Boris Johnson has always shown promise. Since a baby, he has given every sign of future achievement, given confident assurances, and developed a sales patter of potential greatness that’s just around the corner.
He’s never delivered on any of it, perhaps because he realised that fulfilling promises would set an unwelcome standard of attainment to which he was likely to be held.
But he likes a promise – we all do. They sound good. They’re optimistic, resonant of change, and always make the person who makes them seem earnest and decent, even when it comes from someone who resembles an ungroomed Dulux dog with only a loose grip on reality.
So it’s not surprising yesterday’s much-trailed ‘Rooseveltian’ New Deal turned out, upon 5 seconds’ scrutiny, to be a Johnsonian Bad Deal of repackaged magic money trees that were imagined into existence before the coronavirus crisis, and have since developed a serious case of Underwhelm Disease.
Sigh. Not again. It’s like having a small child who cannot leave the biscuits alone, and keeps insisting it wasn’t him despite the crumbs that have left a trail of evidence all over his person. The first time it’s funny, the second irritating; on the 756th occasion, it is obvious that you do not have the psychiatric qualifications needed to deal with this s***.
All Johnson ever promises is to go back, to the time when you believed him. The houses he promised earlier, the school repairs he should have done anyway, the hospitals that were a nice idea he had in the bath. He’s never had the urge to arrive in the place he has sold you.
But now the pandemic has caused every one of us to reassess. People want true reform, not a pretence of it. Old, young, left, right, black and white are for once united in wanting Britain to be better, for all of us, than it was before.
And a Prime Minister with both vision, half-decent advisers, and an ear to the ground would see the time was ripe for ideas that have been waiting for this moment to arrive:
1. A National Care Service
It’d cost only £6bn, the equivalent of a penny on income tax, to ensure that everyone who needed help to get out of bed, to wash and to feed themselves, had someone to deliver it.
It would drastically reduce the number of falls, of home accidents, of bed-blocking, and care home admissions, and save us billions more.
It would also mean that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was actually in charge of social care; 20,000 care home residents have just discovered why that would be useful. For a few billion more, we could nationalise private care homes, raising standards, increasing wages, and ensuring the last years of someone’s life are not reduced to what profits another.
2. A Universal Basic Income
More expensive, this, but still not as expensive as the government’s bill for coronavirus.
We spent £217bn on welfare and pensions in 2016/17, which will only grow. We allow earners to keep the first £12,501 of their wages before tax, but this amount is not available to those who earn less, or the jobless. They get just £1,895, if they’re over 25, spread over 6 months. Our 12m pensioners get around £7,000 a year, our children get less than £1,000 each, and there’s other money for the disabled, housing benefit, and tax credits. The cost of administering the whole system, with mistakes, fraud and red tape, runs into billions.
To give every one of our 54m adults £1,000 a month would cost £54bn – but we’d lose all the admin costs, crime would fall, children’s and pensioner’s nutrition would improve, and spending would be stable even in hard times. We could probably halve the cost, if we paid out only to those who don’t reach the minimum income threshold.
But food banks would no longer be necessary. In the 21st century, that should be something a wealthy nation can achieve.
3. National apprenticeships
Johnson yesterday promised apprenticeships for every young person. We don’t know how young, or how much of the cost he’ll ask businesses to pay, but we do know unemployment is surging already and younger people are more likely to be in sectors, like retail and hospitality, that will be hard-hit.
But older people get laid off, too, and are more likely to need upskilling and retraining to get into a second career which will need to see them into their 70s, at least. What the nation needs, therefore, is not jobs for the kids, but jobs for all – apprenticeships for everybody who wants one, regardless of age. And not just in the same old trades but in every type of job, from local authorities to City trading floors and software companies. Make it a legal requirement, tack on a tax break, and boom, full employment.
4. Homes for all
Johnson yesterday announced a tearing-up of planning rules so that empty offices could be turned into housing – effectively, slums. An idea that will mint fresh poverty, crime, poor health and cost to the public purse, while lining the pockets of landlords.
Far better to rewrite the rules so local authorities can turn the increasing number of empty High Street shops into fit-for-purpose social housing, complete with crime-reducing pedestrianised roads and convenient car parks.
And there’s 1.5m people in the UK with a second home. On average, they’re occupied for just 2 weeks a year, which makes them the most expensive way to holiday without a superyacht. Tax the owners 10% of the value every year that it is unoccupied for 6 months or more, and at a stroke you’d make places available for rent, put two-bed homes on the market, and reinvigorate seaside towns in Cornwall, Devon, Norfolk, Suffolk, Scotland and Yorkshire. More parents could live near grandparents, care costs would drop, more children would attend local schools, and per capita government funding could increase.
The rich would pay the bill; the rest would sell up. In return, they’d have cheaper, and more frequent, holidays. Easyjet would be delighted, and so would most of us.
5. A Great Reform Act
If there’s one thing that Brexit and populists of Left and Right have proven, it is that people do not think our current system is working. So fix what is very definitely broken.
Ensure political adverts tell the truth, by placing them under the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority. Take the honours system, civil service appointments, and the job of running the NHS, out of government control. Ban future Prime Ministers from giving privileged access to party donors.
Make it a legal obligation for every town over a certain size to have a hospital, fire station, police station, school, court, and mental health unit. Ensure everyone has access, within a one-hour journey of their homes, to a same-day, walk-in cancer testing centre. Require the Education Secretary to work out of the school most in need of repair.
Make it possible for every adult in the UK to stand for Parliament if they wish, for free. Ensure that any politician elected on a turnout of less than 75% has a duty to increase voter engagement. Remove artificial sweeteners and extra fructose from all foods manufactured in the UK, and make it a criminal offence to feed a child so badly they become morbidly obese.
Oh, and set one minimum entry requirement for Parliament – every member and peer must be able to pass a multiple choice ethics test. Do that, and scrap the whip system while you’re at it, and you’ll have a legislative body that backs all the best ideas and can spot the stinkers.
Those are some of the things Britain needs – ones that would give us real hope for the future, regardless of what party held power. We would do better in the next pandemic, and in the meantime build a nation we can be proud of, rather than the unfair, unsatisfying one have – dangling from a zipwire of shoddy construction, feebly waving a Union flag, and hoping someone will come along soon to get us down.