In recent months, this blog has grown increasingly exasperated with the lack of anything resembling a coherent, overarching vision for Britain’s future offered by any of the main political parties, with the possible exception of UKIP (whose vision is very specific but not always appealing).
As Britain stumbled out of the financial crisis and Great Recession, we seem to have gone back to the days of fumbling along as a country, lurching from crisis to crisis, permeated throughout with a sense of “managed decline” rather than the positivity and optimism of more crusading governments – Margaret Thatcher’s first two administrations, or even New Labour under Tony Blair.
Yesterday, this sense that our national ambition appears to have evaporated, and that the people vying for the office of Prime Minister are little more than dull technocrats who want to minimise risk and wield power just for the sake of it, led me to ask:
What would it take for a British politician to tear up the current playbook (written by risk-averse party strategists so deeply buried in polling data that they have lost all sight of the bigger picture) and actually speak honestly and from the heart about the challenges facing Britain, and how we will overcome and surpass those challenges together?
What would it take for a British politician to take the moral high road and not seek to play one group of us off against another, instead reminding us that we are all united through our British citizenship, and that our fates – from the richest homeowner in Knightsbridge to the poorest council house tenant in Wolverhampton – are inextricably bound together, for better or worse?
What would it take for a British politician to suggest that as a country we might actually consider setting our national ambitions slightly higher than just having decent public services, that the country of Britten and Shakespeare and Berners-Lee and Hawking is still able to forge and reshape the world in a way that no other nation can?
Today, in the course of being heckled by a forum of elderly voters, David Cameron made unfortunate reference to his potential legacy. The Telegraph’s Matthew Holehouse reports in today’s election live blog:
Ill-advisedly, Cameron referred to his “political epitaph” in his speech.
“I don’t just want my political epitaph to read that I balanced the books, and cleared up the mess I inherited.
I am here today because I want a different kind of Britain,” he said.
Okay, so David Cameron wants to do more than balance the budget – probably just as well, considering the fact that even this basic accomplishment seems to be beyond the reach of either Labour or the Conservatives at present. But what is it that Cameron wants to achieve? What is this “different kind of Britain” that he wants to bring about?
Unfortunately, it is not laid out in the speech. Much like the vapid utterances of Ed Miliband, Cameron’s remarks are heavy on passion, but very light indeed on tangible goals and targets. And where specific targets do exist, they tend to be very pedestrian, the type of thing that a sitting Prime Minister should not be concerned about on a day to day basis. For example, GP appointment waiting times are a very important metric, but should and can not be the overriding preoccupation of a serious world leader, who must focus much of their time on strategic and geopolitical issues.
Of course politicians should take their share of the blame for this lack of grand vision – they have grown accustomed to offering very specific bribes to voters at election time – the tax free allowance raised by this much, so many pence off the price of petrol, five hundred more doctors for “our NHS”, et cetera. But in turn, the British public has grown accustomed to demanding these perks and bribes on a regular basis, forcing our leaders to continually focus on the small print rather than looking at the big picture.
Take David Cameron’s gentle mauling at the hands of British pensioners today:
The sceptical and mildly hostile room of voters are not peppering David Cameron with questions about foreign policy, broader economic policy or Britain’s place in the world. They are asking quite fastidious (and frankly selfish) questions about their benefits and entitlements as senior citizens. Why is my GP employed by an agency now rather than the NHS? Will my prescriptions still be free? How long will I have to wait for an appointment?
In a well-functioning democracy these matters would be the purview of busy city mayors and ambitious local government officials, who would be held democratically accountable for delivering good public services in their local area. But in centralised Britain, the buck doesn’t stop with the GP surgery or even the local NHS board or Police and Crime Commissioner – the slightest thing that goes wrong with public services anywhere in Britain instantly becomes the Prime Minister’s overriding personal concern.
This is a ridiculous state of affairs. The Prime Minister of our country, whoever he or she happens to be, should have better things to do than worry about who signs the pay cheque of some rural GP in Somerset. It is impossible to provide good, strategic leadership for the country when you are continually bogged down micromanaging every aspect of public service delivery for a coddled, government-dependent population. But that is the situation we are in, with our over-centralised government and lack of a proper constitutional settlement.
We British love to pout and sulk about our public services, and angrily heckle our politicians for failing to deliver Waitrose-style public services on a pound shop budget, and then we wonder why serious issues such as the defence of our country and our place in the world are either ignored and put on the back burner, or treated as cash cows to be raided to fund more vote-buying gimmicks.
What’s worse is the fact that the people who heckled David Cameron today are old enough to remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the eradication of smallpox from the world and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. They have seen nations set themselves great challenges and rise to meet them, and know (at least in theory) what it takes to dare and accomplish mighty things.
But rather than set an example to the younger generations by insisting that our politicians keep their eye on the big picture, the older generation prefer to gripe about what their country “should” be doing for them, rather than what we could all be doing together for our country.
There are various factors that have led us to this political malaise – the overcentralisation of power, a short-termist results oriented culture, an increasing dependence on government services and benefits, and the various global forces which are eroding the basis of the sovereign nation state – and there is more than enough blame to go around. This blog has certainly been quick to blame the politicians for their part.
But having witnessed a room full of elderly voters waste a golden opportunity to ask David Cameron what he would do to preserve and improve this country for the next generation, choosing instead to ask about their jealously guarded public services and entitlements, one cannot help but think that the problem lies first and foremost with us.
We are incredibly fortunate to be British, and to belong to a country with such a long and proud history, a nation with an enormous cultural and economic clout that has always belied the size of our small island off the coast of Europe. But if we treat our country like nothing more than a soulless amalgamation of public services to be used, exploited and complained about, we will inevitably end up with politicians who view it the same way.
We should want more from our country than simply to live in a land where the buses run on time and you can see a GP quickly. And we should demand politicians who know that Britain is more than the sum of our public services, that we can achieve great things and change the world when our talents and energies and ambitions are properly harnessed.
Ed Miliband, David Cameron: set us a challenge.