MEMORIAL LECTURE: WHY BRITAIN IS NOT A CONSERVATIVE COUNTRY
How hard Aneurin Bevan would find it to recognize the political psychology of these times. How profoundly the national instincts and political reflexes have changed since Labour’s great 1945 government, when, after the experience of war the importance of the state’s role went barely questioned. The collective good was embodied in national endeavour – and, yes, even in rationing – to ensure fairness. The imagery of markets had exhibited itself in socially unacceptable, unfair black market activity.
From a politically engaged time when almost everyone knew which side they were on, when almost everyone voted for one of the two big parties across an ideological divide that was well-understood, we have sunk into an era of disengagement, agitated disillusion, directionless sourness with everything political. We now have a generation that has never really encountered the kind of left-wing ideas that were mainstream in Bevan’s day. At its worst, politics risks becoming an ideas-free celebrity X Factor contest for the leader with most charisma. Would Major Attlee have reached the short-list for selection nowadays? Though Bevan, I think, would have done very well.
The neo-liberal era that began with Margaret Thatcher’s triumph has, in some essential ways, lasted through Labour’s 13 years. New Labour made its accommodation with the changed political landscape without quite daring to challenge it.
Labour never questioned the hegemony of the City. Toe-curling homage was paid to its denizens, reaching its apogee just months before the fall of Lehman Brothers – when Gordon Brown made his annual speech at the Mansion House, fulsomely congratulating the Lord Mayor and the City of London on their “remarkable achievements, an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London.”
It was the beginning of nothing, as the great banking bubble burst. But nor is it clear that the crash has led to the end of that kind of dysfunctional, irresponsible capitalism either. The treasury remains as dependent as ever on its receipts from the City and there is no sign of any re-balancing of the economy away from this precarious dependence on finance – none at all.
That was one of the many pacts with various devils that Labour made. Labour took the plentiful money pouring from the City into Treasury coffers and made no criticism, not one word, about the great kleptocracy in the board rooms as the upper echelons seized for themselves unimaginable booty. But Labour did put that boom-time money to very good use: redistributed it through tax credits to those in and out of work whose incomes were falling behind. Labour spent it on a greatly needed boost to public services that saw schools and their results improve, further education college and university places rise fast and waiting lists drop to near zero in an NHS whose outcomes improved greatly.
Don’t let the Tories get away with saying Labour just “threw money” at public services as if it were wasted. As we chronicle in our book on the Labour years, “The Verdict: Did Labour Change Britain?” – public services that had been reduced to squalor in the long Tory years, with leaking roofs in schools, war-time Nissen huts still in use in some hospitals and social housing in acute dilapidation. Child poverty had soared in the Thatcher years from 1:7 children in 1979 to 1:3 – and that was put into reverse by Labour. Public spaces were made places to be proud of again: the centres of our great cities – Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester and all the rest were revived, with parks and public buildings refurbished and burnished. It was money mostly well spent.
But all this good was done too often by stealth – especially in redistributing money towards those on lowest incomes – without winning the fundamental case for the good state. That meant those improvements were not dug into the soil of politics, made permanent, sustainable, ingrained again in the nation’s psyche. Odd, really, that new Labour, accused of so much spin, was so profoundly bad at it – so afraid to promulgate the ideas behind what it did, pretending there were none.
Too much homage was paid by Blair and Brown to the markets, too much acceptance of the idea that markets are always more efficient than governments, with no evidence for it. Other pacts with various devils included kowtowing to the media, intimidated by our over-bearing press, controlled by a tiny handful of maverick far right press barons, mostly non-UK taxpayers. Fear of Murdoch was justifiable enough and alas, probably still is now: John Major in his autobiography, dated his certain downfall from the day Murdoch gave his government the thumbs down. That is the fate of all Labour governments, and always was, facing a largely hostile Tory press that sets the agenda for the broadcasters too. Blair never dared make his “feral beasts” speech about the media until days away from standing down, far too late.
But we shouldn’t go too far in suggesting there was no change in political attitudes over Labour’s 13 years. I can cite many liberal and brave things Labour did, to great national approval: Civil Partnerships, the Right to Roam, the National Minimum wage, free nursery schools for 3 and 4 year olds, a smoking ban in public places, free museums and galleries, a million fewer poor pensioners, almost a million fewer poor children. I could go on – and of course I could list the darker side of that balance sheet too, starting with Iraq.
But the evidence I would use to suggest that Labour did seem to shift public attitudes in a progressive direction comes from just one man – David Cameron. He saw, it seemed, very clearly, that this was an essentially progressive-minded nation. Blair and Brown were too afraid, too scarred by failure in 1992, to believe the country was anything other than essentially conservative-minded. They never felt they governed by right, but only because they had ducked and dived and avoided spelling out a Labour, redistributive agenda.
But Cameron got it back then in 2005, when he took over his party. He seemed to understand very well what the country had become. He realised the only way his own party stood any chance of getting back to power was to cross dress as a social democrat. How well we remember his catchphrases from before the 2010 election:
‘The Conservatives are the party of the NHS’ ‘I’ll cut the deficit not the NHS – and give the NHS back to the people’ and ‘I will put an end to top down re-organisations of the NHS’. ‘Ours will be the most environmentally friendly government ever’, illustrated with shots of Cameron on a sledge with huskies or Cameron on a bike (with Rover following after). Cameron didn’t actually say ‘hug a hoodie’ – though he nearly did. But he did promise his would be the most family-friendly government ever.
He went much further, in his Hugo Young lecture: Cameron said ‘I absolutely accept that we have got to do more to help people to get from the very bottom to the very top’. Cameron the egalitarian, even quoted that definitive text on inequality: He said ‘Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in The Spirit Level, has shown that among the richest countries, it is the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator. We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.’
What an extraordinary performance it was. How clever Cameron was in his social democratic disguise. Before the election he came across as likeable, affable, sincere. As Tory detoxifier, how unlike his predecessors, Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. This didn’t seem to be someone driven by dogma: he didn’t and still doesn’t have a swivel-eyed look: He came across as warm, emotionally intelligent, competent. How beguiling.
Yet even then, he didn’t win the election. He couldn’t win, even against Labour on its knees, led by a most unpopular prime minister, after a global crash that had seen virtually every government across the political spectrum evicted. Even with everything going for him he won no victory: what a poor showing it was. Five million voters abandoned Labour between 1997 and 2010 – but few went to the Tories: they went to the Lib Dems, to other small parties, or they stayed at home. Cameron was right in his first assessment that this is not a Conservative country.
His fractious party fears they may never win again. After all, remember this – no party in government increases its share of the popular vote. Not Thatcher, not Blair. At each election their vote fell. The past is not a sure guide to the future, but it suggests a Himalayan climb and the Tories are some 10 points behind. Labour may not have it in the bag, but I know which party I think has the harder battle to win.
Quite possibly Cameron and his team always reckoned they might only get one term: they inherited a bleak economic outlook, and they knew they would be punished for cuts that they would make. As a result they have thrown off most of their disguise and made a dash for everything they want to do.
Cameron still manages not to look like a swivel-eyed ideologue – though he gets very red in the face at PMQs. He retains a reasonable and pragmatic public personna that still acts as a clever cover for what his government is doing. Opinion polls show him still running just ahead of his party. He tries to keep alive the myth that he is not an ideologue though all his actions show that he is. That is the thesis of our new short book, an interim guide to this government, Dogma and Disarray – Cameron at Half Time.
I have only ever really been interested in what governments do, in the practical outcomes of their policies and their actions. The Westminster charivari and the psychology of politicians interests me much less. So it is from their actions, we know who this government are.
The deficit has been this government’s pretext, its cover story. In the fiscal circumstances the Tories inherited they spied a once-for-all chance to shrink the state, to make permanent, irrevocable changes to health, education and the welfare system, to make Britain more ‘American’ in individualist meanness not just by cutting back and outsourcing services but by attacking the assumptions that many such services should be provided at all.
Cameron openly says he has no intention of restoring the cuts once growth returns. Behind the scenes sits the ideological Gauleiter, Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister, former special adviser to Thatcher’s chief ideologist, Sir Keith Joseph. They rarely let out this shadowy figure, who has a dangerous tendency to say what he thinks. What we are seeing was in his pre-election script, written down in his think-tank pamphlets over many year. It’s nothing short of destruction of the welfare state, deliberate ‘administrative chaos’ to destroy public capacity, a phrase Francis Maude uses.
Meanwhile, business supporters and economists who were once vehement about the need for strict deficit reduction are now clamouring for a change of course, fearing the economic consequences of George Osborne’s austerity. In a remarkable u-turn, they have now been joined by the International Monetary Fund.
But the reason the Tories are sticking rigidly to their course isn’t a judgment about the macroeconomy. The policy is part of their sense of their historic destiny: they believe circumstances have given them a chance to realise Margaret Thatcher’s mission. She privatized nationalized industries in state ownership; they intend to privatize the state itself under the cover of sanitizing the public finances.
For all her bravado, Thatcher was cautious. She never risked a frontal assault on the NHS. She carped but laid off the BBC. The Cameron government was on the verge of demolishing the BBC, at least they were on the verge of doing so when the hacking scandal broke and stopped them allowing Murdoch to take over BskyB or to set up a UK version of Fox News, thanks to the Tory plan to junk our laws on political neutrality in broadcasting.
The Cameron government’s blueprint, a key document, is the Open Public Services White paper published in July 2011. It lays out the ground rules for outsourcing, applicable to all services. If you want a three-word badge for Cameron’s first half, it’s in that statement, and it’s Any Qualified Provider. The default position for all services is private provision, and not even the military or police are exempt. New rules say public services must be put up for bidding to at least three rival providers.
Here’s what Cameron said when he launched the white paper: “This will create a new presumption against the dead hand of the state. Woe betide any civil servant obstructing it. If I have to pull those people into my office and get them off the backs of business, then believe me, I’ll do it.”
If you doubt the strength of their conviction, consider their audacity in choosing the NHS as the flagship and test bed for this commercialisation of all public services. To start with the NHS carries huge political risk. After all those promises of no top down reorganisation and professions of love for the NHS and its doctors and nurses, it was a most extraordinary change of direction. Here were Cameron, Lansley and now Jeremy Hunt, engaging in massive and Stalinist restructuring from the centre. Those doctors and nurses so highly praised before the election now need to feel the sharp spur of market competition – redundancy, redeployment and the profit motive: 90,000 NHS staff have had to move job in this great turmoil, while 6000 nurses have been lost.
Cameron’s ramshackle NHS bill was tossed about during its parliamentary passage. But despite the efforts of Labour peers, its essence stayed unchanged, and that is Any Qualified Provider outsourcing. What that means is that commissioners must seek business firms to do hips, long-stay mental health beds, scans and so on. The NHS (in England) now comes under EU competition law, meaning any private company from anywhere in Europe can demand the right to bid to run any part of the NHS.
The government’s cover story was that it is giving power to GPs, putting them in the driving seat, to choose services for each individual patient – an appealing notion. Yet as clinical commissioning groups are constituted, GPs find themselves excluded, with very few in charge. The Tories now have the means to realise the ambition stated candidly by Mark Britnell, the renegade NHS manager who as a KPMG consultant became a top Cameron adviser. He told a group of private contractors, ‘The NHS will be shown no mercy. In future the NHS will be a state insurance provider, not a state deliverer.’ The NHS’s fate is to become at best a kitemark, a shell in which competitive forces play out as more patients rely on private insurance for top-ups and co-payments. Up to 49% of any NHS service can be used for the private sector: at some time there comes a tipping point when people find it harder to get an NHS bed or a scan, and if they can, choose to pay privately. We can all imagine what Aneurin Bevan would have had to say about this.
Cameron’s reshuffle turned out to be a quick march to the right. His rhetoric has lurched rightwards, too – witness the Tory party conference. He has ramped up the attacks on the poor, unleashing ministers such as Chris Grayling who promises both massive privatization in prisons and criminal justice and policies to bang more of ‘em up. Events confirm the argument in our book. This prime minister is a man with a plan, and always was. With George Osborne and such hatchet men as Francis Maude and Owen Patterson at his side, he feels he has been given an historic opportunity. By nature he may not look like an organised planner, but these policies are deep-dyed in his generation of Tories, who had Thatcher’s posters on their walls. The party has been drained of it’s old left – apart from those oldies, Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Stephen Dorrell.
A different logic applies in schools in England as the Michael Gove dismantles the 1944 settlement and moves to restore selection at 11 and divide 16 plus exams into a version of the 11 plus. The firm admissions code introduced by Ed Balls has been abandoned. Forget all the talk of localism and parent power. Even my fellow columnist on the Guardian Simon Jenkins, himself a Tory, calls Gove’s plan ‘Soviet’.
This is what the future Conservative party looks like. A new book by five backbench Tory MPs called Britannia Unchained attacks Britain’s working rights and regulations. Its authors repeat their claims that the British are ‘workshy’, ‘among the worst idlers in the world’, ‘prefer a lie-in to hard work’. They recommend a sharp dose of Victorian labour legislation, just stopping short of putting children up chimneys. These are not mavericks. These are mainstream views around the Cameron cabinet. Ministers believe, though they have not dared say it in the open, that inequality is functional and success depends on social division and low pay. They seem to believe that what is already the most flexible EU labour market should become more flexible still as the costs of employment are driven down. At the Tory conference Osborne came up with a plan – you get shares if you sign away all your employment rights, which would soon become a condition of getting a job for new employees.
That quote I began with, where Cameron praised The Spirit Level, was pre-election smoke and subterfuge. Cameron’s social policies will increase inequality, so now they are changing the benchmarks for measuring it. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says child poverty levels will rise as a consequence of the heavy benefit cuts, that they call almost unprecedented historically or internationally. Before the election compassion was Cameron’s message. Now it’s a severe regime for eliminating people from eligibility for disability benefits.
The Cameron government plays ever more stridently on that raw national nerve ending, blaming the poor for their poverty, scape-goating benefit recipients as scroungers, as they instruct Atos and other contractors to hit a target by passing as fit people who are patently unable to work. Last year over a fifteen hundred people died within weeks of being passed as fit to work. That policy of outsourcing benefit eligibility testing was started under Labour, but the Tories tightened the screw to elimante many more they label as lazy.
You may note that I have forgotten to mention that this is a coalition government. Nick Clegg and his colleagues do claim their presence in the government has tempered and moderated the Tory traits. But I can find little evidence that the Liberal Democrats have in any significant way affected the course of policy. Indeed their agreement to its basic economic tenet – to cut the deficit quickly by cutting spending and only to a limited extent raise taxes – has madde easier Osborne and Cameron’s central intention. It is hard to explain the Liberal Democrats’ curious failure to use their power to secure their own promised policies on higher education fees and constitutional change. Perhaps they have prevented so far the Tories assault on the Human Rights Act, but they have done nothing to protect the assaults on the poorest household incomes. It is hard to see what of any importance the Tories would have done differently if they had been in power on their own. Worse, the Liberal Democrats may even have acted as a fig leaf, disguising just how ideological this government is.
In our book The Verdict, Did Labour Change Britain? we describe how Labour itself adopted some neo-Thatcherite policies, introducing markets and competition into public services. It venerated the City and bowed down before the banks. Undeniably, in health, education and welfare Labour did open the door, allowing the Tories to claim they are merely following the path of consensus. But these were mostly a gingering up of the public sector around the edges. Under Brown, however, some of the Blair pro-market projects were reined back: the NHS was restored to being “preferred provider” under Andy Burnham.
It is not my contention that all private contracting or any element of controlled competition in public services is always wrong. The point is how they are applied and why. Is it a pragmatic policy with a keen eye on what is in the public interest, or is outsourcing a dogmatic, devil take the hindmost policy that mistrusts everything publicly run? After the great collapse, even the most pro-market economists recognize it is time for thinking again about competition, regulation and faith in markets. Labour needs to rethink too, and draw a clear up policy while in opposition.
But while we wait, there is another interesting and surprising thing about this government: the biggest obstacle to Cameron’s realising their own plans is Cameron himself. We called the book Dogma and Disarray to try to capture the extraordinary political incompetence his government has shown on so many fronts. Once, it was believed that Etonians were educated for power: the great Harold Macmillan fable was that Tories were the natural party of government, born to carry the reins of power with perfect aplomb.
But this bunch are inept. Let’s recall some of their unforced errors. Would we start with the great badger hunt that never was? Or with their failed West Coast Line contracting process that is now a nightmare of partial contracts and quasi nationalization, partly due to cutting too many expert civil servants in the Department of Transport. They cut the Border Force but then wondered that the right wing press complained extra numbers of migrants were getting into the country and long queues built up at Heathrow. In the beginning, they abolished free school milk for 5-7 year olds, then partially reinstated it after a row reminiscent of Thatcher Milk-Snatcher. Same with NHS direct – abolition then reinstatement in a diminished form. They promised a military covenant guaranteeing minimum conditions for service personnel – but reneged.
U-turn succeeded U-turn: rape suspects were to be given anonymity, national forests to be privatized, circus animals to be banned: all were reversed. They announced those pleading guilty would get half their sentence cut, then backed off. Funding for the BBC Arabic Service was withdrawn, just as the Arab Spring dawned. Tax relief for video game manufacturers was abolished then put back when they were told this was a key green shoots industry. And buzzards: they announced landowners could destroy buzzard nests to protect their pheasants ready for shooting – but u-turned after an outcry from bird lovers. And then, to add to this catalogue of chaos,
came the 2012 budget with u-turns on pasty tax, Vat on static caravans and tax relief for charity donations. So inept are they at politics that the disastrous unpopularity of cutting the top rate of tax seems to have taken them by surprise.
But all that is mere frippery and entertainment for their opponents. They haven’t budged an inch on the one thing that matters most. No change in economic policy, no deferral of ultra austerity, no stimulus to dead demand.
So what about the rest of their term? The state of the economy will probably determine their fate. Osborne has been trying hard to blame the Eurozone for the failure of recovery, when it’s plain the problem is lack of demand caused by excessive and badly timed austerity. Cameron could still change course, responding to unfolding events with the imagination and humility he once pretended to possess.
But that would mean abandoning the great project that his Tory generation has picked up from Thatcher – their vendetta against government. It would mean forsaking their unshakeable trust in markets as the solution to everything, despite all the evidence of failure and perverse consequences. Dogmatic certainty will be their undoing, while disarray in carrying out their own plans trips them at every turn.
Above all, David Cameron has forgotten what he once knew – that this is not an essentially conservative nation. The British do believe in fairness. They will not tolerate for long a government by the few, for the few. It is there for the taking, if Labour can use illuminate its One Nation idea to show how it would govern for everyone.