Lesley Riddoch: Time for government to redirect history, not pander to the voters
ALISTAIR Darling will get to his feet in the Commons today to deliver the annual Pre-Budget Report. It's a bland title for an event that should redirect the course of British history.
Everyone but the Tories backs tax cuts and all seem agreed desperate times require a short-term, temporary boost. But short-term action must give long-term benefit. Otherwise, Andrew Haldenby, the Reform think-tank director, may be right; giving tax cuts now is like giving whisky to an alcoholic.
It is tempting fate to mention Iceland again (move if you like it so much; they have still got our cash; I've read it all). Yet there's one more story that springs to mind unbidden as I read of Alistair Darling and tax cut plans.
The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland are fishing islands like Shetland. In 1973, there was a massive volcanic eruption and lava was rolling towards the harbour. Fortunately the fleet was in port because of bad weather, and everyone managed to grab their kids and head for the safety of the ships. Watching the crackling molten lava approach, swallowing everything in its path and pumping ash and steam into the freezing air, most Westman Islanders believed they were witnessing the end of time. Unconquerable nature was playing its hand. And nature never loses.
But then there was a suggestion, from desperate people facing their own mortality. All the ships' hoses were dropped into the sea and jets of cold salt water were trained on the approaching lava. Amazingly, the worst damage to the village was averted and the Westman Islands acquired a safe, crescent-shaped anchorage with new homes heated and lit by copious, cheap geothermal energy. Quite a pay-off for a long-sighted, split-second decision. Quite a reward for trying to shape the future not just protect the past.
And what's that got to do with Alistair Darling? Well, was our Chancellor really thinking of Britain's long-term interests when he casually rubbished Iceland's fragile currency by comparison with the Taleban – and its ability to repay Icesave creditors in Britain?
Getting re-elected means looking tough, which means protecting No 1 and focusing on material, short-term gains to please noise-makers, gatekeepers and vote-shapers. So as the big bucks are flung around Britain, will anyone be thinking like the lava-shaping Westman skippers? Will our cash be spent on immediate pain relief or long-term recovery? Will politicians shape the future or just reproduce the past – with dutiful job creation and flimsy, risk-averse umbrella projects? Or will we finally quit the talking, and act?
Basket-case Iceland registers no surge in winter deaths through hypothermia. That's because their Arctic Circle-brushing nation acted to save lives by raising building standards. Here we just talk a good game. And leave poor pensioners to die.
Basket-case Iceland has most of its bus fleet running on hydrogen cells. Meanwhile Britain sits on its energy laurels with a charging regime that prices the best renewable energy reserves out of the market.
The people of basket-case Iceland want protection first for the old, young and sick. They don't have poor people in their "insolvent" society. Meanwhile the politicians of "solvent" Britain have ignored the weakest until they're needed for their high-spending propensities. People on the breadline must spend to survive – and that's so handy for jump-starting Britain.
Funny. Measures to assist the underclass were impossible six months ago, but now higher tax thresholds, cutting stamp duty on starter homes, freezing fuel duty are all the rage. Even Gordon Brown's stubborn, dogmatic belief in his incomprehensible tax credit system can be shelved. Anything is possible as long as the poor spend, spend, spend, while the rich tighten their belts and save, save, save. It's a whisker away from "povploitation". The poor are being used like algae to clean a fish tank.
Is that ethical? Fair? Visionary? In exchange for pump-priming the economy, the government could devise a long-term plan to permanently restructure society and narrow the damaging gap between rich and poor.
District heating schemes could slash fuel bills, encourage co-operation and help re-create communities. Failed housing schemes could be turned into towns, funded to run themselves and given royal charters.
Jokes about the underclass at impending St Andrews Night and Burns functions could make Scots feel as uncomfortable as Russell Brand taunting a celebrity granddad.
Call it opportunism, thinking on your feet, making a virtue of necessity or spotting a tipping-point when you're standing on it. But this moment of uncertainty is also a chance to shape lasting change.
At their tipping-point, the Danes invested in pigs and wind energy; the Finns piled in behind the mobile phone success of Nokia; the Norwegians laid down ground rules for oil exploration – and never looked back.
What long-term miracles are about to be wrought by Messrs Brown and Darling? Will they bail out the car industry to please the unions and win the next election – or insist on changes to car manufacture that will serve us all long-term? The signs are not good.
Despite owning a controlling interest in many banks, the government hasn't insisted they actually lend money to small business.
If car manufacturers want state aid, it could be time to require them to convert their products to use electric, hybrid or hydrogen power and ditch fossil fuel. Just as the collapse of the car industry is destroying old jobs, so the arrival of non-petrol cars could create new jobs, putting the marginal technologies of the future centre-stage – now.
The last shall be first and the first shall be last. You don't need to be a Christian to get the message. You do need to be a visionary to see tough times as a God-given opportunity.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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