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Boris Johnson should fight with conservative institutions

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ANDOUR CHRONICLE joined The Economist in 1988, at high tide of Thatcherisms. Lazy institutions were electrified and long suppressed energies were unleashed. He leaves during another conservative revolution. But this time the chances of success seem slimmer. Boris Johnson lacks Margaret Thatcher’s self-discipline and mastery of detail, as evidenced by his bizarre speech to the Confederation of British Industry, a lobby group, on November 22. The Prime Minister lost his place, mimicked the car sounds and lyric on a children’s television character, Peppa Pig.

Mr Johnson is grappling with stronger headwinds than those experienced by his predecessor. Britain’s population is older than in the 1980s, meaning government spending on health and social care is crowding out investment in the future. The Conservative Party is older still. In 1983, more young people between the ages of 18 and 24 voted for the Thatchers Tories than for Labor under Michael Foot; Mr Johnson is counting on the support of retirees who don’t want anything to disrupt their quiet lives. Thatcher had clear plans based on simple principles: privatization, deregulation, value for money. Mr Johnson’s self-proclaimed task to level Britain is vague, if not utopian. Voters could judge Thatcher’s progress in unraveling bureaucracy and privatized state enterprises. The path to the next level lacks similar milestones.

Here are some ideas to spice up Mr Johnson’s policies. Choose institutions that prevent you from progressing. Subject them to rapid and comprehensive reform. And confuse your enemies by choosing targets on the conservative side of the political spectrum, namely large public (i.e. private) schools, the City, and the House of Lords.

British private schools are a disturbing mix of excellence and social exclusivity. At any given time, only 7% of all students and 15% of those aged 16 and over are in private education. Yet these 15% earn half of all A and A* note to A-level, and one-third of all Oxbridge places. He’s also over-represented in elite sports (especially cycling, rugby, and rowing), theater, and the way John Lennon has to turn in his popular music. Tuition fees in public schools are so high that a year at Eton now costs nearly 50,000 ($ 67,000) that they have become playgrounds for the offspring of the plutocrats and oligarchs of the world.

It’s a shame. Public schools were founded to educate the poor and needy scholars, to quote one’s founding document, Winchester. They enjoy charitable status because they are meant to serve the common good. In 1942, Winston Churchill argued that they should be forced to give 60-70% of their places to poor scholars. Mr Johnson, himself a fellow, is expected to revive his idea of ​​a hero. This would not only end British educational apartheid, but also give the country a welcome injection of diverse talent.

One of the great beneficiaries of Thatcher’s reforms was the City of London, shaken by its sleep induced by global competition. But as the Big Bang tyros became establishment lords and ladies, he dozed off again. The London Stock Exchange (LSE) increasingly resembles a retirement home for old economy businesses, rather than a cradle for new economy businesses. Less than 2% of FTSE The value 100 is represented by technology companies, compared to 40% of S&P 500s. Overly picky regulations mean UK businesses must support an army of aging and disconnected non-executive directors. City’s refusal to accept dual-class equity structures means fewer options for founders who want to tap the public markets without yielding to the dictatorship of quarterly profits. Allow dual-class companies to join the LSEThe high-end segment could reconnect the stock market with the new economy and help the city do for today’s high-tech companies what it did for the railroads in the Victorian era.

It’s not uncommon to come across foreigners who say they admire UK private schools or financial services (in many areas other than stocks the City is still the world leader). But who said that about the House of Lords? For most of its history it has embodied the hereditary principle: aristocrats vetoed legislation because an ancestor had shed blood for William the Conqueror or slept with Charles II. This changed with the introduction of lifetime peerages in 1958 and the reduction of hereditaries to a rump of 92 in 1999 but only by replacing one bad principle with another, political patronage.

From now on, the party leaders name who they want to sit on the red benches: ex-ministers, friends, parents and money men. Fifteen of the Conservative Party’s last 16 treasurers, all of whom donated at least $ 3 million to the party, won seats in the House of Lords. But it’s not just sleazy Tories: Tony Blair’s Labor was just as keen on getting money for honors. And inter-party competition has driven Lords membership up to around 800, all of whom are entitled to over 300 a day just to run.

One can plead for the abolition of the second chamber and to entrust legislative control to the committees of the House of Commons, supported by outside specialists. If it is to stay, it would have to be rebuilt from scratch. Germany gets by with just 69 members in its upper house and America with 100, so Britain could surely face, say, 200. And the principle of patronage has to go. Why not replace it with something suited to Mr Johnson’s self-proclaimed task of regional rebalancing? Assign seats in the New Lords to regional mayors and selected members of decentralized parliaments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, and move it from London to Manchester, the emerging capital of the North.

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An education system that offers more opportunities to talented children; a financial system in tune with the technological economy; a political system less corrupt and more representative of the whole country and all at no cost to the Treasury. What is Mr Johnson waiting for? Vroum vroom.

Read more from Bagehot, our columnist on British politics:
The British establishment has split in two, each convinced that they are the underdog (November 20)
How Boris Johnson’s failure to tackle sleaze among MPs could prove costly (November 10)
Boris Johnson Tories plan to create a bigger, more active state (November 6)

This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Some Modest Proposals”

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2/ https://www.economist.com/britain/2021/11/25/boris-johnson-should-pick-fights-with-conservative-institutions

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