The top 16 worst decisions by UK governments since the war?

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Ten years ago exactly, in the summer of 2013 – when I was househunting in Sussex and had just published my book about the coming plight of the middle classes (Broke), I wrote a blog post called ‘The ten worst decisions by UK governments’.

“Some of these,” I argued, “are worthy and vital, like the NHS and ending the 11+ exam, but which were taken in a flawed way, allowing the arguments to echo on disastrously through the decades.”

This was my countdown:

“10. The Pensions Act (1986): It ushered in a faulty design for personal pensions which would encourage people to think their retirement was covered, but actually flung them into the hands of the financial services industry which has systematically fleeced them. The result: the average pension pot in the UK is now £25,000 (will pay out £1,250 a year).

9.  Tony Crosland’s flawed blueprint for comprehensive schools (1965):  Following the American model, and ignoring the evidence which showed otherwise, UK comprehensive schools were designed far too large, as mini-factories, far too impersonal – they consequently alienated sections of the middle classes who would otherwise have welcomed them, and the education wars continue now as a result.

8.  Setting up the NHS on an over-professionalised basis (1948):  The most disastrous legacy of the Attlee government.  It meant that the voluntary infrastructure for health disappeared and, in the case of poor communities, was systematically destroyed – guaranteeing that the NHS, the most important decision of all in some ways, would eventually become unaffordable.

7.  Harold Macmillan’s deregulation of building standards (1951):  In search of the magic number of housing starts (300,000 a year), Macmillan ushered in the age of the jerry-built high rise flats, at vast expense, still not paid for and still blighting the poorest communities.

6.  Gordon Brown’s great roll-out of targets in public services (1998 onwards): The target approach wasn’t new, but it was a disastrous adoption of the line most identified by consultants McKinsey. As a result, services were hollowed out, became much more expensive, productivity went down and their very future is now in doubt.

5.  The Iraq War (2003):  A flawed project, paid for largely by the Chinese, which resulted in a million dead in Iraq alone and seemed to reveal the western powers as powerless and duplicitous.

4.  Geoffrey Howe’s abolition of the Corset (1980): This was a direct result of the abolition of exchange controls the previous year, the Corset kept house prices low by limiting the amount of money flooding into the housing market. Its demise led to the 30-year housing bubble and the slow impoverishment of the middle classes (see my book Broke).

3. The failure to shape the European Community (1955). The UK withdrew from the crucial Messina Conference which led to the founding of what is now the European Union, failing to shape its institutions and consequently finding itself forever dissatisfied with them.

2.  Big Bang (1986):  Financial services in the City had to face modernisation, but the decision to divide jobbers from brokers fatally ushered in the conflicts of interest that would turn financial services into such an overwhelmingly corrosive force.

1.  The decision not to create an Oil Fund to invest the revenues from North Sea Oil (1976): The Callaghan government decided not to create a sovereign wealth fund like Norway’s to invest oil revenues running at £18bn a year. Nor did subsequent governments use the revenues to invest in new, renewable energy sources. Consequently, we are now buying Norway’s gas and we squandered the money. We allowed the rising petro-pound to throttle the UK’s unmodernised industrial base, without using that wealth to modernise. A national tragedy.”

Those were my top ten, perfectly balanced between Labour and Conservative governments. “Which brings me to the second part of the question. Do they have anything in common? The answer is, yes. They are all either:

Decisions based on ideology, disconnected from the real world (8, 4, 2). Decisions based on faddish solutions (10, 9, 6). Decisions taken in abject surrender to more powerful forces (5). Decisions taken with breathtaking UK-style short-termism, and a bone-headed failure to look ahead (7, 3, 1).” 

Remarkably, I still agree with almost every word, though, since I’ve now had longer to mull over some of the confusion over recent years, I have one or two to add:

  • 2016: David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. Just think where we would be now if he hadn’t done that.
  • 2015: His new non-coalition Tory government’s decision to press ahead with the new EDF-built Hinkley Point reactor without the financial safeguards against delays that had been negotiated by Ed Davey in the coalition. (though I’m not sure whether the decision to build it in the first place should not actually be on this list)…
  • 2011: The decision by the communities secretary in the coalition, Eric Pickles, to ban planning permissions for new land wind farms and to remove all subsidies for solar power. This seems to me to have ben the first hint that UK governments were beginning to turn away from complete commitment to net zero. It was bound to cause trouble later.
  • 2022: The ill-fated Liz Truss premiership and her disastrous emergency budget. Enough said…

Added to which, someone added below the line:

  • The Agriculture Act 1947: I’m afraid I don’t know enough about it to explain this one – but there clearly needs to be some explanation of the mess that agriculture is in these days.
  • The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971: Reginald Maudling’s approach to criminalising drug use, which has added to the profits of mafiosi everywhere and failed to prevent the spread of harmful drugs.

So there we are. Of the extra six I have added, all but one are Conservative decisions.

It also seems to me that we underestimate the role that groupthink has played in all these. What were the civil servants doing who were supposed to advise? Where was the challenge from within – especially when the cabinet was filled with people so innocent of the world in reality?

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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