10 September 2023

Weekly briefing: Britain on her arse


‘Everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing’. With her candid remarks about unsafe concrete in schools, Gillian Keegan summed up how many of us feel about 13 years of Tory government.

This week has seen a confluence of crises caused by long-term neglect. Warnings about RAAC were first raised in the 90s, suggesting the sudden closure of school buildings could have been avoided. A terror suspect escaped from Wandsworth after what former Head of Security at the prison Ian Acheson described as a ‘catastrophic system failure’. Again, the dire state of prisons is hardly a surprise – as Acheson has said on these pages, if an institution can’t even manage to empty the bins how can you expect it to manage national security risks? And last Saturday 872 migrants crossed the Channel in small boats, the highest number in a single day so far this year.

The structural failures are different –  for schools there are Treasury rules that disfavour capital spending, prisons are an unsightly canker that voters prefer not to think about and illegal migration, well, where do you start? But whatever the underlying factors, the end result is that politicians defer decisions until it’s too late.

Keegan’s palpable frustration is likely shared by comms SpAds trying to publicise news of the relaxation of rules around nutrient neutrality and onshore wind, improvements to work capability assessments, or the UK’s reaccession to the EU’s Horizon programme. These are the kinds of unflashy but significant achievements that a technocrat like Rishi Sunak is good at. But his government will struggle to get credit because the lethargy of his predecessors keeps coming back to bite him in the area of anatomy the Education Secretary so colourfully described.

But if there’s little ministers can do about inertia in the past, they can avoid making the same mistakes again. And nothing is more in need of ‘action this day’ than the public finances. At an event hosted by our parent organisation, the Centre for Policy Studies, this week, the Chair of the OBR Richard Hughes warned that debt will rise to 267% of GDP in 50 years if spending on health, pensions and social care continues at its current trajectory. We are on a completely unsustainable path and perhaps worse, we have hamstrung our own ability to diverge. As our Deputy Editor Joseph Dinnage explains, Britain’s high tax, high spending and high inflation economy is utterly inimical to growth. 

Radical reform couldn’t be more urgent. A great place to start would be the pensions triple lock, which the IFS revealed on Friday has increased pensions by 60% – 20 percentage points more than if they had risen by average earnings. The triple lock bakes uncertainty about levels of public spending into the system, making it harder for people to prepare for retirement and harder for the government to plan for the long-term. This is exactly the kind of short-term thinking – appeasing the voters of today at the expense of future generations – that has caused so many of the problems our leaders are now grappling with.

Of course, taking on pensioners tends not to be an election-winning strategy, but looking at the polls, the Conservatives have very little left to lose. The best service they could do with whatever time they have left is to put their own immediate interests aside and make bold, unpopular but necessary changes.

Politicians may have sat on their arses, Britain can’t afford to fall on hers.

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Alys Denby is Editor of CapX