Ecological neglect is our dismal legacy

Amidst a family Christmas and surrounded by grandchildren, I remarked to my daughter that the next generation would have to face huge problems largely unforeseen when I started out in politics forty odd years ago. "Hmm," she said, "you told me twenty years ago that that would be true of my generation." It is true that, by skill, good luck and manipulation, the impact of the global problems that await us has been postponed. Those problems have not, however, gone away, and, like one of those "rolled up" mortgages, the repayment will be much tougher when it eventually arrives.

To those of us who grew up in the '50s and the '60s a magic carpet of uninterrupted progress appeared to be unfurled before us. Economic growth just happened, there was little or no unemployment, and the word "ecology" did not exist. If one was among the fortunate few able to go to university all the costs were met by the state, unless one's parents were rich. The class differences were certainly marked but with the key addition that there was an "artisan" class of craftsmen which has all but disappeared - plumbers, electricians, plasterers, mechanics and their like - who were rightly proud of having "served their time" as apprentices to learn a trade. And if one's job was "superannuated", then one could look forward to a comfortable and worry free retirement.

Internationally, we had the Cuba crisis of 1963 after which Western Europe settled down to enjoy peaceful coexistence with the new leadership of the Soviet Union and to keep well clear of what the Americans were doing in Vietnam.

The indications have been increasingly visible for over twenty years that this rosy vista was clouding over. I recall the then Cabinet minister, Norman Fowler, appearing before the Select Committee to explain the actuarial problems of maintaining the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (SERPS). There would simply not be enough people in work to retain it. Whereas in 1985 there were 2.3 people in employment for every person on pension, this was projected to decline to 1.8 in employment for each pensioner by 2010. But, of course, as ever, the government fudged the issue and came up with a changed scheme rather than confront the issue publicly.

The consequence of such fudges is that situation facing our grandchildren today is far more acute than it need be. It always annoys me that the IMF and the World Bank insist on "structural adjustment programmes," which hit developing countries hard, before they will lend them money, but the countries providing the money never see the need for structural adjustment in their own economies. Perhaps even more surprising is that the public do not man the barricades against the politicians who have for ages reared the chickens which are rapidly winging their way home to roost.

Take the private pension situation. The declining number of those on final salary schemes may be fortunate enough to maintain the value of their pensions, but those, myself included, who have paid into cash purchase schemes have seen their expected pension entitlement decline by a third or more in recent years. The members of Equitable Life have suffered worst of all and they organised themselves collectively and achieved significant publicity, but the rest are spread over so many different schemes that similar co-ordination is difficult. Even so, the docility with which this potentially disastrous situation is accepted by the millions affected must delight the government.

The huge expansion in higher education has made it impossible for the state to continue to pay for all the maintenance costs. In J K Galbraith's phrase, "one cannot confront the obvious" and changes in styles of studying and of funding were inevitable, but lumbering students with five figure debts by they time finish their degree courses is hardly the most socially beneficial answer. Overlying all the hype about low interest rates and not commencing repayment until in reasonably paid employment, is the encouragement of a debt culture which is already showing its effects.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 seemed to mark the starting point of a new global dispensation but it has been rapidly replaced by global terrorism which has effectively halted the long progress towards easier and less cumbersome travel, epitomised by growing European unity and the disappearance of borders. What is going on when one cannot carry nail scissors in one's hand baggage and, on the unilateral decision of the US government, an air liner with 300 passengers on board has to turn around in mid-Atlantic and return to London because the Americans were not prepared to let a French passenger arrive in New York because his name - as did Senator Edward Kennedy's - appears on some security list.

Looming far larger than any of the other problems we have dodged for twenty years is the ecological crisis. Our selfish failure to deal with carbon dioxide emissions, and our wanton destruction of the environment, ensure that we hand on to our grandchildren a challenge that is well nigh impossible to deal with in time to avoid the increasingly cataclysmic effects of global warming. Our technical know-how and our scientific excellence has not been matched by political courage. The next natural disaster is unlikely to hit only poor countries, as did the recent tsunami, and slowly but surely it will destroy the delicate balance that keeps the world habitable and will erode our coastlines. There is little value in our technical skills and in our military might if we cannot safeguard the planet we live on.

All in all it is a very meagre legacy that we are passing on. I only wish I was just starting out in political life rather than approaching retirement all too rapidly - and, it seems, penuriously.

16 January 2005