Tom Miers: They’ve taken a firm hold
Despite the protests, coalition leaders are no fools for rushing in by making the changes that other governments have simply fought shy of, writes Tom Miers
Here is a conundrum: The coalition government is rapidly acquiring a reputation for drift, incompetence and cronyism. Attacked from left and right, it is accused of being out of touch, lacking in principle, and presenting a compromise agenda largely irrelevant to the pressing needs of the British people. However, rational analysis of the government’s record reveals the most radical reforming ministry since the 1980s.
This dislocation between image and reality is a product of modern politics. David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg are struggling to adapt. If they don’t find their feet soon, this will be a one-term administration, and much of the vital work it has done will be placed in jeopardy.
The circumstances of yesterday’s Queen’s speech told the story. The monarch unveiled an unremarkable hotch-potch of measures. There were a number of worthy but uninspiring changes to criminal justice. Something nice about families. Useful but limited measures to deregulate the economy. Limiting – but probably useless – regulation of the banking sector.
Up in lights is reform of the House of Lords, unwanted by the Tories, but a necessary sop to the Liberal Democrats who won’t agree Tory-friendly parliamentary boundary changes without it.
A week before the speech, both governing parties were drubbed at the local elections on the back of a Budget that backfired badly in the media. The economy has stumbled back into recession. Labour’s Ed Miliband appears on the up, cashing in on the “omnishambles” of coalition politics. A group of Tories has set out an alternative agenda of tax cuts and euro-scepticism. The whole thing smacks of John Major.
Lords reform is emblematic of the problems faced by Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. It is a necessary part of the coalition jigsaw, but high on neither side’s list of priorities. The government’s opponents portray the issue as evidence that Mr Cameron has lost touch with the realities of recession-hit Britain. On the doorstep, who cares about the House of Lords when unemployment is up and the economy has ground to a halt?
Yet step back from this political Sargasso and consider for a moment what is really at stake in Britain. The most pressing problems is, of course, the struggling economy. But behind this lies a nexus of strategic weakness that has undermined our society for decades now.
Picture a triangle with welfare dependency at one corner, educational failure at another, and low productivity at the third. These three feed off each other. A welfare system that traps people in poverty and encourages social breakdown undermines the schools and denudes the workforce, pushing the cost of labour up and undermining economic productivity. Inadequate schools fail the poorest and business alike. British companies all too often have to compete on cost rather than quality, something increasingly difficult in a globalised marketplace.
Most developed countries suffer from one or other of these problems. But perhaps uniquely in the developed world, Britain suffers from all three, and tackling these is the key to the future. The idea that social policy is somehow separate from economic policy is wrong. Cutting the deficit and encouraging a return to growth are tactical necessities. But educational and welfare reform are fundamental to Britain’s long-term prospects.
Successive governments have recognised these fundamental British weaknesses but failed to address them. Margaret Thatcher took one look at school reform and ducked it in the face of union hostility. Mr Major made a tentative start, but his work was first undone and then only tentatively restored by Tony Blair. Mr Blair and Gordon Brown talked big on welfare reform, but retreated at the first sign of protest.
The legacy of these four governments – whatever their achievement elsewhere – is a society where perhaps a fifth of citizens exists in a state of social deprivation, with the dire economic consequences that flow from that.
By contrast, the coalition has attacked these deep-seated problems with gusto. Michael Gove’s reforms in England are transforming the school system, holding out the prospect of European standards of education where teachers have the professional freedom to innovate while being made accountable to the communities they serve.
The government has finally grasped the nettle of welfare reform, improving incentives to work, cutting benefits for those who don’t need them and providing more help for those who do.
None of this is easy, and all carries a high political price. It will take a long time for these measures to bear fruit. Yet they hold out the prospect not just of improved economic performance in the long term, but a healthier, happier and more coherent society, too.
That the Cameron government has undertaken these Herculean labours at a time of political weakness and economic recession – making painful cuts in government expenditure at the same time – puts the likes of Mr Blair with his 167 majority to shame. To accuse the coalition of drift and purposelessness is absurd.
And yet the government still finds itself enmeshed in mid-term muddle. To understand why requires looking at the experience of the Conservatives in opposition. Ever since their ejection from power in 1997, reform of the welfare state, including health and education has been the priority of the right. Britain’s inadequate public services were recognised as the country’s long-term weakness, and reform as unfinished business. The Tories knew that they had neglected this front in office, and prepared to do better next time.
To an extent their task was made easier by the conversion of Mr Blair to the same agenda. The Journey, Mr Blair’s political autobiography, has two main themes – Iraq and the need for public service reform. But his efforts seemed to hold lessons for the Conservatives. Obsessed with political capital and winning re-election, Mr Blair postponed the most difficult aspects of reform until it was too late.
On election, the Conservatives were desperate to avoid this mistake. So they front-loaded their legislative programme with the most difficult elements. Education reform, welfare reform and healthcare reform – all far more radical than anything in these fields since the 1940s – are on the statute book already.
Add to this the spending cuts, tuition fees and drastic changes to the planning system – and the coalition can fairly claim to have achieved more in two years than the previous three governments did in 20.
So the plan was to get the tough stuff out of the way and spend the rest of the term … doing what? And this is where the problem lies. Waiting for economic growth on its own is not enough, especially if it doesn’t materialise. You can’t legislate for jobs. There is a lot of work to be done embedding the early reforms, but this does not hit the headlines.
Appearing to do nothing is unsustainable. The 24-hour media wants action. If the government doesn’t supply the daily political agenda, someone else will. Think back over the last six months. Aside from the persistent economic gloom, there has been very little substantial political news. Instead, the airwaves have been filled with a series of minor gaffes and bungles. Abu Qatada. The pasty tax. Cameron’s borrowed horse. Jeremy Hunt’s adviser’s e-mails.
The realities of modern politics demand an active agenda. Mr Blair was the master of purposeful inactivity. And he had his foreign policy crises to keep him occupied. The government now needs to find a project that can harness public sympathy without the need for substantive domestic upheaval. Libya and the Euro-veto would have been perfect around now. Roll on the Olympics.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east