Thursday 7 November 2013

The ten most disastrous decisions by UK governments

As the Home Office flings out more and more peculiar gimmicks - poster vans, bonds for foreign visitors,  doctors as immigration officers - I have been musing over the weekend what the ten worst decisions by the UK government have been since the Second World War.

Let me say straight away that these are decisions with a serious long-term impact, which means that it may go too easy on the coalition - the fact is that, since they have only been in office three years, it is hard to see which decisions will really resonate down the years (personally, I think the idea of investing in nuclear energy, when the rest of the world is shunning it, might well be on a later list).

You can't tell which decisions really have long-term implications without mulling it over for a few years at least.

The other thing to say is that some these decisions are worthy and vital, like the NHS and ending the 11+ exam, but which were taken in a flawed way, allowing the arguments to echo on disastrously through the decades.

So, those provisos out of the way, here is my countdown:

10. The Pensions Act (1986): It ushered in a faulty design for personal pensions which would encourage people to think their retirement was covered, but actually flung them into the hands of the financial services industry which has systematically fleeced them. The result: the average pension pot in the UK is now £25,000 (will pay out £1,250 a year).

9.  Tony Crosland's flawed blueprint for comprehensive schools (1965):  Following the American model, and ignoring the evidence which showed otherwise, UK comprehensive schools were designed far too large, as mini-factories, far too impersonal - they consequently alienated sections of the middle classes who would otherwise have welcomed them, and the education wars continue now as a result.

8.  Setting up the NHS on an over-professionalised basis (1948):  The most disastrous legacy of the Attlee government.  It meant that the voluntary infrastructure for health disappeared and, in the case of poor communities, was systematically destroyed - guaranteeing that the NHS, the most important decision of all in some ways, would eventually become unaffordable.

7.  Harold Macmillan's deregulation of building standards (1951):  In search of the magic number of housing starts (300,000 a year), Macmillan ushered in the age of the jerry-built high rise flats, at vast expense, still not paid for and still blighting the poorest communities.

6.  Gordon Brown's great roll-out of targets in public services (1998):  The target approach wasn't new, but it was a disastrous adoption of the line most identified by consultants McKinsey.  As a result, services were hollowed out, became much more expensive, productivity went down and their very future is now in doubt.

5.  The Iraq War (2003):  A flawed project, paid for largely by the Chinese, which resulted in a million dead in Iraq alone and seemed to reveal the western powers as powerless and duplicitous.

4.  Geoffrey Howe's abolition of the Corset (1980):  This was a direct result of the abolition of exchange controls the previous year, the Corset kept house prices low by limiting the amount of money flooding into the housing market.  Its demise led to the 30-year housing bubble and the slow impoverishment of the middle classes (see my book Broke).

3.  The failure to shape the European Community (1955).  The UK withdrew from the crucial Messina Conference which led to the founding of what is now the European Union, failing to shape its institutions and consequently finding itself forever dissatisfied with them.

2.  Big Bang (1986):  Financial services in the City had to face modernisation, but the decision to divide jobbers from brokers fatally ushered in the conflicts of interest that would turn financial services into such an overwhelmingly corrosive force.

1.  The decision not to create an Oil Fund to invest the revenues from North Sea Oil (1976): The Callaghan government decided not to create a sovereign wealth fund like Norway's to invest oil revenues running at £18bn a year.  Nor did subsequent governments use the revenues to invest in new, renewable energy sources.  Consequently, we are now buying Norway's gas and we squandered the money.  We allowed the rising petro-pound to throttle the UK's unmodernised industrial base, without using that wealth to modernise.  A national tragedy.

Those are my top ten, perfectly balanced between Labour and Conservative governments.  Which brings me to the second part of the question.  Do they have anything in common?  The answer is, yes.  They are all either:
  • Decisions based on ideology, disconnected from the real world (8, 4, 2).
  • Decisions based on faddish solutions (10, 9, 6).
  • Decisions taken in abject surrender to more powerful forces (5).
  • Decisions taken with breathtaking UK-style short-termism, and a bone-headed failure to look ahead (7, 3, 1).
Now, am I right?  I don't expect everyone agrees with me - but, well, why not?  And, most important, what can be done about it?  How do we see the joined-up possible futures more clearly.

This is one of the areas where my new venture, the New Weather Institute, the UK's first mutual think-tank, is dedicated to seeking out solutions.

1 comment:

Old Timer said...

11. Agriculture Act 1947
12. Misuse of Drugs Act 1971