by Aris Roussinos
Monday, 7
November 2022
Debate
10:00

Pensioner Britain has run out of ambition

Why would the Tories build for a future their voters will never see?
by Aris Roussinos
Hard times call for hard hats. Credit: Getty

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.

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Chris W
Chris W
24 days ago

Everything I read today is couched in extreme language. Animals are being cruelly mistreated, oil is a disaster, our history is something to be ashamed of, so we have to change history accordingly. Everyone is sure that they are right and (therefore) other people are just wrong.
To me, when I read articles like this, the biggest problem we face today is the huge gulf between the south-east of England and the rest of Britain. All of our politicians only see that which is around them in Westminster. Our protestors are in London and see the fat cats of The Bank of England, but they don’t see the streets of Bolton or Rotherham or South Wales.
For example, about 2 million people in the UK don’t have mains gas. Who is subsidising the bills of the oil users? Who speaks for them? If oil dries up, how do people in far-flung places get food?
If we have insufficient energy in the future, older people will just die. Is this the best thing so that we don’t have to waste money on pensions? Without a good health service, millions will die earlier than planned. Is this the aim? Have we filled NHS jobs with idiots who ask men if they’re pregnant so that we can ignore health issues, thereby making the media happy?
The politicians live with armies of hangers-on, searching for the best soundbite, trying to look trendy by exaggerating the problems of the young, closeted in big cars with personal drivers. The media appeal almost exclusively to young people. Young people postpone ageing using a variety of surgical treatments which are not cheap. Who is kidding who?
Just to finish, I live on the outskirts of Cardiff. The centre of the city has a 20mph speed limit. Roads have been split in two, half for bikes and half for cars. Hardly anyone cycles. Cars are avoiding the city. Shops are closing. In about 20 years the city will be dead. But the politicians will feel good. But this is progress.

Kevin R
Kevin R
23 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

Why on earth do cars need to drive at more than 20mph in a city centre? Why do you even need to take a car into the city centre for that matter? Many studies indicate that cutting the amount of traffic on a given city-centre street has no significant impact on footfall in shops; sometimes it’s quite the opposite.
What is certain is that city centres are quieter, safer and less polluted with fewer cars.

Chris W
Chris W
23 days ago
Reply to  Kevin R

Studies have shown what you want them to show. I can only speak from personal experience.
Where I was brought up there were two towns side by side. One was Labour, the other Independent. The Labour Council decided it was unhealthy to have cars in their town so they steadily increased parking costs until nobody came in by car. The idea was that people should use public transport. But nobody asked the ‘people’. The town is now a wreck. The other town provided free parking, increased the number of parking spaces and made the town ‘car friendly’. The place is still great to visit.

This has been repeated all over Britain. Ban cars and then focus on public transport. BUT it doesn’t work. The idea should be concentrate first on public transport and then ban cars. Only London comes remotely near to this.

Glyn R
Glyn R
23 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

Over the years Labour councils have wrecked a great many once pleasant towns.

Mark Kerridge
Mark Kerridge
23 days ago
Reply to  Kevin R

20 mph speed limits are pointless except for the virtue they signal. Here in Bristol we have 20 mph limits on many roads, and few pay any attention to them: not cars, not busses and not the police. I know a policeman in traffic who told me that the only thing a motorist has to worry about are the mobile speed cameras and no one would be stopped for simply going over 20 mph providing they are not going over 30 mph or driving dangerously.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
23 days ago
Reply to  Kevin R

Well, they’re certainly quieter.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
23 days ago
Reply to  Kevin R

Disability for starters.

Matthew Salter
Matthew Salter
23 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

A speed limit of 20 mph and suddenly the world is coming to an end. SMH.

Roger Clague
Roger Clague
23 days ago
Reply to  Matthew Salter

Reducing speed limit from 30 to 20 mph causes less minor accidents but increases serious injuries. This is because both drivers and pedestrians are less attentive and some drivers ignore the 20 limit.

Matt M
Matt M
23 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

Near my mum’s house they have done the same division of the main road into a car lane and a bicycle lane despite the fact that the locals hate it, very few people cycle that route anyway and those that do have been happily co-existing with cars on that road since before I was a boy.

Roger Clague
Roger Clague
23 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

The aim is not more cycling , it is to make driving more difficult.

Matt M
Matt M
24 days ago

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″

Or we could just:
1.Limit the number of immigrants we take in – work visas, family reunions, asylum seekers – to a level that our existing infrastructure can cope with. There are plenty of houses, hospitals and power stations if we stop importing the population of Newcastle every year.
2.Drop the self-imposed climate targets. While they won’t have any impact on global CO2 emissions (China, Russia,the USA and now Germany are not going to play ball) they will lead to crazy spending decisions.
3.Get fracking.

Last edited 24 days ago by Matt M
Matt M
Matt M
24 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

(UnHerd editors: The formatting in my comment – a numbered list – keeps dropping even though it looks alright when I post it)

Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
24 days ago

This pensioner still has lots of ambition. I am getting very fed up of the drip of negative comments and hopelessness that abound. There are real debates to be had about for example bringing back a Civil Service College and looking at how best to run organizations and keep communications flowing. There are glimmers of hope with a commercial fusion pilot taking place. Somewhere s and any where’s debates to be had, using talent of all sorts over a lifetime, including skills as well as theory. Asking very big questions about rights, the place of humans, the nature of evidence, what is justice, what constitutes worth etc. etc.
pitting groups against each other and giving one side moral superiority over the other ignores that no one has all the right answers.
anecdote: Friend day after Brexit vote, using her bus pass, was glared at by students. She asked them why. The reply was “ you’ve stolen our future” Answer. “I voted remain , did you vote?” No but we went on a demo.

Chris W
Chris W
23 days ago
Reply to  Sue Whorton

Mmm. Not sure. There is also U3W.

75 years ago our health service started. The idea was to eradicate killer diseases like TB, diphtheria, scarlet fever, polio. Then there would be no need of a health service.

Today, the main function of the NHS is to keep old people alive indefinitely. If the NHS is such a drain on young people, a running sore, is this not old people causing problems for the young?

I tried to think back to when I was 20 and imagine what I thought about old people. But, apart from close family, old people did not exist. They were there but strangely invisible. Today, arguably, they are too numerous to be invisible and, in most cases they don’t have a function. Inevitably, valued family members are packed off to a retirement home. What does that say about us?

Last edited 23 days ago by Chris Wheatley
Graham Willis
Graham Willis
24 days ago

Old people have children you know.

R S Foster
R S Foster
24 days ago
Reply to  Graham Willis

…and indeed, grandchildren…plus routinely supporting both via Bank of Mum/Dad/Granny/Grandad…the notion we don’t care about the future is not just insulting, but also stupid…irritating though the little s#ds sometimes are! (mine is currently in a Marxist phase)

Antonino Ioviero
Antonino Ioviero
22 days ago
Reply to  Graham Willis

Yeah, but too large a percentage of the next generation come from abroad.

Why should old people sacrifice for children who are not theirs and for people they have repeatedly voted to exclude?

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
24 days ago

No, the Labour pledge is not ambitious, it’s fantasy.

Peter Wren
Peter Wren
23 days ago

It’s not just pensioners is it? Younger people actively oppose any and all infrastructure projects as a matter of course – even after excruciatingly long consultations & public enquiries there are constant efforts to hold up construction by both legal means and obstruction. Projects appear to spend more management effort on “engagement” , “offsetting” , “community funding” and “building a legacy” than they do on getting the job done.

Even people in their fifties or late forties when a project starts might not live to see its completion:
Sizewell C site chosen 2010 Start date still unknown , completion “10 to 12 years after start” so 2025+
HS2 start of route consultation 2010,  first phase under construction for an “opening window of 2029-2033”  Full completion date unknown .
For small projects the timescales are also in decades:
Reopening Ashington to Blyth for passenger services. An existing, working freight line. Stage 1 of Network Rail’s 8 stage process was completed in March 2014 , current expected re-opening in 2024
https://www.senrug.co.uk/Re-open-AshingtonBlythTyneLine.php

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
23 days ago

Not just a Tory oldies outlook though. Point illustrated by the decision of Clegg, opposing new nuclear reactors in 2010 because they would only come online in 2020. Not the type of thinking he will be planning to pursue at FB I bet, because no doubt his boss plans to live forever.

Last edited 23 days ago by Prashant Kotak
John Dellingby
John Dellingby
23 days ago

I’ll take a more generous view of the article compared to most of my fellow commenters. Fundamentally, he is right, we have underinvested massively in our infrastructure not just for years, but decades. When we were all bemoaning the drought in the summer and the possibility of running out of water (on a temperate island nation no less), it transpired we haven’t built a reservoir since the early 90’s around when I was born. This is despite the fact the population has gone up by 10 million since then. Then there’s housing developments which face endless opposition from established homeowners (often older) until they run out of arguments to bring to the local council. For clarity, I get concerns around local infrastructure and public services, but often these are used as a smokescreen to cover up the real opposition. I’ve even seen local Conservative Party associations boasting of blocking developments (and then probably wonder why their children can’t afford to buy a house).

To be honest, it’s even more amazing HS2 ever got going given the opposition it had/has, even though it will do much to ease capacity and get more freight off roads and onto rails on the current West Coast Line which should mean fewer lorries on the roads. This is not to mention the utter shambles that is a 3rd runway at Heathrow being kicked down the road almost all my life.

Simon James
Simon James
24 days ago

Regardless of the policy details, if politics is the art of getting things done then it is bust and likely to remain so for a generation at least. After the Covid response, when the unthinkable became mainstream, how can any politician make credible arguments for a set of priorities being obviously prudent and wise? ‘During Covid’ they’ll be told, ‘you completely set aside business as normal, why not now?’
We’ll need time for memories to fade, amongst other things, before we can set things back on something like an even keel.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
24 days ago

Right on. An d heaven forbid they do anything to relieve the burden on the young, who will be having less & less babies because, why would they and consigning the 40 Somethings to care for themselves in their oncoming dotage.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
23 days ago

o 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.” 

Well, then, it’s not going to happen.
Everybody knows that, so why not stop fritzing about with Net Zero (how is that going to be measured – and who is doing the measuring? Or will it just be calculated in the traditional way, you know, to make wind farms look good?)
Everybody also knows that China will not phase out fossil fuels by whatever future date they set this time.
Neither will India, let alone Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Mexico , Brazil, you name it. So why do we keep acting like we believe it?
Get on with life, build flood defences or whatever you reckon is necessary to cope with the Climate Doom

Last edited 23 days ago by Brendan O'Leary
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
22 days ago

Why on earth should ‘Government’ be ‘building’ anything? A country is not a futurist ‘project’ to be completed by Government but a political realm of law, custom and sovereignty. Only then can people live the kinds of life that they consider appropriate, without the preternaturally active and unhappy (a key sign of decadence and oppression) imposing their dreams on everyone else.

Barry Trevers
Barry Trevers
23 days ago

That’s probably because the WEF want to make an example of Brexit Britain. Didn’t the WEF threaten to come for England’s Driver’s? Since powered transport is what delivers business around the British Isles, I fail to see how the 15 Minute Town or City would ever garner support. Unless the WEF plan to turn the UK’s clock back to the 12th Century. Perhaps there will be another English Civil war visited upon unpopular Politicians, hence the sudden interest in building luxury bunkers under extremely wealthy house holders?

Last edited 23 days ago by barry.trevers
Freddie deL
Freddie deL
23 days ago

We need an election.