General Election 2024: From chaos to hope and disillusionment and then back again to chaos

Professor John Bryson reflects on four key challenges facing an incoming new Government

Night scene of the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey lit up with a purple night sky behind

This has been a very strange election constructed around a very weak political debate that has been centred around the words ‘hope’ and ‘change’.

If elected, Labour’s promise is to restore hope and to end the Conservative chaos. Whilst to the Green Party this election offers a chance for ‘real hope’ and ‘real change’. Hope is a very odd word as this feeling is founded upon expectation and too often these expectations remain unfulfilled, and hope then becomes despair and disillusionment, or even disenchantment.

The new UK government will experience a period in which hope remains as a promise, but rapidly disenchantment will set in as those living in the UK come to appreciate that one form of chaos has been replaced by more chaos. The only question concerns how long it will take for all to become disillusioned with the new government.

Some of us avoid this process which transforms hope to disillusionment by appreciating that there are very few competent politicians, and that change is not necessarily equated with improvement. For me there are four core challenges facing our new government:

Too much change results in uncertainty and this then destroys hope, and the outcome is disillusionment.

Professor John Bryson

1. Political fiscal prudence: The word ‘prudence’ is associated with Gordon Brown but should be central to all governments.

Since 1970/71, the UK government has had a surplus in only five years with the last being in 2000/01. At the end of 2023/24 public sector debt was £2,690 billion or £2.6 trillion, or 98% of Gross Domestic Product. In 2023/24, government spent £102bn in interest on its borrowing or 8.4% of all government spending. In 2022-23, the UK government spent £211.6bn on health, £105.5bn on education and £55bn on defence.

The proportion that is spent on health has been rising and this has been offset by a decrease in defence expenditure. This is the peace legacy, but this legacy no longer exists and there needs to be a dramatic and immediate increase in defence expenditure. The amount spent in interest on government borrowing is astonishing and will only increase as the UK government continues to borrow to fund everyday expenditure.

The challenge here is that in 2023/24 the government borrowed £121bn and of this £102bn was needed to cover interest on accumulated borrowing.

2. Political constraint: Too much change results in uncertainty and this then destroys hope, and the outcome is disillusionment.

There is a real danger that a government with a supermajority will develop a change agenda that will add to UK government borrowings, but also the result will be chaos. Political constraint is required.

A core issue is that the civil service has limited capacity to support change and any increase in the civil service will contribute to government borrowing.

3. Political procrastination: Politics is a terribly slow process.

Too often UK politicians avoid major challenges hoping that they will fade away. This is compounded by every politician being too focused on their own favoured policy area. There is an obvious challenge here in that political procrastination increases societal chaos and resulting damage.

Reducing the duration of a shock reduces the time an individual, group or system is in an actual or potential damaging state. A window of opportunity exists for a political solution that would reduce damage, but too often political procrastination escalates damage. The 2024 election manifestos are packed with such political procrastinations, and these include avoiding an immediate solution to the social care crisis, the higher education funding crisis, and the defence funding crisis.

All three systems are critical for national security, and all are in a damaging state through political procrastination.

4. Political transparency: Economic growth is required to solve this country’s structural fiscal deficit with the alternative being a dramatic reduction in government expenditure.

In realty, economic growth must be combined with productivity enhancements to public sector service delivery. All this requires, the incoming government to remove uncertainty as it is uncertainty that will prevent companies and entrepreneurs from investing in the UK. There needs to be certainty over taxation, and over all policy areas that directly and indirectly support job makers and wealth creators.

Without this certainty, decision-makers will decide to shift investment away from the UK.

The next government is unlikely to develop solutions to these four challenges. This realization means that I will not be amongst those voters who rapidly become disenchanted with our new government.

The next five years will see change and for some these changes will come with despair rather than hope. However, all that will have happened is that one form of chaos will be replaced by a new form.

Notes for editors

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