There can surely be no-one – politician or voter, investor or trader, bookmaker or punter – who really knows exactly what the outcome of the general election is going to be.
There is, though, one depressing prediction that can be made. It is that the result will be bad for Britain. Whilst it is obvious that a hung Parliament would create damaging uncertainty, the campaign has surely made it equally clear that neither of the major parties really offers effective leadership either. Their numbers do not add up, their policies do not address the critical issues, and substance has been ousted almost entirely by trite symbolism.
This being so, we really need to think about how to reform the processes of politics and government in order to make them fit for purpose.
Numbers that don’t add up
In terms of descent into trivia and avoidance of substantive issues, the campaign behaviour of both major parties has been deeply depressing. At the very least, the public is entitled to no-nonsense proposals in three main areas – tax, spending and debt; foreign and defence policy; and the economy.
No such clarity has been provided by parties whose policy vagueness has been leavened only by waffle and by trite, meaningless symbolism. Moreover, any government formed after the election will already have bound itself hand and foot with unwise, populist promises.
Starting with the fiscal situation – the balance between revenues, expenditures and borrowing – both of the major parties have behaved with lamentable irresponsibility.
Both claim a determination to eliminate the deficit. Both have promised not to increase any of the big money-raising taxes. Both have promised to spend more on the NHS. Both have offered hand-outs in other areas. Yet neither has admitted to planning any significant cuts in spending on public services.
Almost unbelievably, the Conservatives plan to tie their own hands by law, whilst Labour boasts an even more surreal plan to carve its own promises in stone.
The abdication of responsibility
Believe it or not, there have been two collective failures bigger even than the attempt to dupe the voters over fiscal matters. First, the economy is an obvious area in which fundamental issues have been ducked. Second, on matters of defence and foreign policy – in other words, of Britain’s security and standing in the world – there has been a deafening silence punctuated only by gimmicks.
Neither party has addressed the glaring weaknesses in conventional defences, yet both have committed to the vastly expensive replacement of Trident. Neither has ruled out cutting numbers of soldiers, aircraft and ships even further. Neither has had anything worthwhile to say about the threats posed by Russia and Islamic fundamentalism.
Labour’s sole foreign policy commitment has been a promise to appoint “envoys” to promote religious and sexual freedom, something which isn’t exactly going to set ISIS or Mr Putin quaking in their boots. The Tories have their own gimmick, promising to create an award for service in the reserves. For that matter, neither party has really had much to say about the EU – though David Cameron has promised a referendum, the proposed date (2017) is far enough away to achieve nothing other than investment uncertainty.
In short, the parties’ very limited commitments on defence and foreign policy have been a triumph of symbolism and waffle over substance. There might be envoys and a new medal, but there is no strategy for defeating ISIS or restraining Russia. Britain is to replace Trident without even plugging the maritime air surveillance gap that could enable an enemy submarine to track the deterrent boats from their own doorstep. The Navy is to have two aircraft carriers, but without the vital escorting ships and, very probably, without adequate numbers of aircraft either. There is not even a commitment to spend the NATO-required 2% of GDP on defence.
The economy – a policy black hole
And then there’s the economy, where again we have had waffle about incentives and apprenticeships instead of a debate about how the economy is supposed to function. As you will remember, my previous article set out a stripped-down, “at-a-glance” contrarian view of the British economy, which explained that the strategies of successive governments have been asinine.
To leave you in no doubt about this, let me just point out that we have let productivity and living standards drift whilst producing too little, consuming too much, and plugging the gap with borrowing and the sale of assets.
Far from promising to free up some of the vast potential investment buried in the “capital sink” of overvalued property, our politicians actually want to inject further demand into a supply-constrained housing market by offering “help” to first-time buyers.
There has been no serious discussion of how to rebalance the economy away from debt-purchased, internally-consumed services and towards the production of things that foreigners – upon whom Britain depends for imported food, energy and manufactured goods, and for £100bn annually of new debt – might actually want to buy.
Getting a grip
In sum, then, the politicians – and, more pertinently, the political system – are failing Britain, perhaps as never before.
What is needed now is new way of doing politics. That isn’t going to come from the incumbents, or from within the corporatist system itself. It can only come from the public, perhaps through a charter movement of the type I’ve described before.
If there is any optimism to be found in the present situation, it is that the unfitness of the major parties to govern has been laid bare.