9 March 2022

Conservatives must reforge the contract between generations

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The unravelling of the social compact continues apace, with a Labour peer the latest figure to take an axe to the ties that bind the generations together.

The industry and regulators committee of the House of Lords recently published a report relating to net zero. Its main recommendation – that the upfront costs should be met through massive government borrowing – is deeply troubling. According to the committee’s chairman, Lord Hollick, the current approach is ‘unfair to the current generation as we are asking current billpayers to cover the huge costs of something that is designed to mainly benefit future generations’.

In other words, we should not use our resources to improve things for those who will come after us – not when it is they, rather than we, who will be the main beneficiaries.

This is a pretty appalling attitude – the devil take the hindmost, writ large. It is also deeply ironic in the context of climate policy. So much for the virtues of self-sacrifice, prudence and stewardship. And thank heavens our forebears – not least those who gave their lives in two world wars – didn’t think in this way.

But you don’t need to visit village war memorials to feel profound gratitude for the legacy left to us by our forward-thinking ancestors. The beauty of the English countryside is testament to centuries of conservation and improvement. The great civic architecture of our towns and cities reflects the Victorians’ philanthropic instincts and civilisational self-confidence (the bits that have survived the Luftwaffe and the town planners, anyway). And our inherited political system is one that safeguards, however imperfectly, freedom and prosperity.

Lord Hollick’s worldview – that it’s perfectly OK to burden our children and unborn descendants with trillions of pounds of debt for present convenience – reduces the relationship between the generations to something wholly transactional. Or as Edmund Burke might put it, ‘taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties’.

Fortunately, the Chancellor has ignored those who want the cost of net zero to be met through borrowing. If only the Government were so committed to preserving Burke’s social compact across other policy areas too.

Housing is the archetypal example. Home ownership among young adults has been declining for years and demand is increasingly outstripping supply (the average house price hit a record high of £260,000 in February). If people can’t get on the housing ladder, their opportunities to have children and reinforce the social compact themselves are curtailed. But Nimbyism, especially among older homeowners, has rendered the politics of planning reform intractable.

Ironically, Nimbyism is partly due to a rupture in the social compact among a subset of our more recent forebears – modernist architects. In turning against the stock of inherited architectural knowledge, they have littered the country with ugly and jarring buildings, and helped delegitimise housebuilding.

Given that young people and the yet-to-be-born will be paying for older generations’ social care and gold-plated pensions from their box-like, childless rental accommodation, it seems a bit much that they should have to pay for the bulk of net zero too. Indeed, against this backdrop, a lot of virtue-signalling green rhetoric about saving the planet for future generations starts to look like so much displacement activity.

Having said all this, it’s just as unwise to fall into the trap of exulting the present over the past. This tendency is especially pernicious when it involves denigrating older voters, as per a particularly spiteful strand of Remainer zealotry. Those who attack older voters too often disregard the wisdom that comes with age and accumulated life experienced (for, as Margaret Thatcher said, the facts of life are conservative).

The draining away of historical sensibility is also reflected in our political institutions, not least in reforms that saw most of the hereditary peers booted out of the Lords, leading to a chamber stuffed with empty placemen (although not John Bercow, thankfully). The composition of the old House of Lords – whose members had innate incentives to take a long-term, multi-generational view of things – meant stewardship of the nation was embedded within the political process.

Like so many of our present ills, this relates back to the constitutional, legal and cultural settlement established under New Labour. Indeed, Tory acceptance of that revolutionary order is the dishonourable and short-sighted regicide peace of our times.

Ultimately, respect for the past goes hand in hand with a proportionate regard for the future. But often it seems as though British politics has become trapped in a perpetual year zero, in which neither the past nor the future really count. Lord Hollick’s comments are just the latest manifestation of this tendency.

Restoring a historical sensibility to politics and patching up the broader social compact ought to be Conservative guiding principles, both morally and strategically. Formulating a more concrete energy policy, building more houses, fixing welfare, pushing back against woke dogma and recapturing the institutions – it’s all tied together.

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Karl Williams is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.