A 'Big Idea' for 2013

As we prepare for a week when celebration and revelry are high on the agenda, we’re permitted to set aside doubts and anxieties, financial or otherwise, relax and hopefully reflect on how our individual, or indeed collective, lot may improve next year.

Yet one feature of UK life, central to effecting change for the better, remains a cause for considerable concern.  

For more than two decades, the calibre of our leading politicians (I hesitate to call them leaders) has continued to deteriorate.

Yes, they’re all Oxbridge-educated and undoubtedly good, witty company around the dinner table. Most can also think on their feet, but all are well versed in a form of political-speak which enables them to talk without answering questions and makes them sound like the deputy head of an objectionable regional quango.

Nowhere is there any evidence of a well conceived and thought-out ‘Big Idea’ which may take time to implement but will reap enormous longer-term benefits for the nation.

Today, politics is all about short-termism. You must immediately counter comments made by your political opponents, irrespective of whether they said something sensible  Ill-conceived policies are assembled on the hoof like an Ikea bookcase, while ‘strategies’ (I’m being kind) are delivered with the apprehension of an Elvis impersonator at a heavy rock concert.

Ya-boo politics has returned with a vengeance as Westminster’s debating chamber increasingly resembles the student union at a third-rate university.

Apart from the period of nationalisation which took place under Atlee’s close intellectual gaze immediately after the Second World War, much of it to the benefit of the vast majority of British people, perhaps only Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher could be considered genuinely prime ministerial in terms of their leadership and adaption of radical ideas.  

Granted, in Tony Blair we had a shrewd political operator occupying Number 10 for a decade, but a leader with a popular Big Idea? Come on – unless you count the green light he gave to mass immigration, much of it illegal, without letting the electorate know.

Yet despite the obvious lack of political leadership, is there a popular, modern-day ‘Big Idea’ waiting to be grasped by one of our be-suited party leaders?

I think there is, but it won’t arrive gift-wrapped. It must be nurtured, thought-through and the economic benefits and implications considered in full. This is not a process with which our politicians appear familiar, but we may take hope from recent history.

When Margaret Thatcher sought to roll back the state’s involvement in our everyday lives, the notion of privatisation was not too high on her agenda.

By 1983, the government was in dire financial straits as the budget deficit reached 4% of GDP [For the record, its expected to hit almost double that (7.8%) next year.] and there was a desperate need to raise large sums of money fast.

It was around this time that a decision was taken by a local council to hand over refuse collection and street cleaning to a private company, Brengreen, run by David Evans, who later became a Conservative MP. Evans believed, rightly, that council-delivered services were being run for the benefit of staff rather than rate-payers and that not only could Brengreen do it cheaper, it could also do it better.

Within a couple of years, many local councils were contracting out services which had previously been undertaken in-house. Mrs Thatcher and her advisers saw what was happening and quickly recognised how the same arguments could apply nationally.

In the midst of ugly industrial strife, plant closures and colossal unemployment, therefore, the idea of ‘popular capitalism’ was born. Buying and owning shares was no longer to be the preserve of the privileged – campaigns such as “Tell Sid”, which accompanied the privatisation of British Gas, had a popular resonance amongst voters. The rest, as they say, is history.

So can our current bunch learn from history?

They can, by looking at the colossal economic benefits that accrue from house-building. There’s enough demand for new housing to keep both the public and the private sector busy for two decades. What’s lacking is the political will to make it happen, to eradicate Nimbyism, to bully the banks into providing the financing – in short, we’re missing leadership. Let’s hope that changes in 2013. Merry Christmas.

posted on 20 December 2012 19:05 byPJS