The word “change” has ricocheted around the British election campaign. All the main parties, including the incumbent Labour government, have promised it, with varying degrees of plausibility. None has managed to convince a wary public.
To some extent this is because the electorate is uncertain about the change it wants. The national mood veers between cynicism and contempt towards politicians. The main beneficiaries have been the Liberal Democrats, who have transformed themselves, partly by virtue of novelty, from marginal players into potential partners in a future government.
But the parties have not articulated convincingly what change means. The campaign has focused too much on personalities rather than matters of substance. The televised debates between the party leaders briefly captured the popular imagination, but the price was to foster the idea of politics as game show. Real differences on policy have been obscured.
None of the parties has tackled head-on the question of how to restore Britain’s public finances. This year, the UK is expected to run a fiscal deficit of 11.1 per cent of national output – or £163bn. The parties have not been straight with the public about the austerity that lies ahead. Whoever enters Number 10 may suffer a form of winner’s curse.
The Financial Times has no fixed political allegiances. We stand for a liberal agenda: a small state, social justice and open international markets. But we do have a vision of the changes needed for economic and political renewal. It is on this basis that we judge the fitness of the contenders for power.
The problems facing the UK are daunting – more so than at any time since the 1970s. Then, as now, there was much talk of national decline. But Britain’s difficulties are not insurmountable. Strong leadership under Margaret Thatcher made the difference in 1979. Similar resolve is required today.
The economic challenge goes beyond the need to restore the public finances. The state has grown too large, accounting for 48 per cent of national output. Its sprawling size threatens to stifle the economy, crimping private enterprise and the wealth creation vital to preserve Britain’s standing in the world. It must be hacked back.
More will have to be squeezed out of the state for less. The public services require competition to raise their productivity. Educational reform is needed. Labour has put more money into schools but standards have lagged at secondary level. Without an adequately educated workforce, the country’s prospects are diminished. Capital will flow elsewhere.
Britain’s troubles must not be used as an excuse to retreat from the wider world. After the high-minded interventionism of the Blair-Brown years, marked by five military conflicts, it is time for a harder-headed approach; but Britain has global interests and relationships. The UK has a significant role to play in partnership with Europe and the US.
At home, the case for political renewal is unanswerable. Westminster must be reformed. The sovereignty of parliament has degraded into the sovereignty of government. We need an elected House of Lords and a Commons that can challenge the executive. The country should be made freer. Civil liberties, eroded as part of a misguided “war” on terror, must be restored.
How do the parties measure up to this prospectus? Labour has spent billions raising the quality of public services, a necessary if sometimes ill-directed investment. As a crisis manager, Gordon Brown has been a better premier than his critics claim. But after 13 years, Labour needs a spell in opposition to rejuvenate itself. As the architect of the state’s expansion, Mr Brown is not the man to shrink it. Too often he has been tepid or hostile to public sector reform.
The Liberal Democrats are more attractive. Their instincts are right on civil liberties and they are internationalist, albeit with the odd whiff of anti-Americanism. They would champion political reform, having fewer vested interests at Westminster to protect. It is on the economy that doubts creep in. Their policy is an uneasy mix of sanctimony and populism.
This leaves the Conservatives. They are not a perfect fit, but their instincts are sound. Their fiscal plans, while vague, suggest they would do most to reduce the size of the state – cutting more and taxing less than their opponents. They would create the best environment for enterprise and wealth creation. David Cameron has emphasised educational reform, a welcome aspiration so long as it is acted upon.
This newspaper still has questions about Mr Cameron and his party. The Tories’ reflexive hostility to Europe, for instance, is worrying, whatever his protestations that he wants a constructive relationship with Brussels. His team is young and for the most part untested.
Given the opinion polls, it is conceivable that no party will win a clear majority. This need not be a disaster, though Britain’s experience of minority or coalition governments is not reassuring. A perverse result, such as Labour coming third in the vote and winning the most seats, would increase pressure for electoral reform, perhaps irresistibly.
But that debate must come after the election. Britain needs a stable and legitimate government to navigate its fiscal crisis and punch its weight abroad. On balance, the Conservative party best fits the bill.
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