2 months ago, in ‘”Liberal Conservatives”: new politics?’, I wrote about my hopes that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition might indeed be the start of the ‘new politics’ Nick Clegg says he’s always believed in. I talked about the need for 2nd Tier thinking in Government to take us beyond repeating the same old mistakes, ideological conflicts and embezzlement of the public purse.
A month on I’ve yet to see real signs of 2nd Tier thinking in anything the new Government does.
Yes, as Henry Porter wrote in last Sunday’s Observer (11 July), they’ve made a good start. “…the coalition has moved with degrees of fair mindedness and deliberation that are refreshing. To be sure, there have been blunders, like Michael Gove’s botched announcement on scrapping new schools, but it surely is right to suggest that doctors be put in charge of spending GPs’ £80bn budget, to remove the target culture from the health service and provide 24-hour cover. The withdrawal from Sangin and setting a deadline for ending combat in Afghanistan is welcome, as is the review of defence needs and spending. For once, our relations with the world appear to be conducted by grown-ups without displays of fawning or self-importance…..In two months, the coalition has announced the ending of the wasteful and, as it turns out, dangerously insecure children’s database, ContactPoint, as well as the ID card scheme. Immigration minister Damian Green put an end to the inhumane detention of thousands of children belonging to asylum seekers. Theresa May has agreed to examine the way the police are collecting and storing photographs and data about legitimate protesters, like 85-year-old peace campaigner John Catt who was classified as a “domestic extremist. She has also said that the automatic number plate recognition system that tracks and records 10 million vehicle journey per day will be placed under statutory regulation and scrutinised for the first time. CCTV cameras used to watch Muslims in Birmingham have been disabled. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act terror laws, used by councils to spy on members of the public, are to be reserved for counterterror operations. And in the last week the home secretary suspended section 44 of the Terrorism Act which allowed police to stop and search 250,000 innocent people last year alone, and [David] Cameron announced details of a full judicial inquiry into allegations that British intelligence officers were involved in the torture of terror suspects.”
As Porter says, the “Coalition is popular” - and that may, in part at least, why there has been so little reaction against the massive cuts the Government is going to make – and is already making – in the public sector. (RMT leader Bob Crow’s call for a general strike is, at this stage at least, a very lone voice.) The Treasury’s demand, ‘leaked’ from the Cabinet meeting of 1 July, for most Cabinet ministers to prepare plans for cutting their budgets by 40% is, as some commentators have suggested, almost certainly scaremongering. That way, the real depth of the coming cuts – predicted to average out at 25% – will seem nothing like so bad.
While, as Henry Porter points out, the new government are already implementing a number of new policies, their ‘big idea’ undoubtedly is cutting the deficit; and it will certainly be the defining policy of the Coalition’s first few years in power.
Though I think the developing policy on Afghanistan is muddled and short-sighted – see ‘Why we must win in Afghanistan’ - much else the Coalition is doing seems headed in the right direction. Even the cuts.
We all knew there would be cuts. We’ve been told since before Christmas that there would have to be cuts; and Labour aren’t denying that they were edging towards the 20% figure for cuts in their own proposals. (Though Labour almost definitely weren’t planning to impose the cuts as hurriedly as Chancellor George Osborne intends.)
So why am I casting doubts on the quality of thinking in the new government?
Essentially, it’s because I’ve yet to see a vision being articulated.
Cameron & Clegg, in their co-written article for the Daily Telegraph (12 July) say they “…want to change our country for the better. We want to see the best schools open to the poorest children, a first-class NHS there for everyone, streets that are safe, families that are stable and communities that are strong.” That’s hardly a vision since it’s pretty much everything every politician tells the voters. Nor is a key strategy - that of slimming down and decentralising government – a vision.
When I say ‘vision’, I mean a view of how society should be.
The need for a vision
Margaret Thatcher, for example, had a clear vision based on the philosophy of meritocracy. It’s all too easy to see Thatcher as being about depriving unprofitable heavy industries of state subsidies or busting the unions or deregulating the money markets. Rather they were key strategies to free up individuals to create and enjoy wealth. ‘Thatcherism’ was such a success that Tony Blair carried many aspects of it over into the early years of his government, with the British being the second richest people on the planet (based on gross national income per head) by 2006 (World Bank, 2007).
However, it was far from being a 2nf Tier philosophy since it left substantial communities in Wales, the Midlands, the North of England and Scotland devastated, with a consequent raft of social problems – including large scale unemployment amongst the indigenous working classes, many house repossessions, spiraling divorce rates, substantial alcohol and drug abuse and an explosion in small-scale crime (drug dealing, prostitution, burglary, car theft and mugging, etc).
In the early days Blair talked from time to time of creating a ‘decent society’ but there was never any real elaboration of what he meant. So Britain drifted on, the majority reaping the rewards of Blair’s neo-Thatcherism while a substantial minority got lost in the sprawling urban sink estates typified so well in the Shameless TV programme.
Now a great many more of us are faced with ‘sinking’. The newly-created Office of Budget Responsibility anticipates 600,000 jobs will be lost in the public sector over the next 6 years. Meanwhile leaked Treasury figures anticipate more than 700,000 private sector jobs will go in the same time period. When confronted by Labour’s acting leader, Harriet Harman, about these figures at Prime Minister’s Questions on 30 June, Cameron stated that employment would rise during the life of the Coalition…but he didn’t say how.
The remarkable Coalition is enjoying a remarkable ‘honeymoon period’ with the voters (in spite of some venomous attempts in certain parts of the media to hurry them towards divorce). Partly that’s because people are ready for something different from the party-centric conflicts of the past. Partly it’s because Dave ‘n’ Nick actually do seem to enjoy a genuine rapport. Indeed much of the Government seems infused with bonhomie – even George Osborne and his Lib Dem Chief Secretary Danny Alexander seem capable of singing from the proverbial ‘same hymn sheet’!
But bonhomie isn’t going to go very far when people are losing their jobs and their homes and seeing their standard of living plummet - and there seems little or no hope of things getting significantly better. The truly scary thing about Osborne’s ‘cuts budget’ is that there’s almost nothing in it to stimulate economic growth.
On 30 June Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development’s chief economist John Philpott told BBC News: “The government thinks that just by …tackling the deficit, there will be a vent for growth because the prospects for investments and exports will be greater. If you look at both demand in the UK economy and more globally, there is a question mark over that and if that doesn’t pay off then we’re going to have a much weaker employment outlook.”
If the economy fails to grow sufficiently in the short-to-medium term to offset the social sinking caused by the cuts in the immediate-to-short-term, we risk becoming a different kind of Britain.
Thatcher – love her or loathe her! – had a pretty clear vision of the kind of Britain she wanted us to become. So what kind of Britain do Cameron and Clegg want us to become? Do they know? And, if they do, when are they going to tell us?
You simply cannot take 25% out of the public economy in anything but the very shortest term and not create massive change.
So where do we start? (After all, Clegg has promised widespread consultation over how and where to apply the cuts….)
Maybe you’re OK with having to take your own recycling to the council tip; and having your domestic rubbish collected only every other week would be acceptable…?
Getting the potholes in your road filled in only every other Spring…?
Class sizes of 35-plus and out-of-date textbooks instead of broadband-connected PCs in schools…?
How many police officers are we prepared to lose…? (Former chief constable Tim Brain estimates, for Police Review, that between 11,500 and 60,000 police officer, civilian staff and community support officer posts will be lost by 2015.)
According to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, speaking on Tuesday evening (13 July) to judges at their annual Mansion House Dinner, the fall in recorded crime during the 1990s may have been precipitated by economic growth, high employment levels and rising living standards rather than imprisoning criminals.
If Clarke is right, then will the reverse prove true when we add another 1.5 million to the unemployed tally, some of whom will be police officers?
Having still not cleaned up fully the ‘human waste’ from Thatcher’s era, are we now going to add massively to the ‘human rubbish tip’?
Just what do you do with 3 million people with no jobs and few prospects, slashed to the bare bones benefits, a still dwindling jobs market and many losing their homes…? Faced with similar crises, Margaret Thatcher, the most unpopular prime minister since the end of World War II, took us into another war – the Falklands – from which she emerged victorious and untouchable for another 8 years, the public behind her so much she was able to batter the miners almost with impunity.
What will Cameron and Clegg do to reverse their fortunes when, as is all but inevitable once people really start to suffer, their popularity dwindles? (Only yesterday a supermarket till assistant told me she wanted “that new prime minister shot because he took away my second baby’s child benefit!”)
What kind of Britain will we become?
The challenges Britain faces as the cuts bite are more than simply coping with lower standards of living, mass unemployment, schools troubled more than ever and a likely substantial rise in small-scale crime – as if they weren’t daunting enough! We actually face a major change at vMEMETIC level in societal values.
Since the late 1960s much of the political agenda in Britain (and in the rest of the Western world) has been driven by the GREEN vMEME. Anti-racism, feminism, health & safety, rights for disabled people, employment rights, anti-ageism, human rights…to some degree or other, they’re all the creation of the GREEN vMEME. In its drive for egalitarianism, GREEN will even use positive discrimination to equal the playing field for those who are disadvantaged.
The problem is that GREEN is expensive. Where now will come the money for ramps for wheelchair access in buildings that weren’t built with the disabled in mind? Community Care is more costly than institutional care – so how long before the old mental asylums are reopened and people with mental health problems requiring supervision are herded back into them? How will the Government be able to justify the Equality & Human Rights Commission when the jobless are marching through central London?
One of the things Tony Blair probably was grasping for in his inarticulation of the ‘decent society’ was that we treat each other as equals and with respect and that we care for the less fortunate.
Treating someone with respect might be hard when they got the only job available and you didn’t - especially if your PURPLE clocks that they’re not of your ethnicity and, therefore, not of your tribe. (Just watch the popularity of the BNP grow among the white working class jobless needing someone to blame! Just watch as more Muslims become more devout in the desire for God to right the wrongs white society does to them!)
Charities can be expected to take on some of the support for the disadvantaged but charities depend on donations and it’s hard to donate when your company can’t pay its suppliers (corporate donations) or you’ve not worked in a year (individual donations).
With little nurturing of ORANGE’s wealth creating tendencies, much of the culture of this country will go down the Spiral, settling in PURPLE and RED. Expect increases in racial tension, crime and religious observance (of all kinds).
To some extent, it’s unavoidable. Whether from Osborne’s head-on dive into austerity measures or Alistair Darling’s slightly more measured approach, the cuts have to happen. However, the transition to a different kind of Britain they will bring can be managed and some of the more severe effects ameliorated – especially if there is understanding and management of shifts in values from 2nd Tier perspectives.
But, for that to happen, Cameron and Clegg have got to develop and then share the vision.
It is, of course, a little unrealistic to expect 2 men who were political opponents 12 weeks ago to get into each other’s heads so much in such a short space of time that they can develop a vision they can sell both to the public at large and their 2 respective parties. But, if we are not to slide unthinkingly into the kind of Britain many of us won’t want, then Cameron and Clegg have to get to work pretty damn fast.
I wrote in ‘Liberal Conservatives’ about dissonance arising from the challenges in holding the Coalition together possibly being the factor to drive them into 2nd Tier thinking. Now, as we face the reality of the cuts, it’s clear that there’s going to be far greater dissonance from far more sources than most people realised. It’s also patently clear that the need for 2nd Tier thinking in our leadership is far more urgent than I realised 2 months ago.
I’m still intrigued and excited by the Cameron-Clegg Coalition and still think it presents potent opportunities for real change in the way we do politics…but, guys, we need real vision very quickly.