Walk through the Houses of Parliament and it is impossible to ignore the signs of decay – crumbling masonry, cordoned-off zones, water dripping down walls, leaking pipes, danger signs. It’s costing taxpayers £2m a week in repairs to keep the Palace of Westminster running, and not even that has prevented sewage leaks and vermin infestations. Worse still, “there is a real and rising risk that a catastrophic event will destroy the palace before it is ever repaired and restored,” according to the Public Accounts Committee.
Yet MPs have spent the past few years putting off futureproofing the building. Last week it emerged that a decision will be now be pushed back until after the next election.
Parliamentarians have long known that the palace – one of the most famous buildings in the world and a Unesco world heritage site – would require a lengthy and expensive programme of restoration. With out-of-date electrics and lacking in fire control measures, the biggest risk is that it goes up in flames. Part of the reason MPs have dallied is the cost: even if all parliamentarians were to relocate elsewhere, the renovation bill is estimated to be £7bn to 13bn over 12 to 20 years. But it is also that they just cannot face that long in exile: many of today’s MPs would never get to speak in the chamber again.
There could not be a more perfect metaphor for our “jam today” politics: everywhere you look, short-termism abounds. The trailed decision to “mutilate” HS2 by terminating it in a west London suburb rather than extend it all the way to Euston – and potentially junk the Birmingham to Manchester section – saves short-term cash but at the cost of much bigger long-term gains. Then there’s the abject failure of political leaders of all stripes to reform older care over the past two decades to ensure that everyone in our ageing society gets to live out their later years with dignity. And last week’s rollback of climate commitments that experts believe were already insufficient to get us to a target of net zero by 2050, which itself may not be enough to avoid catastrophic change decades down the line.
Though we live in a time where it feels like manmade, multigenerational challenges such as global overheating and microbial resistance could be our undoing, politics has never felt less up to the task. Democratic institutions are to some extent inherently short term: the fact politicians have to seek re-election every few years reduces any incentive to take costly actions that would substantially improve lives 20, 30 or even 50 years down the track. The way that the Treasury discounts future return on investment acts as a brake on spending on public infrastructure that pays long-term dividends.
That said, there have been times when politics has risen above the myopia. Take the postwar consensus on social housing: in the 35 years that followed the Second World War, both parties built a total of 4.4m homes for rent with public investment, the only period in recent history when Britain constructed enough homes. That it is so hard to imagine such a cross-party consensus on a new solution to a big challenge today is telling. The very style of modern politics, in which political discourse has itself come to resemble the polarised excesses of social media, pushes against it.
There have been plenty of proposed institutional fixes to what is mostly seen as an institutional problem. There’s breaking up the Treasury to release the rest of government from the grip of its short-sighted accountancy mindset; appointing a future generations commissioner, as Wales has done, to oblige the government to incorporate the future more into its thinking; or increasing the use of citizens’ juries to make recommendations to politicians for longer-term reforms.
Perhaps some of these ideas could stretch political time horizons a bit. But our psychology is hardwired to the near-term, most obviously in the form of “present bias”; to value jam today more than jam tomorrow is to be human. It’s not just an everyday cognitive bias: project forwards to beyond your lifetime and thinking about the future starts to feel quite scary. I find it deeply uncomfortable to think about my own death and the world continuing without me, so, frankly, I try not to. I won’t be alone in that.
One reaction to the human fear of death is to try to put it off; some billionaires have invested heavily in the immortality movement to try to radically extend human lifespans. A healthier response is to recognise that the longevity of civilisation probably depends on people in the present radically extending their horizons; this is the aim of the Long Time Project, whose starting point is that addressing multigenerational and existential threats such as the climate crisis should include exploring how to regear human thinking about time.
The Long Time Project encompasses two ideas that I find quite profound. The first is developing intergenerational empathy. I care deeply about what the world will be like for my niece and nephew as they grow up; I struggle to engage on that emotional level with their hypothetical grandchildren, it feels too abstract. Is there a way of making it less so? The second is the concept of legacy: as one of the project’s founders, Ella Saltmarshe, puts it, if there were to be a toast to you at a party in the future, what would they be toasting?
Even posing the question gives me that “world beyond you” feeling of anguish. But being able to sit with that unease and to channel the “cathedral thinking” of the medieval architects who drew up plans they knew were highly unlikely to be finished in their own lifetimes might benefit those theoretical descendants with whom it’s hard for us to connect beyond the abstract.
To return to the MPs seemingly unable to put the future of our national heritage above their short-term desire to work in that building: of course we should expect more from them. But what, I wonder, would the rest of us do in their position: would we be any better? I’m honestly not sure.