Ten years ago this month, a group of eager young Tory things issued a pamphlet called Britannia Unchained. It is a rather unremarkable little treatise – badly researched, with cherry-picked data and using the anecdotes of London taxi drivers as “evidence” that we are all lazy.
Britannia Unchained deserves to be less than a footnote of history. And it would be, if it were not for the fact that two of its authors are the new prime minister and her close friend, the new chancellor of the exchequer.
The others were Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Chris Skidmore, who had an undistinguished ministerial career, unless you measure his achievements against the disasters of Patel and Raab. All have now been dropped as not good enough, and this is in lockstep with the theme of the book. Only hardworking, dynamic risk-takers can survive. Failures are to be dumped, and they deserve to fail in the first place. Ayn Rand, eat your heart out.
Some bits of Britannia Unchained are accurate, if stating the bleeding obvious – the UK is bad at teaching maths and sciences. Nearly all the rest is a bundle of prejudice, ignorance, and an appalling lack of self-awareness. The book claims that the failure to teach maths or promote people with engineering and science backgrounds can lead to top civil servants, business leaders and even politicians who are almost innumerate. Britannia Unchained also explains, “economic professors tear their hair out at the poor mathematics knowledge of students”. It’s worth noting that this book was written by the now prime minister, who has a degree in PPE, and the current chancellor, who has a degree in classics.
But the basic premise of Britannia Unchained is that the UK is an international failure because we are all soft, lazy, left wing shirkers. Students spend too long in the pub, choose easy subjects and many are on rubbish courses. Benefits are far too generous, workers go home early, education is betraying the young, The X-Factor and Big Brother are corrupting young people. Its evidence for such claims is thin. So is the pamphlet, and it would be considerably thinner were it not padded out with unnecessary biographies of everyone mentioned.
It also, amazingly, fails to say very much about Margaret Thatcher. The fact that the Iron Lady slashed the welfare state, privatised vast swathes of British industry, tried to cut taxes and destroyed the unions is lost on this lot. Or perhaps not quite lost; since the UK has failed to soar since the 1980s, that must mean Lady Thatcher did not go far enough or was betrayed in her reforming battle.
Britannia Unchained is therefore a rallying call to relaunch the revolution, and this time to get it right. And it is doubtless influential because two of its authors hold the two most important cabinet posts and they look very much as if they intend to follow through on what they wrote 10 years ago.
Kwasi Kwarteng has started immediately, by planning to lift the cap on bankers’ bonuses, a plan to wedge up the City rather than level up the country. It’s a cunning scheme that is mentioned in the pamphlet – one that, remember, was written only a few years after the credit crunch and when the government was borrowing billions of pounds a month to bail out the banks after years of irresponsible lending that contributed bigger bonuses for bank staff. Even Boris Johnson retreated on this idea, correctly suspecting that somehow it wouldn’t go down well with voters.
This reveals another contradiction in Britannia Unchained. It spends a whole chapter praising the Canadian banking system for surviving the credit crunch intact because it is just so “boring”, well regulated and “even banker bonuses remain relatively low”. Then it proposes less regulation of UK banks and higher bonuses.
The pamphlet gives us a good idea of the future direction of this government. For a start, the unions are far too powerful, have never been successfully quashed and are damaging Britain. Further attacks on union power are therefore most certainly on the way.
The pensions of civil servants, nurses, doctors, soldiers and almost everyone else in the public sector are also a prime target. The self-employed don’t have final-salary pensions, so why should anyone else? They represent a huge unfunded liability for taxpayers, and they will have to go.
Education will have to be reformed to promote hard work, maths, sciences and engineering. “For many students sipping coffee in the common room, clubbing or lazing around appeals more than poring over a test tube or doing complicated sums,” write the authors, without a science or maths degree between them – or any sense of irony, apparently. But education reforms will not need any more money – in fact, the authors seem to think that the current budget has been wasted as it has not provided the workers that business needs in large enough numbers.
The booklet also praises the kind of free zone that goes even further than the free ports already announced by Boris Johnson. The Jebel All Free Zone in Dubai is the model for what it looks like the chancellor will announce this week. Not only free of import and export duties but no corporation or personal taxes either and lower regulation too. All this is likely to do is attract business from elsewhere in the UK to an area where business can run riot and its bosses fill their boots tax-free, with the cost to the Exchequer in lost taxes made up by higher taxes or lower spending elsewhere.
Even more worrying is the adulation that the writers show for places like South Korea or India, where parents beggar themselves to pay for extra tuition to give their children a better chance. In short, if you want a better education for your children, pay for it yourself. To be able to afford that, childcare costs will need to fall.
Apparently, cutting red tape will achieve that because “informal and cheap childminders are increasingly being replaced by heavily regulated nurseries”. Yes, damn those nurseries!
One of the most illiterate parts of the prospectus is the notion that we will all have to work much harder in order for Britain to build a strong economy. The authors seem to think that UK workers are lazy, and that’s why they produce less than German, French, or US workers. In fact, UK workers put in more hours than most, yet our productivity remains low.
The obvious way to change that requires more training, investment and much better management. But that would mean spending more on education, apprenticeships and infrastructure, so it is obviously wrong. No, the proper answer is to get up earlier and work harder just like all those Polish/Indian/Chinese workers.
Of course, the incentive to do this will be lower taxes. “The correlation between rising tax rates and decreasing working hours makes sense. If it pays less to work, more and more will come to the view that it is not worth the effort,” says Britannia Unchained. Why Polish workers in the UK don’t think like that is not really explained, but the aim will be to squeeze workers from both sides by cutting benefits AND income tax.
The pension system is also a potential victim of this government as the PM and chancellor wrote: “If the state pension age had risen according to life expectancy, it would be at least 75 now.” We need to work not just harder, but for longer.
To achieve that, the benefits system must change. The fact that many benefits go to those in work because pay is already so bad they can’t survive on their wages is lost on the Unchainers. Benefits make you lazy and weak. If you don’t believe that, this pamphlet has the evidence to convince you – the opinions of those taxi drivers. What more proof do you need?
A more general theme the authors push is already accepted wisdom in the Tory Party – that the state is too big and borrowing is too high. The 2012 Liz Truss would surely be furious if she looked at today’s borrowing figures and found out who borrowed it all. Even so, the 2022 Liz Truss intends to make them even worse to pay for tax cuts and energy handouts, which could have been paid for by extending windfall taxes rather than borrowing. Strangely, this runs counter to the pamphlet’s claim that “Governments that lose control of their spending lose control of their economy.”
But help is at hand; just cut the size of the state. You might think this had been tried with austerity, but apparently that it was not “pure” enough. Austerity II is on the way.
The mantra of Britannia Unchained is that government needs to be smaller, regulation lighter, taxes lower, incentives higher, benefits worse, education cheaper and work harder. The fit will survive and the weak will go to the wall but as a result, Britain will boom.
The five authors of Britannia Unchained obviously think they are part of the new killer elite. But they believe this despite being terrible at maths, economically illiterate, ignorant of science and engineering and completely unaware of how to research a book or even write well.
Like so many people who have “made it”, they believe everything they have achieved has been down to their special talents and hard work. Others can join them if they want, the rest must just work harder for less.
Such people – smug, selfish, self-satisfied, lacking in empathy, ignorant of facts and believing in their own fantasy economics – prop up golf club bars the length and breadth of the country. Unfortunately, now they are also now running the country.