Some bleak truths for Britain

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Britain’s next prime minister does not have to hold a general election until January 24 2025. That is almost two and a half years on an immense stage. Nor is that election one they are expected to win. Liberating, no? Especially for, say, a woman who fancies herself a straight-talker. Or a man too rich to need approval and too globally connected to need Britain itself.

Here, then, are the bleak truths that Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak should convey to the public, damn the electoral consequences. As flinty libertarians both, I suspect that each message bar the last is one they are privately itching to say.

You can’t be America and Europe. That is, you can’t have low taxes and good public services. The few nations that do tend to be inimitable. “Have the crime rate and familial structures of South Korea” is not a plan. Nor is “Be Switzerland”. In Britain, right now, you can track your stolen MacBook on its odyssey through town while the spread-too-thin police do nothing. The country must raise its tax burden four or five percentage points as a share of national output, or lower its expectations of the state. Either choice is respectable. Cursing “austerity” isn’t. Nor is putting great hope in efficiency savings. “I’ve paid in all my life,” goes the ancient refrain of the underserved UK citizen. Yes, but not enough.

There will be no levelling up. Germany and Italy have several centres of wealth because they didn’t come together as nations until late. The likes of Hamburg and Florence had centuries to develop as autonomous cities or even republics. England has been a unitary state for a millennium. It isn’t an accident that Europe’s other long-unified nation, France, has a similarly dominant capital. Governments can only do so much against ingrained history and path dependence. Waving a white paper on the regeneration of northern towns at their luckless residents is not big-hearted. It is cruel.

The Green Belt has been a disaster. It stops the expansion of productive cities. London should have nearer 20mn people than 10mn. Liverpool and Manchester should be a Dallas-Fort Worth-style metroplex. The research labs that constitute much of this country’s economic future are out of room. And all for the preservation of often nondescript land: it isn’t Hampstead Heath at stake here. If patriotism is the sacrifice of one’s own interests for the nation’s, 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? — hound him all the way to the Santa Monica branch of his property empire in 2025? Only Sunak can say it.

You aren’t as rich as you think. Here I blame the penetration into the public psyche of one statistic. Britain is, as its people keep hearing, “the fifth richest nation on Earth”. Except it isn’t. It’s the fifth (perhaps sixth) largest economy. On a per capita basis, it looks up at much of western Europe and the Anglosphere. This problem, which informs almost all others, is fixable but it has to be recognised in the first place.

There has to be a rapprochement with the EU. Rejoining any time soon is implausible. But remaining outside the customs union of the vast market on your doorstep is untenable. And if the UK re-enters that, the gravitational pull of 450mn people on 65mn could lead who knows where. An accommodation will be on the EU’s terms. It will be embarrassing. But so was joining in 1973 on an inferior footing than was available a generation earlier. The point is that “Brexit isn’t being exploited” is the best that fervent Leavers can now claim. Who thinks this line is going to hold?

The secret of this contest is that Truss and Sunak are the same candidate: market-loving, awkward in the way doctrinaire people are, impatient with their country’s sloth. Temperament equips them to say harsh things. So does circumstance. Neither can expect to be in office for long. If Sunak had more about him, he would, knowing that he is losing this race, commence the plain-speaking now. Shocking Britain out of its woozy stupor is a better legacy than some recent prime ministers can claim.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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