The drama of calling a general election, with the Prime Minister's drive to the Palace, the formal request for Parliament to be dissolved, and the announcement of the date itself, retains its force, even when 6 May has been marked on the calendar for months. And the election of 2010 was already shaping up to be the most open and the most keenly fought for almost a generation well before yesterday's declaration.
Gordon Brown leads Labour into the contest on its record of 13 years in power and his own three years as Prime Minister. David Cameron has spent four years renewing the Conservative Party and trying to excise its "nastiness". And Nick Clegg, the relative newcomer at the helm of the Liberal Democrats, has bright prospects, not only because of the blinder played by his Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, in recent months, but because the polls show the two major parties so close that the possibility of a hung Parliament cannot be excluded. The appeal of the Greens and the right-wing fringe parties, such as the BNP and Ukip, will be subject to the judgement of the voters – the only test that matters.
The campaign opens as the country has started to emerge from the most acute financial crisis in recent history, with the political atmosphere contaminated by the scandal of MPs' expenses. And it would be easy to consider the Government's record through this prism alone. Mr Brown was, after all, Chancellor for 10 years before he became Prime Minister. How far it is possible or reasonable to assign responsibility for the severity with which the recession engulfed Britain will be a significant strand in the arguments to come.
But it would be wrong not to appreciate also the very many positive changes that have taken place in Britain since 1997. We are a more tolerant and cosmopolitan country than we were 13 years ago. The hundreds of thousands of new European migrants were largely welcomed and took their place. Much happiness has been spread by the introduction of civil partnerships. A minimum wage protects the lowest paid. Hospital waiting lists are mostly a thing of the past; there are more doctors, more nurses, more police, and there is more subsidised childcare.
There are pluses and minuses in almost every area of life. For this newspaper, though, what follows are our priorities. We will listen closely to what the parties and their candidates say and weigh the arguments, before giving our verdict. A comprehensive national argument is what the next four weeks are for.
We reject the notion that Britain is "broken", but this does not mean that there are no debilitating defects that need to be addressed by the next government. While the country as a whole has prospered for much of the last 13 years, there are concentrations of acute deprivation that have been left behind. These exist, often literally, alongside areas of ostentatious consumption – living proof that, while the poor may not have become poorer in absolute terms, the rich have got richer, many of them much richer, and the gap between top and bottom of the income scale is too wide for the comfort of many.
New Labour – one of whose keynote phrases, coined by the pre-ennobled Peter Mandelson, was that they were "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" – bears some responsibility for this. But so, it could be argued, does their focus on taking children out of poverty, which created a new benefits trap. The disparity between families with two parents in work (and scant time) and families with no one in work, into the second and third generation, threatens the evolution of two distinct societies. How to foster social cohesion should be high on the next government's agenda.
The persistent inequality of opportunity in schooling is a bane of life in Britain, but especially in England. A good education is the key to social mobility which has, disgracefully, stalled in recent years. Although more school-leavers are seizing the opportunity to take a degree, the standard and usefulness of these qualifications is in question. More does not necessarily mean worse, but regrettably, it has not meant better either.
Promises of choice have been made that have not been, and could not be, honoured. By no means every child is guaranteed a place at a decent school. Whether rooted in social class, income, or other factors, poverty of ambition continues to prevent pupils realising their potential. Despite testing – which has a place in education – many children go on to secondary school without mastering the basics and remain handicapped for life. Our record in adult literacy is lamentable, compared with that of most of our neighbours. Opportunities for remedial work – providing literacy education in prisons, for instance – have been missed.
While NHS performance has improved, on paper, the amount of new investment has not been matched by a corresponding rise in patient satisfaction. Medical advances and higher public expectations compound the difficulties for any health service today. But some basics, such as the persistence of mixed wards, poor hygiene and a lack of basic humanity, along with the "postcode lottery" and labyrinthine bureaucracy, remain for the next government to tackle. There is an argument for trying to take politics out of the NHS, by establishing a national board, as the Conservatives have mooted. But a national health service needs to be nationally accountable.
The longer lives many now enjoy are, by any standards, a success. But no party seems to have drawn the necessary conclusions about catering for an ageing population, and one whose pension arrangements – in the private sector, at least – have been undermined by a mixture of government action and inaction. Reconciling the demands of young and old will be a theme of the coming years.
There is already a sharp dividing line between Labour, which speaks of the recovery as being still fragile and in need of continued nurturing, and the Conservatives, who have made cutting the budget deficit a priority. The role of the state is also in question: whether it should be slimmed down and augmented by public and charitable organisations, or maintained at roughly its present size. It's possible to argue that it should be smaller; it's necessary to argue that it should be smarter. And where, if anywhere, should Britain look for a new economic and social model?
That cuts in public spending will be needed is taken for granted by everyone, but only the Liberal Democrats have started to spell out what are bound to be unpopular measures. And while the composition of our economy is set to change in the wake of the recession and the inevitable shrinking of our financial services sector, key questions remain open: about state intervention, the future of manufacturing, the regulation of banks and the reliance of many Britons on property as their sole investment. The crisis may, in some ways, have exerted a salutary effect, not least in stemming the over-reliance on credit. But the new government will be launched into unfamiliar economic territory.
This newspaper has always argued for a change in the electoral system to make our democracy fairer and more representative. The last government enacted partial change in some areas. Devolution, for instance, has had mostly positive effects. The consequences of establishing a Supreme Court remain to be seen, and much-needed reform of the House of Lords has been left midstream. But the electoral system remains untouched. It is disappointing that one of the victims of the dissolution will be Gordon Brown's proposal for a referendum on an Alternative Voting system. This was not enough, but it was an advance. If this election is as close as many expect, the case for electoral reform could be made. The Liberal Democrats have nailed their reformist colours to the mast; we await what the other parties have to say.
Britain's place in the world
Thirteen years ago it would have been almost inconceivable that the UK would be fighting wars on two fronts east of Suez. The withdrawal from Iraq has taken that highly contentious issue off the electoral agenda. But our continued presence in Afghanistan and our capacity to play the lead supporting role to the United States in foreign wars remain at issue. So, because of the Conservatives' suspicion and Labour's timidity, do our relations with the European Union.
We have surely learnt that the UK will have to tailor its ambitions to its real wealth and status. As a former imperial power with a wider international outlook than many countries, we have not shrunk from maintaining a military capacity. But we are only starting to re-examine the bounds of what we can, or should, use it for. Economic constraints, a reorientation of US priorities and public misgivings at home are combining to force a necessary reassessment of our place in the world.
We will return to these, and other issues – such as the environment, transport and immigration – in future editorials, as and when the parties make their pitch. We trust that the main parties' campaigns will be optimistic, honest – and liberal.
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