David Willetts: Solving our nation’s problems requires a fair deal for the young

3 Dec

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.  

Civil society is a powerful concept covering every form of association which stands between the individual and the state. It is one of the great strengths of modern liberal democracies and distinguishes them from totalitarian states or dictatorships which are hostile to it.

I myself have written about “civic conservatism”, to challenge a critique of free market economics that it was just about atomistic and selfish individuals and left no room for the institutions which are outside the market but not controlled by the state. They are the ones which often make life worthwhile.

Margaret Thatcher was often caricatured (and is again in the new series of The Crown) as just thinking of balance sheets and accountancy when she also wanted to roll back the state to create more space for civil associations.

But the breadth of the concept of civil society produces risks and difficulties too. It can become an amorphous shifting residual: what is left after more powerful forces such as market and state have done their bit. It is like that strand of theology, “the God of the gaps”, in which the divine is thought to be expressed in phenomena which are not yet explained by science.

That opens the question of what kind of relationship civil society has to other forms of social organisation. There is an ideological debate about whether the state should be seen as friend or enemy. Did the creation of the modern welfare state in the first half of the twentieth century lead to the destruction of the friendly societies, or was it partly a response to their increasing weakness in the face of the rise of those twin features of a modern industrial society – unemployment and retirement?

The relationship between civil society and the family is not straightforward either. The instinct to look after one’s own family is natural and noble. But family ties reinforced by inheritance can be bad for social mobility. Extended families can themselves act as a kind of mini-civil society serving their own kith and kin, but are those relationships benign or a kind of clan-based corruption? The rise of civil society in Great Britain was in part the product of small nuclear families and limited government leaving space in which civil society, at least of a certain sort, could thrive.

Close up, civil society proves to be a surprisingly controversial idea. But engaging with tricky issues is better than the alternative, which is to leave it just as a vague appeal to do good. Civil society then becomes a kind of social glue which we imagine we can pour over a diverse and divided society to try to hold it together. Asking for us to be good and co-operate with others is admirable, but on its own may not actually get us very far.

Instead we should start with much more limited and less favourable assumptions about human behaviour. The challenge is to try to construct policies promoting civil society with minimal prior assumptions. Instead of trying to stick us together with benign altruism, it is more like dry-stone walling where the stones are held together not because they want to be, but because of the most basic natural forces and skilled institutional design. The starting assumptions about humans should be as limited as those which lie behind modern economics.

The intellectual resources of game theory and evolutionary biology then help to show a way forward from this apparently unpropitious starting point. One of the classic puzzles in modelling human behaviour is the Prisoner’s Dilemma – two criminals are arrested with strong incentives to betray each other even though they both do best if neither of them betrays. As neither can trust the other not to betray them, they end up both betraying and therefore are both worse off.

The dilemma forces us to think through the circumstances in which humans can co-operate. A key advance was made by Robert Axelrod when he showed that if we think of this dilemma not as a one-off but as an endlessly repeated exercise, then it becomes rational not to betray until you are betrayed. This in turn helps us to understand what institutions do. They provide environments where repeated interactions promote co-operative behaviour. And we are talking here of real institutions which can do much more than the much more invertebrate concept of community.

This raises another set of other problems. Do such patterns of behaviour within institutions reward insiders versus outsiders? Indeed, one of the liveliest issues animating a lot of politics is who are the insiders, and who are the outsiders? Some feeling against immigrants comes from the fear, however unjustified, that they are freeloaders, coming to benefit from a welfare state to which they have not contributed. It is one of the paradoxes of liberalism that it embraces diversity, but that it may also reduce support for a welfare state.

And what if the insiders are the members of our own generation? Think of a local residents’ association committed to supporting the local community. Its volunteers serve as councillors or as school governors, but they are all middle-aged or older owner-occupiers and oppose new housing in their area because they are unaware or uninterested in the younger people desperate to get on the housing ladder.

Why should they care about the younger generation? Well it makes sense to look after the younger generation because as we get older we hope they will look after us. It is not just a one off decision, it will shape what they do to us later. In the wise words of the great American bumper sticker – “be nice to your kids they choose your nursing home.” And as tax payers they might be helping to finance your nursing home as well.

So if we boomers treat them fairly now they may treat us better when the boot is on the other foot. Or as Paul Samuelson put it very well: “giving goods to an older person is figuratively giving goods to yourself when old”. It is these exchanges between generations which are at the heart of society, and also the modern welfare state. It is why services from education (for the young) and health care (for the old) matter so much to us.

At any one moment they may look like transactions with someone else, but they are also exchanges with ourselves at different stages of the life cycle. It is easy to think of these people of different ages as just different – imprinted with different experiences during their formative years and familiar with different technologies. But there is another way of thinking of them: just like us but of a different age. And the more we can connect with them the more we may continue to support these exchanges between different generations which keep society together.

That is particularly true as the country faces up to both the demographic challenge associated with the big baby boomer generation growing old and the need for rebuilding and renewing associated with recovery from the pandemic. Building back better must be above all an investment in the younger generation who have had the greatest economic hit from the epidemic. We owe it to them.

The above is an extract from ‘Civil Society, Unleashed’, an essay collection published by Pro Bono Economics on December 1.

What Thatcher’s response to the AIDS crisis teaches us about tackling the present pandemic

1 Dec

“There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” the soundtrack begins. “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure…”

A volcano erupts, a hail of boulders rains down a cliff, and to the sound of wild, funereal music a pneumatic drill and a chisel carve from the solid rock a tombstone bearing the single word AIDS, on which a bunch of lilies is thrown.

This must be one of the most frightening public information films ever made, directed by Nic Roeg, voiced by John Hurt, and intended to strike fear into viewers and get them to read the “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” leaflet which was distributed to 23 million households.

On World AIDS Day, it is worth recalling that in the 1980s another pandemic struck: a lethal and mysterious illness for which there was no cure.

The parallels between AIDS and Covid-19 should not be pushed too far, but are nevertheless illuminating, and in the fulness of time have even become encouraging, for the HIV Commission today publishes its plan for England to become by 2030 the first country in the world to eliminate the transmission of the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

The Commission’s key recommendation is “test, test, test”, and as one of its members, Steve Brine MP (Con, Winchester), yesterday told ConHome, “in the context of the last nine months, you really get what we’re saying”.

Both pandemics struck during periods of Conservative government, and posed enormous troubles for the Prime Minister of the day.

In August 1975, when there had been 206 confirmed cases of AIDS in the United Kingdom, of whom 114 had died, Margaret Thatcher was told by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Acheson, that it was likely AIDS could be transmitted heterosexually as well as homosexually.

What message was to be given to the public? In his brilliant account, beginning on page 71 of Herself Alone, the third volume of his life of Thatcher, Charles Moore quotes David Willetts, then a member of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, who told her, “We have to walk a difficult tightrope between being accused of bureaucratic inertia, and being so active as to whip up public hysteria,” and went on:

“We simply don’t know whether everybody with the virus will eventually go down with the symptoms of the disease. So we would be telling people that they may get the clinical disease, but we don’t know; and if they have got it, we can’t cure it. That’s not a very satisfactory message, but seems to be the best course out of several unattractive alternatives.”

The problem was rendered still more difficult by the close association which emerged between AIDS and homosexuality. Some people seized the chance to express the disgust and hatred they felt for homosexuals: as Willetts warned, there was a danger of fomenting public hysteria.

Some Conservatives, and some religious leaders, urged the Prime Minister to preach the virtues of abstinence.

Thatcher declined to treat AIDS as an opportunity for moralising. For her it was a scientific and medical problem. As Moore writes, she was happiest “when she had a concrete and exact point to advance”.

She was a Tory pragmatist: she wanted to solve the problem, not prate about it. Those who have insisted on understanding her in ideological terms have often overlooked how practical she was.

But part of being practical was framing a public message about the dangers of anal sex, and here she took some persuading, which was done by the Health Secretary, Norman Fowler, who in March 1986 told her that the advice to avoid anal intercourse, “which has been linked with 85 per cent of AIDS cases so far”, must remain in advertisements to be placed in the press, or else these would lose all “medical authority and credibility”.

Lord Fowler, who has worked to this day to reduce and at length eradicate HIV, has recalled how difficult things were in the 1980s, and why at the start of 1987 a yet bigger public health campaign, which included the television advertisements, was warranted:

“We had no knowledge of this disease and no drugs with which to treat it. I was reading a note the other day from the Chief Medical Officer at the time and some of the predictions as to what could happen were terrifying – we were talking millions and millions of people becoming infected. That’s why we launched what is still the biggest public health campaign there’s ever been in this country with leaflets sent out to every home.”

In the 1980s, the predictions of the scientists did not always prove accurate. So too today. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock prefer to present themselves as following the science, than as adherents of a theory of freedom which would allow them to ignore what the scientists were saying.

They too are Tory pragmatists, most interested in what works, even if that has to be discovered by an agonising process of trial and error.

Thatcher was always worried, and with good reason, that although she and her colleagues insisted “the Health Service is safe in our hands”, the voters would not believe them. Johnson can be seen guarding at every turn against that danger.

Caroline Slocock, the first female private secretary at Number Ten, has described a visit Thatcher eventually undertook to an AIDS hospice, without any press in attendance, partly because she did not wish to seem to be competing with the well-known work already done in this field by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The first patient she sees is clearly “very ill and has no hope of recovery”. Slocock goes on:

“I feel out of my depth. I have never been at the bedside of a dying person before and I feel strongly that family and friends should be there at this moment, not us… She [Thatcher] responds by taking a seat by his side, asking questions, expressing sympathy, connecting in a simple and genuine way, to which he responds sweetly. She comes across as more of a mother than a Prime Minister…

“After about ten minutes, we leave him and go into the second room. Inside, sitting in a chair beside his bed, is a young American man, also extremely thin. The virus has attacked his brain too, as it does in the final stages, we are told afterwards, and he is excited and confused. At first he thinks she must be a creation of his own mind, a delusion. But then he begins to believe that she really is Margaret Thatcher, but sent to him miraculously to hear his thoughts and to pass them on to President Bush. He tells her to ring the President. It is imperative that action is taken now to help people like him – that is his message. He is overexcited, it is very difficult to know how to respond, and it is very, very sad.

“I desperately want to get out of the room. I feel responsible for putting them both through this awkward scene. Margaret Thatcher is unfazed and behaves as if she has all the time in the world. She places her hand on his arm, asks him a few questions about his life and listens, in a way that demonstrates that she is real, not a phantom, and is there because she cares and wishes him well. He calms down in response. It is simple, human stuff, but I am in awe of it.

“When we leave them, we ask the staff about their families. It turns out that neither have felt able to tell their parents that they are gay, let alone that they have AIDS, and so they are dying alone.”

For a quite different reason, the need to prevent infection, many sufferers from Covid-19 have lived and died alone.

While reading about the 1980s, it struck me that there was often no correlation between a politician’s views on other questions, and what he or she thought about AIDS.

This elementary point has sometimes been overlooked in coverage of the present pandemic. The urgent need to get things done, in order to avert or relieve suffering, trumps whatever abstract views one may have about the right way to set about this.

In January 2019, when Steve Brine was serving as Public Health Minister, and three charities – The Elton John AIDS Foundation, National AIDS Trust and Terrence Higgins Trust – came to him with proposals for the eradication in England of HIV, he gave the Government’s support and approval to what they wanted to do, as did Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary.

Brine said yesterday:

“We had a policy decision, we had the science that allowed us to approve it. The science of PrEP [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis], which has been a huge game-changer, now allows us to finish the job.”

A connecting thread of pragmatism links the 1980s to the present day. Lord Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, traces this tradition of unmoralistic pragmatism further back:

“‘Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas’: Disraeli’s famous misquotation from the fourth century Vulgate in the course of his great three-hour speech in Manchester in April 1872 defining modern conservatism rings down the years. He understood that moral censoriousness had no more place in health policy than in private life. In this respect, Boris Johnson, like successful Tory leaders before him, follows in the great Disraelian tradition.”

Three actions that Ministers must take if we’re to live without fear. Or else they and we will be lost.

15 Oct

If ConservativeHome is writing about the Coronavirus, we know where to look for Government information.  A mass of guidance and information is available.

But if, on the other hand, we want to find out the number of operations postponed since the original lockdown was announced on March 24; or that of cancer deaths; or that of those brought about by heart disease; or the harm wrought by rising mental health problems, or domestic abuse, or lost schooling, the Government has not compiled the relevant information and statistics for publication in a way that makes these easily available to find and read.

We are better off if we wish to report the number of job losses.  But these are not issued together by the Government with, say, the rise in child and poverty since late March.  There is no one-stop-shop source of official information about the damage to the economy since then – to livelihoods as well as to lives.  As well, as we say, about those other harms to lives.

Now it is true that not all cancer deaths since March 24, say, can fairly be blamed on the long shutdown.  But it isn’t beyond the wit of man to work out the number of deaths since then compared to those of a comparable six month period in a usual year.

It is also the case that some of any figures published would be contestable.  But that’s also true of official Coronavirus estimates.  For example, the task of working out the number of deaths in England has been has been complicated by two major changes in the way they have been calculated (in April and August).

There is an urgent point to this dry analysis.  Today, Boris Johnson is trapped in a pincer movement between Labour, which is arguing for a short national lockdown, and his own party, which inclines to fewer restrictions faster.  He will try to find a compromise – by tightening the conditions in the most repressive of the Government’s new three tiers, and extending these.  That would enable him to toughen up while avoiding an England-wide shutdown.

So the Prime Minister is set gradually to be dragged by Keir Starmer towards that circuit-breaker lockdown in all but name.  And once in it, there will be no quick way out, since the test and trace system isn’t working well enough to quell the rise in cases that would follow the end of the shutdown.  So that wouldn’t happen at all, or at least only do in a curtailed form.  We would be in semi-lockdown semi-permanently – which seems to be SAGE’s real aim.

All in all, we are all being manoeuvered into an annual cycle of near-total winter lockdowns and partially-eased summer ones, until or unless a vaccine is widely available, herd immunity is achieved or the virus abates.

This would risk bankrupting the country.  National debt hit a record £2 trillion in September.  It has reached 100.5 per cent of GDP, the highest level in 60 years.  We cannot be sure that Britain would be able to borrow for the duration at the present rock-bottom rates to grow its way out of trouble.  Even if it could, there is no guarantee that enough growth would come to stave off medium-term spending cuts and tax rises.

These would intensify the damage that this crisis is inflicting on lives as well as livelihoods – the rising toll in cancer deaths and educational harm and mental health problems which we refer to above, and so much more, including more poverty and deprivation.

Which takes us back to those figures.  There is fierce dispute about whether voters are really as supportive of harsher lockdowns as the polls suggest.  But Johnson can scarcely be blamed for not wanting to sail against the prevailing political weather.

In order to steer his way out of it, he will have to change it: changing the weather, after all, is what the best politicians do. In short, the Government must try to widen and deepen the national conversation about the Coronavirus.  That will take a bit of time.

It entails drawing voters’ attention to the wider social and economic damage that living semi-permanently in lockdown would do. Some of the information that would help to do this is already out there.  As Raghib Ali has pointed out on this site, the Department of Health’s own health cost-benefit analysis shows that to date “in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths”.

But Government sources tell ConservativeHome that the Department of Health has been resistant to getting all the healthcare-related facts and figures together in one place.  That’s perhaps not surprising given its focus on the virus.  It’s more surprising that the Treasury hasn’t done a parallel exercise on the economy.

Ultimately, it’s up to Downing Street to make the case, backed up by more information and strategic messaging, against more national lockdowns, with the damage to lives and livelihoods that this would bring.  But the key player in forcing it to change is Rishi Sunak.

If we are truly to live with the virus and “live without fear”, as the Chancellor put it in the Commons recently, we must prepare to shift, in the absence of a track and trace plan that works, to a less restrictive and more voluntarist policy – one based on the balance of risk between the harm that Covid-19 does and the harm that shutdowns do.

And an indispensable part of any push for change is shifting public opinion to support it.  This site has been calling since the spring for the Government to publish its estimate of non-Coronavirus healthcare costs to date; of the costs of lockdown to the economy to date, and of the total cost and total saving of the lockdown (which can be calculated by assigning a value, as government does elsewhere, to each human life in Britain).

Sunak, together with Ministers in other economic departments, such as Alok Sharma at BEIS, needs to push for three actions:

  •  A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown.  That’s within his own gift, as it were, and the work could start today.
  • A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown.  That will be harder to get.  The Chancellor will need the Prime Minister’s support to extract it.
  • The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE that considers livelihoods as well as lives, thus ensuring broader advice to the Prime Minister.

Finally, Ministers can’t act as the sole pathfinders for policy.  Intrinsic to Margaret Thatcher’s success during the 1980s was the work of think-tanks and Conservative MPs in preparing the way for change.

There are a mass of Tory backbench groups and wider pressure organisations.  The One Nation Caucus comes to mind for us at once, because Damian Green, its Chair, wrote a perceptive piece for this site yesterday about the choices that the Government now faces.  Perhaps it or the No Turning Back Group – to pick a Parliamentary group a bit different in outlook – could produce a report.

Some of the think tanks are already working in this field.  The Resolution Foundation has done an intergenerational audit.  (See also David Willetts’ recent ConHome piece.)  Policy Exchange has probed the Government’s NHS tracing app.  (Benjamin Barnard wrote about its findings for us here.)  The Institute of Economic Affairs has examined the NHS’ shortcomings; the Centre for Policy Studies has led the way in probing economic costs.

But more work will be needed if public opinion is to move.  In the meantime, Sunak must continue to lead the way.

We need a Plan B for universities as well as schools – and much the same one

28 Sep

Government sources insist that students will be allowed to go home for Christmas – and not be locked up en masse, as they have been at some universities, unable to leave halls of residence.

Ruth Davidson has swooped on the shutdown in Scotland, writing that students have been confined to their rooms, barred from visiting shops to buy food – let alone pubs or restaurants – banned from travelling home, policed by extra security staff and threatened with letters instructing compliance under threat of suspension.

These, remember, aren’t people who necessarily have Covid-19, or who have been directly in contact with others who do.  It isn’t obvious that the situation is much different in parts of England, where some three thousand students are apparently also locked down.

Nor is it clear how many students will be able to be at home with their family when Christmas comes.  For either the Government’s latest restrictions will be in place, if Boris Johnson maintains his grip on policy, or else even stricter ones will have superceded them.  We hope that mass testing will be up and running by then, but aren’t counting our chickens, or Yuletide turkeys either, come to that.

In which case, the number of students allowed home will depend on the number who have symptoms of the virus, since those who have it must self-isolate for 14 days by law, as must those contacted by test-and-trace services.  Government guidance also says that “all other household members need to stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days” if another has the virus.  What happens when the location is not a home but student accommodation?

This provokes the further question of whether students should have returned to university.  If you want to attack Ministers, you will claim that the present tangle was forseeable.  If you want to defend it, you will counter that normality must resume – as nearly as possible, anyway.

There are a number of short-term means of plastering over the cracks, none of which will provide a smooth and seamless finish.  Some universities are offering vouchers for food, or rebates, or providing food directly.  Robert Halfon wants the students affected to recieve discounts.

The colleges will argue that they shouldn’t pay these, since they aren’t responsible for the lockdown rules.  The Chancellor might well say in response that this may be so, but the Commons can’t simply load more debt on the taxpayer indefinitely – or there won’t be any public money for universities in the first place.

There are issues for the long-term as well as for the short.  The central aim of the Government’s latest Covid-19 measures is to build a firewall between work and home, with the former operating as near normally as possible but the latter less, as part of the balance to protect livelihoods as well as lives.

Schools are placed in the former category, partly because parents will be unable to work normally if they aren’t, and partly because of the value we place on education.  University education also has value, both to the economy and in its own right.

But it has never been universally available to all regardless of qualification, as is obviously the case for primary and secondary schooling.  And as our columnist Neil O’Brien notes, the number of students in higher education is out of balance: for around ten per cent of women, and a quarter of men, their degree isn’t worth it.

He wrote recently that “highly subsidised universities would propose to government how they will reduce their cost to the taxpayer. That could mean reducing numbers on some courses, or making them cheaper with shorter degrees, or and doing more online. Or a mix”.  This is where student accomodation comes in.  Why do a higher proportion of British students leave home for higher education, compared to some other comparable countries?

The answer is bound up with the monopoly that Oxford and Cambridge held on university education in England from the medieval period until 1827, when University College, London, opened.  In consequence, an assumption was written into our educational culture that if students were to go university, they should go to it rather than it come to them.

This was less so on the continent, where local universities are more common – though our national picture has changed as new universities have suddenly sprung up fully-formed, or as other institutions have gradually become universities.

So for example, David Willetts, in his A University Education, traces the story of how, in Bradford, the Mechanics Institute morphed its way through Bradford Technical School to Bradford Technical College to the Bradford College of Art & Technology to Bradford College…to Bradford University.

However, there is no uniform story of locally-rooted colleges becoming Oxbridge-type universities, complete with ivy-laden walls or red brick or both.  The former colleges of advanced techology, such as Braford itself, have spells in industry as part of their courses.  Others have links to regional or local industries.

All of which reinforces the question of whether the country needs so many other universities and students following the Oxbridge model in the first place.

The short-term pressure on living space, accomodation and lecture rooms will intensify next year, as the knock-on effects of this year’s A-level fiasco work their way through the system, because of the students who have now qualified to enter a university, but have been forced to postpone entry until next year.

Meanwhile, the long-term trend to doing more online is being speeded up by the Coronavirus, as the move from learning together from lectures in big rooms to doing to separately from screens in smaller ones gathers pace.  Furthermore, universities aren’t always in full control of the living quarters that they offer students.

Halfon is certainly right in believing that the Government needs a Plan B for universities – mirroring the one that both he, this site and others have called for in schools, as the Covid-19 case numbers rise.

Obviously, universities have an independence from government that schools don’t.  But it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to design a fee and finance system that rewards universities for more online teaching.

Such a solution would be fiercely debated.  Moving schooling online temporarily is one thing; shifting “the university experience” online too would be another (though to some extent this is happening already).

We already complain that young people are stuck at home for too long.  Do we want them there during their university years, too?

What about the horizan-widening that moving to a new place brings, together with mixing with others from outside one’s home town, city or village?

Our bleak answer is that one can no more turn back the online tide than one could turn back a real one, and that the universities, like so much and many elsewhere, have no alternative but to sink or swim in it.