Of the nineteen UK governments since the Second World War, only two have torn up the rule book and tried to build a better future, instead of simply recycling the tired slogans and policies of the past. The two governments that did try radical change, not always successfully, were those of Clement Attlee in 1945 and Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
We are therefore well overdue for another major policy rethink, aimed at solving the problems we have now – largely as a consequence of Thatcher’s legacy – rather than endlessly trying to reignite the ideological battles of the past. That’s why we concluded it was high time for Rethinking Britain: Policy Ideas for the Many.
Rethinking Britain is not only for the many: it’s also written by the many. As a result, it doesn’t set out the vision of one or two people, but instead offers the assessment of a wide range of experts, who are working in or studying the areas we cover. We not only set out the problems and suggest policy solutions to address them. Our aim is to help improve life for people living in today’s Britain. Between each set of policy ideas, you’ll also find interludes. These draw upon real-life stories of people in Britain who are experiencing unresolved difficulties that should be considered unacceptable in any developed economy or civilised society, and we suggest how these problems could be solved, too.
Although some depressing situations are described, our overall approach is extremely positive. Instead of denying that there are problems (or ignoring them, as many politicians have done) we take a much more ‘can do’ approach to building the society that most of us would want to live in. That leads to another significant point: Whilst Attlee’s 1945 government put people and society at the centre of its policy ideas, less than forty years later, Thatcher’s administration reversed this, focusing on the individual, privatization and the wealthy. This raises the question: ‘In whose interests should the economy be run?’
The shift to individualism, private profit maximization and an obsession with ‘free’ markets resulted in serious wealth for the few, and runaway inequality and poverty for the many. The contributors to Rethinking Britain strongly believe that a society that produces healthy, well educated, strongly motivated people – who have, or can realistically hope for, a good standard of living – will also help to generate a powerful and dynamic economy.
The post-1979 dogma that the British government should play as small a part in the economy as possible is also misguided. Far too much capital is being used for short-term, speculative purposes, whilst not enough is finding its way into the development of sustainable businesses that provide long term employment and pay decent wages, not the hand to mouth existence of a zero hours contract. In other words, the economy should work for the many, not just the few.
Another theme that runs through Rethinking Britain is the concept of citizenship, where sets of rights and obligations mean that you are indeed part of something bigger than yourself. This is the polar opposite of Thatcher’s point of view, that there is “no such thing as society”. Many of her policy ideas were developed in the context of the Cold War which came to an end thirty years ago; it’s time for her policy ideas to do the same.
By investing in Britain’s people, we can build a stronger, more cohesive society that will underpin a more vibrant economy. Rethinking Britain shows how.
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Also published on Prime.