17 November 2022
By John Watson
“Everyone will have to pay more,” so said Jeremy Hunt as a spoiler for today’s autumn statement. Everyone, that is the point, albeit with those with broad financial shoulders paying more than others. It is important politically that we, the British tribe, should each look at our contribution to helping the nation through its tribulations and accept ruefully that we all have to share in the rescue rather than believing that others, and particularly rich others, are getting away. That is the measure of what Sunak and Hunt have to achieve with the statement. Succeed and the country will bind together to support them. Fail and the strikes will damage the economy still further. It is a pivotal moment.
Let’s look for a moment at the politicians who are leading the charge. Both are fairly well respected as men of decency and integrity. They may prove competent or they may not, but neither is a populist, neither is the sort who would sell out the national interest for an advantage in the polls. But honest though they may be, they are subject to pressures and their rejection of the Truss approach to growth building will make them enemies, particularly among the more vacuous element of their own party. Their ability to withstand those pressures will depend on the extent to which their package wins over the public – not just the Tory voters but the wider public, Labour voters, Lib Dem voters, Green voters.
However, the sharing of pain is only one aspect of the problems which Mr Sunak should tackle. It is the nature of government that measures or institutions are brought in to deal with particular issues or particular political pressures and that they then remain in place until long after they have ceased to serve their purpose, the political adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” being recast as “don’t fix it until it breaks.” At the moment many of the public services are in a state of disarray, reflecting a reluctance to take decisions which are unpopular or which could be deferred to save money in the short term. This is the case whether those services are privately or publicly provided. Take the NHS, perhaps the ultimate example of state ownership, where dedicated doctors and nurses have ended up ill paid and badly served by the administration, despite funding on a scale which is greater than that provided to more successful European systems. How has it got there? It was unusually progressive in its time, of course, but with an ageing population the requirements made of it have changed and yet obvious reforms, such as charging for missed appointments, are blocked by the shibboleth “no charge at the point of delivery”. Clearly we ought to be considering whether to adopt one of the models in use on the continent but for years fundamental reform has been politically unacceptable so we wait for the car crash to occur.
Then in the private corner are the water companies, falling down on their obligations to process waste which ends up on the beaches, their investment curtailed by the need to show profit. That doesn’t seem a particularly satisfactory model and, as global warning leads to less regularity of supply, the challenges they face are increasingly going to run into their financial concerns. Take too the railways, although they are much more efficient than they were as British Rail, the self-conscious introduction of competition has led to a disjointed structure with failing franchises.
That isn’t to say that the barriers between private and public provision are all in the wrong places. Sometimes they are and sometimes they are not. The point is though that balances need to be re-examined and that the hand to mouth realities of governing mean that this exercise has become overdue. If Mr Sunak wishes to create a vision, the ways in which the public and private sectors interrelate is an area on which he needs to focus.
If this wasn’t enough there is a third challenge which goes much deeper. People are living much longer than they used to and if the decay in their capacity parallels the level of their physical decay, just how many of us are kept up and going by some form of medical intervention, there is an increasing body of older people who do not have the energy, enthusiasm and effectiveness of their juniors. And yet they are the people in senior positions and controlling much of the country’s wealth. That is surely madness and, what is more, madness encouraged by statutes designed to prevent discrimination on grounds of age. Thought needs to be given to the removal of those statutes and to the division, at least in public service, between the roles where age is valuable and those where it is an impediment.
This is not the place to examine these issues seriatim but one cannot help feeling that in some respects the UK has slipped behind the times. That isn’t of course surprising. Many of our underground trains are too small because they were the first. The same can be said for our canals. And the same can be said for many of our administrative structures too.
Today’s autumn statement will go some way to reset the financial balances within the country and no doubt Mr Hunt and Mr Sunak will make every effort to do that fairly and constructively. It will only be a beginning, however, and behind it there lie much greater tasks which involve taking on vested interests and prejudices going back many years. If the Government tries to tackle these it will run into pressures on all sides. “It will lose us votes”, “it isn’t Conservative”, “you have no mandate”, “it is unfair on me”, and all the rest of it. Cautious leaders would fight shy of tackling the big issues only two years before an election. Heroic leaders would take the flak and let the election look after itself. Which are you, Mr Sunak? Try and fail and you go down gloriously. But then there is the possibility that if the public really believes that you are setting out a worthwhile vision for the future they will come riding in like the cavalry to your defence.