“Some general elections mark the end not only of governments but of historical eras too. The one in 1945 signified the end of pre-war social atomisation. The election of 1979 marked the demise of the post war economic settlement. The election called by Gordon Brown also coincides with the end of an era: the era of free stuff”. Or so reckons Bagehot in The Economist. In this new era, he argues, we’ll be paying for the stuff government does through either tax rises and public sector cuts rather than living on the “never never” of PFI.
Its difficult to escape this logic. What he doesn’t mention, however, is that radical plans to tackle the deficit will also mean paying more at the point of service delivery through co-payments and user charges. This morning’s BBC Breakfast gave a glimpse of this new era of self-reliance. It showed how residents in a Rutland village have clubbed together to raise £37,000 to install their own high speed broadband.
David Cameron gave a nod to this agenda yesterday with his call for people to “do more” to help deliver public services. He was silent, however, on the knottier issue of actually getting people to pay more. Indeed, on the NHS the Conservatives beat a retreat from the Government’s current position on co-payments for expensive drugs by arguing for a “Cancer Drug Fund to enable patients to access the cancer drugs their doctors think will help them”.
How does this add up in the new era of austerity? It is likely that, whoever wins, people will be asked to pay more for services. The party leaders, however, have been wooing the public in an election debate that has been long on idealism but short on realism. Local government, by contrast, does not have the luxury of elastic balance sheets. Here charges already contribute £11 billion a year. The coming age of austerity means that central government will surely follow suit. It’s a racing certainty, however, that we won’t be hearing much about how we’ll pay until after the polls close.