Emily Fielder is the Head of Communications for the Adam Smith Institute.
The most easily frustrating thing about working in wonk world is the short-termism which permeates British politics. You spend weeks, perhaps even months, drafting and re-drafting a paper which lays out the evidence for the benefits of a tinkering with a certain government regulation, only for it to be met with “well that may be so, but it’s just not politically possible.” Is it any wonder that many of us will have watched the video that recently did the rounds on Twitter of Nick Clegg declaring that building more nuclear energy plants is not ‘the answer’ because they won’t be ready until 2022 with a grim sense of irony?
The problem is that Clegg, like many of our politicians, was looking for the wrong kind of answer. The answer wanted is, at best, a popular soundbite that elicits a quick sugar-fix. At worst the policy preferred is the one of least resistance – no matter its efficacy. What they are failing to look for are the right answers to Britain’s myriad crises.
Why is this the case? Eamonn Butler effectively summarises the problem in An Introduction to Democracy: “bad decision-making is encouraged by the fact that elected leaders’ careers are short.” Politicians simply don’t stick around for long enough to reap the consequences of their decisions. If they make a difficult decision that is unpopular in the short-term but boosts prosperity over 10 years, they’ll likely be out of government before their wisdom can be extolled. On the other hand, if their policies turn out to not have had any of their promised benefits, they’ll already have found freedom from scrutiny in their new money-making schemes, making speeches at port-stained literary salons, writing books about how it wasn’t really their fault or – ahem- running global affairs at a big tech firm.
Every new government has sought to distance itself from the previous one, decrying the failure of ‘successive governments’ to fix Britain’s economic and social woes. This is perhaps why Conservative leadership hopeful Rishi Sunak responded to Nick Robinson’s recent brutal attack line- “when you discover who’s been running the country for the past twelve years, you’re going to be really cross aren’t you” – with a look of slight surprise.
British politics is simply littered with examples of bad decision-making due to the desire to win over the public. On the local level, this presents itself through politicians pandering to NIMBYs in their constituencies almost in the same breath as complaining that no infrastructure is being built in Britain. The accountability of MPs to their local constituents, at least around election time, is something that we often celebrate.
But this set-up is responsible for the unfortunate situation in which the residents of the Oxfordshire village Northend find themselves now having to rely on bottled and tanker water. Look behind any infrastructure problem, and you’ll inevitably find an MP or the local council spearheading the resistance to any solution. In this case, you’ll find Layla Moran, who only a few months ago continued her long-standing fight against the proposed Abingdon reservoir by arguing that, actually, the water companies had overestimated the future need for water supply.
At the national level, politicians’ refusal to look past the next election, whether it be a local, general or the leadership campaign, is behind a whole host of long-term policy failures; the failure to build enough energy infrastructure; the failure to meaningfully improve Britain’s transport links; the failure to press ahead with the Oxford-Cambridge arc. We’ve gotten to the point where candidates for the Conservative leadership are more interested in restricting any and all development on Britain’s precious car parks- sorry- Green Belt than the broken housing market which is punishing young people – some of whom are reportedly being asked to pay a £600 deposit for the mere privilege of viewing a house to rent – for the crime of not having been born in the right decade.
If anything, as many an abler commentator has pointed out before me, all of this short-term thinking has only been exacerbated by our news cycle which feeds on quick-hit announcements. We’re now governed by press release and snappy Canva graphics which announce popular, yet ineffective like capping energy prices. Yet then smaller firms to go bust, thereby raising energy prices even further when the cap is inevitably increased.
On the subject of housing, a classic example is Johnson’s announcement that people on Universal Credit could use housing benefits toward mortgage repayments, claiming it would boost home ownership. He announced this before even fully agreeing the move with housing associations, in another attempt to placate dispirited young people. All this while still refusing to enact any meaningful supply-side reform. On more occasions than should be palatable, policies are announced simply to fill the papers on a slow news day; as someone recently put it to me, policy-making is now subject to the “tyranny of the grid.”
Winston Churchill once famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried”. He is, of course, quite right. We should be proud to live in a democratic society- but that shouldn’t blind us to the faults of the system that has in some way contributed to leaving us with the lowest growth rate in the G7. I can’t pretend to know the immediate solution to our problem with short-term politics, but I suspect if our elected officials did, they would deem it ‘politically inexpedient.’