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If Britain is to prosper after Brexit it is imperative that it remains competitive and attractive to foreign talent and investment. I propose three desiderata.
First, the UK must run a budget surplus. As Singapore and Greece have shown, this is instrumental to economic and political independence. A surplus should not be achieved by clumsy and pound-foolish austerity but through a fundamental rethinking of how money is spent.
The time is nigh to slaughter some of Britain’s sacred cows. The National Health Service is at breaking point, while often ranking behind continental systems in both quality and patient access. Healthcare could be placed on an insurance footing, albeit with state supervision and subsidies where warranted. The nation’s emotional attachment to the NHS must give way to economic reality.
Methods for dispensing benefits are intolerably expensive. The government ought to consider abolishing some categories of benefits and scale back futile and uneconomic efforts to combat fraud. Focus should shift to providing high-quality education and vocational training, particularly for disillusioned workers and young people from deprived backgrounds.
Second, Britain must invest aggressively. Key sectors such as transport, education, and manufacturing suffer from chronic under-investment. The government must not relegate itself to the back seat by assuming a purely regulatory role but must instead lead investment.
With inadequate transport infrastructure, wealth creation is inevitably concentrated in the south, reducing the Northern Powerhouse to a pipe dream and exacerbating the risk of the UK breaking up. Twenty-first century Britain needs 21st-century transport — HS2, for example, is too little too late. A consolidation of rail companies is needed, as well as new, dedicated high-speed passenger railway line that can whisk people from London to Edinburgh in two hours — a British Shinkansen as the backbone of the country.
Britain must also spend money to develop and protect its high-end manufacturing and research sectors. It also has to protect nascent industries and shield competitive companies from foreign takeovers. I have in mind Softbank’s recent acquisition of Arm Holdings. It is not coincidental that Germany and Japan, both with strong manufacturing sectors, consistently enjoy a balance of payments surplus, whereas Britain languishes with an unsustainable deficit.
While the City of London’s importance cannot be understated, an economy wholly reliant on financial services, tourism and higher education is vulnerable to the vagaries of the free market and more tangible external threats.
Finally, Britain must remain open to immigrants. The contributions of skilled foreigners to healthcare, technology and finance, and the unskilled to agriculture and construction, is crucial. For Britain to be competitive, it must be thoroughly meritocratic; it must always have the best minds, regardless of creed or nationality. The talent pool cannot be confined to locals and Europeans.
Unfortunately, the visa system in Britain for third-party nationals is convoluted and restrictive. It fails to identify worthy applicants. Much needs to be done to tackle the toxic political climate, in which it is acceptable to demonise foreign residents.
These propositions may be politically difficult but radical times call for radical measures. Unless Britain is content with exporting jam for evermore, it must change. As a resource-poor island nation, it has to spearhead change.
The writer is an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford
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