The State of Governance: UK Edition One

As opposed to the rather more exhaustively referenced piece on Assange and his road to a Butch Cassidy-style ending (Ricardo Platino can be his Sundance Kid, although I’m concerned about the efficacy of English truncheons over Spanish rifles), this one is more visceral. Not just visceral, mind you, more visceral. Thus I defend all oversights of fact and errors of interpretation.

This decision wasn’t at all based on the advice given after the previous article, suggesting that while it’s good to inform, it’s also good to let my readership finish an article without having to catch up on another twenty first. I’m learning. In all honesty, it’s rather more based on the fact that PMQ archives are dreadfully catalogued, and reading endless transcriptions of the speeches of the most asinine political class since time began was making me very sad. I couldn’t be bothered. My hope anyway is that this issue is a little closer to home for some of you and basically irrelevant to the rest. You’ll either know what I’m talking about or not, and if the former, will sympathise or disagree with me based on your existing feelings. This sense is wonderfully encapsulated by a Gary Younge article written pre-election. So before I finish providing my own reasoning for writing this being a waste of time… UK government.

Two and a half years ago I was elated. I might describe myself as a libertarian, which is basically to say I think taxes and government are generally irksome and I prefer to do what I want, when I want. But this conflicts with my other brain which informs me that social justice and equality of most description is incredibly important, and although we can debate the use of taxes and the competence of government in relation to these, it’s not like anyone else is trying very hard.

But two and a half years ago, New Labour had been trying for 13 years and thanks to an affluent upbringing that brought with it some preconceived political ideology, and a smattering of national and global financial catastrophe, I was only too happy to see Brown finally walking the lonely walk out of Downing Street. This emotion didn’t suffer for the short period of uncertainty during which the Con-Lib coalition formed and there was actually a fleeting possibility that Labour could wrangle back the election with some ungodly, mutant “rainbow” coalition of sorts. I would have very seriously burned Westminster to the ground, seeing that democracy as we knew it had died, but I was denied this public service by the marginally acceptable outcome that was.

Even then I wasn’t a complete fascist though, and won’t ignore some of the good things Labour achieved, such as the adoption of the “Third Way”, provision of the national minimum wage and limited aspects of their tax and benefits reforms. Sadly these scarcely served to diminish my increasingly rancorous disdain for Gordon Brown, his affinity for an older, Keynesian model and general denial of the fact that apart from those embodied by Dennis Skinner, I don’t think anyone wanted him. It didn’t help that I found him personally odious, and it would be a good time to mention that I do believe in statesmanship. It may not be the most elevated concept but who leads the nation speaks for the nation, and I’m not ashamed to say that I would have found his disagreeable policies more palatable had he an ounce more charisma to convince me.

And so in came the Tories, rather jubilant after so long in opposition and content for having expediently arranged victory. The mood was such that you would have thought the Lib Dems were a Tory Lite rump, both parties were so eager for a measure of power. I honestly and totally unrealistically imagined this was the start of a golden age of sensible management and sensible policy, that the coalition would only have the best effect of tempering the Tory right and the more leftwards leanings of the Liberals, resulting in a gloriously harmonious government leading the nation out of recession and into prosperity. It felt inevitable and I ate the Rose Garden scenes up and asked for more. Did India really want independence? Those waves have been looking so glumly unruled…

Oh alas, where to begin? This very question has delayed publication of this article as after only a short while of considering this and marshalling my evidence and subsequent thoughts, my head hurt far too much and I had to lie down. The sheer weight of farce has even forced my to redress the theme as more introductory, the beginning of a serial on the many ways Westminster sapped my faith in humanity. For now, for a start, I think we can find significant complaint simply within the failed or misleading manifesto commitments of both coalition parties and the truly shocking degree of incompetence in the cabinet.

Today we have no electoral reform and no parliamentary reform, but instead a host of reforms to the NHS that were not only excluded by the Tory’s promise not to heavily reorganise, but are at this point broadly a pariah. Instead of the Liberal promise to scrap tuition fees we have the most expensive university attendance in history and instead of bolstering younger levels of educational support we lost EMA’s. Compassionate conservatism evaporated in an instant with punishing welfare and public sector reforms in the same fiscal policy that scrapped the 50p and corporate tax rates. New Deal-esque infrastructural and construction projects have failed to materialise and Trident failed to disappear, but then Mitt Romney did tell me recently that the Russians are still our greatest existential threat and I sleep soundly at night knowing we prescribe to his brand of wisdom. And Pastygate… the malicious brainchild of a demented goblin creature.

On a policy level the situation is clearly poor at best, and gets little better on a personnel level. Before we could blink we said goodbye to David Lawes, a so-called treasury and policy wonk ousted on the back of his miscreant expenses. Andy Coulson later followed under a storm of questions regarding his stewardship of the News of the World, with added embarrassment for David Cameron having firmly stood by him. Liam Fox departed his rather sensitive Defence role thanks to allowing one Adam Werrity to tag along whenever he felt like it. The shadow of the Murdoch’s would later revisit and almost engulf both Vince Cable and Jeremy Hunt, the former for “declaring war” on the BSkyB bid and the latter being asked stern questions as to whether he enabled it.

Teresa May actually did go briefly to war with the Civil Service over matters of immigration, and Andrew Lansley with the entire medical profession for obvious reasons. Incredibly he was one of only a few cabinet ministers to take a real knock in the recent reshuffle. I despise reshuffles, such vapid and cynical posturing usually being the remit of a government running out of ideas. Throw in a touch of Oliver Letwin throwing government documents in a St. James Park bin, Francis Maude dangerously suggesting consumers stock up on petrol reserves during the strikes and Michael Gove’s attempts to reinstate Victorian-era educational methods and the cabinet looks to be in genuine disarray.

That’s before you even reach the big dogs. Cameron, Osborne and Clegg are walking a razor’s edge. Clegg has almost singularly absorbed every gram of ire generated by his support base and their dissatisfaction with the Liberal agenda being thwarted at most turns. Osborne has become the walking, talking vision of nasty Tory ethics and probably avoids dark alleys in the wake of the hardship suffered by many during this time of austerity. And all of this, from Lawes to Osborne, trickles up to the detriment of Cameron. If delaying this article’s release did any good, it allowed me to observe today’s piece in the Guardian, unveiling the first of possibly many brewing coups. That Bob Stewart was loyal enough not to play along is likely only a temporary reprieve from the Tory backbenchers.

Appointing Maria Miller to Culture Secretary was a telling symptom of Cameron’s increasing fear of reprisals for daring to be moderate. Her voting record on women’s and LGBT rights tells all but are probably short of the mark in terms of satisfying the hard right’s blood-lust for some genuine anti-EU or anti-immigration reform. And so with the old Tory party vying internally for supremacy and an increasingly dissatisfied and obstinate Liberal minority, the coalition itself also looks to be in serious danger. How I long for the Rose Garden again.

It’s astonishing how poorly this coalition have failed in their early aspirations. I fully accept that my initially high expectations were unrealistic and naïve but to have been proved so completely wrong still comes as a shock. But then I truly bought the message of a new compassionate Conservative party, free of the dead weight of the Zac Goldsmiths and Maria Millers of the world, that could effectively function with the Liberals. Their defence of globally hard economic times be damned, I could accept that the recovery was still not really taking off if it weren’t for the tonnage of political ineptitude that also smothered it.

The only thing that remains to be said for now is that if the coalition hadn’t so painfully mismanaged the message of it having been Labour’s initial responsibility, they could still rely on that fact to some extent. But two years of being asleep or drunk at the wheel, and spouting that line with a twinkle in the eye, has killed it. Now I actually do just about agree with Miliband the Younger, that two and half years on the buck does stop at the coalition’s door.

This is not to excuse the Labour Party from further criticism however. I’ve run out of time but next up will be a closer look at the quality of their opposition in context and with their time in government. If possible I shall try to be even more shallow in my deference. Watch out Balls.



Filed under Politics

2 responses to “The State of Governance: UK Edition One

  1. Many thanks for this. I have to say I was almost disappointed to finish this article with the realisation that there’s very little I can dispute or challenge here. I don’t doubt your conclusion that cabinet incompetence is hampering the recovery (although from my perspective this incompetence is also bound up with the lack of radical policy proposals) and if I find the coalition’s performance less disappointing than you, it can only be because my expectations were lower to begin with.
    Given the above, I would like to offer a modest suggestion…
    The article provides a rundown of the coalition’s various failings; however, you could certainly devote more attention to the coalition’s central failure to substantially alter the UK’s economic trajectory. Pointless reshuffles, U-turns, and broken manifesto pledges, frustrating as they are, seem to have become commonplace in Western liberal-democratic politics. I would have a far more forgiving attitude towards these issues if the coalition were able to actually achieve the goals they set themselves. Missed growth targets would be bad enough… a double-dip recession, which was originally presented in the media as an unmitigated catastrophe to be avoided at all costs, is now accepted by the political elite as another facet of the ‘tough times’ we are in. As you mention in your article, the coalition need to abandon the ‘blame Labour’ narrative. I also think the ‘it-could-be-worse-look-at-Greece-and-Spain’ argument is running out of mileage.
    The failure to achieve growth by cuts is the single most damaging outcome for the coalition. It is not merely (and perhaps we differ here slightly) an issue of incompetence at the heart of government; the real problem for the conservatives is that the double-dip recession has shaken the very core of conservative ideology. I think this can perhaps account for the shudders of paralysis among conservatives (U-turns galore, failure to brief each other about U-turns before Newsnight appearances, and so forth) and the strained coalition relationship. If cutting the deficit does not produce significant growth by the next election, the conservatives (and Lib Dems can’t really avoid being tarnished with the same brush here) may well find themselves ideologically adrift.
    This would not be so troubling if it weren’t for the fact that Labour aren’t offering a different solution. In arguing that we need cuts, albeit less and at a slower rate (and maybe some extra taxation thrown into the mix), Labour effectively ‘plays it safe’, relying on public discontent to translate into anti-coalition sentiment at the ballot box. They will win the next election but it won’t result in the kind of turnaround in economic fortunes Balls et al. are hoping for. I expect we’ll remain firmly within the horizon of tepid, pragmatic, and ultimately ineffectual politics primarily aimed at appeasing the markets upon whose favour we rely.
    I think perhaps the crux of the problem is that this is a postponed recession. Labour bought itself a decade of prosperity and low unemployment by artificially expanding the public sector… then 2008 came, economic fortunes changed, markets became cagey and now we’re in a situation where we have to reduce the size of the public sector. But since this inflated public sector was artificial in the first place any cutback is going to lead to increased unemployment and lower growth. The idea that the private sector can ‘take up the slack’ is pure fantasy. If there were enough full-time jobs within the private sector, Labour wouldn’t have had to expand the public sector originally (and I’m working on the assumption that New Labour was led by pragmatism not ideology… i.e. they didn’t expand the public sector for ideological reasons but because it was the surest way to keep unemployment down).
    The thrust of this response has been pretty negative so let me offer a few unashamedly radical solutions.
    1) Reduce the working week. As a consequence of the recession, there aren’t enough full time positions for everyone. If workers were forced to work a reduced week we would be able to keep more people in some kind of employment. It would mean many families taking a hit financially but, of course, many already are and at least this way the pain would be more evenly distributed. Also, reducing earnings means reducing spending power which would force supermarkets to lower prices. Eventually you might see a situation where families have the same disposable income (in real terms) on a shorter working week. Incidentally this is already happening spontaneously with more people working part-time as opposed to full time. I guess I’m saying that this could be a kind of official policy (to reduce the working week) as opposed to a consequence of job market forces.
    2) Emergency legislation to allow the nationalisation of crucial industries (at least water, gas and electricity). This would unfortunately annoy those who have a stake in these industries but these are mostly people (foreign energy companies and investment consortia) who I wouldn’t mind upsetting. Yes, it would seem as though the government were stealing from them although if the appropriate legislation were passed it would technically be legal – a kind of Kirchneresque ruse to keep wealth and assets in the country and under government control. The benefit would be that the government could then fix prices at low levels in these industries so that those most affected by the downturn could continue to live adequately.
    3) House building. On a massive scale. The Green belt might need to be sacrificed here but I think that can be justified based on the improved housing opportunities for families struggling to pay London rents or unable to buy. The positive impact of this reform would be two-fold. Firstly, by increasing supply, demand would be reduced resulting in a further reduction of house prices and rent. Secondly, building houses would introduces a massive stimulus into the construction industry which would be economically beneficial.
    4) A nationalised retail bank? UK taxpayers already own 82% of RBS… could we not begin to exercise our voting rights? I would like to see the money currently spent on bonuses and salaries redirected so as to provide lower interest rates for mortgage borrowers.

    I’m sure there are all sorts of technical reasons why each of the above are impractical but nevertheless, it would be good to see some discussion of radical moves at the top of politics. Rather than wallow in the rut we’ve found ourselves in, the proper task for politicians is to try and expand the horizon of what is considered possible within politics.

  2. Again, some very interesting ideas although I can’t help but baulk at one or two of them this time, and will offer a resounding condemnation where appropriate. First however I will admit this article could have gone into more depth with discussing solutions. The probable reason for not doing this is because most extremely with economic matters I am forever hearing the differing opinions of one expert to the next, proffering in their interpretations the most obvious and easily achieved methods. I have become somewhat disillusioned with this and so shied away from my own opinions. It is safe to say though that your thoughts on the matter are less than conventional and have more than piqued my interest. I feel like we agree on the broad strokes of criticism and can move on from that, so here goes nothing on solving the national doldrums.
    Reducing the working week is actually a very interesting idea. I was fascinated recently by the OECD comparative analyses of global productivity that most significantly indicated Germany’s very low number of annual hours worked per capita. At 1,413 to the UK’s 1,625 and being more productive in terms of GDP/hrs, it seems that sucking every available minute from the workforce has no direct correlation to economic success. As for it being a step towards the greater good, with some families suffering a manageable loss of income and others benefiting sufficiently to make such a scheme worthwhile, it is certainly appealing. But those factors must be very well managed indeed to avoid the impact of being a unfair at one end and worse, ineffective at the other. As you say, this trend exists due to natural market forces but the commentary regarding this is certainly not always positive for precisely the dangers I indicate here.
    The nationalisation of select industries I would completely support, starting as you say with the utilities. Sufficed to say, some things should not be for profit. Heating, lighting and providing clean water to my home are easily under the umbrella of that opinion. And yet notably we’re all made to feel rather queasy over Centrica’s shameless defence of British Gas posting a 23% profit rise to £345million while our bills soar. Thames Water continues to increase tariffs while still failing to adequately redress approximately 673 million litres of leakage wastage every day, in tandem with repetitively controversial toxic waste disposal methods in UK waterways. EDF energy profits rose by 8.5% to 1.6billion as again bills increase and beyond utilities, privatised rail has seen our train systems become the most expensive, least efficient and least enjoyable in all Europe. These issues are all indefensible and if nationalisation removed the profit margin or at least totally reinvested in the relevant infrastructures and allowed for rebates, it could only be a good thing.
    House building is where I’m going to have to dissent, the two issues being that we strictly speaking don’t need more housing and the green belts are, in my mind, untouchable. National statistics show there are around 930,000 empty homes in the UK excluding the uninhabitable, due for demolition or above-shop flats, of which 350,000 are long-term uninhabited. While many of these are the result of private ownership mismanagement and unfairly skewed high-end market, there are also a substantial amount of regeneration and house building projects that went to waste in the wake of the housing market collapse. Do we really need more grand schemes in light of this? As for greenbelts I note the Policy Exchange thinks that 2% of liberated green belts could allow for 8million new homes. Why on earth we need 8million new homes is a mystery to me, beyond an exercise in short-term construction employment, but overbearingly this is a nation that should be focussed on population control rather than thoughtless population capacity increases. Secondly, in the spirit of Tolkien, watching Birmingham creep up the valley, we cannot afford to give an inch on protecting as much of the countryside as possible. The United Kingdom’s optimal self-sustainable population is approximately 32million and as we creep ever closer to the 65million mark another 8million homes should perhaps not be on the agenda. If there was any legalisation in this area it would be more obvious to me to prohibit ludicrous market prices in London that are only affordable to the tiniest minority and regenerate business in areas with high empty housing figures.
    A nationalised retail bank is a solid idea too. As you say we currently own much of RBS and should be able to dictate it’s culture. But then addressing banking culture in general is an absolutely essential measure and could be dealt with in a broader context than simply nationalising for the sake of control. Adequate oversight and fair pay legislation would be an idea and the latter could incidentally also hamstring footballer salaries! Wonderful.
    Just to drag things back to the bigger picture briefly I would finally mention Labour’s role in all this. As you rightly mentioned the coalition is flirting with an ousting but Labour would have done nothing towards that. They are by definition vapid as things stand and it would probably be a case of “the only reasonable alternative” although I would even challenge that. It so happens that The Lesser of Two Milibands was attacking David Cameron at the dispatch box yesterday for inadequate borrowing and deficit reduction. Of course his own plan is designed to increase borrowing and therefore the deficit and I’m simply left to hang my head in despair. The full assault on the Labour is for another day.

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