Protecting tomorrow today

8 Oct 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Oct 2021

Pic: Frank McKenna Unsplash

The great paradox of politics is that whilst most of the problems politicians seek to solve are long-term the system works against them - they are trapped in short termism.

Ask many of them why they entered their profession and they may tell you they want to end poverty, create a fairer society, transform the environment, improve prosperity, progress health and wellbeing.

All of these aspirations are grounded in a vision of what should be, and achieving them is a long-term process.

Yet elections are there to be fought and to be won, and that inevitably means a focus on what is happening now, and in that context you’d be naïve to expect policy priorities designed around what happens 20, 30 or 40 years hence.

After all Harold Wilson’s dictum that “a week is a long time in politics” is every bit as true today as when he made it in 1964 – perhaps even more so in the days of 24/7 news and social media.

That’s why politicians tend to shirk tough decisions that would solve a looming crisis because they would be unpopular in the short-term. Time and again political history demonstrates that there are no prizes in attempting to break away from this mindset.

One of the most distressing examples of this is that the extent of the current health and social care crisis is a direct consequence of a failure to think long term a decade and more back.

If the future well-being of citizens had trumped party political concerns about re-structuring hospitals and parties had engaged more in explaining the necessity of change to voters rather than extracting electoral advantage by opposing change, it may not have come to this in the first place. 

And in England successive attempts to reform adult social care proved electorally disastrous first for Gordon Brown with his initiative which opponents dubbed the “Death Tax” and then for Theresa May with her “Dementia Tax.”

In both these cases there were short term gains for opposition parties demonising attempts to stave off a growing crisis which most of the electorate did not understand, traded against achieving common ground and fixing a system which is collapsing in front of our eyes.

Our stewardship of the environment is an even more spectacular example of how, over many decades, the short term benefits of consumerism have been prioritised over the future, even continued existence, of the planet.

The collective failure of politicians to address long-term issues does not mean that they are either bad or unprincipled. Most do want to make a difference. It is a reflection of the way politics currently works.

That’s why we – and they – need a mechanism to help ensure that future interests are protected in decision-making today.

In 2016 the Welsh Assembly passed a landmark piece of legislation: the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act which has caught the imagination of legislators all over the world.

It places a statutory duty on public bodies to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales. To do this they must set and publish well-being objectives.

There are seven and public bodies must show how they are addressing each of them.

They are:

A prosperous Wales, which produces growth sustainably and acts on climate change;

A resilient Wales, which protects both bio-diversity and social and economic resilience;

A healthier Wales;

A more equal Wales;

A Wales of cohesive communities;

A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language and;

A globally responsible Wales.

Wales has also appointed a Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe to hold government and other public bodies to account on behalf of people of the future.

Now there are moves to get similar legislation enacted both at Westminster and Stormont.

A bill is currently being piloted through parliament by Lord Bird, the founder of the Big Issue magazine who sits in the House of Lords as a crossbencher. He has won support from a wide range of politicians from Jeremy Corbyn to Lord Jeffrey Archer.

A campaign called Today for Tomorrow has been set up to champion the Bill and it has also established a Future Generations Commission with members from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England. Northern Ireland is represented by the former high ranking civil servant Aideen McGinley, who is best known for her time as chief executive of Ilex when she played a leading role in Derry wining its bid to be UK City of Culture in 2013. The other, appropriately, is an 18 year-old, Matthew Devine from Derry who is a member of the North West Ministry of Youth.

SDLP MP Claire Hanna is a supporter of the Bill and  also wants similar legislation for Northern Ireland.

She said: “ The truth is that we are currently not doing enough to protect future generations from our own excesses. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and we feel the worst effects here in Northern Ireland, with more than 11% of indigenous species at risk of extinction. We are experiencing the impact of the decline and destruction of nature in the wellbeing of people around the world; and it is only going to get worse.

“So we need to be radical. We need to rethink our five year, election-cycle driven politics and consider our obligation to future generations which transcends party politics.”

Because the Westminster Bill is being introduced by a private member and not government it is by no means certain that it will get all the time it needs to pass into law. These bills often fall by the wayside because they do not get allocated enough time for scrutiny and are readily “talked out” by opponents.

However the extent of cross party support is impressive and the advantages of embedding the future implications of policy-making into decisions are obvious. It is not a panacea but it would encourage the sort of long-term thinking we desperately need to see.

There is no prospect of similar legislation being developed for Northern Ireland during the current mandate. However after the election in May of next year our parties should give it very serious consideration. A similar Act would embed the long-term principles we can expect in our next Programme for Government and help to promote the necessary consensus we need to secure the future for the generations to come.


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