Political discourse is stupid. There’s a Twitter account, for example, whose sole remit is to reply to anyone who provides a government spending number, by confirming how many days of NHS spending it represents.
Recently, though, we’ve gained a new unit of stupid political measurement: the pothole. Labour councils could have filled 24,000 potholes with the money they spent on diversity and inclusion in a year, according to a press release from CCHQ this week.
The briefing has an unmistakable whiff of election messaging. It came on the heels of a renewed pledge by Rishi Sunak to tackle Britain’s increasingly potholed and unpassable roads, and suggests the Tories are jockeying for position as the party of people who live in the material world, as opposed to those Marie Antoinettes of moral abstraction and virtue-signalling on the Opposition bench.
But can they pull this off? I’m not convinced. During a recent campaign visit to Darlington, in which he promised to address Britain’s pothole-ridden roads, Sunak pointed out a particularly large offender to the national media. But even after becoming, however briefly, Britain’s most famous bit of missing tarmac, it took another two weeks before anyone came along to fix it.
Nor is the decline of our national infrastructure confined to the roads: an internal Network Rail report leaked to The Independent predicts escalating delays and cancellations due to a lack of funding. And this can hardly be blamed on the Labour Party’s DEI spending — which, Labour spin-doctors were eager to point out, in any case also gobbles up cash in Tory-run government departments.
Why does it seem so difficult today to get anything done? For the majority of Britons who live outside urban areas and travel by car rather than public transport, it’s easy to read this collective condition of road-mending ineptitude as a tangible sign of our fraying social fabric. But it’s perhaps more accurate to see it as a sign of a fraying social contract: a widening disconnect between those who decide what to do, and those who get it done.
When an individual struggles to turn ideas into action, clinical psychologists call this “executive dysfunction” — or, in the words of writer Molly Backes, “the Impossible Task”. I’ve had patches of very low mood in my life, and know this well: the small, mundane, practical action that ought to be done in a moment, such as posting an important letter, but that you somehow can’t do.
It’s a miserable, exhausting, exasperating state of mind. Britain’s pothole politics feels like the same kind of frustrating disconnect between idea and action, scaled up to the level of an entire nation. Even supposed efforts to address the real, material issue of potholes end up stuck in the same intangible, immaterial, discourse-only loop: Sunak’s proposal for tackling potholes, for example, wasn’t workmen with shovels and a lot of fresh tarmac. It was another layer of fines and bureaucracy, aimed at utility companies who dig up urban roads then don’t repair them.
That’s all very well, but I must have counted 50 potholes on the 30-minute drive from my home to Cambridge the other day, and none of them was caused by utility companies. Who gets fined when these aren’t fixed? From this pessimistic angle, every disintegrating patch on the tarmac between me and Cambridge affords yet more hard evidence of wilting social cohesion: just another public good that everyone wants to use but no one can be bothered to maintain.
But the truth is not as simple as “decline”. Britain remains perfectly capable of building and maintaining infrastructure when we want to. But “when we want to” is doing some heavy lifting; and the infrastructure that gets priority isn’t roads. What’s missing is easier to see when we compare today’s pothole-war Tories to the man most indelibly associated with road improvement, both in Britain and internationally — a man so road-obsessed that he gave his name to “tarmacadam”, the surface that covers nearly all our roads today: John Loudoun McAdam.
Born in Scotland in 1756, McAdam made his fortune in New York before returning to Britain in 1783, independently wealthy and in need of something to do. He chose roads — and with good reason: if my recent drive to Cambridge was pockmarked, 18th-century Britain’s roads were cratered and almost impassable. A mix of mud and rock, maintained in a decentralised way by sometimes-corrupt and usually unaccountable “turnpike trusts”, and pummelled by a growing burden of freight, many roads were so poor that in 1725 the writer Daniel Defoe described a section of what is now the A58 as “plow’d so deep” that “the whole country has not been able to repair them”.
With time and money on his hands, McAdam travelled more than 30,000 miles, at his own expense, inspecting Britain’s roads: an obsessive interest that led to his development of “McAdamisation”, arguably the greatest innovation in road-building methods since Roman times. He was appointed surveyor-general of Bristol’s roads in 1815, after which he implemented his own proposed method, which so radically improved the roads that it became the national, then the international standard.
McAdam’s Herculean achievements are immortalised today wherever there is tarmac. By contrast, we need make no such immense effort: all we have to do is maintain the tarmac we already have. Why, then, has this seemingly grown so difficult? Why have we, collectively, developed executive dysfunction?
Juddering and bouncing my way across Cambridgeshire, it struck me that it’s not universally the case that we struggle to get things done. HS2 may be ballooning in cost; Network Rail may be falling apart; the road to Cambridge may increasingly have a texture akin to a giant cheese-grater; it may have taken a fortnight to fix the most famous pothole in Britain. But even as these aspects of our infrastructure have grown shabby, a forest of 5G masts has shot up across Britain, appearing with none of the faffing, incompetence or cost overrun that has characterised, say, the proposed East-West Rail.
In other words, it’s less that our political leaders are unable to get things done than that their understanding of what’s important has shifted. Where McAdam saw the tangible material world as the most important sphere of action, today a rich man with an interest in roads would probably fund a think tank to write white papers on freight policy, with the aim of influencing government to change their transport strategy. McAdam just got stuck in.
Is this evidence of class warfare? Of a ruling class that allows public infrastructure to collapse because they don’t use it, or because they dislike the people who do? Even if this is, in effect, what’s happening, I wonder if a more apt analogy is the “Impossible Task”. In other words, what ails us is a radical disconnect between those members of our polity whose forte is thinking, and those whose forte is doing: executive dysfunction at the national scale, because there’s something amiss with those whose job it is to think, decide and then set a course of action.
In a 2019 essay about her student experience at Yale, writer Natalia Dashan diagnosed the “campus wars” as products not of “wokeness” as such, but of a deeper malaise: a ruling class that has lost its moral purpose and sense of public obligation. Instead, as Dashan describes it, young elites seek refuge in disguising themselves as middle-class and simply pursuing material wealth, or else fill the gap variously with “risk-averse managerialism” or destructive woke activism.
All these behaviours are in evidence in pothole politics: the arguments over whether to spend money on potholes or DEI; the great many latter-day McAdams who make fortunes but don’t then devote themselves to public service; the Tories whose solution to potholes is not shovels and tarmac but more regulations and fines. And, collectively, the result is dysfunction in our national executive: an anxious, purposeless, neurotic cycling and re-cycling of thought, chronically un-translated into action — because those who thought of them lack the moral confidence to propagate their vision among more practical members of the polity.
Meanwhile those Britons who still have to live in the material world (and use its roads and railways) gaze, in confusion and mounting fury, at the fraying infrastructure built by a now-bygone culture. That culture was led by individuals who combined moral confidence and public spirit with practical attention to detail and a willingness to get personally involved. It is now being methodically neglected by a ruling class that has grown pathologically afraid of the material world, and instead spends its time on the collective equivalent of doomscrolling, or turning real, material problems into stupid, political point-scoring.