Higher Taxes May Be Only Way To Fix Mess In ‘Broken’ Britain – OpEd


By Mohamed Chebaro

The vast majority of people in the UK agree that the country is broken. They disagree, however, about the reasons for the country reaching this advanced stage of decay, which is infecting all aspects of British life.

People I talk to in the Middle East these days ask me in a concerned tone if it is true that some councils are bankrupt; whether the reports they hear are true that more than 100 schools were unusable at the start of the academic year due to a crumbling, aerated type of concrete used in their buildings; the truth about the dumping of sewage in the rivers and sea; whether prisons breaks are a common thing; and to what extent is the health sector affected by shortages of health practitioners and striking doctors and nurses.

I do not tend to tell them that the hospital waiting times are getting longer, the immigration system is suffering huge backlogs and that the police service is caving in due to years of underfunding and cases of unprofessional conduct by some officers, which are eroding the public’s trust. Despite that, I hear pity in their voices as they enquire whether the UK also suffers from a corrupt leadership or a lack of leadership, as they try to draw parallels with many countries in their region.

The question that is on people’s minds in the UK these days is not how did we get here, but what needs to be done to get out of this mess. All the major political parties will be holding their annual conferences in September and October and they might be the last before the next general election, which is expected next year. And they will all struggle to devise a plan to try and steady the ship with formulas that stop short of mentioning the word “taxation.”

The problem started, no doubt, with the ruling Conservative Party veering to a type of populism that sold voters austerity, and tax cuts, in the hope it would attract investment, ensure growth and boost revenues, even after Britain left the EU, with all the losses to the economy that came with that. The Tories’ austerity program has, as is evident today, degraded public services in exchange for, at best, marginal gains in deficit reduction.

Since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010, local authorities and councils have borne the brunt of their cuts, which have reached 40 percent of their annual funding in real terms. To deal with their dwindling funds, the councils, which are referred to as the invisible workhorses of public life in Britain, have had to cut their budgets dedicated to maintenance and repairs.

In civilized countries, the reward for citizens and voters paying taxes without complaint is, due to the social contract, that the state and its public organs will manage the basics competently on their behalf. This means people do not have to worry about who will collect the garbage, service the roads or run schools and hospitals, and that public transport will reliably serve their needs.

The next general election will most likely be won by the Labour Party. But unlike in 1997, it will inherit a country with an empty public purse. And, due to the mess left behind by successive Tory leaders, the pressures to spend more on an aging population will only increase. What no party that is seeking to gain power in the democratic world would dare say is that taxes need to be raised. After cleaning up the mess left by this Tory government, Labour will not be able to rely on growth — even if it comes quickly enough by force of a miracle — to generate the revenues needed to spend on cash-starved public services.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies explained in a recent report that, without tax rises, UK public services and social benefits will not be able to cope with demand. But how can one persuade the average Briton that something has got to give? Human instinct means people tend to expect that someone else will foot the bill and make the sacrifices needed. Leaders need to be honest, though honesty is often at odds with the world of politics and does not usually win elections, just like boring, uncharismatic leaders in this era.

For years, the Conservatives have tried to hedge their bets on low taxation and a small state to win elections, privatizing key industries only to later subsidize them through one form of state grant or another. Today, what Britain should yearn for is responsible leadership — one that is not just worried about the numbers in the polls, but rather about the services delivered to the public.

Contrary to what has been assumed, the British public wants more state, not less, according to a recently published report and survey by Michael Ashcroft, the former Conservative Party deputy chair. This finding can only point to the death of the small state, as championed by the current Tory government, as even a substantial number of Conservative voters agree with the statement that “Britain is broken — people are getting poorer, nothing seems to work properly, and we need big changes to the way the country works, whichever party is in government.” The data in that report also pointed out that the small state impulse so drummed up by this government is not widely shared, as those surveyed responded that they preferred government to big business and that they trusted regulation and the green movement more than the free markets and capitalism, as well as supporting the public ownership of utilities.

Any new leader should, therefore, have the courage to be radical, try to rebuild the state institutions and resort to whatever means necessary to fulfill the public’s right to security, well-maintained infrastructure and safe schools — even if that means raising taxes, which are currently low in comparison to most other Western European countries.

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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