No man is a hero to his successor. Actually the quote is “no man is a hero to his valet”, but my version fits this story better, and is probably equally true, certainly in my own experience, no doubt both as successor and succeeded.
If you are Chancellor of the Exchequer, and your predecessor gave up the post, not voluntarily, but because of the will of the electorate, this is likely to be particularly true. How much more so if, like Sir Geoffrey Howe, your predecessor (Denis Healey) had not only had to have recourse to the International Monetary Fund but had likened being criticised by you to:
“Being savaged by a dead sheep”.
Perhaps, equally, no man is a hero to his predecessor. At least that is the way it looks with George Osborne and Alastair Darling following the latter’s open letter to the former in the Sunday People.
Now open letters are to me invariably stuffed with content that the recipient would prefer to have been comprised in a private letter, which is of course the whole point of sending an open letter. Unless one thinks they are being particularly misguided, I suggest, one does not send an open letter to one’s friends. And does receiving criticism in the form of an open letter make it more palatable than receiving it, say, in the form of a newspaper article? As I have never received an open letter the jury remains out on that one.
Alastair’s missive to George is no exception, of course, which some might characterise as the pot describing the kettle as a little on the dark side (no Star Wars reference intended). Indeed, the government was quick to do precisely that, referring to Mr Darling presiding over the UK’s biggest post-war deficit and failing to regulate the banks effectively. So what did the tarnished former Chancellor have to say to the similarly tarnished current incumbent?
“Spend”, in a word. Accusing the Chancellor and the Bank of England as having “given up on any plan for growth”, he urges expenditure on housing, power station replacement, railways and a third runway at Heathrow. All of this is refreshingly Keynesian for those of us who prize that rare economist with a sense of humour: “in the long term” said John Maynard Keynes “we are all dead”.
He also said, as quoted by Mr Darling, “when the facts change, you change your mind”, which is what Mr Darling is urging Mr Osborne to do. How optimistic he is of getting a hearing from the man whose most famous utterance was: “sometimes the only thing worse than listening is not listening” is another matter altogether.
So what of the precise proposals for expenditure put forward by Mr Darling? I come at these, as always, from an unashamedly ‘green’ perspective. More housing is badly needed, as the British develop an increasing penchant for living alone rather than in nuclear families, so provided it is constructed on the plethora of available brown field sites that would be an excellent idea. Sadly, people in general do not like living on such sites, or perhaps more accurately in the areas where such sites traditionally are, and thus demand for more housing tends to result in demand to build on more green belt land. Cue a 21st century repeat of Danny Boyle’s striking image of the Industrial Revolution from the wonderful Olympics opening ceremony, minus only Kenneth Branagh in a very tall top hat. So only a good idea if sensitively regulated, I think.
Replacement power stations, eh? And what sort of power stations might we be thinking of building then? Not necessarily a lot of point in developing power stations that use natural resources that are getting to the point of being exhausted, one might think. And I have a feeling Mr Darling is not thinking of turning Britain into one very large wind farm (am I the only one in this country who LIKES wind turbines?) So we are looking at the nuclear option, methinks, perhaps in more ways than one!
Nuclear energy is a tricky one. Whilst it does not consume valuable scarce resources, and thus scores at the input end, its problems arise at the output end of the process. Producing radio-active material with a half life of several thousand years would probably not be high on anyone’s list of desirable by-products for an energy source, particularly given the issues surrounding transporting it to its (hopefully) final resting place and deciding where that place should be. Factor in terrorism risks and recent experiences on the Japanese coast and you can see why we might be uneasy about wholesale investment in nuclear power stations.
However, in practical terms I suspect it will happen whether we like it or not; certainly it is possible already to detect on the Conservative back benches the beginning of a backlash against the drive for green energy sources on grounds of cost and output. Given the long-standing propensity for politicians to sell out future generations in the interests of short-term votes, I think we will see new nuclear power stations sooner rather than later.
Railways! Wonderful! Rail (train, light rail or tram) is by far my favourite form of transport, and a recently much-improved system in terms of quality, quantity and convenience, as well as being traditionally very safe. The more rail development the better if it keeps people and freight off our overcrowded roads and thereby shrinks their carbon footprint. The only caveat to this is the inexorable rise in train fares which has accompanied the increasing popularity of rail travel, which would presumably be fuelled still further by the need to pay for further development of the network. Oh, Dr Beeching, what did you do?
And so, finally, to a third runway at Heathrow. You just know I am not going to be in favour of this, don’t you? Rather like the motor car in the 1950s and 1960s, air travel has now ceased to be regarded as a luxury and has come to be regarded as a necessity, and small inconveniences like oil starting to run out and runaway carbon emissions are not going to get in the way of the great British public’s demand for cheap flights to the sun or the stag party. And nor, more to the point, is any politician who likes being in government or has grown attached to representing his or her constituency.
So where are we going with air travel? Cheap mass flights for the public are effectively paid for by hideously expensive luxury flights for business purposes, not to mention by airlines making large losses. The latter is not sustainable in the long term, and for how long will business persist with the former in the face of the alternative of video conferencing and other ‘greener’ methods of communication? At some point a politician is going to have to be brave enough to stand up and tell the British public that air travel, and eventually travel by car with an internal combustion engine, will once again become a luxury as opposed to a necessity. I am not holding my breath, incidentally; just not flying or driving anywhere.
So a mixed bag of suggestions from an environmental viewpoint, but one that brings into sharp relief the whole question of the desirability of economic growth. Traditionally that has been a given in economic terms, but how safe is it to assume that it remains so? Certainly the green perspective has been that the drive for constant economic growth comes at the expense of the planet and its finite resources, and that the world economy needed to be recalibrated to allow for lower or even zero rates of long-term growth. This has actually happened not as a consequence of environmental pressures but as a result of sustained economic slowdown, and this is of vital importance.
The reason for this is that, had it been generally accepted that high growth in the economy was a thing of the past, public expectations would have adjusted to accommodate the new world order (back to acceptance of air travel as a luxury, for example). Instead, because low, zero or negative growth has been forced upon us by adverse economic circumstances, the likes of Alastair Darling still covet high growth as a (temporary) means of escaping our current world economic malaise, and thus the public still sees high growth as an attainable and a desirable objective.
But if history has taught us anything, it is that boom is followed by bust (as Gordon Brown, our last competent Chancellor(?), never used to tire of telling us), and that the more dramatic or prolonged the boom, the more painful is the ensuing bust. So how about bowing to economic realities, and accepting that the days of high economic growth are over, and that this is a reality that we need to adjust to at some point in the near future simply due to scarcity of natural resources? Indeed, is that what George Osborne is doing, although he would presumably never dare to admit it at this point?
George Osborne as visionary, leading us to the green economic promised land! Now there is a concept that takes some getting used to.