14 August 2022

Weekly Briefing: Boiling Frog Britain


report this week that hot weather may pose an increased risk to people on antidepressants was interesting enough in its own right. But what really grabbed my attention was that some 8.3 million people over 18 are now taking some kind of antidepressant medication – almost one in five of the adult population in England.

Whatever your view on the merits of the drugs themselves (and it is very much a live debate) the fact so many of us are relying on them is not a sign of a particularly happy or healthy society. It is also a fine example of a ‘boiling frog’ phenomenon – a problem that builds and builds without a lot of us noticing until it reaches a catastrophic or endemic level.

And when you start to really look closely, there are boiling frogs all over the place. To take a very different policy area, look at this summer’s droughts. It’s only now dawning on many of us that there hasn’t been a new reservoir built in the UK since the early 1990s, and that our creaking Victorian infrastructure is beset by leaks – these were issues that bubbled along under the surface until they met the kind of weather that exposed our lack of preparedness.

As hot weather causes drought, so the war in Ukraine and sanctions have caused energy supply to dry up and bills to soar. And, as with the drought, those circumstances have crashed into systems with deep pre-existing structural problems. As Damien Phillips noted on CapX this week, we have reduced our gas storage to such a degree that the UK now only has enough to meet 2% of our annual consumption, whereas the likes of France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have between 25% and 37%. The homes that gas heats are also woefully under-insulated, which again contributes to higher bills.

The uber-frog of the British economy is our dysfunctional planning system. Not only does it choke supply and worsen the cost of housing, it is the hob underneath the boiling frogs of high energy costs, inadequate water storage and expensive, slowly built transport infrastructure – all of which contributes to the fact the UK is a much poorer, less productive country than it could be.

Some of these challenges are more insidious than a failure to plan for long-term infrastructure needs. In his book Sludge, Cass Sunstein documents the steady rise of pointless, soul-destroying bureaucracy. Sunstein was reflecting on the American experience, but anyone who has tried to deal with the Home Office, HMRC or their broadband provider will have experienced a similar level of frustration with ‘Computer Says No’ officialdom. Nor do the boiling frogs sit neatly in their own jars. As Sunstein notes, burdensome red tape exacerbates the boiling frogs of poor mental health and low productivity.

Faced with deeply embedded, long-term problems it’s always easy to reach for a bogeyman and a quick fix: rent controls to hobble greedy landlords, a windfall tax or a price freeze to curb the rapacious energy giants, or the leftwinger’s go-to panacea for all of our policy woes – nationalisation. These might offer a crowd-pleasing sugar rush or scratch an itch, but even at their very best all they amount to is putting the boiling frogs in a shiny new pot.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.