Better Britain

Better Britain: We have to get back to thinking about the long-term

BY Robert Seddon   /  29 May 2019

David Cameron may have been described by some as “the essay crisis Prime Minister”, but the Cameron era fostered energetic thinking about how to avoid short-termist policymaking.

In the wake of the financial crisis, groups such the Intergenerational Foundation had a story to tell about the political failure to secure a fair deal for younger people and about their prospects of starting careers and households. David Willetts, author of The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back, became a prominent minister. The Cameron and Osborne “long-term economic plan” was pitched to voters who had lived through short-term economic firefighting.

Even generations yet unborn were paid more than lip service. The rise of sustainability in environmentalist circles had had a shaky start, with the Environment Foundation facing a sceptical Charity Commission when it transformed itself into the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD), but by 2015 everyone from the UN downwards wanted to champion sustainability. True, government belt-tightening had done for the Sustainable Development Commission, but the Environment Secretary was now personally “driving the sustainability agenda across the whole of government”.

Such organisations were involved in an umbrella group called the Alliance for Future Generations (AFG), which promoted ideas for embedding long-termist perspectives into politics and policymaking. (I was an odd member out, with a background in ethics scholarship involving cultural heritage.) This was necessarily a loose coalition at times: it brought together growth-sceptical greens and people concerned that younger generations were going to keep losing out economically. The AFG has since become dormant, but various members remain active.

Politicians were sufficiently receptive to this agenda for Wales to get a Future Generations Commissioner. Comparable bodies have existed in Hungary and Israel. There is also Finland’s parliamentary Committee for the Future. Yet long-termism itself has struggled to hold attention for the long term.

It’s due for a comeback, because the concerns haven’t gone away; it’s just that intergenerational relations now keep being viewed through a procedural Brexit lens that barely sees beyond October.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration recently published a report called Healing the Generational Divide. The Chair’s foreword carefully states that Brexit highlights but “is not the cause of” this division. The document was promptly reported on as a set of proposals “to heal the generational divide caused by Brexit”.

As for environmental sustainability, at least one AFG member is nowadays involved in Extinction Rebellion. Their proposal for a citizens’ assembly may be genealogically linked to the interest in long-termist constitutional measures that produced the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. However, their demand for swift and sweeping decarbonisation, and their campaigning methods, seem a long way from the genteel world of Future Generations Commissioners.

Assuming our species has a long-term future, how best might British politicians plan for it? Need we merely blow the dust off some Cameron-era ideas? We should certainly re-examine them; but as Mary Harrington admits in her proposals for the Upper House, part of Reaction’s Better Britain: What do we want for our country? series, this is not an age in which technocratic constraints on democracy are an easy sell.

A 2010 report published by FDSD set out ten suggested reforms to help our institutions take the longer view. Six of these involved new or expanded official roles, and the other four proposed expanding the statute book with new duties or other constraints on political decisions. Some time later I found myself asking whether such ideas were well adapted to the Cameron era’s “bonfire of the quangos”. Today the nation is pointedly extricating itself from governance by Eurocrats.

Indeed, if you accept the premise that our institutions (apart from the monarchy) are ill equipped to foster long-term thinking and the best decisions for future generations, then you may become sceptical of all dirigiste solutions. In that case the best hope for taking the long view in our political culture may come from the wider and deeper culture in which it’s embedded: the world beyond 24 hour news and Twitter trends, in which people settle in their neighbourhoods, catch up with old friends, and raise future generations of their own families.

Don’t expect to hear that very loudly in the Tory leadership contest though. Not after Andrea Leadsom’s exit from the last one, when she claimed that as a mother she had more of a stake in the future than her rival.

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