Why would the Tories build for a future their voters will never see?
Towards the close of life, ambition naturally wanes. So when two years can be considered the reasonable maximum lifespan of your time in office, a distaste for long-term thinking may be understandable. Even still, the mere suggestion that one of Rishi Sunak’s first decisions during his turn at Britain’s rotating premiership would be to review the status of Sizewell C, the planned nuclear reactor in Suffolk set to provide up to 7% of the country’s future energy needs, was not a reassuring one.
While we should be relieved that Number 10 has swiftly come out to quash the rumour, that it had any currency at all — and that it seemed so plausible — highlights the greatest challenge facing Britain. The anti-growth coalition is real, and it extends to within the Tory government. No wonder that even members of Sunak’s cabinet worry he will preside over only economic contraction and managed decline. The contrast with Labour’s ambitious pledge to secure clean energy self-reliance through nuclear and renewable power by 2030 is stark.
It surely ought to be impossible to ask the country to accept wartime levels of deprivation — including, the Bank of England warns, the longest recession in a century — without also promising a wartime level of government spending to ameliorate its worst effects. As the head of the National Grid, John Pettigrew, warned the BBC just last week, to hit the government’s self-imposed climate targets and still keep the lights on, the country “will need to build about seven times as much infrastructure in the next seven or eight years than we built in the last 32.”
But in the ageing Britain of 2022, the political incentives are all arrayed in the other direction: against building, against spending, against action. Anything that disturbs the peace and tranquil views from Britain’s frigid, soon-to-be candlelit nursing home sparks outraged tutting from our establishment. When Tory MPs actively compete to demonstrate their opposition to new energy infrastructure just to retain their own seats, what hope is there of radical investment? After all, perhaps we won’t need to turn the lights on or heat our homes in 2030. Who knows, maybe we’ll all be dead. At the very least, it’s someone else’s problem.
No doubt the increasing volatility of British politics has accelerated the short-termist thinking of our political class. Why commit to spending now, when your political enemies may reap the rewards, ten or five or even one year hence? For the moribund Conservative government, the incentives are even sharper: why build infrastructure for a future your voter base is statistically unlikely to see? Britain’s youngest prime minister in modern times is cursed with leading a party in its dotage. While China sets to work building 150 new nuclear power stations by 2035, Britain is giving up the will to live, wrapping itself in a blanket, and dimming the lights to save a few pennies.