The eco-extremists of Extinction Rebellion have turned pessimism and privation into a virtue. The Industrial Revolution was Britain’s original sin, they argue, and the only way we can atone for it is to accept punishing reductions in our living standards. Progress itself is deemed to be an illusion, while the expectation that goods and services will over time get better and better is seen as a sign of grotesque capitalist greed.
Unfortunately, something of this world-view seems to have made its way into official policy. As Lord Frost wrote in this newspaper this week, rather than investing ambitiously to ensure that Britain has enough energy and water to meet demand, there is a growing tendency to command the public to cut their consumption instead. Hosepipe bans should be a last resort, not the first tool to be grasped by water companies that have failed to tap alternative supplies or invest enough in stopping leaks.
A similar story is playing out in energy. Successive governments have done much too little to ensure that we have sufficient reliable power generation or energy storage facilities. If there are blackouts this winter, the public will again be expected to pay the price for these blunders.
Britain is increasingly gripped by a form of defeatism. Everyone thinks the NHS will face a terrible winter this year, but nobody seems to be willing to propose serious changes or reforms that would make that less likely – let alone to do anything that would fix the health service for the long term. The transport network continues to be plagued by strike action by the rail unions, but passengers are expected to accept disruption to their journeys without complaint.
It is the opposite of progress – and it is little surprise that these issues are most acute in areas of the economy that are either completely controlled by the state or highly regulated. But it would be a mistake for those that run these services to think that the public will accept this state of affairs for long. The zealots of Extinction Rebellion might be content enough to return to a prelapsarian past, in which the conveniences of modern civilisation are sacrificed in order for them to feel good about themselves. It is fair to say they are in a tiny minority, especially when the cost of living has risen so dramatically.
The next prime minister will have little time to make his or her mark. He or she will take over an economy heading for recession, a health service on the brink of collapse, and an education system struggling to recover ground lost in lockdown, while there are realistic fears of winter gas shortages. None of these challenges can simply be managed away. It will take ambition – and a determination to reject this insidious spirit of declinism – to surmount them.