Alf Young: Politicians don’t live in real world

Our elected officials have an inflated view of the capacity of politics to address the complex issues of our time

A brand new year is a great time for politicians of all sorts to airbrush away their shortcomings and disappointments in the year just gone. Or build on the momentum they think is already firmly with them. More than ever, despite the economic gloom all around, their new year messages fizzle with fresh vision and a determination to do even better this time around.

In Olympics year, David Cameron wants everyone on these islands to “go for it”. Whatever “it” might be. While, at that start of another year of pre-referendum shadow boxing, Alex Salmond wants today’s Scots to rediscover the inventive skills of John Logie Baird, Sir Alexander Fleming and James Watt, so that we can reshape our world the way they reshaped theirs.

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Writing in this week’s New Statesman, Lord Maurice Glasman must have given Ed Miliband quite a turn. Miliband’s own new year message wasn’t exactly brimming over with renewed vigour. He talked about the need for a “more responsible capitalism”, about going to the heart of every community to argue for everything from a living wage to retaining children’s centres.

But Glasman, a social thinker sent to the Lords by Miliband at the end of 2010, is not impressed by what the Labour leader has delivered so far. On the face of it, he wrote: “There seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy.” Labour appears to be “pursuing a sectional agenda”, trying to cobble together a majority at Westminster next times around from “disaffected Liberal Democrats and public sector employees”.

Labour, Glasman argued, is “stranded in a Keynsian orthodoxy”, with no language to talk straight to people. “We show no relish for reconfiguring the relationship between the state, the market and society. The world is on the turn, yet we do not seem equal to the challenge,” he went on.

Meanwhile, Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, has opined that the battle for supremacy in political ideas is already all over. “In practically every area of British public life – state spending, the economy, education, welfare, the European Union, mass immigration, law and order – Conservatives are winning the argument and taking policy in their direction,” he wrote this week.

Oborne went further. He suggested the once-dominant liberal Left “is in retreat, abandoning long-held dogmas and very painfully admitting that Conservatives have been right on the greatest moral, social and political issues of our age”. His conclusion? That “David Cameron’s coalition” – note that Clegg-free designation – is shaping up to be “one of the most significant governments in modern history”.

Clearly no-one had told the new Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, that the Left has already lost the argument. There she was in Glasgow, in the first of a series of speeches designed to spell out her vision for the party in Scotland, blaming “decades of socialism” for stripping too many Scots of their traditional values of thrift and hard work.

Nor is it clear how Cameron’s coalition would earn Oborne’s historical significance accolade if, on its watch, Alex Salmond were to win his promised independence referendum. I’m not sure presiding over the UK government that saw Scotland leave a 300-year-old Union is what Cameron wants to see carved as his political epitaph.

But none of that is going to be decided for some years yet. Right here and now I have a different concern. It is that those inside the political beltway – the politicians, their advisers and those think-tanks and journalists who feed off their every word and deed – have an increasingly inflated view of the capacity of politics to address the increasingly complex issues of our time and to deliver whatever remedies it promises.

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The rhetoric, especially at the turn of each new year, far outstrips the power of politicians to deliver meaningfully on the people’s everyday aspirations and fears.

Cameron’s coalition has banged on, from the start, about the need above all to get the UK’s deficit down. Yet, on its own revised forecasts, it will still be borrowing more at the end of this parliament than it was before it laid its first budget before the Commons.

And, as Paul Krugman has pointed out in a recent blog, up until the 1870s and from 1914 right through to the 1960s, Britain had higher levels of debt (as a percentage of GDP) than it has right now. Indeed in 81 of the past 170 years, Krugman notes, UK debt has exceeded 100 per cent of GDP.

Salmond currently has the luxury of not having to talk about debt and deficits. In his book, that’s London’s problem. But he should at least tell the whole story of some of those Scots pioneers he wants us all to emulate. Fleming, who discovered penicillin, certainly grew up near Darvel, in Ayrshire. But in his teens he moved to London, trained as a physician in Paddington and made his great discovery in the city that remained his home for the rest of his life.

And as anyone from Greenock should know, the remarkable James Watt, while born in my own home town, made his real commercial breakthrough and his fortune with production of his adaptation of the Newcomen steam engine near Birmingham, in partnership with wealthy industrialist Matthew Boulton.

As a young instrument maker, Watt had even been refused entry to Glasgow’s Guild of Hammermen. Earlier attempts to perfect his steam engine in West Lothian, with backing from the Carron Iron Works, foundered on a lack of finance and the fabrication skills needed to machine the pistons and cylinders. Watt even had to work as a civil engineering surveyor for eight years to eke out a living before he headed south.

The problem with the shorthand in which so much of contemporary politics is conducted is that it sucks out all the complexity and nuance of real life and leaves prescriptions and judgments that are pale shadows of what they need to be to have lasting conviction and meaningful impact.

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For instance, on 16 June last year Oborne wrote a column in the Telegraph in which he suggested that Cameron, not even in office for two months, should be regarded as “one of the most powerful peacetime premiers we have ever had”.

Three weeks later, on 6 July, with the News of the World scandal breaking over everyone’s head, the same Oborne had a massive rethink.

Cameron’s relationship with the Murdoch-rich Chipping Norton set had, Oborne suggested, “permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation”.

The Prime Minister was in a mess. “To put the matter rather more graphically,” Oborne went on, “he is in a sewer.”

Now, as we’ve seen, the Left has lost the whole argument and an irrevocably damaged Cameron is, once more, destined to lead one of the most significant governments in modern history. I don’t believe a word of it. Do you? I think I’ll leave these judgments to history and events yet to come.