lazy and who industrious. Economies are economies. The Tories are in government. How well is Skidmore’s hero Osborne doing? Er – not v.well.

    • james102

      Very true.
      R.T broadcast a programme on the ship breaking ‘industry ‘ in Bangladesh ,tankers run ashore to be broken up as scrap and sold at local auctions.
      They use hand tools and oxy-acetylene cutters. Children of 14 pulling on hawsers.
      The alternative to child labour is starvation.
      Dirt poor country but hardly lazy.
      That is why GDP per capita is a better performance indicator than GDP .

      • Daniel Maris

        Per capita GDP indeed.

  • Jules

    I wonder what his constituents will think when they hear what he thinks about ‘lazy British people’? I look forward to his Portillo moment in 2015. However seen as how this idiot is not even well known in his own household, it probably won’t even make the regional news.

  • Jez

    Yeh, beauty.
    Also, this happened today;
    Set off from Leeds at 4am got to end tube at 7.30am- on site West End by 9- after doing the work and obtaining the part, got it up to Lancashire by 4pm (thanks only to £5.50 on the toll M6) and from there home at 7pm to see my wife and kids.
    Because i’m now a sub contractor. Because there’s not many jobs on the books. Because the economy’s totally f*cked.
    I got good money for that- but really to be honest there’s 3 days work in there, especially taking the required breaks in there that was necessary to get from A to B…. to C to D etc, etc.
    And then you get on the PC- and then get lectured off some twerp who knows nothing about nothing.
    Well, don’t worry, that nice wage of mine will be automatically docked 20% tax, then i’ve my NI, then I’ve my insurances… and the there’s all the taxes on the stuff i have to pay to keep us in this home we’ve got.
    So silly c*nts like the one above can read and talk crap for a living and swirl about in a small concentrated pool of silly-billies scratching each others backs perpetually.
    Not bitter- but look at the above f*cking photo! :-/

  • andagain

    ‘deeply insulting’

    Isn’t that the generally accepted euphamism for “perfectly true”?

  • TomTom

    He was an Adiser to Willetts – enough said. Toxic Tory Day is off on a roll. Why don’t they do a Special at the Conference so the nation can wave the Conservative Party goodbye ?

  • johnlocke

    “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.”

    I stopped reading right then and there. Repeat after me: “There are no cuts.”

    • TomTom

      Osborne is a Court Jester simply there to protect the Banks from the Wrath of the Public

  • Rahul Kamath

    This guy is a lazy nutter without any experience of life. Deplorable.

    • Simon Fay

      Says a lot for this country that such a creature can be elected and seemingly be in no immiment danger of being booted out

  • Feneon

    Did Skidmore work in factories during the holidays? Hardly James102, his old boy’s a millionaire.

    • james102

      The incredible thing is he thinks he can make remarks like this!
      It is like Mitchell and the “Plebs” rants.

      The hardest days’ work he seems to have done is in a
      research library or slaving over a computer, hardly working on a building site
      or doing 14 hours in the City where a mistake ends your job.


      They don’t need to research the problem: it is them.

  • L Sportello

    People don’t like graphs and mediums (medians?) but they do like 413 footnotes to newspaper articles parading as “evidence”?

    Just another anecdata heavy polemic published by politicians that wished they had expertise in something useful.

  • james102

    A history graduate who seems only to have worked as a
    political adviser before becoming an MP.

    What experience is he basing his views on lazy Britons? Did
    he work in factories during his holidays? Maybe he times waiters after ordering
    and compares their response times to Italians?

    • Daniel Maris

      LOL – I can tell you the Greeks are the worst – but is it laziness or sheer bloody mindedness? To avoid the customer’s appeals so studiously requires a huge expenditure of energy.

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