LONDON — Close your eyes. Imagine for a moment that you’re waking up on June 24, 2016 and turn on the TV to hear that Remain had won the U.K.’s EU referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron is standing at a lectern in front of No. 10, flushed with success but also keen to reassure Brits that he’ll be dedicating the final three or four years of his premiership to reuniting a divided country by tackling “the big issues we all know need addressing.”
OK. Now wake from that dream — or maybe that nightmare. What would those big issues be? Since the vote, Britain’s political debate has been so overtaken by the tortuous practicalities and politics of Brexit, that the notion of government tackling anything else — let alone “big issues” — seems remote.
Everyone’s list will be different, of course, but here, in rough order of said issues’ importance to voters, is mine.
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The National Health Service is under severe strain as the state funding required to keep it free for those who need it fails to keep pace with the growing demands placed upon it. If experience is anything to go by, the default solution (if solution is the right word) is rationing via longer waiting times, narrower coverage and less capital investment.
Brexit has inflamed the debate and made delivering a workable solution to address people’s concerns even more unlikely
Unless, that is, someone finally grabs the bull by the horns and goes for hypothecated taxation and/or some kind of mandatory insurance. But even if they do, is social care — the stuff that goes on in homes rather than hospitals — going to be included?
If not, how on earth is it to be paid for, other than, as now, by forcing the unlucky to run down any savings they may have made during their working lives?
All the government has done on both issues — especially after its ill-thought-out attempt to sort social care in its 2017 election manifesto turned into the “dementia tax” debacle — is announce some extra money and repeat already debunked promises of a Brexit “dividend.”
It’s clearly not enough and no substitute for the time the government could have spent, absent Brexit, on tackling the underlying problems.
Notwithstanding the crucial — and some would argue outsized — role it played in the Brexit “take back control” campaign, quite who is going to be allowed to come to live and work in the U.K., and on what terms, has barely been discussed during the last two years.
That’s presumably because the government, unless it really is happy to “f*ck business,” knows it is going to end up disappointing an awful lot of Leave voters.
Had Brexit not happened, it might have responded more rationally to voters’ concerns by restoring, albeit under a new name, its predecessor’s migration impact fund — and by actually using the rights given to it under EU law with regard to new arrivals from member states who proved unable or unwilling to find work.
Instead, Brexit has inflamed the debate and made delivering a workable solution to address people’s concerns even more unlikely.
Pre-school provision in the U.K. remains patchy and expensive, making it far harder than it should be to combine work and child-rearing. It’s also one of the few things that can help offset damaging differences in readiness for school between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Fast forward to post-16 education, and you discover that the U.K. still hasn’t got its act together on vocational education, that “further education” colleges are still woefully-underfunded and that universities are still all over the place — providing too many courses to too many students who, despite the debt they are piling up to pursue them, don’t take their studies seriously enough and can’t, in any case, be guaranteed a “graduate job” at the end of the process.
Government needs to have one eye on the future. Instead, on this as on so much else, it has trained both eyes on Brexit — even as it ignores the repercussions of its pending March 2019 exit, which could make universities less attractive to EU students and trigger a major loss in research funding from the bloc.
The U.K. hasn’t been building enough homes for decades. Its highly restrictive planning regulations aren’t fit for purpose. Home ownership is shrinking, and the young in particular are being priced out of the market, particularly in the more affluent parts of a country plagued by huge regional disparities.
Government attempts to do anything about the situation have so far ranged from the pointlessly anaemic to the positively counterproductive.
At a time when it has already hacked off nearly half the country with its pursuit of a hard Brexit, the government has likely realized it can ill-afford to risk offending even more people by doing anything that might devalue their most precious asset.
Last but not least. The U.K.’s local authorities raise relatively little of their own revenue. One of main ways they do it — the so-called “council tax” — is based on property valuations that, believe it or not, were last carried out in the early 1990s and is nowhere near as progressive as it should or could be.
Nationally, the U.K. has failed utterly to respond to the key challenges of a 21st century characterized by inequality and the ongoing march of digital progress: how to properly tax wealth rather than income and how to make the tech companies pay their fair share.
A number of county councils face acute financial difficulties as a result, while Amazon’s British tax burden has shrunk even as its turnover has increased. A government less consumed by Europe might have had the bandwidth to take at least baby steps to prevent either scenario from happening.
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Admittedly not all the items on this list would have made it onto the U.K.’s political agenda even if voters had killed Brexit stone dead back in June 2016. Nor would Britain have abandoned its obsession with EU membership overnight. But the virtual absence of significant action on any of these pressing issues by a political class mesmerised by how, when and whether to leave the EU represents an opportunity cost that, for once, deserves to be labelled massive.
Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.