The Too Difficult Box: The Big Issues Politicians Can’t Crack, edited by Charles Clarke, Biteback, RRP£25, 352 pages
Some years ago I asked the then prime minister whether he planned an overhaul of the unfair and inefficient mess that passes for Britain’s system of local government finance. Back came one of those quizzical looks that says you must have lost your senses. “Margaret Thatcher tried that, and look what happened to her.” He was right. The poll tax sank the Iron Lady.
The record of recent British administrations for blunders and bungles is up there with the worst of them. You can add to the poll tax several avoidable economic calamities, IT disasters too numerous to mention, the squandering of North Sea oil revenues, light-touch financial regulation, the Child Support Agency, the Dangerous Dogs Act and more besides. Sometimes forgotten, though, is that inaction is also a choice – and one that can be just as expensive.
Anyone who doubts this should study The Too Difficult Box, an illuminating series of essays edited by Charles Clarke, who served as home secretary and education secretary in the last Labour government. Would-be ministers and mandarins should put it at the top of their reading list.
Starting life as a series of lectures given at the University of East Anglia, the essays – by practitioners and commentators of different political persuasions including former ministers Gillian Shephard, Patricia Hewitt and Shirley Williams, and academics and former mandarins such as David Baulcombe and Hayden Phillips – examine the thorny issues that governments can no longer afford to consign indefinitely to the “Too Difficult Box”.
Sometimes inaction can be blamed on colliding timeframes – the gains of unpopular decisions are often long-term, whereas the political pain is immediate, so ministers are punished for doing the right thing. Better, it often seems, to leave the tough choices to the other lot.
Beneficiaries of reform are quieter than losers. The digital age and social media have amplified the voice of the disgruntled, pressure groups and vested interests. In Whitehall, the Treasury, supposedly the guardian of the public purse, imposes its notoriously myopic view of costs and benefits.
Clarke’s authors have assembled quite a list of dossiers that have been too long buried in the bottom drawer. Many fall into the obvious but supposedly too difficult category – care provision for an ageing population, reforming pensions, providing energy security, modernising the House of Lords and overhauling party funding are some of them.
The gains are often long term, whereas the political pain is immediate
Others represent a systemic failure to face up to economic and political realities. Stephen Wall, once a senior diplomat, reminds us that Britain’s relationship with Europe has soured because of the reluctance of successive governments properly to spell out Britain’s narrowing foreign policy choices.
Elsewhere, we learn that “strategic” reviews of the nation’s security needs and defence capabilities have been anything but strategic. And, as Clarke says in an essay on aligning demand for public services with tightening budgetary constraints, politicians mostly refuse to grasp the nettle of user charges.
Overall, Clarke admits that there is no silver bullet that will persuade politicians to address difficult long-term challenges. He does suggest ways of taking them in the right direction. More structured efforts to forge cross-party consensuses would spread political risks; royal commissions can be used as a platform for action rather than delay; expert studies can clear away thickets of phoney objections. There is a role, too, for a more responsible media to allow politicians to engage in grown-up conversations with voters. As for the politicians, few things would do more to rebuild trust in politics than a determined strategy to reinvigorate parliament as the stage for serious debate.
It is fashionable to say that fast decision-making and the capacity to push through unpopular reforms hands rising authoritarian regimes a decisive competitive advantage over the creaking democracies of the west. That is far too simplistic a view. What is true is that democratic paralysis begets dangerous populism. Much better to prise open the too difficult box.
Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator