Leader: After the quake

This has been a year of profound shocks, from the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa to the earthquake and tsunami in north-east Japan and the continuing trauma at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The Japanese are an extraordinarily resilient people. As the award-wining novelist Susanna Jones, who knows the country well, writes on page 22, they "have always lived with the knowledge that natural disaster can occur at any moment and, for the past couple of decades, with the knowledge that an earthquake, 'the big one', was due".

They know this but persist all the same. Not surprisingly, Japanese culture is suffused with a heightened sense of the transience of life.

This latest natural catastrophe has occurred just as the world economy was beginning to recover from the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent sovereign debt crises in Europe. Now, because of the interconnectedness of the global economy, we are once more plunged into a period of uncertainty, with stock markets tumbling and oil and other commodity prices rising. What is urgently required is boldness, vision and flexibility from our world leaders if another world recession is to be prevented.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.