The changing face of Britain: what will the UK look like in ten years?
The year is 2024. Robert Colvile imagines how David Cameron's speech on European immigration, as well as the transfer of income tax controls to the Edinburgh parliament, have reshaped the country for good
The proposed development in Vauxhall, London Photo: NINE ELMS LONDON
By Robert Colvile
When David Cameron gave his long-awaited speech on immigration on November 28, 2014, it was billed as a decisive moment in his premiership. But 10 years later, in 2024, even Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, as he has recently become, acknowledges that it proved little more than a punctuation mark in the story of his administration.
The real decisive moment, though few realised it at the time, had come much earlier in his first term, when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act received Royal Assent. It was intended to provide stable government – but with the days long gone in which any one party could command a parliamentary majority on the Blair scale, it meant year after year of weak and embattled governments. Knowing that voters were likely to punish them for inflicting seemingly endless austerity, prime ministers had little incentive to return to the country. The result was a series of governments and coalitions with enough MPs to govern, but not enough to rule.
But then, they always say that voters elect the government that reflects their mood – and Britain’s mood in 2024 is as fractious and divided as its Parliament’s. Rarely, indeed, has the “United” in “United Kingdom” seemed less apt. Scotland has gone; the SNP’s acceptance that the independence question had been settled “for a generation” turned out to mean little when the Tories scraped back into power down south. In Wales, Plaid Cymru is on the march. London, too, is agitating for yet more powers.
As serious as the constitutional faultlines are the faultlines cutting across society. Back in 2014, politicians had just started talking about the gaps in affluence and opportunity between London and the North, the rich and the poor, the young and the old. Here in 2024, those trends have only accelerated.
Britain was already suffering a housing shortage in David Cameron’s time – now, the situation is close to a full-blown crisis. Politicians’ promises of another mass housing drive – “Rebuilding the New Jerusalem” in the stirring phrase of Chuka Umunna, the Labour leader – ran up against the harsh reality of inadequate willpower, inadequate construction capacity and determined local opposition.
Yes, there are a few new towns on the green belt – and Ukip surged in the Home Counties as picturesque villages found themselves ringed with ugly, lowest-common-denominator estates. But London property prices have continued to soar into the stratosphere, driven by demand from overseas as well as from the swollen population. Cecil Rhodes once claimed that “to be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life”. These days, the golden ticket is a three-bed semi in Zone 2.
It isn’t just housing where the young and poor feel excluded from the good life. As the population hit 70 million (some three years earlier than the original predicted date of 2027), the level of competition for the best jobs and education reached new heights. Catchment areas at top state secondary schools shrunk even further, as the baby boom of the Nineties and Noughties worked its way up from the primary level: many schools had to institute lotteries to preserve some vestige of income diversity. At university level, some members of the Russell Group have expanded dramatically, but Oxford and Cambridge rejected ministers’ pleas to follow suit: “People hardly send their children to Trinity to have them stuffed into Portakabins on the quad,” sniffed one don.
Cameron and others originally hoped to ease the squeeze by restricting immigration and building new infrastructure. The problem on the second count was that in a democracy – particularly one as rule-bound as Britain’s – it took too long to get anything done. HS2, remarkably, is still on track for its grand opening in two years’ time, although the grand talk of HS3, HS4 and HS5 has withered away. But the Tube and the motorways are more crowded than ever, and Gatwick and Heathrow more crammed. One new runway, it turned out, wasn’t nearly enough.
Meanwhile, the troubled Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor still hasn’t come online, let alone the others that were approved in a panicked, multi-billion-pound rush after the first wave of brownouts in 2017/18. When the Energy and Sustainability Secretary admitted that power shortages were now “a fact of life”, the CBI was not alone in pronouncing it a dark day for Britain.
Yes, the fractious, irritated, crowded nature of life in the Turbulent Twenties has given plenty of grist to the mill of Nigel Farage and his populist successors. A lot of people feel life has left them behind, and that others – particularly new arrivals – are getting the rewards.
But there’s another way to look at it, which is to ask why David Cameron’s speech of November 2014 didn’t make that much difference in the first place – even though the European Union did eventually give him most of what he wanted (enough, at least, to edge home in the eventual referendum).
The problem was that immigration wasn’t driven by benefits, and never had been – it was driven by aspiration. Somewhat to our surprise, as well as racking up some of the largest household and consumer debts in Europe, we in Britain had also built one of its most open, flexible and dynamic economies. We weren’t just welcoming Polish plumbers; we had French bankers and Spanish doctors and even an increasing number of enterprising young German engineers. Today, as the rest of Europe finally comes round to welcoming in Turkey in order to give themselves a demographic and economic shot in the arm, we are almost alone in having enough healthy young workers to pay for all the oldies.
The main constraint on our growth, many argue, is actually Europe itself. That is certainly what Boris Johnson says: the Tory elder statesman, chosen as leader by his party at the second time of asking, is making another referendum on the EU the centrepiece of his manifesto for 2025. Yet this time, he is demanding changes not for Britain, but for Brussels: “Prove to us that you are a fit partner,” proclaims Mr Johnson, “and you shall have no better or more loyal friend. But we cannot remain shackled to a moribund institution, acting as a refuge for its talents and an underwriter to its debts.”
For their part, the Europeans often accuse Britain of being a parasite – even a privateer. Certainly, the shrunken size of the state means that there is a certain fend-for-yourself culture. Taxes, of course, remain high – but while Labour did bring in a mansion tax when Mr Umunna took power in 2020, the state’s reliance on the “golden geese” of London, the high earners who now pay almost a third of all income tax, means it cannot soak the rich as much its partisans would want.
In fact, Britain’s enterprising culture, and its increasing levels of inequality, derive in part from an inexorable transition in the shape of public spending. The deficit took so long to close, and the costs of an ageing population have become so heavy, that there is precious little cash left for all the meddling and subsidising that government used to do. More now goes on debt repayments and medical bills, and less on welfare and defence. So the old arguments about NHS “privatisation” have given way, of necessity, to discussion about introducing top-up payments to the basic standard of care (a system already in place it comes to welfare, pensions and care for the elderly, leading to many complaints from the Left about the rich being able to buy their way to better public services).
Britain’s place in the world has changed, too. Islamist extremism remains as potent and a deadly a force as ever, and the country is still struggling with issues of integration and radicalisation – and still getting entangled in foreign conflicts in an effort to prevent attacks at home. But despite our relative economic resilience compared to the rest of Europe, our pretensions to being a genuine global power have grown as threadbare as the Armed Forces’ kit: we only kept the Army up to snuff by sacrificing the next generation of Trident and opting for a cut-price alternative (a move that greatly annoyed the Scots, who had expected to extract a juicy bribe to let Faslane remain in operation when they left the Union).
What else would strike the visitor from 2014 as strange about this new world? Royal Mail gave up the ghost years ago – but few miss it in a world where Amazon’s drones will deliver to your door what 3D printing cannot produce in your living room. The House of Lords survives, as does first past the post, but mostly because no one can agree on what to replace them with. In fact, the whole business of politics seems increasingly outmoded as the technology companies have a bigger and bigger effect on our lives.
Google, Amazon and Uber are ploughing ahead with their plans to guide (and monitor) our every move – projecting films directly on to our eyeballs, putting microscopic medical robots in our bloodstream, developing artificial meat that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. Of course, not everyone’s happy about this – especially not the workers whose jobs have been lost to technology. Hence the fresh surge in popularity for Nigel Farage, with his new slogan: “No to the Romanians, and hell no to the robots.”
The above is, of course, a fantasy – an extrapolation of present trends into the future. Some of it, I’m extremely confident about. There is, for example, very little chance that we’re going to build enough houses over the next few years, or stop people arriving on these shores in roughly equivalent numbers, or find enough places at the best secondary schools for the soaring number of pupils at primary level, or return to the days in which everyone bar a few strange people in sandals loyally voted for Labour or the Tories.
There is a huge risk, however, in expecting the future to be like the present, only more so. If you’d carried out this exercise in 2004, imagining the world of 2014, you’d have predicted a glorious future of ever more growth and ever more spending, with the beloved figure of Gordon Brown presiding genially over it all. (Oh, and we and the Americans would probably have moved on to liberating Iran, after our stunning triumph against Saddam.)
There are all sorts of things on the horizon that might lead the future to look pretty grim – not least a new financial crisis, perhaps triggered by a crisis in China, or another round of turmoil in the eurozone. But the truth is that events are as likely, probably even more likely, to surprise us on the upside. More immigrants will arrive, but many will be assimilated; the towns which today elect Ukip MPs may one day find themselves swearing in Romanian-born mayors.
Society may be more divided in the future, but it will also be a richer, healthier, longer-lived and quite probably more pleasant place to be. Technology will shake up our lives, but it will also deliver marvels that we can only dimly conceive of. And Britain will probably do what Britain does best – muddle on through. Oh, and grumble about the weather.