Steve Richards: The lesson of the Olympics: public spending is a winner

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:41

Each day we awake to news of more sporting triumphs. We are not used to this. As they report the latest British victory, even BBC presenters convey a sense of delighted bewilderment rather than jingoistic pride. They are not used to this either. Perversely, commentators are more gung ho when there is nothing to get excited about. The hype before the England team begins its doomed quest to win a football tournament or when a Henman or a Murray prepares to fail at Wimbledon is much greater than the modest build-up that preceded this success.

I am excited too about another dimension to the Olympic triumph, as rare and unexpected as the growing tally of medals. For the first time I can recall in my adult lifetime, there is a consensus that public investment has made a pivotal difference. From Sky News to the BBC's Sports Editor Mihir Bose, the connection is being openly made between the lottery funding and the successes in Beijing. There is now so little contention in the link between investment and its glorious consequences that the excellent Bose could speculate hopefully on the Today programme yesterday that the Government would increase the amount it was planning to spend on preparing athletes for the London Olympics.

This type of talk is as revolutionary as the sporting successes. The debate in Britain about public spending is nearly always conducted in terms of its wastefulness. There is an assumption that cuts in public spending are sensible and increases are profligate. I have noted before that the argument only works when placed in the abstract rather than the specific, but nonetheless it is always a way to score political points.

Look at the potency of the Conservatives' clever sound bite accusing the Government of failing to save for a rainy day when the sun was shining. Like Margaret Thatcher's populist homilies on the need for a country to spend no more than it earned, the metaphor about sun and rain has an immediate accessibility and seems to make sense, until there is space for a moment's reflection. In 1997 the quality of public services would have shamed some Third World countries. Investment was urgently needed. Should the Government have starved them further when the sun was shining?

By implication, the current Conservative leadership does not believe so, as it has pledged to retain current levels of spending on schools and the NHS and aspires to spend more on several other areas. Those levels of spending were not reached by magic. They got there when the sun was out.

There was an interesting discussion yesterday on the Today programme about whether the various British sporting triumphs in China would lead to a feel-good factor that could make the Government more popular. I doubt if there will be any direct political consequence of this sort. Harold Wilson had a characteristically mischievous line on a similar theme, pointing out that England only won World Cups under a Labour government. I heard him make this observation once in the mid-1970s, an era when England failed to qualify for two World Cups and long after the glories of 1966. He made it as a joke rather than in hope of actual political gain. Electoral success might be based on some pretty superficial judgements. Sporting glory is not one of them.

Instead, the British successes at the Olympics might have a different, more precise political impact. If politicians had some nerve, they could use the events in Beijing to encourage a more mature debate about public spending. If voters can see a connection between investment and its consequences, they are enthused. They become excited to the point where they are willing to contemplate higher levels of spending. In the coming months, if the Government announced more cash to train athletes for the 2012 Olympics, there would be cheers all round. I doubt if there would be a single earnest editorial questioning whether, in these straitened times, the money can be afforded now that the investment has been seen to have made a difference.

It has taken many years for the cash to make such an impact, another important lesson from the Olympics. There is a need for patience in relation to spending and its long-term benefits. The National Lottery started in the mid 1990s. Only now is the investment paying off. The current Government made a terrible mistaking in pretending it could transform public services quickly. Equivalent countries in Europe had been investing at higher levels for decades. Britain's nervous, defensive, media-obsessed ministers wanted to reassure voters that any higher spending would benefit them immediately. They should have pleaded for patience.

But the most significant lesson from the lottery is that the cash is targeted mainly on culture and sport. Currently the arts are losing out, an imbalance that should be redressed. Yet the noisy debates about where the cash is spent are in themselves a form of vindication. People are making connections. The arts have done well in the past but are doing less well now. In the current climate, our athletes will get all the money they need. At least there is a tangible link between cash raised and outcomes.

This is not the case with the rest of public spending. On the whole, there is a prevailing sense that we pay into a great big hole marked "tax". The cash is lost, never to be seen again. A Government supposedly obsessed with public relations has displayed a strange complacency in its failure to show the connections with that big hole and the benefits. It has failed to come up with anything as neat as the link between increased investment in sport and the athletes winning gold medals a few years later.

There will have to be an equivalent neatness in the future or else the myth will persist that public spending is always a "waste". There must be more earmarked taxation in which the Government makes clear that a set amount of cash will be spent on specific projects. I have never understood why this Government has been so laid back about transport, a public service where differences can be measured easily. If it had committed itself to modernising the railways in 1997, the improvements would be much talked about now, connections made between investment and outcomes.

Perhaps the Olympic metaphor should be applied more widely too. There should be European and world tournaments in public services with schools, hospitals and railways competing for awards. As matters stand, Britain would not win many golds in a public services Olympics. But it would want to do so soon and before long commentators would be demanding more investment rather than less.

British athletes have won some medals. They could also revolutionise the paralysing debate about public spending that has not moved on much beyond the 1980s, a decade when, apart from a few glowing anomalous exceptions, Britain won virtually nothing on any sporting front.

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