IT WAS heartening to see Michael Howard in such fine sparkling form when speaking to businessmen last week. They loved his message and at times the UK Opposition leader was almost Churchillian with a dash of Thatcherism. Now there's a heady thought. But it did strike me that all the best policies adopted after the Conservative's 1979 victory were once deemed utterly impractical by diffident Torie's.
All the privatisations were opposed by the forces of complacency. Scrapping exchange controls was a huge boost to the economy but nearly every official was opposed. Now is the time surely to rehearse some popular liberalisations that would deliver not only a far better society but, if Howard will forgive my bluntness, also millions of voters Elections are similar to auctions except politicians love to offer "free" items. Here are my 10 winning ideas why might win the election for Howard:
1 Make taxes far simpler and scrap many of them. Tax forms should be the size of postcards not books.
Introduce income tax at a flat rate of 20% with no exceptions, as just instituted in Singapore. That would liberate everyone and the paradox is that revenues would soar too.
The European Union (EU) Commission wants us to harmonise VAT at 20%. That may be a firm clue that we might reduce it to 15%. The taxation of capital, or savings, should be abandoned. They are all merely remnants of the stale hostility to "unearned income". It is a virtue to save not a sin.
Inheritance tax is no longer a hazard for the wealthy who all take professional evading action. It penalises only those of modest wealth. Don't talk of shifting the thresholds, abolish it.
Tax Freedom Day in June should become a February public holiday replacing the socialist May Day. The Conservatives' plans to reduce tax are so tentative as to barely register with the public. Boldness would pay rewards in May.
2 Sell off the State's dormant assets The sums raised could go to every family as a trust. The Ministry of Defence owns land areas greater than all of Devon and Cornwall. Sell it off or rather give it back to those who nominally own it - the British public. The Forestry Commission is the greatest single property owner in the country. It hides behind its pine needles as an agency for the birds and the bees but it is little more than a nationalised industry that has escaped reform. Add its acres to the new trust's assets.
Every ministry owns a ragbag of properties Let them all be brought to market. The privatisation harvest is not near its end. Rusting nationalised industries may have gone but the government still owns far too much and husbands it poorly.
Buying shares in the privatised entities was popular but this was really only the public buying back what it already nominally owned. A trust composed of all asset sales would represent a real gift of capital to everyone. I doubt the Labour Party could respond; they have their lingering love affair with collective ownership.
3 Sell off the BBC and abolish the licence fee. The corporation's prime asset is its strands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Price them by an auction process. Its vast endowment was inadvertent. Programming would barely change but the funding would be audience and advertising driven, rather than our superiors filtering what they deem good for us through "public service". The ending of this odd poll tax would yield a useful downward blip on the retail price index (RPI). The money raised from a sale of the BBC's spectrum space should be added to the trust fund established on everyone's behalf.
4 Secede from the European Union's monstrous Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Cease to make donations to what even its auditors declare to be organised crime. Simultaneously cease to pay farmers for producing what nobody wants. British supermarket prices would tumble by one third. Opening our borders to cheaper foodstuffs would be highly popular and will wrongfoot the Labour Party. This could be presented as a significant gesture against world poverty. This single reform would do far more to assist the poor than cascades of official aid. Promise to relinquish membership of World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) type bodies. Far wiser and more popular would be to choose simple unilateral free trade. A British refusal to support the CAP may prompt the European Commission to abandon the system altogether - creating a benign ripple around the world.
5 Reform the local authorities, the most visibly failing institutions in Britain. Convert municipal bodies into no more than contracting agencies. Town halls would do nothing but buy in the best tenders. Local education authorities (LEAs), for example, would shrivel and die if every family was given vouchers of £3,000 (E4,320, $5.730) for primary and £5,000 for secondary pupils redeemable wherever they choose. The Conservative Party has been hinting at giving parental choice for decades, but nothing seems to dent the producer monopoly (the LEAs and teacher unions). Every family is apprehensive at the calibre of municipal education. Liberating parents could be as popular as council house sales, perhaps even more potent as a voter winner.
6 Town and country planning ought to be relaxed, or better scrapped. Municipal taste is uglifying every community in the country. Let systems of third party contracting control new building. Contrived rural housing shortages would evaporate. Leave planning to private agreements and covenants such as were used when all the big beautiful squares, crescents and parks were built in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and other cities. Town hall cadres running the failing system will squeal loudly and that would enhance the appeal.
7 Oblige every strand of the social security system to be contracted out to friendly societies. Voluntary co-operative models have to be happier and more alert than the monster bureaucracies of the Department of Work and Pension.s The sinking fund of National Insurance (NI) should be closed down and the sums attributed to personal accounts. Once everyone can identify their own personal sums accruing the popular appreciation will be transformed. NI is no more than a tax by another name.
8 Abolish the minimum wage and compulsory retirement. Let us make British employment contracts as flexible or adaptable as possible. Radically reduced income tax would stop penalising employers as much as employees. The job market will flourish.
9 Relax migration rules. The doors to Britain ought to be open, but with zero public benefits or subsidies to immigrants.
10 There are many small policy gestures that would give near universal pleasure. For example, scrap party political broadcasts. Declare a public holiday on Adam Smith's birthday, or possibly Margaret Thatcher's. Drop petrol tax but create road use metering. Raise motorway speed limits to 90mph. Put hereditary peers back in the Lords. Perhaps we should recapture Calais.
John Blundell is director general of The Institute of Economic Affairs