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A Guttenplan for Britain

Mark Easton | 14:25 UK time, Tuesday, 6 April 2010

There was a moment during the final of University Challenge broadcast on BBC2 last night when the young man they are calling the "pin-up Einstein" pondered a question. You could almost see Alexander Guttenplan's enormous brain whirring behind those bespectacled eyes as he considered a host of possible answers and rejected each one in turn. Finally, the Emmanuel College captain looked at Jeremy Paxman and gave the best response he could: "I don't know".

University Challenge finalPerhaps because it was the one of the few answers that accorded with my own, I warmed to the Cambridge student at that point. There is no crime in not knowing the answer to something, but it is clearly wrong-headed simply to ignore the tricky questions or to respond by answering a different but simpler conundrum.

As we embark on the election trail, there must be a fear that the really difficult issues will be dodged. Britain faces some hugely challenging questions over the next five years and this is the people's opportunity to decide which of the parties has the best ideas to guide our country through the challenges.

But it is possible that the campaign will be fought almost exclusively in a small shared comfort zone which ignores the issues which require unpopular solutions.

Let me give you an example.

I recently sent this question to Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties: Would it be better for Britain for house prices to rise or fall?

It won't surprise you to know that none of the party election teams answered the question. And, one suspects, it is because they dare not answer that central question that they are unlikely to press their housing policies during the campaign - even though Britain arguably faces the biggest housing crisis since the Luftwaffe left many of our cities and towns in rubble at the end of World War II.

Here's another one. How are we going to pay for the care of our elderly? It is a fundamental question economically and socially for our country. We may get some options, but no party is offering an answer because all solutions will be unpopular with a sizeable number of voters.

What about this biggie? Where will the spending cuts axe fall? They almost certainly won't tell us the details of where they plan (and one rather hopes they do have plans) to cut public services because, that too, would be electoral suicide. So voters' opportunity to judge which party has the right priorities in managing the deficit is effectively denied them.

On crime, I recently attended a seminar in the House of Lords attended by peers and experts affiliated to a range of political parties and none. The room was packed with former Home Office ministers, former police officers, probation experts, lawyers and businesspeople.

Having listened to some opening remarks, this is how an official report on the proceedings summed up the view of the gathering: "There was broad agreement during the discussion that followed that the criminal justice system was fundamentally broken."

However, the meeting, generally, feared that "the arms race in which the political parties were locked, competing to be toughest on crime with rather less attention paid to the causes of crime" would mean a vital debate would not be heard during the election.

Tomorrow, a Commons committee is expected to say it is "unacceptable" that we don't know whether the billions spent on dealing with drug abuse is actually having any significant effect. It seems unlikely that we will see the difficult questions about Britain's drugs strategy raised during the campaign.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong and this election will see frank discussion of the tough choices facing Britain over the next five years, the decisions that require painful solutions. Maybe, like Alexander Guttenplan, the politicians will offer us clear answers rather than obfuscatory flannel. It would be refreshing, too, if sometimes - just sometimes - they responded to a difficult question with a simple "I don't know."

We shall see.


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