What you probably won’t get to vote for

It took me a while to work out what was bothering me about the election campaign. Of course it’s also what’s been bothering me every day, in relation to politics. The issues that we’re told will decide the election? The policy building blocks from which any government must inevitably build its castle? The NHS, the deficit, the tax-dodging corporates?

They’re not the issues.

They’re shadows on the cave wall – implications and consequences of the bigger stuff, but they are not the issues.

So what is this bigger stuff?

Here’s a small, rough, incomplete (and not that neatly bounded) list of what I reckon some of it involves. Your task, dear reader, is to try and fathom why your choice tomorrow will have very little tangible relationship to any of it.

It might well be because they’re issues that are genuinely insoluble, but in that case why are we all indulging the dear politicians in the illusion that levers exist that can be pulled on from Whitehall, or anywhere else? Why indeed? What if we all understood the reality of the situation, and were able to be honest about the nature of the choices required?

Here goes:

1. An older, healthier population. Better healthcare = longer lives = changing morbidity profiles. There’s positive, obvious feedback in this system – the more able we are to prolong life, the more prolonged lives become candidates for intervention. Whether or not we use an NHS, or any other mechanisms, to address that are subservient to the deeper issue: we’re changing the nature of our population and our diseases. Do we understand where that’s going to lead, and are we prepared to build the structures that are required in response? If we’re not, then we have to make some very tough choices about families, care and ultimately people. Hard-edged ones that no squabbling about here-and-there £bns of NHS funding can mask.

2. The nature of international businesses. And perhaps beyond that, to the nature of business structures themselves. Getting all righteous about Amazon, Starbucks and all the other border-tricksters, from the non-doms to the Jersey-wraiths, is all well and good as an academic pursuit, or as material for blustery speeches. But it’s not just chance, or bad drafting, that mean taxation is so hard to pin on those who really don’t want to pay up. It’s down to those structural issues – how we regulate company formation, location, transfer pricing etc etc… And to what extent can those ever realistically be determined or limited?

3. Why we educate? If it’s just about matching skills to needs, why are we so haphazard at it, and why the huge apparent lags in adapting as those needs change? Is it just in the nature of changing a very large system? Or is it all just so much habit? Or… dur dur durrrr… do we stick kids in schools the way we do, and do things to them like we do, for other, darker, more manipulative social reasons? We ok with that?

4. The power of information. There’s less friction than we ever imagined possible in the way information flows. That changes markets, industries, liberty… Everything. And yet the nature of government – and particularly the attitudes of virtually all our politicians – are geared to denying, belittling and ignoring the reality of all that change…and all that potential. (Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee writes some pretty impressive code, y’know…)

5. The indexation of us. Ok, this is a bit of a favourite hobby horse of mine, as regular readers will know, and it’s very much bound up with no.4. But what’s really going to happen in the longer term to the way the state recognises us as individuals? And by recognise, I mean identify. And by identify I mean index – classifying, coding, linking, databasing us. That entropy flow that means the pressure to link us up and track us down will always exceed any force in the opposite direction. (Don’t know about you, but it keeps me awake at night.)

6. Selfishness & inequality. Bluntly: a lot of this country is innately, has been educated to be, or is perversely rewarded for being selfish, hateful, sexist – do I need to spell it out? Is that us? Is that who we really are? Are we ok with ‘freedoms’ that leave us free to hate, to distort, to manipulate? Maybe we are. But what if we were able to even imagine being better than that?

7. The tension between executive and judiciary. We think fondly of a British concept of fairness. It’s that fairness that means we build some of our rules (like tax thresholds) with softer edges. We don’t like hard edges; they hurt when you trip over them. So systems (like tax) get really complicated as we taper and titrate the rules. Whatever our government may act (or want) to do, has the counterbalance of judicial review. So that means there’s an inevitable (and perhaps highly desirable) tempering to political will. Do we really understand this dynamic, and are we honest enough to admit the caps and constraints it brings?

I could go on with a few more…the ground rules of government intervention in markets; a lead actor on the world stage or a tired extra; clutching past glory or refreshed for the future…but I hope the point’s coming over.

This is a half-hour sketch, not a manifesto. If nothing else, push a little harder when you see a “policy” being touted, to see what the thing is underneath that’s not really being acknowledged. There’ll usually be something there.

Vote wisely, people.

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