I think we’re seeing emergent modes of behaviour with respect to the current UK coalition government. There’s some decent champion-of-the-people stuff happening in the margins. Vince Cable thinks the retail banks are ripping off consumers: he’s probably right to think it. Rory Stewart wants better broadband in Cumbria: he’s probably right to want it.
In the centre of things, though, there’s now a queue of ministers making articulated policy statements. If this were going well, we’d be looking at some systematic law-making; something a Tory supporter could, with a straight face, call reform. What we’re actually getting is a stream of crap. There’s no coordination to any of it. Call it government by assignment. This is a model of government where ministers go away at the beginning of
long leave the holidays with a homework topic; on the first day of term, they return each having prepared a presentation, which they then deliver. Conferring is strongly discouraged; ministers should show their own work. Conferring, though, might at least have uncovered some of the obvious problems.
For example, IDS has been doing welfare and benefits, but his department has just given him a D; his proposals are considered both too expensive and too socially destructive by those who’d be put in charge of implementing them. Andrew Lansley’s been doing health: we’ve more to hear on this, but the doctors themselves, as represented by the BMJ, don’t much like what they see. Interestingly, nothing much of Lansley’s presentation was foreshadowed in the Tory election manifesto; it’s good to be the one person to advance a new idea, except of course for those occasions when what’s wanted is a mandate for that idea. At those times, originality bad.
And David Cameron is about to give a presentation on what he calls the Big Society. This is Cameron’s dissertation topic, and we’ve heard about it before. Officially, the main idea is redistribution of power.
The big society … is about liberation â€“ the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.
Snark aside, there are basically two kinds of power when it comes to public services. The first kind of power is control over a budget. The second kind of power is direct authority over people in the community served (i.e. the sort of power the police, social workers, or local authority officers have).
Does the Big Society grant either kind of power to anyone who doesn’t already have it? To a first approximation: no. It might well remove some local authority power, though. In that light, the Big Society is simply wrongly named: what’s envisaged is the Smaller Society. Charities existed before the welfare reforms of the twentieth century; did they constitute a Big Society then? And charities still exist today, with tax concessions attached. Charities are doing fine, but if charities don’t already make a Big Society, they’re not about to get made into one. Access to a couple of hundred million from forgotten-about bank accounts (reminder to self: call the building society tomorrow) won’t render charities significantly more empowered. On the contrary: UK charities are themselves susceptible to fiscal austerity; they get around a third of their funding from the government. What’s being pushed at us is a deliberate enlargement of the charity domain. Normally, when we think of charities as having plenty to do, we think of earthquakes and other disasters as visited on poor and unequal societies. To be honest, we’d probably all prefer it if charities had less to do. And better societies – to my mind at least – call less for charity.
Of course, we’re likely to be shown a handful of exemplar schemes. Here the precedent of city academies almost obliges us to watch and see whether or not budgets have been discreetly and conveniently allocated. We’d be mugs not to.
Cameron is spinning and presenting this shtick like he’s got until he end of the week to get it into law. And it’s not just him. As Jamie says, all of this stuff is getting rushed. Collectively, the coalition comes across as deeply and dismally unserious. On the upside – and it’s the IDS situation that suggests this to me – there still exist those with the chops to have gotten to be senior in the civil service. The penalty for causing civil service dismay, most likely, is that your ideas are soon shown to be unimplementable. So I give the show and tell-ers two years of this.