The seemingly inexorable rise of nationalism (patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels), the near-departure of Scotland from the Union, and the widespread loathing of politicians are all deeply troubling to anyone with a stake in the future of Britain. The splintering of the country may have been averted but the poison is still in the system. Meanwhile, the distrust of politicians stops good people entering politics (all that it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing), allowing the self-perpetuating machine to turn inwards on itself, strengthening the ‘party’ over the people.
The reason for this disconnect is that Britain is currently run by a narrow elite that is white, middle-class and middle-aged, London men who studied PPE at Oxford. This elite represents itself, and sees all problems through its own prism. The populace feels excluded, and is. Exclusion breeds the sort of resentment and anger that has led to devolution and disengagement. The middle class and male element has already been well-criticised, but the London element is equally relevant. Policies from all parties suffer an astonishing obsession with London, apparently oblivious – apart from sops to voters – to the rest of the country.
Try taking a long distance train journey in Britain that doesn’t go via London and you’ll struggle. Try getting a consistent mobile phone signal in the countryside. How about the major infrastructure projects: Cross (London) Rail; HS2 (from London); an expansion of London’s airport capacity. Here are some solutions.
Move Parliament to Manchester. This idea works on a number of levels. Simply operating from Manchester will give politicians a far clearer view of the country than the very distorted view they get from the world’s global city. Economically, the effect will be a phenomenal lift to the North, as not only politicians but large numbers of journalists, lobbyists, and assorted camp followers move with them. The Government-owned space freed in central London should be put into a sovereign wealth fund for the good of the whole country. London property prices would fall and the Midlands and North would see a rise.
The sovereign wealth fund’s assets from owning and renting/selling most of Whitehall would reach hundreds of billions of pounds, a huge fillip to the national coffers, and the proceeds invested in health and education.
Subsidise regional airports. The current proposal to build an additional runway in the ugly suburbs around Heathrow is meant to cost £40bn. Given the experience of most government projects, this is likely to be on the low side. Why not subsidise regional airports? Give £5bn each to eight regional airports and hey presto – a far more sophisticated airport network, less congestion around London, and a big boost to business across the country.
100% broadband and mobile coverage of the country. This means on trains, tubes, and (heaven forbid) in the countryside. This would allow many more businesses to prosper outside of the major metropolitan areas, taking pressure off London and allowing the countryside to prosper. The current technological divide between town and country is so extreme as to make some rural business unviable. No wonder people feel abandoned. And this proposal would be cheap. Just remind the phone companies that their licences will be revoked if they don’t do it.
Pay people to leave London. London’s current housing bubble is extreme. When it bursts it is likely to drag the whole country into recession. It is in all our interests to reduce the pressure immediately. If we pay homeowners £20,000 to move more than 100 miles beyond the M25 we could free up housing stock in London at a far lower cost than turning yet more school playing fields into cramped housing.
And some other ideas that might help:
Half MPs should be women. Not too controversial, I hope.
Nobody can enter parliament until they’re 40. This may tame youthful idealism, but that is a good thing. Idealism, like most ‘isms’ should be tempered by experience. Until people have dealt with the real world of the NHS, educating children, death, failure and success, how on earth are they competent to legislate?
Free university education. The Conservative and Liberal parties’ astonishing decision to charge for university education is the most socially retrograde step in centuries. It also cripples our post-graduate studies at a time when the value of knowledge has never been more at a premium. This does not mean that vast numbers of ‘American studies’ or ‘media studies’ courses should be allowed, but paying students to study engineering and technology would seem a very cheap investment in the future of the country, and would enhance social mobility, as talent will be all that matters, not the ability to pay.
If people feel that the government is being run in the interests of the whole country, and not an identikit group of men in Hampstead and Notting Hill, all the schisms, dangerous nationalism and disenchantment will evaporate, and we will all live in a better, more prosperous, happier Britain. I rest my case.●