‘The one education reform no government has tried is putting parents firmly in control’
There is a palpable sense that British politics is at the end of an era which began with Attlee’s victory in 1945. The post-war consensus was only partially dismantled by Mrs Thatcher. New Labour, by embracing the market, tested to destruction the old Labour shibboleth that high public expenditure was the gateway to greater equality.
The Attlee revolution entailed not simply nationalising the commanding heights of the economy but, much more sinisterly, the Government brought most of civil society – apart from the trade unions – under the whip of central government control. Thatcher’s revolution denationalised the industrial sector, blew up the City’s restrictive practices and handed power back to individual trade unionists. What the Thatcherites left untouched was central government’s iron fist, which still controls how most of the 42 per cent of national income is spent.
One effective way for Gordon Brown to revive his government would be to establish pilots so that these six proposals become stepping stones to his 2010 manifesto. Alternatively, David Cameron might nail his colours to the mast, rather than the fence.
First, individual control over public expenditure. I do not sense much support for an old-fashioned Thatcherite approach of cutting taxes and leaving individuals to sink or swim. There is clearly much auditing to do on the massive totals of public expenditure and such efforts will yield significant tax cuts. But what individuals also want is for greater control over their public expenditure. Children gain over their first 19 years child benefit and tax credits averaging a value of £100,000. Why cannot parents, if they so wish, draw-down a quarter of this tax-free sum if one of them wishes not to return to work and instead concentrate on nurturing their children?
Second, galvanising support for mega capital projects. While we have one of the longest running farces over Terminal 5, the Government keeps pushing for a fifth runway. No sensible government in this terrorist age should allow such an intensity of flights over its capital city. A new site at the mouth of the Thames should be designated and accompanied by the announcement that the last flight will leave Heathrow 25 years hence. Planning new rail and speed water links back into London should become key parts of this project. Pulling the British transport system into the 21st century is one of the serious long-term decisions voters expect governments to take.
Third, establishing our own sovereign wealth fund. There could not have been a clearer demonstration that the era of rapacious capitalism was at an end than when Merrill Lynch had to grovel to eastern sovereign wealth funds to bail out capitalism’s most prestigious flagship. Britain needs its own sovereign wealth fund and it should operate one on the back of pension reform. Pensions, underpinned by savings, should be universalised and, as no sensible person would ever trust governments with their savings, Britain should operate its own sovereign wealth fund at arm’s length from the Government. A new body, set on a par with the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, would be charged with the investment strategy. It would become the cornerstone in a rebuilding of civil society.
Fourth, revolutionising what is meant by state education. The one education reform no government has tried is putting parents firmly in control. Can anyone believe that 40 per cent of children would leave primary schools without the minimum skills for a ten year old and that over 50 per cent of pupils would fail to achieve the minimum leaving standard of 5 A* to C GCSEs including English and Maths, if parents were in control? Denmark allows any community of 300 parents, too dissatisfied with the state schools, to draw-down the equivalent budget and form their own Little School. Similar powers should be given to parents in this country.
Fifth, saving the globe. When the President of Guyana announced before Christmas that his rainforest was for sale, a radical government would have immediately made a down-payment to begin a world-wide National Trust-like operation whereby individuals could make immediate contributions out of their own pockets to reward such nations. The prototype for this initiative, Cool Earth, is one of the new bodies which should allow civil society, not governments, to safeguard the planet.
Sixth, initiating a democratic blood transfusion. Democracy is at the heart of British society, but it is in urgent need of medical attention. Only 22 per cent of the electorate elected the current Government. Power needs to be moved back from the parties to the voters by instigating open primary elections in safe seats. Similarly, given the failure of the police to respond to public concerns, chief superintendents, who decide day to day policing strategy, should become electable. While such a strategy will not make good the obvious shortfall we have in policing manpower, it would ensure that existing resources were deployed most effectively. The local electorate would set the targets by which the chief superintendents would be judged.