YesOUR COLUMNIST joined The economist 1988, at the flood of Thatcherism. Sluggish institutions were electrified and long-suppressed energies were released. He leaves during another conservative revolution. But this time the prospect of success looks less. Boris Johnson lacks Margaret Thatcher’s self-discipline and mastery of details, as demonstrated by his bizarre speech to the Confederation of British Industry lobby group on November 22nd. The prime minister lost his seat, mimicking car noises and raving about a child TV character, Peppa Pig.
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Mr Johnson is facing stronger headwinds than his predecessor. The UK’s population is older than it was in the 1980s, which means government spending on health and welfare is crowding out investment in the future. The Conservative Party is even older. In 1983, more 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Thatcher’s Tories than for Labor under Michael Foot; Mr Johnson relies on the support of retirees who don’t want anything to disturb their quiet life. Thatcher had clear plans based on simple principles: privatization, deregulation, value for money. Mr Johnson’s self-appointed task of “building up” Britain is vague, even utopian. Voters could judge Thatcher’s progress in disentangling the bureaucracy and privatizing state-owned companies. Similar milestones are missing on the way to level up.
Here are some ideas to give Thatcherite-bite to Mr Johnson’s politics. Pick institutions that stand in the way of advancement. Subject them to swift and comprehensive reform. And confuse your enemies by choosing targets at the end of the Tory political spectrum, namely the major “public” (i.e., private) schools, the city, and the House of Lords.
British private schools are a disturbing mix of excellence and social exclusivity. Currently, only 7% of all students and 15% of those over 16 are privately taught. But that 15% win half of everything A and A* Notes at ALevel and a third of all Oxbridge seats. It is also over-represented in top-class sports (particularly cycling, rugby, and rowing), in acting, and – as John Lennon has to twist in his grave – in folk music. Public school fees are so high – a year at Eton is now nearly £ 50,000 (US $ 67,000) – that they have become playgrounds for the descendants of global plutocrats and oligarchs.
This is a shame. Public schools were established to train “poor and needy scholars,” to quote the Winchester founding document. They enjoy benevolent status because they supposedly serve the common good. In 1942, Winston Churchill argued that they should be required to give 60-70% of their study places to poor fellows. Mr Johnson, himself a fellow, was supposed to revive his hero’s idea. Not only would this end Britain’s educational apartheid, it would also give the country a welcome injection of diverse talent.
A big beneficiary of Thatcher’s reforms was the City of London, shaken from its claret slumber by global competition. But when the Tires of the Big Bang became gentlemen and ladies of the establishment, it nodded off again. The London Stock Exchange (LSE) is increasingly acting like a nursing home for old economy companies and no longer like a cradle for new economy companies. Less than 2% of the FTSE The value of 100 goes to technology companies, compared to 40% of the S.&P. 500s. Overly complicated regulations mean UK companies have to support an army of aging, contactless non-executive directors. The city’s refusal to accept two-tier stock structures means fewer options for founders looking to enter public markets without bowing to the dictatorship of quarterly earnings. Admission of dual-class companies to join LSEThe premium segment could reconnect the stock market to the new economy and help the city do for today’s high-tech corporations what it did for the railroads in the Victorian era.
It’s not uncommon to meet foreigners who say they admire UK private schools or financial services (the city is still a world leader in many areas besides stocks). But who says that about the House of Lords? For most of its history it embodied the principle of inheritance: aristocrats exercised a right of veto over legislation because an ancestor had shed blood for Wilhelm the Conqueror or slept with Charles II. That changed with the introduction of lifelong peerages in 1958 and the reduction of the “inheritance” to a core of 92 in 1999 – but only by replacing one bad principle with another, political patronage.
Now the party leaders nominate who they like to sit on the red benches: ex-ministers, cronies, relatives – and money men. Fifteen of the Tory Party’s last 16 treasurers, all of whom have donated at least £ 3 million to the party, have won seats in the House of Lords. But that’s not just “Tory Sleaze”: Labor under Tony Blair was also interested in “Cash for Honors”. And competition between the parties has swelled the Lords membership to about 800, all of whom are entitled to over £ 300 a day just because they show up.
It can be argued that the second chamber should be abolished and legislative scrutiny should be delegated to committees of the lower house, supported by external specialists. If it is to stay, it should be rebuilt from scratch. Germany gets by with only 69 members in its upper chamber and America with 100, so Great Britain could certainly cope with 200. And the principle of patronage has to go. Why not replace it with something that goes with Mr Johnson’s self-appointed regional adjustment responsibility? Assign seats in the New Lords to regional mayors and selected members of the decentralized parliaments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh and relocate them from London to Manchester, the emerging capital of the north.
An education system that gives talented children greater opportunities; a financial system in tune with the tech economy; a political system that is less corrupt and more representative of the whole country – all at no cost to the Treasury. What is Mr. Johnson waiting for? Vroom vroom. ■
Read more from Bagehot, our British Politics columnist:
The British establishment has split in two, each one believing they are the underdog (November 20)
How Boris Johnson’s Failure to Tackle the Filth Among MPs Could Prove Costly (Nov 10)
Boris Johnson Conservatives Plan to Create a Bigger, Busier State (Nov 6)
This article appeared in the UK section of the print version under the heading “Some Humble Suggestions”.