Eamonn Butler: Consols are the answer to our Covid debt problem – but only if twinned with a pro-growth agenda

16 May

Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute.

William Atkinson has built a fair case for parking the Covid debt away from the everyday public finances — an idea endorsed by Liz Truss recently — before knocking it down. Yes, the best time to have done this was last year, when Adam Smith Institute argued the case; then, interest rates were low and rate hikes seemed a distant fear. But it is still a good idea. Let me explain why.

What makes the idea necessary is that the Government borrowed hundreds of billions to get us over the Covid pandemic, producing record peacetime public debt of over £2 trillion, or around 100% of GDP. But the Covid borrowing is exceptional borrowing and should be treated as such. It’s the sort of borrowing that comes up only once or twice in a century — think the Napoleonic Wars, or the two World Wars. And let’s hope we won’t be facing wars, or pandemics, on that scale for another long while.

When governments want to borrow, they issue bonds — typically 10- or 20- or 30-year bonds that pay the holder annual interest and then are repaid, at face value, at the end of that period. If the government still wants to borrow, it issues new bonds when the old ones are retired. But if interest rates are on the way up, it obviously has to pay that higher interest on every new bond it issues.

We suggested that low interest rates could be locked in — and the exceptional Covid debt kept apart from the regular business of spending and borrowing — by instead issuing special ‘Covid Bonds’ with no fixed term. These consols (‘consolidated annuities’ in the jargon) would simply continue to pay interest until the government felt able to repay them. Which could be quite a while: famously the Napoleonic War consols, and those that Churchill issued to park the First World War debt, were only fully repaid in 2015.

Sure, with interest rates rising as they now are, the Government has left it too late to capture the full benefits of very long term, low interest funding. But there are still benefits to be had through this approach.

And sure, economic growth expectations have taken a nosedive too. But that is no reason why we cannot fund the Covid debt by this method. Quite the contrary. Low growth makes it hard for the government to keep on rolling over its 10-year debts, and if things stay bad, maybe its 20- and 30-year debts too. But the point is that, as long as growth is at least positive, our wealth, and our ability to repay our debts, continues to rise. As long as the public finances can still afford the interest payments, that means we can wait until we are much better off and repay this exceptional Covid debt. It might be any time this century, or even longer! But we are not being pushed into paying off an exceptional and very large debt before we have grown enough to afford it.

Now, William Atkinson is right that we need a growth agenda. To my mind, that means we need to cut taxes, especially taxes on business. We have a lot of holes to fill in our Covid-scarred economy, and business economists confirm that the thing that most deters people from starting new businesses, or from expanding existing ones, is high tax. It just adds to the risk of an already risky proposition. The recent NIC rise is one of the most economically inept policies I can remember, and that’s saying something.

Atkinson is also right that there must be spending cuts to facilitate tax reductions. That means two things. Firstly, as my colleague Dr Madsen Pirie has proposed, we need a systematic programme of prioritisation. What does government really need to do? What does the public really want from it? And what is it wasting time and money on doing that has little or even sometimes negative effect? Secondly, we need to look again at the Byzantine structure of Whitehall and see how things can be reconfigured to consolidate functions, reduce bureaucracy and save money. The ASI’s series of reports on this are out soon.

We learnt the hard way, prior to 1979, that you can’t spend your way out of debt. The only way is growth, and that is why we need a tax- and spending-reduction agenda, and a government that does less rather than imagining it has to stick its fingers into everything. But that agenda has little to do with how we fund government debt.

The key thing about using consols for the exceptional Covid expenditures (a cool £550 billion by my reckoning) is that it gets that exceptional debt out of the everyday discussion. Yes, I know that some will think it’s good to keep things as they are, in the hope that eye-watering debt levels will pressure the government to trim its spending sails. But not treating Covid debt separately will make it harder to pay off and will prompt governments to do exactly what they are doing now — to raise taxes in ways and to a level that actually chokes off growth and our ability to get ourselves out of hock and avoid the same stagflationary decline we saw in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mike Clancy: The Government should trust those who want to work from home

13 May

Mike Clancy is the General Secretary of the Prospect trades union.

If the Government wants to learn one lesson in the aftermath of the local elections, it should be to start trusting workers. Covid-19 inflicted an unprecedented shock to the UK economy. Its repercussions are far from over.

But it could have been far, far worse. This was not another Great Depression. Unemployment was contained. Businesses came through.

At the heart of the government’s response was partnership between unions, businesses, and ministers that delivered the furlough scheme and help for self-employed workers. Trade unions like Prospect helped shape these lifeline schemes in partnership with the Government.

But equally important was the ingenuity and flexibility shown by British firms and their employees as they responded and adapted. Cutting-edge technologies and newly acquired skillsets enabled new operating models and ways of working that meant customers could still be served. Ambitious goals were delivered, and disruption was minimised as far as possible.

There are lessons to be learned from this, some practical and some political, as we return to the economic and policy challenges that pre-dated this pandemic and which have not disappeared: challenges of raising productivity, levelling up living standards, and improving quality of life for all.

Yet too often, the narrative sounds like the Government have forgotten what was achieved and aim to pretend nothing has changed. Back to the office, back to the nine-to-five, back to measuring our commitment and contribution not by the outcomes we secure, but the regularity and visibility of physical presence.

The reality is that flexibility has been enjoyed most by those in professional and middle-class jobs – the very people who have been the cornerstone of the Conservative Party’s support for decades – and many of whom abandoned the Conservative Party at last week’s elections.

It would be a huge opportunity for the government to ignore the desire to improve working lives, not only for the UK economy, but for a Conservative Party that claims to be on the side of prosperity. Accusing people who work some of the time or predominantly from home of being idle may seem like a good play for some voters. But I would suggest that it risks alienating many in traditionally Tory towns across England who will want to lock in the improvements to their working lives that some degree of home working has brought.

The world of work is changing, expectations are changing, and politicians need to keep up. Here are some thoughts on how:

1. This needs to not be about where we sit, but rather about flexibility in the round. It’s too often forgotten that most jobs simply can’t be done from home – and it’s all too telling that these workers are invisible in this debate – be they care workers, factory operatives, or professionals such as field engineers.

But we need to be talking about how they can also better combine work with domestic and caring responsibilities – not least if we want to raise workforce participation rates and open these careers up to the widest possible pool of available talent. Extending flexibility and choice from a minority of private sector professionals to the full range of jobs and careers in our economy could have a transformative effect on quality of life and drive economic opportunities throughout the country.

2. We need to move on from superficial anecdotes and opinion-trading to take an honest look at the evidence. The latest update from the CIPD finds that flexible working options are becoming increasingly normalised, driven by employers looking to attract and retain loyal and skilled workers.

On the productivity impacts of working from home during the pandemic, an academic review of recent research studies revealed a mixed picture, including findings that usefully challenge almost any preconception or prejudice.

At least some of the productivity gains of homeworking appear to result from the extension of working days into what was formerly commuting time. Some of the risks to productivity result from the stresses of blurred boundaries and “always on” culture, an issue Prospect has been vocal on.

In truth this is still an evolving experiment. Workers and organisations are likely to become better skilled and better equipped at working remotely over time; equally, the longer-term costs to innovation, collaboration and organisational learning of lost face-to-face interactions may take time to emerge.

But the latest ONS survey data shows over 30 percent of private sector businesses (weighted by staff numbers) planning or considering increased homeworking as a model going forward – and over half in sectors like information and communication or professional services. Our experience is that, where they can, the most intelligent employers are exploring hybrid models that balance remote working with co-location as part of a wider flexibility package – and, crucially, keeping an open mind about what they may learn.

3. That’s why this needs to be an ongoing, nuanced, and inclusive conversation between employers and their workforces – which trade unions can help facilitate and contribute to, and that Government should not seek to foreclose with simplistic top-down diktats.

Negotiation and adaptation got us through the pandemic, and it offers the best route to rebuilding our competitiveness and prosperity. If we get this right, it can be a win-win-win – for white-collar professionals living in suburban or rural areas; for families, communities and local economies more dependent on jobs in manufacturing, retail or care; and for businesses looking to develop a skilled, flexible and adaptable workforce.

‘Beergate’. Is the Conservative counter-attack on Starmer finally cutting through?

3 May

As we noted last week, the furore over Partygate has really shone a spotlight on the uneven way in which lockdown and other Covid-19 regulations were enforced.

Cressida Dick’s decision to authorise a one-off retrospective investigation into the goings on at Downing Street is just an especially high-profile example of a broader trend.

It isn’t immediately obvious that the fact that the Metropolitan Police issued 17 times as many fines as their Durham counterparts, as reported in this morning’s Sun, is in the same mould. It isn’t difficult to imagine why the capital might have had more instances of rule-breaking, not least it being much bigger.

But the Conservatives, and their supportive papers, have clearly latched on to the idea that the Durham Constabulary are not doing their job over ‘Beergate’, or the Labour leader’s beer and takeaway with “up to 30 people” last year whilst restrictions were in place.

Richard Holden MP has written to them to demand they re-open their investigation into Sir Keir Starmer, whilst Nadine Dorries says that “no reasonable person believes Labour’s story”.

Perhaps they’re on to something, because the Labour response has not been as assured as it might be. Today’s papers report that Starmer won’t confirm that he’ll cooperate with the police if they do reopen the investigation, and offering a pretty thin excuse for misleading the press over Angela Rayner’s attendance at the event now dubbed ‘Beergate’.

The danger for Starmer is that hypocrisy, or the perception thereof, is one of the most dangerous things in politics. Having struck a very pious note in his (broadly effective) harrying of Boris Johnson over Partygate, the Labour leader is more exposed if it turns out he broke the rules himself.

And having endorsed a retroactive investigation into Downing Street, it isn’t obvious what grounds he would have to object to Durham Constabulary looking into ‘Beergate’.

So we can expect the Conservatives to keep up their attacks as the local elections loom. They may well cause the Labour leader some difficulty, or take some pressure off the Prime Minister.

But if they do, it may only be by even further corroding the image of politics and politicians in the eyes of the public. ‘One rule for them’ might be an effective weapon if the Opposition can turn it on the Government; once it seems to apply to both of them, it’s just a recipe for disenchantment.

Noshaba Khiljee: The Government is making big strides towards addressing health inequalities post-Covid

29 Apr

Dr Noshaba Khiljee is a Consultant Nephrologist and Physician at Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust, and was a parliamentary candidate in 2019.

In March 2021, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Dr Tony Sewell, published its long-awaited report. It looked at four main areas: education and training; employment; crime and policing; and health.

In terms of health, the release of the Government’s response to the report has mostly been welcomed by healthcare professionals in the UK like myself. It is greatly appreciated to see the Government addressing such issues within ethnic minority groups.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected ethnic minority groups, with higher death rates in Black and Asian communities. On top of this, minority groups have historically tended to be worse affected by chronic medical conditions and have lower access to healthcare services.

Furthermore, minority communities are more likely to experience living and working conditions that predispose them to worse healthcare outcomes.

Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed that deaths from Covid-19 in the black and Bangladeshi communities was over four times that of the white population.

In addition, intensive care data also revealed an alarming picture. Although ethnic groups constitute 17 per cent of the UK population, they made up to a third of patients admitted to intensive care units during the pandemic.

Similar trends were also seen amongst staff working in the NHS. Some reports showed over 50 per cent of all deaths were from health workers born outside the UK, who represent less than 18 per cent of the workforce.

Furthermore, doctors from ethnic communities make up 44 per cent of doctors working in the NHS, yet 95 per cent of Covid-19 deaths occurred in this group. The first 11 deaths all belonged to ethnic groups, sadly including a prominent senior consultant working in my own hospital.

Amongst nursing staff, 60 per cent of all deaths occurred in ethnic minority groups who make up only 20 per cent of the workforce.

The Government’s report, Inclusive Britain, is looking to identify the causes of such health outcome differences, and to focus on prevention by looking into ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and geographical factors.

This report, launched by Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister, outlines a solid plan of action on how to address these issues on health, education, employment, crime, and policing as well as enterprise.

This is something many healthcare professionals like myself have been campaigning about – to understand the cause of such disparities and finding solutions – I am pleased to see this report address these issues.

We had seen a low uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine amongst the black and Asian community, including healthcare professionals. This may have been caused by a legacy of deep-rooted mistrust in vaccines and health services because of historic discrimination.

Recognising this, the Government has worked with key stakeholders, such as in collaboration community leaders, to halve the rate of vaccine hesitancy in black adults.

Coming from an ethnic group myself, I was pleased to see the Government, with the help of many trusted voices such as local faith leaders, influencers, social media and many volunteers, turn this into one of the most successful vaccines rollouts in the world.

We should also not forget that Britain was the first country in the world to administer the first dose. To date, 141 million doses have been administered, equivalent to more than 70 per cent of people fully vaccinated in the UK.

The Government has used extensive communication campaigns, both at local and national levels, to build trust and hence increase the vaccine uptake in ethnic minority groups markedly. Such efforts have been welcomed by medical experts, who themselves have campaigned vigorously to address such concerns.

The levelling-up agenda has also addressed the unacceptable health inequalities in society, particularly amongst ethnic minorities. This includes inequalities in areas such as housing deprivation, tobacco and alcohol use, diet, and physical activity.

The report also looks at the need for ethnic minority groups to participate in clinical trials and research, such as promoting the INCLUDE Ethnicity Framework. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), is looking at the potential bias caused by the design of medical devices and its impact on patients from different ethnic groups.

This could potentially affect diagnosis and treatment in such patients but awaits the findings of Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead’s report in 2023.

The Government’s report has also put in place how the health and social care regulators will measure workforce diversity and inclusion in all their inspections. For instance, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) will look at how hospitals are addressing the experiences, progression, and disciplinary actions in respect of ethnic minority staff in their workforce.

The pandemic has helped the government to learn lessons regarding ethnic minority groups. Their report has been welcomed and will help to build trust in our health institutions.

This will be vital in tackling the stark disparities in health outcomes across the UK, to ensure everyone can have the opportunity to live long, healthy lives wherever they live.

Although I can’t say this will tackle all inequalities, the Government has definitely taken some steps taken in the right direction and only time will tell.

Sebastian Rees: Recovering from the pandemic requires tackling the youth mental health crisis

15 Apr

Sebastian Rees is a researcher at Reform.

This Easter weekend feels a world away from the last year’s. We were still weeks from being able to socialise indoors, sit in a restaurant or do some ‘non-essential’ shopping. This weekend, families and friends will be celebrating together in the sunshine, rather than layering up to freeze in the local park with no more than 5 other people. What a difference a year makes.

Yet while the restrictions have been lifted, the after-effects of the pandemic continue to reverberate. Nowhere is that more the case than among young people. With schools closed, social restrictions in place, and access to support limited, the last two years have been devastating for children and teenagers.

Before the pandemic, one in nine young people had a probable mental health condition. That number has now jumped to one in six. Getting to grips with this distressing situation has to be a priority if the Government is serious about boosting education recovery, levelling up the country, and avoiding long-term costs to taxpayers.

The default when it comes to health is to call for more investment in NHS services. And ensuring CAMHS – Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services – has the resources it needs is vital. But if we’ve learnt anything from the constant injections of cash into the NHS, it’s that you can’t treat your way out of a crisis.

To the Government’s credit, they’ve recognised the need to move upstream – to support young people before complex treatment is necessary. This is better for them, and, unsurprisingly, better for taxpayers.

Schools have been the focus for achieving this since 2017, and it’s an approach that makes perfect sense. Schools are in constant contact with almost every young person; they are the place we make lifelong friends and develop the skills that prepare us for adulthood.

However, while the intention is right, the execution is falling short. In our latest report, ‘A revolution in mindset’, we argue that much more needs to be done to realise the potential of schools as enablers of good mental health.

To start with, schools need the tools to assess need. Currently, most schools are relying on ad hoc surveys or teachers picking up behavioural indicators. The problem with this is that many young people, particularly girls, internalise need. Experts told us this was particularly the case for pupils at risk of developing eating disorders, which have soared over the last decade. This means young people falling through the cracks, or identification coming too late.

Schools need a standardised survey to assess pupil wellbeing and identify poor mental health, something the Department for Education (DfE) should work with the Department for Health and Social Care to develop. They also need the tools to support those young people that need help.

Since 2019, the Government has been rolling out NHS funded Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) to schools across England. These school-based teams provide talking therapies to young people in one-on-one and group sessions. This is delivered by qualified mental health practitioners who tend to cover several schools in an area. In theory this is a great idea, and we spoke to teachers from around the country who felt it was making a real difference, but in practice we really don’t know if it is.

Despite putting nearly £400 million into this programme, we don’t have any outcomes data to know whether MHSTs are helping pupils recover. The Chancellor said in his Autumn Budget that every pound must be “spent well”. The DfE should take heed and urgently evaluate whether MHSTs are delivering value for money. And if it is found to work, the Government needs a much more ambitious roll out – by 2023 just 35 per cent of pupils will have access to an MHST.

But we can, and must, take even earlier steps to support young people’s mental health. PSHE provides a huge opportunity, but in its current form just isn’t working. An Ofsted report from last year found that young people felt that PSHE lessons were “not relevant to the reality of their lives”.

Or to put it another way, for too many pupils it is seen as a waste of time, when in fact it should be a key part of the curriculum equipping them with core life skills – from emotional regulation to conflict resolution. Or as Baroness Nicky Morgan puts it in her foreword to our report, it should put “character education” centre stage. This is exactly what happens in the Netherlands through the Skills for Life programme, which has been shown to significantly improve students’ self-efficacy.

Such an approach would kill two birds with one stone: young people would be better able to cope with adversity, and would also develop the valuable soft skills that so many employers report are lacking. Teacher training should be upgraded to include these new PHSE skills.

As we enjoy our restrictions-free Easter, and continue to move on from the pandemic, we must not forget the huge toll it has taken on young people’s mental health. The Government is right that schools hold the key to addressing this crisis, but without greater ambition, investment and reform it will come up short. It’s the least we can do for a generation of young people whose lives have been on hold.

Emily Carver: Are the scales finally falling from the nation’s eyes about ‘our NHS’?

13 Apr

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Customers are more demanding than ever. We expect instant gratification in most things, not least when it comes to our precious goods and services.

(I can’t be the only one who’s found myself unreasonably disgruntled when an Uber has taken more than ten minutes(!) to arrive.)

It takes a moment to book an appointment, make a reservation, or plan a trip. Now, at least for those of us living in major cities, we’ve even got the power to summon groceries to our homes, in less than ten minutes, and at all hours, through apps like Zapp and Jiffy.

This may sound rather extravagant, and perhaps it’s making us lazy, but capitalism has afforded us this level of convenience, and most of us are taking advantage of it in one way or another.

But not when it comes to ‘our NHS’, a health service that is looking staler and more antiquated by the day. With waiting lists at a record high (and growing) and face-to-face GP appointments as rare as gold dust, it’s unsurprising public satisfaction is at a 25-year-low.

We’re beginning to fall out of love with the NHS, and there are signs that the debate is beginning to shift too.

If people are waiting months and years for routine operations, can it really be said that the NHS is still universal? Universally inadequate, perhaps. Unless you happen to have won the postcode lottery.

More of us than ever are giving up altogether and deciding to forgo the bureaucracy and waiting lists. Polling this week showed that close to a third (29 per cent) of 18 to 34-year-olds said they would consider funding their own care.

For a generation accustomed to Netflix and next-day delivery, waiting days or even weeks for a GP appointment is intolerable.

Indeed, even before the pandemic shut GP surgeries, I gave in and downloaded a private GP app. Having struggled to get an appointment within a reasonable time scale, for me the small fee was worth the convenience of seeing a professional quickly.

Another recent survey showed 85 per cent of patients on NHS waiting lists have paid for or are considering private medical treatment, with 68 per cent ending up in debt as a result.

In a country that prides itself on having a health service free at the point of use and accessible to all, it is simply unacceptable for people to have to find the money or wait until it’s too late, due to the inadequacies of our system.

I think it’s fair to say that the NHS has pretty much gone from hero to (close to) zero over the course of the pandemic. The maternity scandal has revealed considerable structural and cultural problems within the Service, with half of our maternity wards revealed to be unsafe, potentially putting mothers and babies at risk.

Shockingly, research published last week claimed that a third of cancer cases in the UK are only diagnosed after the patient went to A&E with cancer-related symptoms.

At the same time, NHS trusts have issued guidance telling patients not to turn up at A&E unless you have “genuine, life-threatening situations”.

We are frequently told that the NHS is dangerously understaffed; data from between January and March of last year shows there were around 76,500 full-time equivalent advertised vacancies in hospital and community services alone – a shortfall of six per cent.

Yet, over the last decade, it’s been senior NHS managers who have seen their wages rise – and by significantly more than those on the front-line. Their pay packets have risen 65 per cent in the last ten years, while nurses’ wages have received a relatively meagre 35 per cent bump.

One might reasonably ask why it is bureaucrats and managers who are receiving inflated salaries at time when the service is struggling to recruit much-needed doctors and nurses.

Predictably, some commentators claim that the Tories created this crisis in the NHS. That it is all part of an elaborate plan to privatise the NHS by stealth and end free universal healthcare.

This would be convincing were it not for the small fact that they’ve continued to pour record amounts into a broken system. Sir Keir Starmer may like to further this untruth on social media, last year accusing the Government of cutting £30bn in day-to-day health spending.

Of course, he fails to mention that this is no such cut, but rather an ending of emergency Covid funding, which, presumably most sensible people would accept could only ever be temporary.

Even so, healthcare spending is set to reach 39 per cent of total day-to-day departmental spending this year and has been going up consistently year-on-year, and in real terms. Not a very effective way to end the NHS, I would argue.

As more people turn to private healthcare, unable to risk their lives on waiting lists any longer, and the NHS can’t even get the basics like GP appointments right, the narrative is shifting.

The penny is starting to drop that we’re not getting value for money, particularly when we compare our often woeful health outcomes to countries which spend similar amounts on their healthcare systems.

The use of private healthcare may return to more normal levels once the Covid backlog is more manageable, but it may also pave the way to a more sensible discussion around market-based reforms.

We need to accept our NHS isn’t working properly, rethink the infantile NHS adoration, and admit it’s time to redress its shortcomings. Without this, the dream of universal healthcare may be well and truly over.

We Zoomers are looking for our Falklands moment – and for our Margaret Thatcher.

6 Apr

At a dinner during the recent Blackpool Spring Conference, members of the ConservativeHome team discussed which major event first sparked their interest in politics.

This lead, unsurprisingly, to a discussion of how old we were and where we had been when we had heard the dreadful news on September 11 2001.

“I was eight, and at school”, came one reply. “I was at university, writing an essay”, came another. It was my turn. I looked a little sheepish. “Erm, I don’t really know where I was. I was 1.” Silence from the assembled team. “I was probably in my nappy.” I helpfully added.

They were incredulous. Various comments went around about my making them feel ancient. But there was also interest and astonishment at that central revelation – that there are people now working in politics who can’t remember a world before 9/11.

In fact, as someone born in 1999, several big political events penetrated my young consciousness. I can remember watching unemployment tick up in 2008, David Cameron and Nick Clegg waving from Downing Street in 2010, and Russian tanks rolling into Crimea in 2014.

I only really got into politics later that year, with the Scottish independence referendum. Since then, things have hardly been quiet: three general elections, Brexit, pandemics, wars, and Love Island. Certainly, all these referendums and elections and moments of historical importance have shaped my outlook and prevented me from junking my political interests for something more worthy.

But as we mark the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands War, it strikes me that that conflict had a similarly crucial affect on the young psyches of my parents as the various events of the last few years have had on mine.

Both were teenagers in 1982. Mum wanted to join the SAS. We still have a letter from Downing Street politely declining her request to enlist on the basis they took neither girls nor 13-year-olds. Dad wanted to be Ian Botham. Or, erm, Gary Numan.

Nevertheless, both were wise enough not to be teenage politicos. Having grown up during the 1970s (“Brown.” according to Dad. “Everything was brown.”), their experience of the news was limited to strikes, inflation, and a scary lady in blue becoming progressively more unpopular. Britain was a miserable country, where the memory of the Second World War acted as an immediate reminder of how far we had fallen.

So when the Argentinian junta – enthusiasts for sunglasses, inflation, and attaching electrodes to dissidents’ unmentionables – occupied those soggy little faraway islands, it was naturally a shock. And quite exciting, for a pair of teenagers still coming down from the highs of the Iranian Embassy siege and Bob Willis taking 8-43 at Headingley.

They both followed the war obsessively. Dad can still remember listening on the radio as Port Stanley was liberated. For both, they understood it as a turning point. This supposedly clapped-out, impoverished, relic of a country actually wasn’t actually any of those things. Britain was still Great, and we had found ourselves in the South Atlantic.

Today, 40 years on, those few weeks still hold an important place in my parents’ imagination. The Sheffield, Goose Green, Lieutenant Colonel Jones, Exocet, ‘Rejoice!’, and all the rest – words and images that sum up the moment when this country changed.

Yes, there was still more to do with reforming the unions, staring down Scargill, and falling out with Geoffrey Howe. But the impression I have always been left with is that is when you could tell the rot had stopped.

Of course, that afterglow wasn’t permanent. We may be far from the ‘sick man of Europe’ today – indeed, one would make the case we have long been its healthiest member – and the reforms that Thatcher introduced have lasted. But we are once again a country that has lost its pride.

My generation doesn’t really go in for patriotism. We may like a street party, enjoy the Olympics, and fervently believe that “it’s coming home” every time Harry Kane scores on the international stage. But the Falklands is as ancient for us as the Second World War was for my parents. We can’t imagine that world anymore, especially as lives pass and memory becomes myth.

For those of us worldly-wise enough to be young Conservatives there is a natural longing to recreate those halcyon days. The popularity of Liz Truss amongst teen Tories is not just down to her disco-dancing talents. Her aping of Thatcher, upsetting Russians and posing in tanks, appeals to those yearning for a figure of the stature, willpower, and magnificence of Grantham’s greatest daughter.

Having dated a few strong-willed OUCA Presidents and female Oxford chemists in my time, I can certainly understand the appeal. Freud would have a field day. We Zoomers are looking for our Falklands moment and for our Margaret Thatcher. After years of financial crises, Covid, austerity, and war, we are in desperate need of a victory to prove to us there is something to rejoice for.

The Ukraine Crisis and President Zelensky’s slightly scratches this itch. But it is someone else’s war. All the wars Britain has been involved in since the Falklands have been international interventions done in the name of highfalutin causes like human rights, fighting terrorism, and keeping in with the Americans. British lives have not been fighting for British soil.

Similarly, the pandemic saw many comparisons made with the Second World War. Whether through the V-E Day anniversary, Captain Tom’s deification, or the genuine sense of a combined national effort, it was our chance to ape the Home Front that every English schoolchild had studied. And since I was dishonourably discharged from my school RAF section for being rubbish at marching, it is the closest I will likely get to realising my dream of recreating the Battle of Britain.

But still. The pandemic was not a victory. It produced no heroes, however often we may have clapped. It did not prove to us that Britain was still brilliant. Instead, it saw the state rob us of our freedoms for two years whilst racking up a lot of debt, to protect us against a disease that largely affected the old and vulnerable. I want to forget it.

One of the reasons I backed Brexit as a 16-year-old was that I thought it could be a springboard to national revival. Three years of wrangling and the Government’s underwhelming approach to our new freedoms has ended those illusions. Britain may no longer be a nation in retreat, but it is hardly one heading for any sunlit uplands.

Perhaps I am being too gloomy. After all, Thatcher had been a teenager during the Second World War. For her, the task force’s endeavours were an opportunity to recapture the spirit of her beloved ‘Winston’, and prove Britain still was the country it had been. And it must have been the same for millions of others.

So. there might be something permanently nostalgic in the national psyche. I’m a particularly bad offender: with a young fogey wardrobe, passion for Bowie, and well-thumbed copy of Brideshead Revisited, I am as lost in the early 80s as DI Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes. Maybe I’m just pining for my own fantasy of what the Falklands War meant.

And yet I can’t help yearning for proof that Britain still has it in her, and for a Prime Minister willing to make tough but necessary choices. Sometimes, conflict is unavoidable, both in international relations and domestic politics. The Falklands proved the former, and Thatcher’s triumphs at home certainly proved the latter. Re-reading John Hoskyns’ Just in Time recently has reminded me of both the battles she had to fight and just how worthwhile they were.

Whether on Ukraine, housing, the NHS, or a half dozen other topics, we could do with some of her Iron today – and with some of her victories. Unhappy the land that has no heroes? No, unhappy the land that needs a hero.

Or, in this case, heroine.