01 February 2018
The Conservatives’ Choice
By John Watson
Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North
not only gives a horrifying picture of the Burma railway, but also takes a very humane look at why those involved on all sides did what they did. In one particularly affecting scene, his hero (a surgeon and an Australian officer) has to select men to go on a march which will almost certainly result in their deaths. He is reluctant to do so. Why should he help the Japanese commit a war crime? In the end he complies, however, because if he does not make the selection the Japanese will do it, and they are likely to do so with far less compassion for the sick. “Do it, or we will do it for you” has been the cry of those with power down the centuries.
Mrs May needs to think about that in the context of those key areas where reform is needed and which are the subject of public concern. The first of them is the health service, where Boris Johnson has called publicly for more cash to be invested and Jeremy Hunt is thought to be doing the same behind-the-scenes. No matter that there are further savings to be made. No matter that putting money into health will disrupt economic targets. The service clearly needs more money before it can function satisfactorily: £5 billion a year, according to some estimates.
Then we have housing. The young need more homes and the issue here is not just money but local democracy and planning constraints. Ruthless pursuit of a high housing target is going to upset many Conservative voters.
The third is education, both at schools level and also in relation to university fees. The high level of interest on student debt means that successful students are subsidising those who are less successful, rather than that subsidy coming from the taxpayer. Again we come back to money. This issue is of huge importance to the younger generation.
Last week, in Lens on the Week,
we mentioned a survey which concluded that Marxism is resurgent in our universities. Whether that is right or not, the recent election result shows that the young are moving to the left, and it seems likely that this is because they do not feel that there is sufficient energy going into reform in the above key areas. At the moment, one can understand that view.
Let us assume, then, the nothing changes in this respect until the next election. Let us even suppose that Mrs May makes a success of Brexit and that the nation, grudgingly or otherwise, accepts that she has made a good job of it, and is, by and large, grateful. You only have to look at what happened to Churchill in 1945, to realise that they will not re-elect her or her party out of gratitude, so the next election is likely to turn on whether in the view of the public, and in particular in the view of the young, the government, whether still led by Mrs May or not, has produced the necessary reforms in the key areas. If it has, well and good. If it has not, it will be replaced by a government of the far left.
Labour will fight the election on the basis that it will spend more on health and education, and that it will build the houses, once it comes to office. It will have no choice but to fulfil its pledges and will play fast and loose with austerity, planning and local government to the extent necessary. It will also raise taxes and economise in other areas: perhaps a change in our defence role, a cutting of Trident or anti-aircraft carriers, and other things close to the heart of the Conservative party.
Faced with this, what reason is there for the government not be bold in relation to the politically pivotal areas? Is it to keep down taxes? If they do not bring in reforms and Labour win, tax will be increased anyway. Is it to prevent money being taken away from other projects? If Labour win, they will have to divert the money from other spending plans. Is it to keep down the level of government debt? If they do not carry out reforms in key areas and Labour win, government debt is likely to mushroom.
It is said that there is a split within the government, between those who want to go for a broad reform agenda and those who want to be more cautious and do less, the suggestion being that Mrs May is in the latter camp. Whether or not that is fair, all the logic points to taking a bold approach in the key areas and if that means that other project must suffer, so be it. Comparisons with the opportunities given to the Baby Boomers are souring the younger generation, and the message from them to the Conservative government has echoes of the message delivered by the Japanese to that surgeon on the Burma railway. “Do it or we will do it for you. Only it will be nastier.” Come, Mrs May, lift your eyes from the Brexit negotiations and embrace the real issue at the centre of British politics.
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