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Jul. 15th, 2010

Don’t blame the Conservatives. This is a common theme from the Conservatives at the moment and I agree with it, although I think my reasoning is a little different from theirs.

When I was growing up during what turned into an 18-year Tory government, an older friend of mine whose family were lifelong Tory voters told me that all Labour governments did was waste huge amounts of money and it was the job of Tory governments to get back in and repair all the damage. It has been depressing to watch the previous Labour administration fulfil the prophecies of its detractors. Of course, both sides are a little partisan in their approach here: Labour won’t accept that any of the money they spent was wasted, and the Tories won’t accept that any of the money that they think got wasted was properly spent.

There were always going to have to be cuts in the face of the bailout deficit, but if by some chance the Tories had got into power 10 years ago, their activists and ideologues would have implemented exactly the programme of public spending obliteration that they are bringing in now; it’s just that now they can do it under the guise of “saving the country”. I seem to recall in the distant past of 2007—you’re probably too young to remember, but in those days we had to make do with the iPhone 3 and Big Brother 8 for entertainment—that the massive financial collapse was caused by dishonesty among major banks and a collective failure to regulate their practices, rather than by public sector spending. That was a very long time ago, though, and I suppose I must have forgotten some important details. Otherwise why would the Tories transfer punitive responsibility for the crash from the banks to, for example, the long-term sick?

It’s true that Gordon Brown’s debt economics left the country hugely unprepared to deal with the massive banking crash.[1] Zero bank regulation and property bubbles were Tory catnip when New Labour was still in short trousers so it’s implausible that we wouldn’t still have been hit hard, but the Tories are keen to point out that they wouldn’t have been caught spending so much on welfare.

There is an ideological heart beating at the centre of the Tory proposals, however, and it’s genuinely trying to do good. Too much money is being wasted, runs part of the credo, and we must target it so that it benefits everyone. When put that indistinctly, it sounds like a slogan that everyone can get behind; money is without doubt wasted, and everyone deserves a decent opportunity to benefit from it. The moment you can make out any of the structure through the fog, however, it’s a shambling horror: money being “wasted”, it transpires, is almost anything spent by the state from revenue gained by taxation, and the way to target the nation’s money better is to hand over responsibility for all this to someone else. That “someone else” is a nebulous concept—charities? volunteers? churches? pop stars? drug lords?—and isn’t at all central to the ideology; as long as it doesn’t involve the state trying to protect its citizens, it must be a virtuous system. Basically, we’re looking at a breakneck sprint back to the 19th century. Food vouchers all round. Dickensian retro.

Aware that there was a massive mandate 65 years ago to create the welfare state and that they have no such mandate to start dismantling it now, the Tories have been careful this early on to concentrate most of their firepower on weak targets. They know that many people, especially among their natural affluent base, will not know anyone who through illness or sheer unfortunate circumstance has to depend on the state for an income, but that most will know someone whose life has been improved or even saved by the National Health Service. Hence the language about “scroungers” for benefit claimants but “improving patient care for all” for carving up the NHS.

As I say, though, there’s genuine benign intent tangled up in all this. Michael Gove, for instance, honestly cares about improving schools. His keenness to be the agent of radical change is undented by the fact that his chosen method, the much-vaunted “Swedish” approach of anyone with the inclination getting to run their own schools, has been shown not to improve results (that’s from the Telegraph, by the way, a paper the Tories can usually rely on, at least outside of expenses scandals). Combine the pointlessness of the exercise with the amount of money that will inevitably be sunk into it and the fecklessness of private firms that tend to flee when they find that children’s education doesn’t work as straightforwardly as manufacturing, and it’s looking like a splendid time for education. Pile on to that the opprobrium that will be fired at teachers in the next few years for daring to be paid by the state in the first place, and morale and standards in schools can only skyrocket. Well done, everyone.

Gove’s wide-eyed optimism seems to be a feature of the Conservative right’s thinkers. There’s a definite sense that they’ve been cloistered away for years dreaming this stuff up and now they’re going to impose it come what may. This is unfortunate, as they appear to have been cloistered in an echo chamber. On one level, Chris Grayling’s mistaken claim earlier this year that 54% of girls under 18 in deprived areas get pregnant betrayed an inability to do simple sums but, even more worryingly, it revealed a dark, seething underlay of assumption and misapprehension, based on little but prejudice.[2] For all the right wing’s rage about the “chattering classes” in the 1990s, it seems to have been doing a fair bit of exactly that kind of chattering itself—mostly, judging by the current Cabinet, between old Etonians, not renowned for their broad knowledge of the rest of society.

With almost a generation’s worth of frustration and untested theories pent up, watching them being frenziedly let loose on the machinery of government is like seeing a prisoner getting his first conjugal visit after five years in solitary. Whack up VAT, restructure the NHS, abolish the Food Standards Agency, ban the Health and Safety Executive, scrap the census (it can be done by credit rating agencies instead, apparently) and slash public sector projects while claiming that the economic gap—literally millions of jobs—will be somehow filled by the private sector, although this would involve the private sector doing something spectacular, as yet unspecified and to a degree previously unheard of during a recession.[3] Essentially, any organisation that smacks of consumer protection against corporate sharp practice is suddenly a black convict on death row, while the government’s severe financial plans have attracted warnings from the International Monetary Fund (ETA: Also, here). When the IMF, usually the fairy godfather of austerity measures, tells you “Steady on, chaps”, it might be time to pause and reflect on your chosen course, but this team has the bit between its teeth, the wind in its hair and, it assumes, a finite period before its governing coalition stutters to a halt. Forward!

Of course, all this “liberation” from the state is tied to the other prong of the coalition’s programme: the rush to repeal the invasive authoritarianism of the Labour government. As an aim this is far more laudable (at this rate the Observer’s Henry Porter might even send Theresa May a Christmas card), but is the one necessarily the corollary of the other? Does rolling back state control and surveillance have to involve handing over all safety-net functions to charities and the occasional fair-weather philanthropist? According to the government that’s a categorical yes, but I’m not sure I entirely trust their judgment in the throes of their excitement. [4]

So the Tories have been straining for years to do what they’re doing now to the imperfect but functioning welfare state. It’s no surprise—this is, without wanting to sound too dismissive, what Tories do. And that’s why I don’t blame them. I’m inclined to blame their enablers.

Still blinking in the sudden sun, the Lib Dems know that this, as Martine McCutcheon said, is their moment. Without them on board there is no coalition, just two parties that didn’t win an election. You can tell they’re dazzled by the novelty of the situation: for the first time in 80 years there are Lib Dems sitting on front benches at both ends of the building, and when some of their most incomprehensible and/or platitudinous speakers get up to speak, not quite so many people groan or flee for the exits. This must be how government feels, and after so long being ignored or laughed at, they like it.

They were faced with a tough choice after the polls closed, but ultimately coalition with the Tories was the only option that would both allow them a place at the dispatch box and grant them the Lib Dem holy grail: a sniff of meaningful voting reform. The promise of a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, however, has come at a price. For all that both sides of the coalition have been talking up their similarities, the agreement between them has meant a certain amount of nose-holding for the Conservatives but a wholesale ballast-drop of previously unassailable principles by the Lib Dems. Red lines on issues such as immigration or nuclear power have turned out to erase quite easily. [5]

The last thing the Lib Dems want is to be characterised as being given a couple of old keys and some bits of plasticine to play with while the Tories get on with governing, but it’s an image that’s going to haunt them as long as they grin and bear austerity measures not only of a scale but of a nature that many of them will find unpalatable, until they get their referendum. They are desperate to prove that coalition government can work—it is, after all, what the rest of Europe has been doing with democracy from the off—so are much more emotionally invested than the Tories in keeping the coalition afloat. [6]

This, ultimately, is why they are the Tories’ enablers. When it comes down to it, the Tories don’t really deserve blame because they can’t help but go about their business like an incontinent dog (turns out I’m not too bothered about the “sounding dismissive” thing); it’s the Lib Dems who are the willing agents. But will they manage to get their voting reform and strike out on their own again before the half of their supporters who identified as centre left, or indeed were disaffected Labour voters, shy away altogether? And just how much legislation that they find repugnant are they going to have to sign up to in the meantime? I’m sure you’re as excited as I am to find out.

[1] “What you in the City have done for financial services, we as a government intend to do for the economy as a whole” - Gordon Brown, 2002. How prescient  Back

[2] A small example: Boris Johnson’s ceaseless railing against bendy buses and his conviction that all London would gleefully see the back of them entirely ignored the fact that many Londoners—on a lower income and less mobile than him and his friends, and with a very different, substantially less media-lunch-based lifestyle—had been grateful for buses that were accessible and warm. I’m not suggesting that true Tories deliberately ignore such considerations; rather, they often don’t even register them.  Back

[3] What’s that thing that hyperstimulates manufacturing bases and kickstarts whole economies? Can’t quite think of it. Rhymes with “jaw”. Tricky business, bit shambolic, but really rather exciting. Anyway, we probably need one of those.  Back

[4] It’s also worth noting that while Labour never helped their cause by paying lip-service to decentralisation but forever heading in the other direction, that’s exactly what the Tories have traditionally done as well. Power is sticky. Let go of the ring, Frodo.  Back

[5] A colleague remembers being told by his socialist mother in the 1970s: “Never trust the Liberals, son; at the first whiff of power they’ll abandon every principle they own.”  Back

[6] The Tories would be almost guaranteed to lose out in any voting reform, so they will tie any reform proposals to a complete overhaul of national constituency boundaries, for their own benefit. Chances are that that overhaul will prove unacceptable to voters and opposition politicians alike and the referendum will founder, so they win either way. ETA: I had this wrong. The boundary changes look to be going ahead regardless of what happens with the referendum, although the possibility of imminent voting reform may have sped up the process.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 15th, 2010 10:59 am (UTC)
This has just acted as a timely reminder that I should stick what remains of my mortgage on fixed rate. Stat.
Jul. 15th, 2010 11:04 am (UTC)
i think that all socialist mothers told their sons that in the 70s, i know mine did...
Jul. 15th, 2010 11:27 am (UTC)
It's my understanding that the national constituency boundaris are going through come what may - the referendum will be purely on the use of AV. I could b wrong though.
Jul. 15th, 2010 01:29 pm (UTC)
You're not. I believe there may even be separate bills, though that's either unclear or undecided as yet.
Jul. 15th, 2010 11:42 am (UTC)
"money being “wasted”, it transpires, is almost anything spent by the state from revenue gained by taxation"

More specifically, the welfare state. The Conservatives, for all their post-Thatcher chatter about wanting to "roll back" the state, don't seem to have much objection to the remains of the old pre-20th century state. So the monarchy, the Lords, the army, the police; all that stuff will be ringfenced or even might have spending increased. The NHS is an abberation in this respect, since they also want to ringfence that too, but that's because they basically have to.

I think your rather good essay sums up the crappy situation this country finds itself in. Labour always end up overspending and the Conservatives build up the treasury again by being ideological rather than pragmatic which means that rather than trimming fat from all areas of the state and promoting efficiency without damaging public services they single-out the socialistic aspects of the state and basically wreck them because, hey, they and their voters won't be effected. The net result of this tends to be that the Tory heartlands boom whilst the Labour heartlands fall apart. And given the rotten state of the world economy I doubt the former will happen this time.

The idle talk about taking state-run organisations and handing over the responsibility to a nebulous "someone" is also worryingly reminiscent of the 19th century when this was basically the solution to social problems. It didn't work in the slightest which is why we got the welfare state in the 1940s.
Jul. 15th, 2010 12:31 pm (UTC)
Excellent blog. I gave my mum The Shock Doctrine to read at the weekend and she had barely finished the first chapter before she was phoning me to tell me that this was what was happening now - using the cover of a national "emergency" to usher in a new economic model (sort of). The fact that where we are was caused by "bankers" isnt really important any more.
Jul. 15th, 2010 12:55 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear.

And whither 'localism' in all this? The ideal solution where central government can determine where to cut spending but at the same time say to local govt 'we're giving you the freedoms, power and responsibility to sort this out'.

Buck passing or enabling (overwhelmingly Tory) local government to do what they do best? Apart from anything else, local democracy needs to be a hell of a lot stronger for any kind of accountability to exist to The Community, not to mention how local accountability is supposed to be increased when 'official' accountability is direct to Parliament (as in Place Based Budgeting).
Jul. 15th, 2010 01:28 pm (UTC)
while the government’s severe financial plans have attracted warnings from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF may, for all I know, have said something to that effect somewhere but the link you give doesn't support that assertion at all, it is about the IMF's scepticism that the OBR will do anything particularly different or useful, ie about the effectiveness of the procedures being used to pursue the policy rather than about whether the policy is dangerous. The money quote is:

"The OBR should be seen as one element of the required reform of the fiscal policy framework. In this regard, the UK fiscal framework could also benefit from a formal mechanism that would anchor medium-term debt sustainability, such as a rule-based framework or a fiscal responsibility law, supported by the OBR."
Jul. 15th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
It's not entirely fair to paint the Lib Dems as holding their noses to get AV, is it? The impression I have of them is that there's a quite a big neoliberal element in there these days, The Orange Book and all that.
Jul. 15th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC)
Is this a suicide note?
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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