The UK general election is three weeks away and many voters may be considering the policy options being put forward by the political parties. At the time of writing the party manifestoes of the main parties have not been published but there have been leaks (particularly about Labour) about what these manifestoes will contain.
After having witnessed election campaigns for over fifty years (including two election campaigns while working close to government ), I think that most manifestoes tend to contain either policies which are really more about slogans and/or policies which have not really been thought through. This comment applies to all parties and it is usually the task of civil servants to try and get those manifesto commitments of the governing party into some sort of shape for implementation. It doesn't always work.
Hence when we look at the content of the manifestoes maybe we should consider what impact these policies will have on the major challenges of the day and not on whether we think they are a good or bad idea. I would like to suggest that the following seven themes represent the main challenges facing the UK over the next decade or so:
1. Ageing populations
2. Climate change and the environment
3. Massive inequalities
4. Decline in societal cohesion
5. Loss of community involvement
6. The Islamic World
7. Low levels of economic growth
Others may have different views about what these challenges might be and the relative importance of each but this is my list.
The issue of ageing populations in the UK (and many other countries) is well known and much debated. As a consequence of advances in medical science which prolong life and a falling birth rate, the proportion of the population which is deemed elderly (65+) and very elderly (80+) is increasing year on year. Also, the reality is that elderly people place significantly higher demands on public services such as the NHS and adult social care
However, while this ageing phenomenon has been talked about for many years, the debate has intensified over the last 5-7 years as a consequence of the great recession, the onset of financial austerity and the lack of growth in funding for public services. This has led to a realisation that the challenges of an ageing population can no longer just be met by relying on the fruits of economic growth when such growth is not forthcoming.
Thus the ageing population has major implications for the organisation and funding of public services but also for the well-being of elderly people in terms of the dangers of isolation, loneliness etc which are societal problems.
Climate change and the environment
There is much debate about the extent of climate change and its impact on the physical environment and even more of a contentious debate on the extent to which human activity is to blame. However, lets us take one simple example - it may seem unthinkable, but for the first time in human history, summer ice is on course to disappear entirely from the North Pole. This would be one of the most dramatic examples of the impact of global warming on the planet. An ice-free Arctic will accelerate the pace of global warming with the possible consequence of a 50% increase in the impact of global warming resulting from rising carbon emissions, with the effects felt by the entire planet and its population.
As a consequence the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea levels will rise by 60 to 90cm this century while others think a rise of 100 to 200cm is a more likely scenario. This may not sound a lot, but it is really very serious. It will increase enormously the frequency of storm surges all over the world. We may be able to raise the Thames barrier in the UK but in Bangladesh, it just means more and more people will be drowned.
Thus climate change on this scale will have enormous repercussions for people in many countries including:
• Increasing prevalence of extreme weather with the physical damage and disruption that goes with it
• Massive increase in population movements from the developing world to the developed with either a large increase in legal immigration or the establishment of yet more refugee camps
• Repeated droughts and starvation in many countries
• Increase in political unrest and possible terrorism
There exists in the world at large and in the UK the existence of massive inequalities between genders, races, geographic areas and social classes. Such inequalities could be financial (income, wealth) or non-financial concerning access to public services, quality of the physical environment etc and in the UK and elsewhere inequalities have widened not narrowed in recent decades. In a valedictory essay for the Economist, the departing US President Barack Obama commented on the inequalities existing in the USA and worldwide and noted that "In the future, we need to be even more aggressive in enacting measures to reverse the decades-long rise in inequality".
This is equally true for the UK. At the end of the day, I suggest it was the existence of regional inequalities in the UK that led to BREXIT. We continue with such huge inequalities in the UK at our peril.
Decline in societal cohesion
The decline in societal cohesion is the tendency for society to decline (or, in extreme cases, disintegrate) over time, perhaps due to the lapse or breakdown of traditional social support systems. In this context, "society" refers to the social order which maintains a society, rather than the political order that defines its boundaries.
Clearly we can all think of examples of countries where societal disintegration has taken place to the point that the prevailing society has virtually collapsed. Equally we can also argue that disintegration like this is unlikely to happen in the UK. However, we need to be cautious. The decline of the family and the community, the existence of huge inequalities, strong racial segregation in some areas and the alienation from the conventional political system are factors likely to hasten the decline in societal cohesion not stop it.
If we look at some indicators of societal health in the UK we see a growth in violent crime, an increasing prevalence of mental illness, a significant increase in the rate of anxiety, depression and behaviour problems among teenagers and increasing isolation among elderly people.
Now all of this might be seen as scaremongering and that nothing terrible is likely to happen. While this might well be true but I suggest that, looking at the evidence, we should be cautious and that governments in conducting public policy should be careful and consider the likely impacts on societal health
Loss of community involvement
In a groundbreaking book (Bowling Alone) based on vast data, the US academic Robert Putnam showed how Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbours, and its democratic structures. Putnam warns that the stock of social capital - the very fabric of the connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing lives and communities. Putnam drew on evidence to show that Americans sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organisations, know their neighbours less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with their families less often. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, technology, women's roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.
While the US is a different country, many will recognize similar trends in the UK with low turnouts at local elections, difficulties in getting school governors and poor levels of involvement in community organisations.
This is an important issue. To quote just three examples, without adequate community involvement, elderly people may live isolated lives, new immigrants may lack local support and local schools may not be governed effectively.
Thus government policies should try to foster enhanced communitarianism.
The Islamic World
Quite rightly many people will point out the challenges we face in dealing with Russia, North Korea, China etc and indeed these challenges are huge. However, to me, the biggest external challenge we face concerns our relationship with the Islamic world.
The challenges posed by the Islamic World derive mainly from the Middle East where a population of over half a billion people face: poverty and inequality, political and societal instability, vicious and long-lasting wars and repressive totalitarian dictatorships.
Leaving aside the humanitarian impact on the peoples of these countries, a continuation of this situation has major risks for the UK in a number of areas:
• Further wars with the possibility of nuclear proliferation
• Disruption to our energy supplies and trade
• Further domestic terrorism
• Continuation or expansion in the numbers of migrants trying to enter Europe and the UK illegally
Personally, I see this as, perhaps, the most intractable issue facing a future government but, at the very least, we should be aiming for policies which don't worsen the situation even if it cannot be improved
Low levels of economic growth
Since the end of the Second World War, the UK economy achieved an average annual GDP growth rate of just over 2.5% per annum. The year 2008-09 saw the start of the Great Recession which was the longest and deepest recession in modern history and GDP turned negative. Subsequently, after the end of this recession, it took longer than originally expected for the UK economy to return to positive economic growth and the growth obtained was rather small and spluttering.
Since the end of the Great Recession, the reality is that the UK economy has got nowhere near the long term average of just over 2.5% referred to above and current economic conditions in the UK and globally, coupled with the potential impact of BREXIT, suggest it is unlikely to do so for a long time. This is an unfashionable and controversial thing to say but the reality is that the UK economy (and other developed economies) may never be able to generate the rates of economic growth they were generating in the second half of the twentieth century.
The implications of this for government policy are twofold:
• We need to organize our economy in such a way that we still manage to generate some economic growth (albeit lower than in the past) in line with our main competitors.
• We can no longer organize our social policies on the basis that they will receive significant growth in funding each year based on the fruits of economic growth. The lower levels of GDP growth will just not provide the funding required. Other approaches are needed.
I have discussed earlier the issue of inequalities and this, in itself, is a factor impacting on economic growth. At this point it is worth noting President Obama's comment in the Economist that "Economies are more successful when we close the gap between rich and poor and growth is broadly based. This is not just a moral argument. Research shows that growth is more fragile and recessions more frequent in countries with greater inequality. Concentrated wealth at the top means less of the broad-based consumer spending that drives market economies".
The point I am making is that we should not be beguiled by manifesto promises without considering how these will contribute towards dealing with the above seven challenges and what are they the best way of doing this. So for example, promising to spend more money on doctors or nurses for the NHS is fine in itself but the things that really need to be addressed in the NHS are reducing the amounts of preventable disease and the reconfiguration of health services towards primary and community care. Similarly the focus in education should be on how we improve teaching standards to get a workforce with the skills to meet the needs of our economy while also teaching life skills.