An example of the type of problem that really could be easily cured is the creation of academy schools. It would take a lot of time and effort to change the legal ownership of thousands of schools but it would take a matter of a few weeks to put every school in the country back under locally elected democratic control. All that would be needed is to give local authorities the right to inspect school finances, monitor educational outcomes and to force the resignation of governing bodies when there is clear evidence of incompetence. Do that and within weeks we’d be able to move away from extreme religious sects propagandising entire groups of children or over paid academy directors siphoning off funding that was meant for children.
When it comes to the housing crisis things aren’t so simple. It has taken decades for the legacy of high quality affordable social housing to be smashed apart by forced cheap sales of public assets. Back in the 1980s over 30% of the population lived in council homes or other social housing. The decision to sell off those homes to the people who lived in them was actually quite reasonable. The decision to do so at massive discounts and to make it incredibly difficult for local authorities to build any replacements is the prime cause of the current housing crisis. If you take away the major supplier of housing for need then it is hardly surprising if you gradually find there is a horrible shortage of decent homes to rent at affordable prices. It has taken decades for the full extent of the damage this has caused to become obvious. Changing government policy so that we scrap the wasteful Help to Buy scheme and let local authorities and housing associations use that money as deposits on loans so that they can start building for need is the only sensible way forward. Yet it would take decades to undo the damage and get back to a civilised level of supply of affordable high quality rented homes.
When it comes to student loans the problems might well prove even harder to fix. Funding three years of full time study by borrowing money is really hard on the individual who starts life with an average of £50,000 of unsecured debt. Creating that problem was a bad enough decision. But the government then went on to make the criminally cruel decision to sell off those debts to private companies and to make ex-students pay 6 or 7 per cent interest on the debt every year at a time when savers are lucky to get 1% on their money. Those two bad policies mean that it has quickly become virtually impossible for any new government to undo the damage. It is one thing to lower fees and interest rates for the next set of students and to prevent them from building up debts. It is quite another to find the cash to relieve ten years of students of debts and exorbitant interest charges. The only way of relieving an entire generation of usury is for the government to buy back billions of pounds of debts and the cost of that is getting more extreme every year. It is hard to see any economic situation where that is an affordable government priority. We may therefore be stuck with a dreadful policy.
Then there is the small issue of Brexit. Which must have looked to David Cameron like an easy way to solve a row inside his party. Instead he destroyed his own career, the unity of his party and the future of the country. To the point where it is no longer possible to imagine a consensus on how the UK should be governed. Theresa May is highly unlikely to secure a majority in Parliament for her vision of Brexit. The far right are never going to stop believing that a wonderful magical new Britain can be created if only we make Brexit even harder. Jeremy Corbyn is never going to stop believing that he can create a jobs first Brexit that brings back the industrial working class. The other half of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are never going to stop believing that membership of the EU is vital to British business and British society. There is never going to be enough evidence to convince the whole of the country to unite behind a route forward that will work. With each passing week the gap between promises and reality widens and huge numbers of people have ceased to be interested in pesky things like hard facts and insist on sticking to blind faith in one or other cure all. Meanwhile vast numbers of more sensible people are looking on bewildered as we lurch from crisis to crisis with no sign of a major political figure with the ability to fix any of those crises. The best we can hope for is to hold another referendum and to limp back inside the EU as a massively weakened force for change. Not exactly an inspiring prospect but better than giant lorry parks at Dover and rotting food waiting for customs checks at the borders of the UK.
Yet even that set of problems is dwarfed by the really enormous set of bad decisions which haunts world politics. Every week that we continue to burn fossil fuels makes life harder for our children and leaves future generations with a worse mess to clean up. If, repeat, if, it is even possible to clean up the damage. Every week we create, use briefly, and then throw away plastics we generate problems that will take thousands of years to ameliorate. Every species we destroy by cutting down rain forest to grow palm oil is gone for ever. Every section of the sea bed that we strip will take decades to restore. If they ever can be restored.
We are living in an era when short sighted behaviour that creates long term problems has been routinised and institutionalised. We live as if the environment was a product to be consumed and treat it as a convenient dumping ground for waste. The good news is that we can change government policy and alter the incentives in the economy and in society so that better choices become easier to make and the true cost of bad decisions are imposed on those who make them and profit from them. The bad news is that it is going to take decades to properly change the way we organise our society so that we replace short term individual profit seeking with respect for the community, the planet and the individual.
We urgently need better and more responsible decision making. And when it comes to this last set of bad decision we may not have enough time left to fix the problems.