Fears for the Future

Just came back from a lovely cycle ride to find that my polling card arrived through my letterbox while I was out. Gordon Brown announced the election earlier this week, so it’s quite impressive how efficiently the electoral system swings into action.  It’s a pity so much else is screwed up.  Anyway, Parliament now goes into limbo and we have three weeks of heightened tedium to endure while the politicians try to convince us that, despite all the mess they’ve made of things so far, they do actually know what they’re doing.

I still don’t know how I’m going to cast my vote on May 6th (polling day). I can’t see myself voting for the incumbents – for more reasons than I have time to list. My experience of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s convinced me that I’ll never vote Conservative either. And the Lib Dems are just, well, a bit pathetic. I will vote. I just don’t know who I’ll vote for. I’ll have to look at my constituency’s history carefully to see if tactical voting might help. Perhaps more on that in due course…

Anyway, whatever the result of the election turns out to be, I’m pretty scared about what the next three or four years has in store.  The huge budget deficit that the government has built up saving the banks from collapse is going to have to be dealt with. The recent budget didn’t really do anything to tackle it, but everybody knows that was just a holding operation until the election is over. Whoever takes power afterwards will have to take serious measures to fix things. It won’t be pretty. Tax rises and public spending cuts are both inevitable as  the international bond markets threaten to downgrade Britains AAA credit rating. If that happens we will end up with runaway debts and increasingly expensive borrowing.  Don’t think we won’t go the way of Greece.

In the meantime our economy is carrying on as if it is in a trance. House prices continue to rise, the FTSE index is climbing, interest rates are at the astonishingly low level of 0.5%. It can’t possibly go on. Houses are clearly still overvalued, at immense social cost to people wanting to start a family. The stock market is gaining because investors are not getting any return from cash deposits, and companies are boosting their profits by sacking staff and cutting costs rather than generating new demand. As soon as interest rates go up again – which they surely must – I think there’s a good chance the stock market will fall again. If you don’t hold any shares yourself you may think that’s not important. However, it directly affects the pensions of millions of people, most of whom are not wealthy, because that’s where a lot of their pension schemes’ money is invested.

The most pressing issue is not who wins the election but whether there is a winner. If the election turns out indecisively – which at the moment seems quite likely – then we’re going to see turmoil on a scale that makes the banking nightmare of 2007 look like a tea party. And even if there is an outright winner, there’s no guarantee that they will have the gumption to even begin tackling the problem.

Of course, as a scientist working in a University, I’m also concerned about what’s going to happen to my own livelihood after the election. The recent mess this government has made of science funding has blotted its record on this, which was previously not bad. However, the true scale of this country’s economic problems seems to be too much for our political leaders, both present and future, to cope with. I don’t see any of the parties having the vision to manage the current crisis as well as putting together a coherent plan to build a better future. I’m not the only person to think so, in fact, as a letter in The Times today from a group of distinguished astronomers made clear. Other nations (especially the USA and France) are all investing heavily in science as a means to secure future economic growth. We’ve already started cutting back, and don’t see any strong political voice to reverse that policy.

Of course people don’t just vote for their immediate self-interest. Science is important to me, and I think it’s important for the country too, but there are other issues. There’s more to life than economics too. This country has been in a post-Imperial sleepwalk for too long and it needs to snap out of it. We need to renew our political system, which has grown distant and unaccountable. We need to deal with a looming energy crisis. We need to develop a proper education system that is fit for the 21st century. And we need to deal with the problems of a rapidly ageing population. For these reasons, and more, I hope the next Parliament will contain politicians with the vision necessary to see this country through the tough times ahead. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will.

I’m just glad I’m no longer young.

16 Responses to “Fears for the Future”

  1. Thomas D Says:

    What do you think the deficit has to do with the banks Peter? Other than the usual linkage between massive loss of confidence caused by banks threatening to go tits up, extended recessions and deficit spending.

    The ‘bail outs’ were loans which have in many cases been already repaid and which should not be counted towards the deficit anyway as they don’t really constitute spending. There was already a large deficit and it only became larger during the recession. IMO the problem is 1) war / militarism and 2) not taxing land rents significantly.

  2. telescoper Says:

    First Northern Rock, followed by the Royal Bank of Scotland – owner of the Ulster – and then the Lloyds Group were bailed out – total cost to the taxpayer: £850bn. I agree that militarism and other stupidities are costing this country, but the government did buy up a huge amount of toxic assets that probably will never be worth anything to the taxpayer.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: consider doing what I am doing, and that is voting for a candidate rather than a party. If you go to a hustings, it is not too hard to get a sense of whom you would want to spend a convivial evening with, and whom you wouldn’t. Interestingly, people come across quite differently in person even from on TV – there’s no substitute for it.

    I regard the most important issue for the country as family breakdown, and incremental changes to the tax-and-welfare system have brought us to a point where stability in familial relations is actively penalised and instability subsidised. Unless that is reversed, we shall see an unhappy next generation.

    Thomas: the root of the problem is the license, historically, from politicians to banks to print unbacked money. (Remember that a ten pound note is actually a promise to pay the bearer ten pounds, and that a pound coin is implicitly the same since there is not a pounds worth of metal in it nowadays.) As soon as you allow this, you will get cycles of boom and bust. This problem is so deep in our financial system that people who think of themselves as antagonistic to capitalism do not think to question it. But it is possible for *everybody* to be in debt to ‘the system’ – which raises the central question: Who runs it?


    • telescoper Says:

      I recently found this website. It was very interesting, putting me 75% in the camp of one particular party. I wonder if you can guess which one?

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’d hate to guess. The weighting which you input, about which issues concern you how much, isn’t flexible enough. And it doesn’t include the Monster Raving Loony Party.

  5. telescoper Says:

    Nor Plaid Cymru!

  6. Here, in Down Under Land, we have to vote (I have been fined for missing a local election) – I wonder how the blighty election would turn out if everyone was legally obliged to…..

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    Cusp: You can turn up and spoil your voting paper without penalty, I presume?

  8. Yes, you can – but seeing you’ve gotten there you may as well go through the process 🙂

  9. Tim Harries Says:

    “If you go to a hustings, it is not too hard to get a sense of whom you would want to spend a convivial evening with, and whom you wouldn’t. ”

    I’ve had convivial evenings with plenty of people whose political views are diametrically opposed to my own. I wouldn’t vote for them though.

  10. “And the Lib Dems are just, well, a bit pathetic.”

    I actually think the “Lib Dems” are the most progressive of the three. Whilst I don’t agree with their policies enough to want them to form a government (which is not possible anyway). I would love to see them form part of a coalition and introduce some sense to the parts of the politcal debate where Labour and Tories fall over each other to shout the’ ‘political consensus’: sacking David Nutt, rushing through ill-thought out DEBill, etc.

    I’m also very skeptical of Labour’s talk of political reform, they have had 13 years to put that on the table.

    • telescoper Says:

      Being only “a bit pathetic” would make the Lib Dems front runners compared to the two main parties, who are entirely pathetic. However, having seen how the Lib Dems are behave as leaders of Cardiff City Council, I’m strongly disinclined to risk giving them any sort of power at a national level.

  11. If they’re smart, the Labour Party will regard this election as being one to lose. Even if they do somehow scrape back into power, there is a little prospect of a working majority for them and a large potential for discord and hassle a la Major’s government. Furthermore, like Major’s government, the Labour Party is tired. Four terms in office would be too much. If they’re lucky, Labour will lose, refocus, and work on being an effective opposition before being a credible party of government the next time around. They’ve clearly lost their way.

    Regarding the Tories, I grew up in more-or-less the same place as you Peter around the same time. I saw and experienced the effects of the Tory policies on, eg, the shipyards. Its also worthwhile noting their record on education. In my school I was the only student in my year (~120 pupils) to get O-level mathematics. Much as I’d like to think otherwise, this isn’t because I’m a maths genius; rather that I learned how to study independently since the maths teachers (like most of the other teachers in my school) was literally incompetent and probably wouldn’t have been able to scrape more than a C,D-grade if they were forced to sit the exams they were nominally preparing us for. A “bog standard comp” sounds like Eton in comparison to my place.

    However, to blame all the problems in the 1980’s on the Tories is wrong. They inherited a huge mess and stopped the rot in a number of areas, even if some of their policies were unjust, over-the-top and badly thought-through. I fear things would have been even worse under the Labour alternative.

    I think Cameron deserves a shot, not least since the priority should be to get rid of Brown, the man who found that getting what you always wanted isn’t all its cracked up to be.

  12. “Anyway, Parliament now goes into limbo and we have three weeks of heightened tedium to endure”. This is one of the few advantages I see in the UK system. In many other countries, the date of the next election is either completely fixed (e.g. USA) or fixed to within a few months (e.g. Germany) (with only extraordinary circumstances leading to a substantially earlier-than-planned election). In such cases, the campaign drags on much more than three weeks—years, in some cases.

    You mentioned tactical voting. While one should make use of this if possible, it really shows up the disadvantages in a first-past-the-post, no PR system. I was living in the UK during an election. Spare me the swingometer!

  13. I think that judging national parties on local council behavior is dangerous. The two beasts are not the same by a long stretch. To be fair though I come at this from the jaded view that most local councils are useless (and admittedly my evidence is anecdotal from only a handful of sources via direct experience).

    I am yet to come across a local councilor that wasn’t more interested in photo-ops in the local rag than doing anything useful. From what I have seen local politics is uglier, more pathetic and less caring for the will of the electorate than national politics. And that must be saying something.

  14. […] as if it’s all a bit unreal. One of the things in the news this week sparked a memory of something I wrote a few weeks ago which, in turn, made me realise why I find it difficult to take this election […]

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