What policy would give everyone the opportunity to succeed?

Sam Collins

June 6, 2019

One of the great tragedies of Brexit has not been the risks and opportunities of leaving the European Union, but the cloak of myopia that it seems to have thrown over our body politic.

Ever more policy areas are being seen through the lens of both EU policy and the likely effect that Brexit will have on them.

Few areas see the negative impacts of this narrow-mindedness starker than social mobility. While the reasons for every Brexit vote are varied and individual, one of the major reasons that have been mooted, particularly by Remainers, is that the vote reflected an almost primal scream from entire demographic groups and regions left behind by the modern, globalised world.

A vote not, at its heart, based on opposition to the EU itself, but based instead on anger in northern, Midland, and coastal towns that see themselves as trapped in an economy that doesn’t offer them a break or opportunity.

While that’s quite a patronising view of those who voted leave, the disenchantment that many in these regions feel about our current economy is understandable.

It is true that free-market capitalism has been the most successful economic model in history bar none, a system that has improved the economic power and lifestyles of everyone in Britain.

However, too many feel that governments of all stripes have allowed cronyism to creep in, meaning that success is often not encouraged nor properly rewarded.

Instead of breaking down barriers to social mobility, they instead erect new barriers, blocking those at the bottom from improving themselves, and allowing those at the top to avoid feeling the consequences of poor economic decision-making.

But one area where Remainers are correct is that, for the most part, these barriers have little or nothing to do with our EU membership.

It is not bureaucrats in Brussels that have devalued our tertiary education sector to the point where the equivalent of two-thirds of those turning 18 in 2016 enrolled in undergraduate degrees, and almost half of recent graduates are working in jobs that require no university qualifications.

Nor are EU apparatchiks responsible for a welfare system that, despite recent efforts, still keeps those on low incomes and beneficiaries in a poverty trap, with marginal tax rates far above those anyone at the top would have to pay. Childcare, transport, and other costs skyrocket once beneficiaries enter the workforce, while their benefits fall.

Even in employment regulation and occupational licencing, we have fallen behind European nations like Italy and Belgium.

These nations have often been derided as overregulated, anti-business environments, yet the UK now requires a fifth of workers to hold a government licence to practise their trade, while another fifth are generally expected to provide government certification before they’re hired.

As we might expect, the cost of obtaining these licences can push many of the better-paying roles out of reach of low-income people.

These are not just the type of roles you might expect either. It’s not just doctors and lawyers we are talking about: farriers, estate agents, and art therapists all require a licence as well.

So, what are we to do? How can we retain the free-market capitalism that made Britain – and much of the world – the rich and successful place it is today while also extending opportunities to all individuals to maximise their own success?

Well, instead of giving an answer, we are seeking yours. Generously supported by British philanthropist, businessman, and author Richard Koch, the Breakthrough Prize is looking for the best ideas for policies that can improve social mobility. And the question is this: what single policy would give everyone in society, whatever their background, a real opportunity to succeed on their own merit?

The winning entry will receive £50,000, and all of the finalists will be part of changing the climate of ideas.

You can find out more about the prize here.


Written by Sam Collins

Sam Collins is Senior Advisor at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


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