Charles Clarke is one of the wasted talents of British politics – his ministerial career was cut off too soon in 2006. Never easily classifiable in any Labour faction, he has always been a stimulating thinker and writer about politics, and particularly the problems of government. In his post-Westminster life since 2010 he has been a visiting professor at the University of East Anglia where he put together a series of two dozen lectures between January 2011 and November 2013 around the theme of the ‘too difficult box’, important issues which all governments find hard to address and solve. Others have called them the ‘wicked’ issues which share the characteristic of having long timetables. The clash between short-term media and political pressures and long-term demands have frequently, but not always, frustrated attempts at change. The costs always appear immediate and the benefits remote.
As with all such collections, the results are uneven. The authors are a diverse and distinguished group of former ministers and peers (mainly but not exclusively Labour), academics, former civil servants and journalists. Almost all the essays are worth reading, but many just offer their favourite solution as something which should be inherently obvious, rather than addressing the central question of why some issues have proved to be ‘too difficult’ and how solutions can be, and have been, found.
Among the exceptions are a quartet of Labour peers (Geoffrey Filkin, David Lipsey, Patricia Hollis and John Hutton) who explore the problems of ageing, social care and pensions. It is perhaps because the trade-offs are clearer in this area than elsewhere that makes it more straightforward to explore the difficulties. Lipsey is typically vigorous in explaining the 15-year journey from the Sutherland commission (where he was in a minority of two in arguing that free personal care was cloud cuckoo land) to the eventual, and partial, adoption of a version of the Dilnot report. This saga – and the parallel one of the Turner and Hutton pension reforms – shows the impact of independent inquiries in helping to shift the terms of the public debate. Political energy, and the vagaries of timing and circumstance, were also crucial.
Clarke’s analysis in his introductory chapter is sensible and balanced in defining the problem and the inherently political process needed to overcome it. He also rightly argues that it is simply not good enough to leave ‘too many big and fundamental problems in the too difficult box’. The decision not to act can have serious consequences, as well as discrediting democratic politics. Clarke’s conclusion is full of good intentions – the need for long-term thinking and strategy, better understanding between the political, academic and media worlds, and an agreement by the parties on a number of areas where they would publicly work together to find long-term solutions. That means limiting partisanship and knockabout to what really divides parties. Above all, he argues, courage and leadership are needed. Yes, but from whom?
Peter Riddell is director of the Institute for Government
The Too Difficult Box: The Big Issues Politicians Can’t Crack
Charles Clarke (Ed)
BiteBack Publishing || 352pp | £25
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