Some sad truths for Britain

Britain’s next prime minister won’t have to hold a general election until January 24, 2025. That’s almost two and a half years on a huge stage. This election is also not the one they are supposed to win. Liberator, right? Especially for, say, a woman who thinks she’s outspoken. Or a man too rich to need approval and too globally connected to need Britain itself.

So here are the dark truths that Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak should convey to the public, to hell with the election consequences. As both flint libertarians, I suspect every message but the last is one they feel like saying privately.

you can’t be america and Europe. In other words, you can’t have low taxes and good public services. The few nations that do tend to be inimitable. “Having South Korea’s crime rate and family structures” is not a plan. “Be Switzerland” neither. In Britain right now, you can follow your stolen MacBook on its odyssey through town while the too-thin police do nothing. The country must increase its tax burden by four or five percentage points as a percentage of national production, or reduce its expectations of the state. Either choice is respectable. Cursing “austerity” is not. Nor is it a matter of pinning high hopes on efficiency savings. “I’ve paid all my life,” goes the old refrain of the underserved British citizen. Yes, but not enough.

There will not be Upgrade. Germany and Italy have several centers of wealth because they did not come together as nations until late. Cities like Hamburg and Florence have had centuries to develop into autonomous cities or even republics. England has been a unitary state for a millennium. It is no coincidence that the other long unified European nation, France, has an equally dominant capital. Governments can do little about entrenched history and path addiction. Waving a white paper about regenerating northern towns to their unlucky residents isn’t big-hearted. It’s cruel.

The green belt was a disaster. It stops the expansion of productive cities. London should have more people than 20mins than 10mins. Liverpool and Manchester should be a Dallas-Fort Worth style metroplex. The research labs that are a big part of this country’s economic future are out of place. And all for the preservation of often indescribable lands: Hampstead Heath is not at stake here. If patriotism is the sacrifice of one’s own interests for those of the nation, the Nimbys are unpatriotic. No Prime Minister can say that, I hear you interject, especially one who looks like Sunak. Of course he can. Voters will – what? – track him to the Santa Monica branch of his real estate empire in 2025? Only Sunak can tell.

You are not as rich as you think. Here, I blame the penetration into the public psyche of a statistic. Britain is, as its people keep hearing, “the fifth richest nation on the planet”. Except no. It is the fifth (possibly the sixth) largest economy. On a per capita basis, it looks at much of Western Europe and the Anglosphere. This problem, which almost every other one informs, is fixable but it needs to be recognized first.

There must be a rapprochement with the EU. Joining anytime soon is unlikely. But staying out of the vast market customs union on your doorstep is untenable. And if the UK reenters that, the gravitational pull of 450 million people over 65 minutes could lead who knows where. Accommodation will be on EU terms. It will be awkward. But so did membership in 1973 on a lower basis than was available a generation earlier. The fact is, “Brexit is not exploited” is the best that fervent Leavers can now claim. Who thinks this line will hold?

The secret to this contest is that Truss and Sunak are the same contestant: market-loving, clumsy as the doctrinaires are, impatient with their country’s laziness. Temperament equips them to say harsh things. The circumstance too. Neither can expect to stay in power for long. If Sunak knew more about him, he, knowing he’s losing this race, would start speaking out now. Lifting Britain out of its giddy stupor is a better legacy than some recent prime ministers can claim.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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Some sad truths for Britain

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