Theresa May’s desire to see a society that works for everyone is a bold ambition that requires an equally bold programme of reform, argues William Walter.
Tomorrow’s closing address at Conservative Party conference presents Theresa May with an opportunity to set out her roadmap for government. An opportunity to move beyond her reputation as a pragmatic managerialist and present herself as an ideological visionary.
Her talk of ‘one nation Conservatism’, and ‘a country that works for everyone’ in her acceptance speech offer clues to her priorities for social reform. And subsequent announcements regarding the reintroduction of grammar schools, together with a desire to see Brexit delivered, serve as geysers of ideological zeal. But almost four months into her premiership the pressure is mounting on the Prime Minister to offer a more coherent programme of reform for her government.
As other commentators have noted, her first priority must be preserving the union. Scotland, in contrast to England, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. This difference has helped fuel nationalist feeling north of the border. It is important the Prime Minister projects a message of optimism extolling the virtues of the Union.
But she must also set out her longer term vision for the country. George Osborne’s tenure as Chancellor saw effective decision making crippled by fears of the potential negative media and political implications these decisions might entail. As a consequence, all too often unpopular decisions were avoided. The tax code is a shining example of how this inertia has manifested itself. For decades the tax system has been allowed to become steadily more complex, which in turn has hindered business and economic growth. Now is the time to address this problem. Theresa May should announce a programme of reforms aimed at stripping back the tax code and bringing income tax brackets more in to line. The artificial incentives and exemptions that became the hallmark of successive chancellors, most notably Gordon Brown, should be done away with.
And just as enabling free enterprise and promoting economic growth are central tenants to delivering a fairer society, so too is aspiration and the opportunity to better oneself. Homeownership is undeniably an important component in this. The UK is currently experiencing a chronic shortage of housing supply. For millions the idea of home ownership is becoming an ever more distant dream. To address this, the Prime Minister needs to reform our country’s antiquated planning laws and embark on a nationwide programme of housebuilding to deliver hundreds of thousands of new homes for both private and social tenants.
Finally, Theresa May’s reform of the education system should go beyond the reintroduction of grammar schools. The higher education system is inadequate. Too many young people remain wedded to the idea that university is the most effective route to maximising their career and earnings potential, naïve to other options available to them.
We need to see a two-pronged approach to reforming our higher education system and boosting the take-up of apprenticeships. Firstly, we need to see increased transparency and competition in the higher education market, and secondly we need to see a concerted drive to promote high value apprenticeships targeted at both young people and their parents.
The desire to see a society that works for everyone is a bold ambition that requires a bold programme of reform. With this in mind, the Prime Minister should embrace the unique circumstances in which she now finds herself. With her Labour opposition in turmoil and the Party relatively united, Theresa May has a once in a generation chance to take the difficult decisions and to put the country on the path to long-term prosperity and see her vision realised.