As Parliament reassembles, Patrick Dunleavy argues that MPs and government ministers need to take some deeper-lying lessons of the last week to heart. Governance is difficult and needs to be taken seriously. All of modern society relies on the effective operations of the state, with the consent of the governed. Once the state is enfeebled or consent is withdrawn, by any significant group, the costs and risks of governing rise at an exponential rate.
What was David Cameron thinking on the plane back from Italy to chair the COBRA meeting on stopping London burning? How did Boris Johnson while away the hours while returning so late and so reluctantly from Vancouver? How did Nick Clegg feel as his planned Birmingham walk-about ended in confusion, surrounded by angry citizens inviting him to get lost? Let’s hope that all of them mused and reflected on the vulnerability of the British state to sudden shocks and unexpected crises.
For after the phone-hacking scandal had already kept Parliament in London for two unexpected extra days in July, now the Commons will meet again in the deadest of all political months to do that most difficult of all things – trying to jam the (evil) genii back in the bottle after someone, somehow, let it out. We have discussed already the circumstances that triggered the whole crisis last weekend, but the lesson-drawing must go far wider than that.
For a Conservative party that had been out of power since 1997, the return to government was always going to be difficult. But it was hugely compounded in their case in 2010 by the culture that developed amongst the resurgent Tories, contemptuous of the Brown government as it became mired in economic crisis and the PM lost touch with the electorate. Senior civil servants have told me repeatedly that what astonished them about Conservative ministers coming into office was their combined confidence and complacency. The Tories had convinced themselves that governance was easy, both ideologically because they wanted a smaller state and minimal public services, and in personal practice. Liberal Democrat ministers were more nervous and earnest – they’d never done this before – but later bought into the whole Tory ethos in catch-up mode.
So far-reaching decisions were made in a relaxed, almost recklessly confident way. Everything in the coalition agreement between the two parties began to be implemented in a no-questions-asked manner – what was written must get done. The Number 10 political machine was staffed with inexperienced folk, who let ministers wander off and do almost what they liked, before waking up months too late to some of the implications. The government decided to reorganize the whole NHS almost casually and with little debate.
Ministers froze public sector pay for two years, because it helped fix the books, and then publicly pilloried every high paid public servant. There was no consideration that perhaps the government would need allies on their side. The Chancellor and Chief Secretary enforced unsustainable cuts of up to 40 per cent in departmental budgets over four years, including radical surgery on the police budget. Ministers tripled student fees and scrapped the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which millions of teenagers at school and college had come to rely on. When those affected protested, ministers smiled knowingly – they knew that ‘special interests’ would wail and moan, but these things were do-able. The government would face down its critics and resolution, political élan, would win the day.
In her excellent (and entertaining) book The March of Folly, the historian Barbara Tuchman dwelt on the quality of ‘wooden-headedness’ in political leaders – the capacity to rack up political fiascos in the face of (lots of) advice to the contrary. The recent collapse of public order across London, and its threatened or near collapse in every major city of the country, will be an object lesson for political science students for years to come in how close a government can come to creating a crisis out of almost nothing, through inattention and neglect of the complexity of governance.
This is not the first time that the potential fragility of the British state has been suddenly exposed on a new flank. Famously Margaret Thatcher’s government was rocked by riots in 31 British cities, from which sprang the Heseltine-lead fight-back against her hard-line policies that eventually scuppered her nine years later, following a second wave of poll tax riots. In 2000 the Blair government was suddenly beached out of nowhere, helplessly flailing for a week in the face of a nationwide protest over fuel prices that almost caused the fuel to garages to run out.
What ministers need to realize is that modern government, in Britain more than almost any other western state, runs on fine margins. Everything that government does, everything, relies on the active consent of the governed. Decades of ‘new public management’ (NPM) policies implemented by Conservative and Labour governments have left us with an administrative machine that is fine-tuned to run at minimal cost, so long as things go on as expected. But as soon as that ceases to be true, an NPM state is incredibly fragile – it can grind up very swiftly in the light of new events for which there is no reserve of slack resources, no defence in depth.
We do not have enough tax inspectors to make people pay tax if they don’t want to. We do not remotely have enough future tax revenues coming in to back up or bail out the liabilities that UK banks have incurred. We do not have enough police to maintain order in any of our cities, if just enough people foregather in the same place bent on looting. We rely on a whole nexus of fragile social ties to keep the show on the road, some apparently tenuous or intangible, but nonetheless vitally important. We also rely to a high degree on the ‘mission commitedness’ of many public service occupations.
Writing nearly a year ago now, I pointed out the extent to which Conservative ministers were practicing a form of ‘zombie new public management’ dating from when they were last in office in the mid 1990s, and I forecast that it was doomed to fail. I also argued that every government needs allies and lots of goodwill within the public services, if they are to get change done, or even keep things running. Since then the NHS reforms have crashed and burned; the privatization of UK forests has been reversed; economic growth has ebbed away into the sands; and public order has spectacularly collapsed.
When Parliament reassembles tomorrow to debate the riots, it is important that MPs of all parties try to renounce ideological simplicities and grapple in grown-up ways with acutely difficult governance problems. ‘Sheer criminality’ is a good description of the riots, but the potential for the self-same ‘sheer criminality’ has always been with us. Why did it happen at this time, on this scale, when it did not happen before? Once it has happened, on this scale and with additional scary complications such as the casual arson of cars and buildings, how can the recurrence of future outbreaks be prevented? Watching Michael Gove blustering and posturing on Newsnight last night (from 11:00 onwards), there was little sense of a Cabinet minister who had yet even begun to take his responsibilities seriously.
Nor is the forthcoming political year going to be an easy one for the government. Cuts to police forces are likely to be frozen, and later quietly abandoned. The cross-public sector pay freeze must end in real wage negotiations again by spring 2012. Public sector trade unions whose members’ living standards have been slashed by 10 per cent or more will be looking for a catch-up pay rise, and their members will be almost unanimous in backing them. A ‘spring of discontent’ could lock down the economy in the run-up to the Olympics if ministers try to defy the inevitable need for normal wage-bargaining to be resumed. The economy looks like it will flat-line anyway, and even the Olympics may have negative net economic effects.
So ministers are living in interesting times. They need to recognize that the British state operates on fine margins and is acutely vulnerable to a withdrawal of consent, by any group. They need to start listening harder to messages they are disinclined to hear. They need to build allies across government and across civil society, and to do it quickly before it becomes impossible. They need to do more evidence-based, sophisticated policy-making. The alternative is keep 16,000 police up every night of the year to police London, and that is a route that could be very expensive indeed.
Patrick Dunleavy has written (with John Dryzek) Theories of the Democratic State (2009), and commented recently on anti-statism in modern politics in ‘The backlash against the state’ (2011).
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It’s far too late in the day to talk of building bridges. The neo-liberal ideology
is in ruins, though the same old fatuous cliches are being trundled out there is absolutely no appetite for them if ever there was. We have grown accustomed to
the normalisation of lies (spin) and linguistic degradation (mission statements,
going forward, outsourcing, re-engineering) but the tortuous language of expertise
in their endless language games no longer fools anyone. It really is the end of
the road for market capitalism but as yet we don’t know what form the impetus for consensual change will come, but it will have to be a break with Corporate
Capitalism and a recovery of much of New Deal Welfarism prior to the neo-liberal
seizure of the State during the 1980s. I would be very interested to know exactly how we build bridges between people living in ghettoes, the poor in overcrowded Dickensian estates and the rich in gated and one-layer ‘communities’ ?
I think that the modern era’s politician is little more than a PR product and that the skills they have in PR do not equip them for the harsh realities of governing during difficult times. Often they seem to think that all that is needed to change a society is a clever ad campaign and the right suit,
I’m not sure how long 16,000 police officers can be kept on duty, especially if rioting continues to spread to other cities. Then what happens? Another example of Cameron’s soundbite policy failing to take in reality.
A fair critique of where we stand with one, significant, oversight.
The article’s focus on structure (including NPM) ignores both current and previous governments’ total ineptitude when in comes/came to strategy. Yes, they use the word and yes they talk about being ‘strategic’ but where are these strategies? Close examination shows headlines, spin, shopping and wish lists all masquerading as strategy but where is the real thing?
You can only run a democracy with managers and economists for so long. Functional democracy also requires strategists and leaders. And please do not consider Steve Hilton and his ilk a strategists as the press and the politicians are wont to do.
For a precis of what I mean see my February blog ‘Big Society has no strategy – but why not?’ (http://cowanglobal.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/%e2%80%9cbig-society-has-no-strategy%e2%80%9d-%e2%80%93-but-why-not/)
Excellent observations…as a sidebar, I’d add in the naive enthusiasm with with Tory ministers (the LDs complacent spear carriers ) set about quangos. Some, albeit in a convoluted, arm’s length way, embodied state functionality (sometimes, just useful sticking plaster). Case in point is the Audit Commission. For the sake of a headline Eric Pickles destroyed his own department’s capacity to monitor, warn and forfend. A specific critique of that organisation and its management and its expenses can and should be made, but its functionality matters and Pickles was either deliberately or accidentally oblivious. The sheer ignorance of Tory ministers about government operations is and remains staggering – but oddly aided and abetted by civil servants