Britain needs a proper head of state to bang heads together

Here’s the problem: the public does not realise that truly enormous cuts to public service and/or massive tax rises are required. The politicians are too scared to tell them, for fear of losing the election. So after the election, whoever wins won’t have a mandate to push through the big cuts needed. Cue strikes, disappointment, attempts by new government to delay action, a sterling crisis, and possibly even an IMF rescue.

Politicians are being advised by some to keep schtum. But the solution should be for politicians of all the parties to set out NOW how bad things really are. The deficit is 11.8% of GDP, and has to be cut. Even on Labour’s planned cuts, if it sticks to its promise of protecting frontline services and overseas aid, other services need cuts of 18%-24% over four years. This is a profound change to the way the country operates; the public needs to be prepared, and needs to debate the issues before the election.

But no party is willing to set out the precise cuts, because the other side will attack them – as we’ve seen from the “Labour investment vs Tory cuts” lie, and from David Cameron’s backing away from the Conservative promise of an “age of austerity”. As a result, half of voters don’t believe action is needed, with almost half arguing that public spending should rise. They are going to get a shock when the cuts start to bite, and they are not going to be happy.

It is time to call on the Queen. Heads need to be banged together. Gordon Brown, Cameron and Nick Clegg should be forced to set out their policies in detail: all agree, after all, that big cuts are needed, they just don’t publicise it (much). There is very little difference between Cameron and Brown on the speed of the cuts, for all that both sides are trying to make that the issue. The political decision voters should face is whether they want Labour cuts or Tory cuts: and the only way to get that is if the politicians are honest.

The primary role of the head of state is surely to guarantee that democracy functions. At the moment the democratic debate is not working properly, which could have profound effects on the future of the country. A summons to the palace for the three leaders would probably do it, but if not, a simple public comment: the Queen continues to have the most powerful platform in the country. But if she’s too bound by constitutional convention to intervene, it just goes to show that it is time to move to a new constitutional set up, with a proper head of state able to defend democracy.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.


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