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The virus of short-termism is coursing through the Conservative bloodstream

The vicious electoral cycle has encouraged the government to falsely promise that they can deliver speedy gains without immediate pain

Photo: Getty images

“When human politicians choose between the next election and the next generation, it’s clear what usually happens.”

Warren Buffett, who will mark his 93rd birthday at the end of this month, has made his considerable fortune by being a shrewd observer of how the world works, and his 1977 verdict on political timeframes remains depressingly accurate. In one of his more folksy observations, the legendary chairman of Berkshire Hathaway also remarked: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

The difficulty in aligning the two undeniably true propositions has been depressingly underlined in the wake of the recent Uxbridge by-election. It is demonstrably clear that the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), the scheme to discourage the use of older, more polluting vehicles, particularly diesel ones, does significantly lower pollution. But some voters bridled at the proposal to expand the zone, and the government weaponised that dislike to hold on to Boris Johnson’s old seat. With an eye on the forthcoming general election rather than future asthma deaths, Keir Starmer’s instant reaction was to ask the mayor of London to “reflect” on the extension of the scheme.

Inevitably, there are now doubts over whether Rishi Sunak will water down the government commitment to net zero, pleading the cost of living crisis as a more immediate concern. But that is the perennial problem: balancing the long-term good with the short-term imperative. Sadly, our system of democracy, with elections every five years, means that the short term nearly always triumphs.

That is why the National Health Service was in such a precarious position when Covid struck. The country’s stock of intensive care beds had been run down to dangerously low levels. The World Health Organisation had consistently pointed out that the NHS was way out of line with other countries in providing ICUs: Germany had 33.9 beds per 100,000 population, but England was way down the league table at just 10.5. Jeremy Hunt, the then health secretary, had been determinedly running the NHS “hot”. That brings short-term gains, but leaves a dreadful long-term vulnerability.

The one area in which the political process seems to favour the long-term is in inquiries, which are constructed to be as protracted as possible. The public inquiry into the pandemic meanders along, but the measures necessary to cope with another pandemic need to be put in place now and it would not take a genius to spell out what they should be. However, delaying criticism of how the government handled the pandemic takes priority over preparing for future emergencies.

Equally, it seems that concern over the short-term expense is trumping the long-term benefit of being part of the EU Horizon project. The top scientists in the country are unanimous that every day the UK remains outside Horizon only damages our science base. The amount of EU money going into British science since 2019 has been decimated, and the people who were involved in groundbreaking research have deserted in huge numbers as a result of the UK being excluded from Horizon. Once the Windsor Framework had been signed, improving the post-Brexit position for Northern Ireland, it seemed that a return to Horizon was imminent.

That was in February. Eminent scientists now despair that quibbling over minor amounts of cash is damaging British science. They have no confidence in Pioneer, the government’s half-baked proposal for a go-it-alone version of Horizon, which is understandable, given that science is all about cross-border collaboration.

The vicious electoral cycle encourages political parties to promise that they can deliver speedy gains without (immediate) pain. Perhaps the most egregious example was the private finance initiative, launched by John Major but enthusiastically embraced by Gordon Brown when he was chancellor. He sold it as a way of delivering new schools and hospitals without costing the taxpayer a penny. But this obvious short-term appeal to the electorate came with long-term costs: PFI hospitals are being crippled by the interest bills that they accumulated. In 2021, PFI hospitals had to hand over almost half a billion pounds in interest to the companies behind the schemes. They don’t have the cash to pay staff because they are paying private equity companies for the privilege of using buildings that are, in many cases, sub-optimal.

The PFI contracts are just one of the many problems with which the NHS is now confronted, and most people might accept that the ideal that William Beveridge envisaged in 1942 is due for a rethink. Yet no politician heading into next year’s general election will venture into that territory. Instead, the indications are that the Conservatives will concentrate on immigration and culture wars – it would take a brave optimist to see Starmer rising above this.

Proportional representation would change the dynamics, but it does not appear to be a current prospect. The other option would be to remove key issues that need long-term thinking – education, housing the NHS – from the party political arena.

That’s about as likely as Warren Buffett giving up his adherence to his profitable investments in energy companies, while pontificating about planting trees.

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