Sunday, February 20, 2011

Which Way for UK?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the future of our country of late. Perhaps it's having small children. Or maybe its getting older and feeling less optimistic. But worried I am.

Why? Because I don't see clearly where the country's really going long-term. Where it's future prosperity is coming from. How we're going to generate enough jobs. How we can look after a nation of ageing Boomers. How we can avoid losing out big-time to the Chinese and other more ambitious nations that appear to have a long-term vision. How we can find a new cog of the value chain to climb onto next, when emerging nations have already caught us up educationally. How we can breathe entrepreneurialism into a culture in which people want easier, more chilled out lives but without a significant drop in living standards. And all this on top of a possible eco-crisis within 50 years.

The political parties, including my own, seem at a loss on all of this. The media don't engage in these questions and you're fairly deep into the think-tanks and academia before you really scratch at this stuff. Elites tend to spend most of their time on essentially here-and-now issues. News, essentially.

So what do I think? It is clear to me, as someone brought up in the 70s and 80s that the current level of prosperity we enjoy is probably some kind of high-point, even now. I always struggled to understand how we managed to have so much, given how little we actually now produce - and how most people's jobs consist, more or less, of talking to each other. We've got away with this because real productive work has migrated and, for a long time, we had the baseless wealth of the financial sector carrying us. This didn't just go in the pockets of the rich. Nearly a quarter of income tax was paid by people from this sector., meaning our public services were also funded in a way that couldn't last.

What do we need to do? The country, I think, needs to realise that we can't live on our past success. We have the English language, a fortunate time-zone and a legacy of leadership of which we are proud. We've also, despite a chronic lack of investment and poor industrial relations (compared to our European neighbours) built an economy which hasn't fallen grossly behind. We have been saved by our inventiveness, our skills as a trading nation and, yes, our financial services. All strengths going back to the Enlightenment.

Although it would be foolish to say that these strengths won't help us in the future, we can't rely on them alone or simply muddle through and adapt, as we always have I am firmly of the view that we have, across all parties, to agree some long-term goals for the country. We need a new consensus about the future that all the parties can sign up to. Of course, we can fight about how to get there, but the basics must be agreed. They did this after the war in many countries. In Germany in particular there was clarity about the country that had to be built. Japan too. But also France and other victorious nations. Except Britain.

We now risk doing that again, but this time the competition is altogether of a different order. I could list 50 things but here's 15 things we have to agree on if we're going to have a chance as a country 30 years from here:

1. Raise the retirement age to 72 by 2025 and 77 by 2040.

2. Keep the public sector at no less than 38% and no more than 42% of GNP. Limited public sector providers - most functions delivered by private and social enterprises. Cashable personal budgets - or vouchers- extended to many areas of public provision: social care, long-term health conditions, welfare, education.

3. Structure the tax, benefit and migration system to keep population at 60 million.

4. Maintain much smaller UK military forces than at present but join them up with a European force, including a European nuclear defence system.

5. A written constitution which devolves power and income generating powers to LA level.

6. Reduction of Corporation Tax to zero for ten years for companies investing in deprived regions. Nil Corporation Tax for ANY new company for one year.

7. A national Start-Up Bank to capitalise new businesses - easily accessible start-up funding.

8. The NHS operating as a set of principles - free, accessible and high quality -but not as a unitary organisation, but a diverse set of organisations seeking business under good regulation.

9. The state to provide 'first-in' investment into green tech and underpinning of our capabilities to lead in renewables field, in biotech and digital. Tough new UK environmental laws to provide stimulus.

10. Conversion of our Embassy and Consulate networks into commercial outlets for selling UK services and products rather than their current mainly diplomatic function.

11. Vocational training for most children from age 14-18, including work-placements from 14. Streaming of brightest children at 9, 11, 12 and 14 from all backgrounds so that these enter highest level of education possible at 18.

12. Make all out of work benefit immediately conditional upon doing half-time community work so that nobody gets out of the habit of working, loses confidence etc.

13. Repositioning UK as part of Europe which in turn is part of a multi-bloc world - US, China, India, Europe, the BRICS. Allow early Turkish membership and encourage long-term Russian engagement in EU.

14. Liberalisation of drug laws in the UK - most crime is related to drugs in the UK. Reduction in prison numbers from 90k to 45k by 2020.

15. Change the laws around assisted suicide to operate in the UK so that choosing one's time of death becomes socially normal. This will end unnecessary suffering and help to use limited health resources more efficiently (i.e on the young and those with potentially many years of healthy life ahead).

A bit of a hotch-potch I know. And controversial in party. I could go on but that would be too long for even the most patient reader. But there's themes here: a strategic state - but not one that just lets the market rip. A concerted attempt to become world-leaders in key areas - and to market ourselves. Taxation and spending at sensible levels. Devolution of power at all levels. Dramatic unilateral action on the environment. Break-up of monopolies, state and private. A liberal criminal justice policy. Britain in Europe. Huge encouragement to entrepreneurship and enterprise at both the micro and macro level. Improvement of work-ethic and end of something-for-nothing culture.

What this makes me politically you can judge for yourself. When I look at the list, it isn't hugely Liberal, Conservative, Socialist or Green but has elements, possibly of all. I find some of my own ideas quite unsettling - but then again I can't see many good alternatives to certain problems.

Views welcome, as ever.


Jelly Jim said...

I can appreciate some of those points. There are perhaps more to disagree with than there are to agree with, but at least there are some 'unsayable' ideas that you've said.

I'm swiftly coming to the conclusion that, once my own business is established, we will leave the country and permanently trade from and live in a less hostile environment. We're fortunate enough to be able to run our business online. It just feels as though, at the moment, the odds are stacked against anybody who wants to push against the tide of the client state and all the palms it has greased.

Whilst I'm dead set on making my own business a success, I want to take some of that success and share it with others; to hopefully encourage their own success. I thought it was something that I would do in the UK, but the culture of "yeh, but what are you going to do for me?" has left me jaded. There are more humble people in the world who deserve just as much success.

I'll probably have changed my mind tomorrow and feel incredibly optimistic about things!

Anyway - first comment here. I'm enjoying your posts. In particular, it's nice to see someone speaking out on enterprise with a social good who isn't so bloody dogmatic about it and doesn't feel dirty when they talk about enterprise at large!

Gillig said...

Thank you. That is an excellent blog. I will unashamedly adopt some of your ideas and appreciate the questions raised by others.
I note that your list is probably not in order of priority.
Unless there is a radical change in the leadership of the EU, any further involvement must be decided by referendum.

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

Thanks for responding Jim - and good luck with your venture. I hope you don't end up going overseas - but understand how you feel about doing biz in UK.

Nick said...

I will certainly propose Craig as next director general of the CBI!

Craig Dearden-Phillips said...

The CBI! OMG - I think I must be losing the plot. Thanks for that one Nick :-)

Rob 'Arris said...

I wont be proposing you as CBI Director General (sorry Craig!). I like the spirit in which you make your proposals; however i doubt that some of them are realistic:
1. I disagree with raising retirement age to 72 & 77 (are you having a laugh?!). From a humanist point of view i simply dont want this burden for fellow inhabitants of this planet! Secondly the impact on the NHS and other local services will neutralise any benefit this brings in my view.
2.The educational stuff i agree with in part but this is costly stuff and maybe an investment when the money starts moving again - there is also plenty of opportunities out there now for this so its nothing very new - maybe just a bit more standardised and structured (which in fact will probably kill the innovation we see currently; the state cant transfer innovation in-house).
14 & 15 are controversial and forward thinking. Agree with 15 more than 14; liberalising weed is one thing but the vast majority of high impact crime is related to drugs higher up the food chain.

I enjoyed reading it and i agree with some of your points of view!