Sorry, but it's a bad time for new ideas

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The Independent Online
LET US praise men bearing unseasonal gifts. Over the past few days a series of public figures has urged policies on the Government that are related to the real world and the future of the country. There has been Howard Davies of the CBI on the attractions of a single currency for business; Sir Claus Moser on nursery education and A-levels; David Faulkner, formerly of the Home Office, on criminal justice; and Ian Hargreaves of the Financial Times, formerly of the BBC, on putting the Corporation into the private sector.

Each of these men is, or has been, at the heart of the Establishment, with in-depth knowledge of their subject. All of them are the kind of people a reformist Tory administration would hope to count upon as supporters, at least in a general way. They are people who would have an engaged and informative conversation with John Major and feel quite at home with him. They are all dealing with some of the biggest questions confronting government: the currency, education, crime, the BBC. Yet their ideas have not the faintest chance of being taken seriously by ministers. They have been, or will be, brushed aside without a second thought. They may feel they might as well not have bothered.

We all understand why. We know that this is a government which feels itself too weak to grapple with issues that may be awkward in the short term but which are important in the longer term. A slow recovery and dicey parliamentary arithmetic make this a bad time for new ideas.

So British industrialists are getting nervous about life outside a European single currency? Mr Davies knows full well that to even raise this issue threatens the thin and delicate ice-frosting of unity under which Tory ministers cower. He provided an excuse for pro-European ministers to punch back at the Europhobes a bit (and yesterday Michael Heseltine took it). But for Downing Street, this subject is now off-limits.

Similarly, it may be essential for our longer-term competitiveness to spend more on nursery education. But the money ain't there, so forget it for now. It may be that locking up naughty boys merely criminalises them further; but, like A-levels, it chimes with the current 'back-to-basics' rhetoric from Number 10 - and these subjects are therefore closed. And it may be that the BBC will be steadily defeated by American-backed cable and satellite giants unless it is freed to compete more aggressively. But can you see this government taking such a controversial idea seriously?

All democratic politics is a balancing act between populist short-termism and longer-term stuff intended to reform the country. But it is often hard and sometimes impossible to disentangle the two.

What does seem to be true is that too much political thinking focuses on the short-term panics and too little on the longer term, and that this is truer of weak governments than strong ones. But where the longer-term policies are addressed, it is often in a blithe, rhetorical spirit: much easier to be declamatory about something whose results will not be known for 20 years than about a short-term political row. The future of nursery education may matter far more than the short-term prospect for interest rates.

But which do you think is causing more mental activity among the best minds in the government?

Yes, I'm afraid so. An immediate panic about dangerous dogs gets headlines and the full attention of the Home Secretary: the future of the BBC or pensions policy excites MPs less. By the time ragged pensioners are marching down Whitehall to protest about the soaring cost of satellite subscriptions in the early 2010s, it will be too late.

It was ever thus. Much of the history of British politics is about one administration wrestling with the pernicious influence of some long-forgotten bout of populism by its predecessors. At one end of the scale is the Plantation of Ulster (with presbyterians, not conifers, of course), which seemed a populist wheeze to the Parliament of 1613-15 but which has taken until now to bear its bitterest fruit. Rather more recently, the Rent Acts, a popular post-war wheeze when they were enacted in 1919, helped cut the proportion of private homes for rent in Britain from 90 per cent of the housing stock to just 7 per cent. The time-lag before repentance was about 70 years.

Nemesis arrived more quickly for tower blocks. The craze started in the early Sixties. By 1969 a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report attacking them had been written, followed by a headlong retreat a few years later. This gave politicians responsible for the original craze, such as Lord Joseph, time to repent while still in public life.

And now? What ghastly problems are we about to enact for the political leaders still in university clubs or primary schools? An unbalanced energy policy? A vastly expensive and ineffective prisons system? All that is clear is that inconvenient ideas from impertinent people outside government will help diminish the damage, as they have done increasingly in recent years. Ideas germinate, even in the wrong season. The case against mortgage interest tax relief was widely regarded as nutty when the Duke of Edinburgh raised it in 1985: now it's as near to common wisdom as you get.

The intelligentsia, or the chattering classes, or however one labels them, have an essential role to play in continually trying to divert debate away from the immediate parliamentary reality and on to the longer-term dilemmas. In doing so, the CBI, the policy units, the outspoken public officials, the freelance thinkers, have become one of the unacknowledged pillars of our political system. They may seem to be outside proper politics, peculiarly vulnerable to ministerial rebuffs. But the truth is that without them 'proper politics' would be more degraded, more pernicious.