RDN on Guardian’s Comment Is Free (Cif)

Posted by RDN under Economic affairs / Politics & campaigns on 9 March 2010

I was bucked to have a piece run on the Guardian‘s Comment Is Free (Cif). I was bemoaning Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics. Here are a few reflections on the comments it received. 

Plenty of people thought that Cameron’s “Nice” Tories are a cover for the “Nasty” Tories lurking within or behind the smiling faces. That’s a possibility, and I have no idea whether it’s true. I rather hope it is.

A lot of comment seemed to think that the Cameroons are genuinely very like the Blairites in being the embodiment of the centre-right (or, according to view, the centre-left) settlement reached by Thatcher’s children.   That seems plausible, if only because the Cameroons look like realists.

Anyway, the point of my book and Cif piece was to argue that it is governmental competence which may be the thing which appeals to voters now. No party – and none of the comments to my Guardian piece – has picked up on that yet.  Here’s why I wish they would.

Put very briefly: 
British politics is now about the canny management of economic life and the taxation required to fund the public services whose competent delivery and very gradual reform are mostly administrative problems. This isn’t romantic, exciting, ideological work. New Labour has shown how not to do the business of government. Whichever party persuades the country it can do better will win the country’s voters who don’t even know that’s the question they seek answers to. 

In more depth:
I’d have thought that whoever does it, the country has to be managed as a mildly Eurosceptic, mildly pro-US, 35-45 per cent tax-take sort of place. (That is, in tax-take terms, somewhere in the middle of the Anglosphere range, and well below Scandinavian and a bit below the Franco-German levels.) 

I don’t think anyone has the courage to seriously reform the Welfare State as a matter of stated desire, though balancing the books will tend to discipline the later Brownite extravagances and that will open up some possibilities.

I believe the country is mildly entrepreneurial; mildly illiberal on crime, punishment and civil liberties; mildly permissive on the family and sex and drink; and quite attached to its Welfare State, but also the military and police.

The huge centre of politics unsentimentally understands these facts. If one fielded a “Milliband + Darling” against a “Clegg + Cable” against a “Cameron + Osborne”, I’m not sure that the electorate would see much difference, or care.

I am of course an “extremist” by idealism, and I think that over a generation or two the Welfare State will be transformed (made redundant), squeezed between taxpayer reluctance and market success. I think the Conservative Party will be on the road to being meaningless or dead if it doesn’t start to say that sort of thing soon. However, that project is a long-term goal and should be framed as such.

I don’t know if Labour will frame itself as the representative of the trades union power of the Welfare State. If it does, I’d have thought it will have scant reach. If it doesn’t it really will be head-to-head with the Tories who will always have the edge as the “taxpayers’ alliance”. I don’t know if the Tories can hang on to any serious low-tax principle without alienating that part of the middle class which through guilt or self-interest thinks the Welfare State works quite well. In short, there is electorate hell to the left and right of the centre and muddle at its heart.

The centre ground is now so crowded that we may be about to see a new fractured politics. It’s far from inevitable, but imagine a new, lively parliamentary scene with prime ministers and Cabinets coming and going as old and new parties coalesce and dissolve. That has been the  norm for much of British democratic history.

Out of such shifts there may come a strengthened administrative ability and willingness to deliver an underlying consensus.

A very fluid political system will lead to a desire to have a professional elite – Whitehall – anwerable to Parliament and in charge of developing and delivering sound policy. That will prefigure a return to a British constitutional settlement which can be very modern but also authentic and effective.

Call me a dreamer. On the other hand, the British never have screwed up their government for long. Why assume this generation will?

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