Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: if you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well…
Wolfe’s article is worth reading in full. Almost everything he says in it can also be applied to the current political scene in Britain. As the (understandably) unnamed author of The Guardian’s Diary of a civil servant observes,
[UK] Government advisers started the new year anxious to avoid accusations that the country is not being run very well. Ominously, their anxiety is increasing. People expect to be able to use roads and planes, to have their rubbish collected and to get a flu vaccine if they need it. The word from officials at Transport, Communities and Health is that their ministers .. could have done little more to be better prepared. Arguably, Labour ministers would not have achieved more. … But the ministerial response reflected the ideology of the coalition. This is a laissez-faire government that believes problems should be solved locally…. but ultimately they believe most of that doing should be done elsewhere. Officials have a nagging fear …. that the already limited ability to deal with these problems is being eroded, not bolstered.
And worries about the intended NHS budget transfers, our anonymous informer tell us, are even greater:
If GPs can’t crunch the numbers properly on flu vaccines, how can they be trusted to manage £80bn of the NHS budget, as they would under reform plans?
Well, politicians demand power to do things, and the Conservative-led administration says they want to make things better; but the big question is, for whom?
With apparently ill-thought-through ‘policies’ already evident in many directions – free schools and tuition fees, NHS budgets and GP commissioning, etc – the charge of incompetence can reasonably be laid on the Government. But I still wonder if underlying all this there is little concern, by the Conservatives at least, about the impact, or even coherence, of these initiatives.
Later in his recent musings our Civil Servant diarist notes that:
Officials across government agree that Lib Dem junior ministers work harder and better than their Conservative colleagues. Perhaps they have more to prove or it is down to their experience in local government.
Maybe in one sense at least this misses the point. If conservative politicians generically don’t believe in government as such, and they have the upper hand, then middle-ish of the road junior partners to a coalition (in this case, the Liberal Democrats) will lack influence however hard they work. They will become simply a manipulated veneer, a cover under which the steely pursuit of what I will call de-government can be achieved.
There could be another way forward. As Alan Wolfe observes in his essay,
There exists … a modernizing version of conservatism in contemporary Europe, where conservatives recognize the inevitability of government but try to tailor its objectives and improve its competence. Call this “big government conservatism” if you wish…. [a version of conservatism] that sought to use government to stabilize society and avoid periodic crises.
But there’s scant evidence that any such ‘modernised’ conservative philosophy underlies the Cameron administration; rather, what we see points to a determined intention to reinforce inequality (i.e. increase advantage for the class which already has it) through hard-faced fiscal policy and the diminishing of the state. Warm words can be uttered, but Chancellor George Osborne does not, I suspect, mind whether he is cuddly or not; and nor, when it comes to it, do his colleagues.
The Coalition veneer with which we are presented is the Big Society, a vapid non-idea initially devised by Kind Cameron the PR Professional, which now provides cover for something potentially much more powerful in its impact. Behind the rhetoric of Big Society we are about to experience the opposite even of Wolfe’s big government conservatism.
The charge of Conservative-led Government incompetence is well-made, but only in the sense that emerging social and other ‘policies’ are operationally incoherent. Maybe that’s because social policy ineptness is a decoy strategy (and the LibDems can get on with that stuff anyway), or more likely it’s simply because competence in this direction, beyond attending to issues which make for lack of support where it matters to them politically, is a low priority for the Conservatives.
That this ineptness, in the words of The Guardian‘s William Keegan, results in being ‘careless with people’s livelihoods‘ is probably of less consequence to the Tories, given that it is not a carelessness which much touches the class comprising their core constituents.
Whatever, the main thrust of current Government philosophy and positioning is, in the context of their own paradigm, anything but incompetent.
Whilst critics are busy analysing how Policy A aligns – or not – with Directive B, and what the polls tell us about Trend C, the fundamental point of conservative governance in the UK is being effectively, quietly and ruthlessly embedded. Those who think this government deeply radical are right, even if their reasoning often is not.
Beware the competent and perhaps imminent delivery of de-governance.