It was good to see City A.M. taking aim last month at the absence of long-term planning over energy policy. It is – and has been – an unholy mess for a long time with serious consequences for the economy and country.
Only the most wild-eyed optimist would be reassured by EDF’s claim that construction of the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point “is on the horizon for 2019”. After all, less than a decade ago the company assured us that the same plant would be generating electricity by next year. Now we learn finance is still not in place to begin building work in three years’ time.
But as City A.M. recognised, the real culprit of this sorry story of wishful thinking and delay is not so much the companies involved as successive governments who have failed to take the decisions needed for the country’s long-term future. And it is not just over nuclear energy that politicians have ignored the national interest.
We see it in airport capacity, where the decision to expand Heathrow – essential if the UK is to have the modern transport links it needs to drive future prosperity – continues to be delayed. Ministers have failed to act not so much because of honourable local campaigners but the more questionable antics of politicians with their own agendas. Our European competitors can hardly believe their luck as they give the go-ahead to new routes to growth markets which the UK can’t meet.
It is all too clear as well in the failure to reform the health system, including the ending of the two-tier system of care for the elderly. The continuing split between local authorities and the NHS leads to huge inefficiencies and poorer provision for the most vulnerable people in the country.
We see it – again in the energy field – in the way onshore wind development has been stopped dead in its tracks. The cheapest form of renewable energy has lost out to the complaints of a vocal, small minority and the fear of losing a few Tory rural seats. It is a decision which has sabotaged a successful industry, and is another damaging blow to energy security and to hopes of meeting carbon reduction commitments.
Before, however, we lambast today’s generation of politicians, we have to recognise that one of the major reasons for these failures is the changed relationship between the elected and electorate. It is a new environment which has made their job harder than ever.
It is not that long ago that leaders were elected and largely left to take the decisions they felt were in the best interests of the country. They did not always get it right but they were given the time and space to look to the future.
That’s not the case anymore. We have seen instead a loss of confidence in the judgement and even motivation of the political classes, fuelled in part, of course, by the hardship caused by the same politicians’ past mistakes.
It will surprise no one who knows me to hear that I am strongly against any return to an age of deference – even if it were possible. But we also need to accept there is a downside to a far more sceptical, impatient and unforgiving public and media.
We have seen the emergence of a “like button” culture in which the public gives an instant opinion on what’s happening. The result is that governments now follow rather than lead, with decisions put off until consensus is somehow built or by doomed efforts to remove “politics” from decision-making.
In the case of both long-term care and airport expansion, for example, successive governments tried to pave the way for a decision by setting up independent commissions. In both cases, the conclusions could hardly have been clearer yet the politicians failed to act on their findings for fear of a negative reaction.
The lesson for politicians is that such delays don’t make these problems go away. They worsen rather than lessen the difficulties, with protestors emboldened and confidence in politicians and politics further undermined, which only reduces their room for manoeuvre.
The truth is that it is often not less politics but more politics – or at least bolder, braver decision-making – that is required when faced with major long-term challenges. It is the political will and courage to act in the long-term national interest which has too often been missing. Provide it and politicians may be pleasantly surprised by the public response.