Yesterday the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, being the clever types they are, took it in turns to put each other on the defensive. Mr Cameron attacked Mr Miliband over Labour’s stance on public sector strikes while Mr Miliband condemned Mr Cameron on youth unemployment. Business as usual in Westminster, meanwhile, out in the world the gloom deepens.
In the short term there is the unfolding European sovereign debt crisis (today saw yet another failure by European leaders to agree a credible collective strategy). Major British banks are still highly vulnerable to default so any idea that the UK will be sheltered from the collapse of the Euro is almost certainly wrong. In the medium term we have no realistic path back to the kind of growth that would enable us to manage down national, corporate and family debt without years of pain or the ever present risk of a slide back into recession. As he prepares for his autumn statement next week, George Osborne's scope to make choices may be restricted to deciding in what order to put the bad news.
Over twenty years as a policy analyst and commentator I have tended to disagree with people who claim public services are getting worse. The problem is usually that they are not getting better as fast as we would like, or that they have fallen behind comparable services in other sectors. But now we are beginning to see genuine deterioration. This is not just in those non-statutory areas, like libraries, youth and community services which have borne the brunt of local government cuts. Monday’s EHRC report on domiciliary care was just the latest in a string of damning reports. The prospects for vulnerable older people are clearly deteriorating and there is no foreseeable reason to expect this process to stop. Whatever steps are taken to improve public service efficiency and engage volunteers in the community, further years of austerity are likely to see this decline in service levels and social outcomes spread to other core areas of provision.
In the face of the crisis and the danger that, in time, declining living standards and services will lead to social conflict and even political extremism, we desperately need national leadership on a different plane to that on offer right now. Leadership to give us hope and a sense of national purpose. Leadership to challenge us – from the self-serving overpaid company executive to the apathetic unemployed youngster and every one of us between – to be part of a national mobilisation to protect our most vulnerable citizens, keep our communities going and show the creativity, collaboration and risk taking which must be the foundation for economic success. Imagine a society in which almost everyone had a story to tell about what they were doing to help the nation pull through.
But when it comes to political rhetoric we are all so jaded that this leadership will not come from conventional oratory. Our political leaders need to go miles outside their comfort zone. In particular they need to recognise that political point scoring and playing to their own dwindling band of party loyalists is not only irrelevant but an abdication of the duty of public service. If they don’t we might eventually reach the same depressing conclusion as the Greeks and Italians and seek to replace politicians with technocrats.
Like all my blog posts this is no more than shouting in the wind. Perhaps it’s time I took my daily pill and had a nice lie down. It’s not as if I know concretely what it would take for our leaders to convince us we should respect and respond to them. But I think I would know if I saw any sign of it happening. It might start with greater humility, more recognition of the inherent uncertainty right now in all policy options, a willingness to work across party lines, the courage to appeal concretly and directly to the nation even at the risk such an appeal will initially fall on deaf ears.
Every politician I know says they came into politics to serve and to make a difference. That’s why I tend to defend the political class even when it’s friendless, like over expenses. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Over the years, I have heard so many politicians say they wish they could break out of the binds of intra-party trade-offs, inter-party adversarialism and media management and find a way of connecting with the public.
If not now, when?