Another day, another substanceless soundbite from a government rapidly running out of ideas. Yesterday it was Singapore’s turn to have its day in the sun. Jeremy Hunt flew to the city state to give a speech in which he outlined what Brexit Britain could learn from a country of flat taxes and deregulation. Since Singapore gained independence in 1965, Hunt said, the country’s gross domestic product per capita had multiplied 15 times; the clear implication was that, once Britain gains its own “independence”, it can follow suit.
This is a dishonest sleight of hand. Singapore used to be a British colony, meaning that gaining independence was the definition of taking back control. By contrast, Britain wields significant power in the EU as a rule-maker, and we elect our representatives. But if we leave the EU under the terms of the Brexit Theresa May is trying to foist on us, we become rule-takers. We lose independence. We, ironically, lose control.
This is far from the only way in which the Foreign Secretary is trying to deceive us. While Singapore advocates like Owen Paterson have been open about their “low-tax, low-spend, low-regulation” vision of Brexit Britain, Hunt chooses his words more carefully. “We do not want and do not seek to emulate the social or political model of Singapore,” he assured listeners of the BBC’s Today programme. But in the speech he delivered a matter of hours later, he spoke of Britain learning from Singapore’s “strategic approach to how a nation sustains competitive advantage in the world”.
Let’s be clear: that competitive advantage is precisely the “low-tax, low-spend, low-regulation” model of Paterson’s dreams. Singapore has no capital gains tax and no inheritance tax. Corporation tax has been fixed at 17 per cent since 2010 – the third lowest in the world – and there are provisions for some companies to pay no corporation tax at all. The top level of income tax is 22 per cent and that only kicks in for those who earn more than $320,000 a year. Someone earning £40,000 (well over the UK average of £28,677 for full-time employees) would pay just £550 tax a year.
Meanwhile, Singapore regularly ranks as one of Asia’s worst countries for work-life balance, with workers entitled to only seven days off a year. There is no minimum wage, except for cleaners and security guards; and there are no laws on equal pay or non-discrimination for women. Foreign domestic workers (almost exclusively women) are excluded from the employment act (including minimum wages for cleaners) and flexible work is rarely available.
This all adds up to a hostile working environment for women. Women are responsible for 75 per cent of the world’s unpaid care work, and so a low tax economy where public services are pared to the bone, and where paid work is structured with little regard for the demands of unpaid work, simply does not work for them. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Singapore was ranked 149 out of 157 by Oxfam in its Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index 2018, and, in contrast to most countries around the world, the gender pay gap is actually growing.
This is not the future we voted for in 2016. We voted for extra money for the NHS. We voted for better public services. We voted for better lives. We didn’t vote for the richest to get richer while the rest of us have to work harder for less.
The reality is that, rather like the fantasy Brexit we were promised where we would both have access to the single market while cutting our own trade deals, Hunt’s promises are simply not compatible. We can protect our public services and working rights – or we can lower taxes and deregulate. We have to choose. Do we really trust this government to choose for us?
I know I don’t. For two years, this government has done nothing but obfuscate, fudge and delay. Now, in order to try to push through a deal that no one wants, May is holding the country to ransom in a dangerous game of chicken. This is not a government that holds either the will, nor the good of the people in high regard.
All this government cares about is clinging on to power – only to do nothing with it. They’ve shown that they cannot be trusted – neither morally, nor practically. And so the time has come to admit they have run out of road and run out of options. It’s time to hand this decision back to the people. It’s time for a People’s Vote.