David Cameron said yesterday that the government has “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our public services”; “If not now, then when?” he cried.
It’s rubbish, of course. Governments can reform public services whenever they like. The last government could, and should, have reformed them in the mid-2000s when there was full employment and plenty of money about. It’s more effective to restructure when there is cash for investment and employment opportunities to soak up the redundant public servants. Taking government spending out of the economy has less of an impact and public sector organisations can take their time and plan the changes properly. All of which was a good argument for doing it in the mid-2000s and, now, for delaying it until the economy picks up.
The UK’s debt is cited as the reason for the urgency but, while the level of borrowing is alarming it is not yet a cause for panic. Britain is not Greece. We need to reduce our debt and we need to reform our public services but we’ve still got some time to play with. The rushed reforms proposed by the government are unnecessary and will almost certainly be counterproductive.
Of course, what David Cameron really meant was a once-in-a-lifteime opportunity for him, rather than for the country as a whole. He and his supporters have a chance to redesign the state in accordance with their view of the world. With a majority dependent on Lib Dem support and no guarantee of winning a second term, the Prime Minister needs to strike while he can. The financial crisis provides an ideal opportunity to fan the panic and build the case that action has to be drastic and rapid. If he leaves it too long, the economy might start to recover and the imperative could be lost.
Philosopher-football manager Arsene Wenger may have started something when he talked about the “dictatorship of the moment” on Saturday. He was referring to the current fashion for sacking football managers after a couple of bad results but, as Chris Dillow said, the term is an apt description of the behaviour of the banks in the run up to their collapse, or any situation in which a certain view is widely accepted and it then becomes almost impossible to suggest an alternative without being ridiculed and ostracised.
The Observer’s secret civil servant describes how the ‘dictatorship of the moment’ is being created in Whitehall. The evangelists for reform insist that the programme must go ahead, deftly filtering out any data which contradicts their stance, while the pragmatists push back, asking hard questions and making people feel uncomfortable. He warns:
The real danger in the months ahead is that, as day-to-day events become more difficult, the fantasists will become ever more popular. The prime minister needs realists around the cabinet table and ministers need realists to advise them. The troubling truth is that, even in a vibrant democracy such as ours, senior civil servants and cabinet ministers can retreat to their ivory tower, reset the boundary of what they view as acceptable advice and make it clear that there are some things they do not want to hear. If that happens, only the most career-limiting, self-destructive officials and ministers will speak their mind.
At which point, the dictatorship of the moment is complete. It becomes an absolute certainty that only radical and rapid reform will do. The few who dare to speak out can kiss their careers goodbye.
As Paul Corrigan said yesterday, and I noted back in August, government rhetoric is attempting to divide us into hawks and doves. If you are not in favour of these reforms you must therefore be a Luddite who doesn’t want any reform at all. “You’re either with us or against us” is an old political trick and one that has had messy results. It is possible, of course, to be neither hawk nor dove. To stretch the bird analogy to its limit, some of us are owls; we believe the hunting will need to be done but we think it is a bit early yet.
It is true that we need to cut the UK’s deficit and reform public services. Demographics, health inflation and looming pension and PFI liabilities mean that the welfare state cannot continue as it is for very much longer. We don’t have to do it this year though. It doesn’t need to start now and it doesn’t need to be as rapid as the government claims. It is possible to reform our public services in a more measured and considered way.
Britain does not need to be bounced into a distressed fire-sale reform of public services just because David Cameron is in a hurry. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Prime Minister but the rest of us can afford to wait.