The country needs rejuvenating. Here, at the start of a series, Giles Whittell introduces the five low-cost ideas that he’d like implementing – from EU membership to a new capital
In November 2007, Kit Malthouse, then a candidate for the London Assembly seat of West Central, wrote an article setting out the case for a brand new six-runway airport on an island in the Thames. It was based on the idea that Heathrow was in the wrong place; impossible to expand and forcing hundreds of planes a day to fly over dense residential neighbourhoods on their final approach. None of that would be necessary with an island airport, and all Heathrow’s 1,200 hectares – ten times the size of Hyde Park with three tube stations and an express rail link to Paddington – would be freed up for homes, solving London’s housing crisis at a stroke.
The argument was so strong and clear and unimprovable that no one took much notice. There had to be a catch.
There’s a risk that the same fate will befall what follows, but fear of rejection shouldn’t limit the exchange of ideas. So here is a five-point plan for Britain that would rebalance the economy, end the risk of shortages, revive British democracy and hole a pernicious class system below the waterline. The cost would be low and most of the plan could be set in train in the first Queen’s Speech of a new parliament.
The Queen would announce legislation to elect all peers, move the capital to Manchester, scrap first-past-the-post, reapply to the EU, and end her family’s role as sole provider of the UK’s heads of state.
That is the plan. It’s simple and mainly bureaucratic. The only item on the list with a big logistical component is moving the capital, but that could be done in stages and would be cheaper than refurbishing the Palace of Westminster.
There would be opposition. Polls show the electorate as a whole wants the capital to stay in London and the monarchy to keep its crown. There has never been much public appetite for proportional representation or thoroughgoing Lords reform, and of course there was an EU referendum.
But minds change. Young voters tend not to think like older ones. Majorities aren’t permanent or sacred. And there could be a package effect: single issues that by themselves arouse little enthusiasm could arouse more if presented as a set.
“Package effect” is not a technical term. I made it up to sustain this argument in case the people inclined to support individual elements of my plan turn out to be the same ones in each case. If so, the plan is niche and doomed. It wouldn’t even make a Venn diagram. It would just be a dark blob of resentment, easily ignored unless it turned out to be very big. But what if it created loosely overlapping petals; a blossoming flower?
It’s undoubtedly true of Lords reform, for example, that many would support it in principle but at any given moment would say it was unimportant compared with hospital waiting lists or the price of milk. So why not group all these not-quite-pressing but still fundamental aspects of the British polity together in a single bucket and deal with them all at once?
Package, bucket, flower. Pick your metaphor. I happen to think every petal needs urgent attention.
First-past-the post voting is democracy by guillotine, for television. Every four or five years, it cuts off the arguments of nearly as many voters as it listens to, if not more, and leaves them to fester till next time. PR is more complicated but proven and properly representative.
London is too expensive and unequal. Its hinterland is overshadowed, underfunded and angry. Spending £6 billion on refurbishing the Houses of Parliament – the current estimate – would be the last straw. Moving parliament and the main ministries to Manchester would transform MPs’ world view, fumigate their cliques, juice the North West’s housing market, and bring central government 200 miles closer to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Windsors are just people. To clothe them in pomp and palaces because of an accident of birth is precisely analogous to discriminating against people because of the colour of their skin. The only difference is that instead of creating a culture of cruelty it creates a one of mindless deference. It demeans us all.
The Lords are an Establishment appointed by itself and dressed from a costume cupboard. They are item one in the case for their own disassembly and replacement. Brexit has been tried – a good thing, perhaps, in retrospect. It has a powerful emotional appeal for perhaps two thirds of the 17 million people who voted for it, but it doesn’t work and 27 million didn’t.
The alternatives to first-past-the-post and constitutional monarchy and an appointed upper chamber aren’t straightforward or without bear traps of their own, but this is because representative government is difficult. It doesn’t somehow validate the Ruritanian hand-me-downs Britain uses instead.
They belong in memories and monuments, where they can continue to bring pride to those who consider them part of a British identity, and pleasure to tourists. Removing them from contemporary political life shouldn’t be thought of as radical, much less revolutionary. It’s the least that’s needed to get Britain off the weird step in the family of nations. That these steps might be seen as radical only shows how parochial and self-obsessed the country has become.
If my plan were part of a political party’s platform that party might be called the Common Sense Party, or the Conservatives. After all, Conservatives don’t fix things that aren’t broken, but they do fix things that are.
That should be their instinct, anyway. A dozen years ago, Boris Johnson saw that South East England’s air traffic system was broken and saw in Kit Malthouse’s island a way to fix it. He embraced the plan, and it became known as Boris Island. There was no catch. It was a good plan, but it was monstered by business editors and boosters in thrall to the idea that Heathrow’s destiny was to be Britain’s only hub airport, and to grow. Look where that got them.
History isn’t destiny. Britain’s democracy is being strangled by convention and its economy by self-imposed barriers in the Channel and the Irish Sea. Its labour market and investment patterns are bent out of shape by Brexit and London. Its self-image is confused, its morale low. It’s time for a fresh start.
Illustration: Seamus Jennings for Tortoise