28 April 2017
When Puck told Oberon, “…what fools these mortals be” (Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3, Scene 2), he might have been thinking of political opportunism. The left was so sure that the events of 2008 gave them cover for their bucket-list - remember Rahm Emanuel, then President Obama’s Chief of Staff, and his “never let a good crisis go to waste”. How about that? The poor old Yanks got Obamacare in return for paralysis at home and abroad, in due course leading to Trump and his kitchen cabinet of distressed debt traders.
And the world turns. Brexit now presents its own caesura, plausibly calling for reforms. So, listen out for the drum-roll introducing a new set of evergreen nostrums, this time spurred by the fond belief that things are going the right-ish way. We’ll see. Money is still tight; the welfare state still mesmerises my countrymen; and Theresa May’s impending majority won’t alter her “one nation” inclinations.
And yet, and yet… Think of a state devoted to “enabling” not “intervening”, fostering self-reliance not dependence, cherishing civil society, rebuilding savings; and addressing the misfortunes of birth and the vicissitudes of life without cementing them for lifetimes, generations and regions. This is me on my “Brexit-ready” soap box, flying a gaudy kite.
Employment, tax and welfare I see the trick as building on the foundation of the famously bloody-minded "white van man" and his missus; and combining them with professionals etc, plus youngsters and others in the gig economy. I would have May’s Chancellor rebalance the tax treatment of the self-employed, restoring allowances for health and unemployment insurances, private education for their children, and adult retraining and pensions for themselves. He should also entertain multi-year reliefs, for as long as taxpayers above a net worth threshold abjure claims on public education for their children; and upon public pensions, as well as in-work, unemployment and incapacity benefits for themselves. Wails about divisiveness should be countered with ovations for self-sufficiency.
Government shouldn’t just push self-employment with taxes. Public healthcare and education employers should encourage staff this way. This would also help reduce the load on public pensions and abate the destructiveness of public service unions. And HMRC’s test of self-employment - more than one client over a couple of tax years - should be modernised to embrace pro-bono work, attractive to the young and public-sector workers.
Education This has defeated British Premiers for decades. Blair gave up (remember “the scars on my back”) after toying with faith schools, then addressing labour imbalances with open borders. Cameron let vouchers stall and technical education founder. May is going back to the future with grammar schools. The universities hoard brainboxes as the Post Office once stacked up engineers and the BBC still stockpiles talent.
So here’s another idea. Let tax and regulation encourage banks to finance and private providers to offer second chances. This would include conversions for those making poor initial choices, plus apprenticeships for those who failed to latch on earlier. Mature students would make better-informed judgements and stronger commitments. For example, a media studies grad may retrain as an AI programmer; a NEET may take an apprenticeship in construction, dodging the local factory destined for closure; for that matter, a brickie may move on to estimating or even interior design.
Healthcare Private arrangements would be made more popular (and new provision would be introduced) by making better known their exemption from restrictions on public treatment under NICE guidelines. The consequence would be that simply by increasing the numbers with private provision, the load on the state would be reduced.
Conclusion Any loss of public revenue at the outset could be made up from other sources. My back of the envelope calculations show that these proposals would also defuse the time-bomb of public finances; policy-makers have been trying for this for decades. In addition, the economy would enjoy better productivity and growth, as it re-oriented towards higher-skills and greater flexibility.
We would see more small “c” conservatives, including a group akin to the Eighties buyers of council houses, also nudging the attitudes of professionals and the public sector, furnishing second chances to those just managing; and offering something palpable to the young, nervous about their future and disenchanted with the welfare state.
This is without lifting productivity by easing job-moves; simplifying tax (lower rates, fewer corporate exemptions, consolidated NI); reducing the time, cost and overhead of starting and running businesses; reducing the cost of electricity generation; and simplifying planning and modernising building codes.
Is this another unrealistic bucket-list? Who can say for sure? But let’s not flinch from at least discussing reform while - so we wish to tell ourselves - the time is ripe. Here’s a bit of encouragement: the strap-line arising is “take control”. We know that works. But then again, no reason to upset apple carts in a manifesto which should confine itself to generalities.