Can’t-be-bothered Britain will turn on the do-nothing Tories

We’re entering an acute economic and energy crisis; but where is the sense of urgency? One of the pandemic’s after-effects has been a universal shrug of the shoulders, a retrenchment into union militancy, HR wellbeing culture and flexible working. Many public bodies still cling to the Covid wreckage, using it to excuse an increasingly bad case of disinclination. While record backlogs in driving licence applications and renewals were bankrupting businesses and causing drivers to lose their independence, a newspaper investigation revealed that thousands of DVLA staff were sitting at home doing no work, on full pay, for long periods of the pandemic.

In the NHS, face-to-face GP appointments are still hard to come by, despite rallying cries to restore normal service, while under the “because of Covid” banner, expectant mothers are still being directed to ante-natal videos instead of health visits and birthing classes. The moment a shred of normality returned to university campuses after two years of the dispiriting Zoom experience, lecturers resumed their campaign for better pensions than their students are ever likely to receive, and went on strike. There are nationwide rumblings of a “can’t do” attitude: “computer says no” – to virtually everything.

Attempting to break this paralysis would be difficult for any government, but to our current masters, with their passion for short-termism and taking the path of least resistance, it seems impossible. In many ways, the fracking saga is a parable for how things work (or rather, don’t) in Britain today. Over 10 years, through a mixture of well-drilled Nimby and environmental lobbying, misplaced hyper-caution and Russian propaganda, “can’t do Britain” squandered an extraordinary opportunity. We somehow consulted and complained away our best chance of cheaper, relatively green fuel, thousands of new jobs, and a measure of energy security in a volatile world.

Even though Cuadrilla – the only firm to frack for gas in the UK – says it could supply the domestic market within months were the moratorium lifted, some politicians still oppose fracking on the basis that it would take too long for the potential benefits to emerge. With the current energy crisis itself a result of previous inaction, this logic seems doubly absurd – a Homer Simpson-like circular justification for not doing anything now. (“What’s the point of going out? We’re just gonna wind up back here anyway” says slacker Homer to his long-suffering wife Marge when she suggests a “date night”).

War in Ukraine has slightly tempered the rhetoric – producing warmer noises about reviewing the moratorium. But business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng insists the plans cannot proceed without “community consent”. So how to achieve this? Aligning the incentives of nearby residents with the national interest, for a start. Locals’ objections to living near a fracking site might well vanish if they, for example, received a share of the proceeds. But given its tendency to capitulate, is this Government even capable of such creativity? It is worryingly easy to imagine the kryptonite, trademark British combo of Nimbyism and political reluctance frustrating future efforts in the nuclear sector as well.

The same is true of housing – where the Tories’ short-termism threatens to destroy their long-term electoral prospects. New developments – however un-picturesque the proposed site – are often howled down by local opposition or even squashed by ministerial diktat. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps recently deployed hitherto unused powers to block a 351-home development in the verdant surroundings of … a carpark in Enfield.

Like fracking, solving the house-building conundrum demands more than mere coercion. It involves beefing up incentives to bring the grumblers on-side, whether by focusing on building beautifully or providing new services. Many locals have valid objections to new-builds in their area – though others will veto everything, no matter what it is. 

Instead of tagging a few (often hideous) buildings onto existing settlements, thus spreading the annoyance evenly, a more astute government might consider building entire new towns, limiting the potential disenchantment to a handful of MPs and seats. Sadly this Government lacks the nerve to attempt anything so radical as that. Having toyed with reform, the Tories retreated like a spooked horse at the water-jump after a few of their core voters got upset in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

Most dangerous of all is the way young people, paying a particularly heavy price for our broken housing system, incorrectly attribute their problems to capitalism when what we have barely approaches a free market. In fact, two of the biggest problems facing Britain hail from an explicitly socialist legacy, bequeathed by the Attlee administration. (Between a nationalised, unreformable healthcare system, destined to absorb an ever-larger share of public spending, and the Town and Country Planning Act’s land-use restraints, there is a strong argument that the compound harm of these two things alone makes the Attlee government the most damaging in British history, but I digress.)

Watching Charles Moore’s BBC documentary about the Thatcher-Reagan relationship over the weekend, I was struck by the pair’s shared sense of mission. Whatever your opinion of them, this level of resolve has largely disappeared from our politics. It can be hard to discern what, precisely, animates and motivates many lawmakers. Ministers rarely speak in plain English, favouring Civil Service jargon, and arguably the woolly language is reflected in policy terms as well. Theirs seems a hand-to-mouth political existence; attempting to survive the next month, or the next six, without any obvious foresight or ideological coherence. But at some point that catches up with you.

Labour, naturally, has little to offer the debate beyond its usual “quick-fixes”. Its proposed windfall tax on gas and oil companies is rapidly becoming a catch-all solution to everything, just as a decade ago Ed Miliband was promising to balance the books with that fabled tax on bankers’ bonuses. But when economic growth remains stubbornly low, and markets are prevented from fixing major problems, Labour’s sticking-plaster remedies will have voter appeal. A bad solution may be preferable to no solution at all.

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