McTernan on politics

“Great political parties exist for great public purposes.” These
resonant words of Gordon Brown are an appropriate text for the turn
of the year. Much political debate consists of tactical manoeuvres
which appear trivial. The coming 12 months – the all-important
pre-election period – will provide many examples, of which Michael
Howard’s banal declaration of principles is only the first.

Yet, for all that the instinct of voters is to check their wallets
when politicians declare that they “want to make a difference”,
there is undoubtedly an extent to which politics is, ultimately, a
selfless vocation.

Enoch Powell famously said “all political careers end in failure”.
This is true in that politicians like the best prize-fighters tend
to fight on until finally beaten. However, taking the longer view,
there is no doubt that, at its best, political endeavour over the
past 150 years has transformed the quality of life and expanded the
range of opportunities enjoyed by most people in Britain.

The initial impetus may have come from individual effort: Lloyd
George secured state-funded old age pensions, John Wheatley
established government subsidies for council house building and Nye
Bevan engineered the creation of the NHS. But the lasting effect of
each change has been the result of collective and cumulative action
as successive generations have refined and reformed the
institutions which provide security in old age, decent housing to
low income households and health care which is free at the point of

What, then, are today’s great public purposes? Internationally, the
UK has adopted a high-profile foreign policy. Yet, despite the
controversy surrounding this, in 50 years it will surely be judged
on whether it helped reduce debt, foster prosperity and tackle Aids
in sub-Saharan Africa.

Domestically, as the clamour about foundation hospitals dies down
Tony Blair faces a battle with his backbenchers over funding higher
education. Again, it seems unlikely that the enduring impact of
this government will be measured by either of these policies.
Rather it will be judged by whether it fulfils the heroic ambition
of eliminating child poverty within a generation. This goal could
be truly transformative not just of the lives of the families and
the children, but of all public institutions. Imagine the impact on
public bodies were we to sign up to leveraging all our assets and
influence to eliminate child poverty.

Great purposes demand that we reach beyond what we consider
possible within our day-to-day responsibilities. They should
inspire our generation to make an impact as powerful as those who
came before us.

John McTernan is joining the No 10 Policy Directorate on 12
January where he will lead on regeneration policy.

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