Politics: A Dozen Small Things
Article first published in the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald on 1 December 2017
When I lived outside Britain, I felt that the greatest problem in Britain was injustice. Once I became a ‘parliamentary candidate’ I began to feel that the problem was that government was completely out of touch with reality on the ground, and that the solution was ‘deregulation’ and ‘devolution’ – to give more power to local communities who “knew more, cared more, and could do more than distant officials”. But when I became an MP, I found myself focused on the details of broadband and flooding.
Superfast broadband and mobile coverage could clearly transform the fortunes of small business, help health and education provision, and improve tens of thousands of lives in Cumbria. There were many members of parliament insisting that broadband was ‘the fourth utility’ and a ‘human right.’ But I had not expected it to be so hard to deliver. I learned that it was not enough to introduce a motion in parliament, or to secure forty million pounds of investment for broadband in Cumbria. I found that even if we had had fifteen billion pounds of extra funding for broadband, for example – and we did not – it would still not have been enough to deliver superfast broadband to every house. And that was before I studied the costs of way-leaves, the way that EU state-aid regulations prevented certain kinds of subsidy, the licensing of spectrum, the rights to network rail fibre, the costs of point-to-point microwave links, and latency in satellite coverage.
Again, I was able – as Flooding Minister – to make the government put more soldiers, civilians, ministers, and money into the Cumbrian floods of 2015, than into any previous flood. I secured 72 million pounds of extra flood money from the Treasury. Hundreds of flooding experts contributed to the surveys, the analysis and the design of new ‘flood prevention measures’. And because I still believed in the wisdom of communities, I pushed the Environment Agency to share more and more details of their plans, encouraged the public to challenge them line by line, and set up dozens of consultations meetings, so we could debate every scheme. I hoped that by involving communities, everyone would ultimately come to understand the technical and financial challenges, and agree on the best solutions. But my community consultations did not seem to work in that way. However, much consulting or talking we did, many intelligent well-informed people still disagreed very strongly with each other – and felt the government was letting them down.
Meanwhile, I was still looking for ‘bigger’ projects and ideas. So I walked for two months back and forth across the constituency, staying in private homes, visiting offices, holding public meetings; and then, two years later, set off on yet another six hundred mile walk, recording three hours of conversations at a time. But no amount of walking seemed to allow me to take a big political idea – injustice, or deregulation, or devolution – and apply it neatly to a particular place or person or problem, within the constituency. I began to wonder whether such words always meant the same things in different contexts.
I had hoped to discover on the walk what ‘the British people’ wanted,’ but there did not seem to be a thing called ‘the British people’. Every household seemed to be defined by different experiences, and very different ideas. People were simultaneously happy, and depressed, flourishing and frustrated. But many people still implied our problems could be summed up in simple words – like ‘poverty’, ‘austerity’, or ‘inequality’; that there were a simple set of villains – such as bankers – responsible for the mess; and that we could be saved by a hero with big ideas. And I began to see how politicians played to these expectations through ‘big projects’ – from the millennium dome to Hinkley Point – and with big ideas: ‘Big Society’, ‘Renationalisation,’ ‘America First’. Some of these ideas were unworkable, few addressed the fundamental problems, and some meant nothing at all. But the demand for big projects and the big ideas seemed insatiable.
Meanwhile, the real solutions, for real problems seemed to rely on a thousand detailed and complicated initiatives, which never made it into a headline or a manifesto. While politicians produced the phrases for flooding – ‘no more cuts’, ‘this must never happen again’ – the real progress required reforms on hydrological modelling, weather reporting, water company reservoirs, dredging, soil absorption, tree-planting, bridge design, pumping, insurance, resilience measures, and the division of responsibilities between the Environment Agency, and the County Council. I began to feel that in public life – as in our own families, and jobs – there are very few big ideas and simple solutions. I felt that politics at its best is a practical activity, not an ideology – a continual exercise of compassion, and grip, and competence, trying as best as you can to do a dozen small things for each problem in turn.
Yet every democracy in the world votes for people who promise so much more.