Options for a new Britain: A report card for Britain

The most ambitious independent policy review in the UK for over a decade is published this week and makes challenging reading for both Government and Opposition.

How has Britain progressed over the last decade? What are the next big choices that face us in the coming one?

These questions are addressed in the review, launching this week as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science. Speakers at the launch include the Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) and David Willetts MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills).

Drawing on contributions from more than 60 leading experts, the reviewers document the post-97 Government’s successes such as on science and technology policy and health. The review also documents areas where progress has been weak, such as on housing and planning, transport and the environment. Perhaps controversially, the review is reasonably positive about the Government’s economic performance when seen across the full period, though estimates a permanent loss of outcome of up to 4% from the current downturn. In many areas, Britain’s post-97 performance is seen as respectable in historic terms, such as the reduction in poverty, albeit well short of Government rhetoric.

Some of the policy options reviewed are familiar, such as the case for shifting crime spending away from prisons to early interventions or the case for various forms of carbon pricing. Other options are less familiar, such as slowing population growth as environmental policy; privatising the entire road network; or creating an independent fiscal council.

The review also examines policy options with a strong case but that politicians are wary of discussing – especially around taxes. These include the case for a shift away from indirect to direct taxation, including imposing standard VAT rates on many currently zero-rated items; joining the euro; and co-payments in certain aspects of public services.

Professor Iain McLean, the Principle Investigator on the review from Oxford University’s Department of Politics, said “Facts and data are vital to inform government policy – and to inform the public about how a Government has performed. The task facing an incoming government is not predetermined. Political will and imagination in Government can achieve a great deal.”

David Halpern, former Chief Analyst and Senior Advisor in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, and lead editor on the earlier 1996 ‘Options for Britain’ review commented, “A lot has changed since 1996. New issues loom large, such as around immigration and diversity, while the public service issues that dominated the 1997 and 2001 elections have faded into the background of public consciousness. The important question is ‘what next?’ – it’s up to parties and the public to choose.”

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