The government – scheming or winging it?

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams wonders whether the Tories are evil or clueless. Are the government’s plans for the public sector part of an ideologically inspired master-plan or are they simply a series of back-of-a-fag packet measures launched on a wing and a prayer?  Even in the pages of the Guardian you will find widely differing opinions about this. The political polemicists like George Monbiot are convinced that this is Britain’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ moment, where the Conservatives use the financial crisis as a cover for dismantling the welfare state and enriching large corporations. But management writers like Jane Dudman see no strategy at all, pointing out that many of the government’s initiatives seem contradictory, for example, pushing ahead with decentralisation while, at the same time, wanting to standardise procurement to get better value from suppliers. As she noted last year, the Coalitions simultaneous advocacy of joined up government and localism appears incoherent.

I blogged on a similar theme a number of times last year. So many of the government’s measures seem contradictory and poorly thought out that it’s sometimes difficult to work out what they are trying to achieve. Most bonkers of all is the NHS reform. No-one outside the government can see any logic in it at all. Whatever it is supposed to be for, it certainly won’t save any money.

Is this all simply part of the plan? Is the government deliberately causing creative chaos so that it can impose its own version of disaster capitalism?

Perhaps that is the aspiration of a few Conservative MPs but I don’t think the government’s plans are so clear. Last month, the Observer’s secret civil servant described a battle in government between the fantasists and the realists, noting that Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and civil servants fell into both camps. The fantasists, he said, seem to believe that public services be run at the current level with much less money, while the realists believe the cuts to be a massive risk.

There has been evidence of this confusion and lack of grip on reality since before the election. Two years ago RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor wrote about a Shadow Cabinet Away Day (his piece has disappeared but I quoted this from it at the time.)

[M]y informant (who shall remain nameless on the basis of Chatham House rules) tells me that the more the Conservatives discussed how they would devolve power to the community and increase the capacity of civil society, the more they ended up feeling that they were creating more public sector jobs and functions. 

The impression I get from these snippets, and from talking to Conservatives that I know (and some of them are still talking to me), is of people bewildered and frustrated by the ever-increasing size of the state and the snail’s pace of public sector reform. Many of them genuinely believe that if we got tough with scroungers, reversed the explosion in non-jobs, curbed fat-cat pay, shared back office services, got rid of elf n safety and political correctness, stopped doing some of the silly stuff the public sector does, clamped down on sickness and just made the rest of the lazy sods work a bit harder, we could save £81bn without cutting too much off frontline services. Data that contradict this view tends to be dismissed as manipulation of figures by left-wingers or producer interests.

We have never really had an honest and reasoned political debate about public sector reform in the UK. There are two reasons for this. The Labour Party has too many public sector professionals in its ranks and the Conservative Party has too few. Labour has a tendency to fudge, compromise and do deals in the face of opposition from public sector interest groups. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have little understanding of the beast they are dealing with and of how bloody hard changing it will be.

Zoe Williams is spot on with her assessment:

I don’t think the scale of this destruction is deliberate. I think we’re looking at people with no idea what governing entails, let loose on a system with no clue about its structure and mechanisms.

I don’t believe this is a ‘shock doctrine’ government either. It is motivated, in part, by a tribal dislike of some parts of the public sector but that doesn’t mean there is a cynical plan to trash public services completely. This looks to me far more like a group of people who believe that the public sector can do a lot more with a lot less and really don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I think most of them will be genuinely surprised when things start to ge seriously wrong.

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10 Responses to The government – scheming or winging it?

  1. Pingback: The government – scheming or winging it? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. PinkPolitika says:

    Rick (and indeed, Zoe…),

    I’m fairly certain that in the case of some Conservatives the chaos is the result of incompetence, but for others it’s very much all part of the fundamental approach or plan.

    On 11 January I did a piece which also examines some of this: Incompetent Conservative Government… or de-government? [].

    My own conclusion, for what it’s worth, is that Osborne and co are simply determined to take any possible opportunity to drive de-governance.

    And if the other stuff such as social policy can be left for the touchy feely old-style Tories and the LibDems to agonise about, that’s great because it leaves the underlying work of (social provision) ‘massacre without mandate’ to be completed without delay.

    To those driving de-governance and the ‘non-state’ in matters socio-economic, it’s of absolutely no consequence that they, the drivers, don’t ‘understand’ social policy.

    Maybe this blatant lack of concern is instinctive, or maybe it’s cold-blooded; but why should they bother? Before long there won’t be anything there which requires cogent policies at the level of Government anyway.

    Complicit or daft? Does it matter, as you also ask? What utterly astounds me is that the LibDems are letting themselves be thus set up.

  3. Kevin Ball says:

    It’s an old debabte isn’t it? There are only two theories of the world: Cock-Up and Conspiracy. In my experience, cock-up is both more more common and more dangerous.

  4. PinkPolitika says:


    Michael Tomasky of The Guardian, in a recent article entitled ‘Good at theatre, dreadful at governing’ [you’ll find the links, in my piece above], quoted the American scholar Alan Wolfe’s view of conservative (e.g. Republican) politicians:

    “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…”

    In this case, I still believe, the vast incompetence is, at very best interpretation, knowing and culpable.

    The Tories are culpable. (LibDems may well just be inexperienced or incompetent?)

    The main players in the Conservative-led Government doesn’t care, because they don’t intend, imminently, to need to care…

    Sorry to be such a cynic, but how else can you see it?

  5. Frances Coppola says:

    Very interesting point about Conservatives not understanding public service provision because too few of them are involved in it, so it’s impossible to have a sensible cross-party debate about reform (or not). Same problem exists in banking – it isn’t possible to hold a sensible cross-party debate about it, because Conservative party has too many bankers and Labour not enough. The result in each case is that attempts to reform get hijacked by party politics and grind to a halt. I would like to appeal to both sides to put your prejudices on hold and learn from each other. There is lots that Labour could learn from the Conservative bankers. There is lots that Conservatives could learn from Labour public service providers. People who are not involved in something are ESSENTIAL to its reform, but they have to have information. People who know lots about something because they are involved in it usually aren’t too good at reforming it – they can’t step outside the prevailing culture in that industry. Both public service provision and banking are far too important to be dominated by party politics. Let’s have a cross-party debate on how we reform both of these.

  6. Karl Wilding says:

    Very interesting article. I’d be tempted to come down on the side of cock up, but isnt it the case with the NHS that Lansley has held the brief for almost a decade and understands it very well? That is (I assume) a different type of understanding to that which is needed once you get your hands on the levers of power…

  7. Rick says:

    PinkPolitika – I read your piece again. (I’ve read it before but it’s always good to see things again in a fresh context.) You seem to be saying that the Conservatives might be inept at government but they either don’t care because they think much of the public sector is a waste of time anyway, or think it’s fine because their plan was to dismantle it. You may, indeed, be right. Instinctively, I’m with Kevin on the cock-up v conspiracy. The government doesn’t look that coherent to me but I’m prepared to consider the possibility that this might be an eleborate smokescreen.

  8. PinkPolitika says:

    Thanks Rick.

    Your summary of my view is helpful (of course)… but I don’t credit Tory high command with having thought it all through fair & square before the election or whenever.

    My guess is that, opportunistically and because they really don’t care anyway, the Cameron / Osborne crew are quite happy to let the little people (soft old-style Conservatives, LinDems &c) squabble, while the big folk get on with the real, fundamental job in hand.

    In fact, Osborne, knowing virtally nothing about social policy anyway, probably can’t believe his luck now that he sees how this policy debate thingy is taxing everyone except him!

    So no, not a pre-planned elaborate smokescreen – but certainly jolly good (and, if you don’t care, quite unimportant?) smokescreen, once it’s been opportunistically stumbled upon and at some level identified.

    One thing focused polticians – like the Tory free marketeers – are good at, is finding the crack to get through.

    What top Tories ‘really’ want – now the election’s over, and the ConDem agreement stands in all its vacuous irrelevancy – is that real de-governance can be delivered, right now before anyone notices the fundamental direction of drive.

    As I say, not really clever pre-planning, but opportunistic; and they can probably scarcely believe their luck.

  9. PinkPolitika says:

    PS Sorry to come in again, but I forgot to suggest, Frances and Karl, that we mustn’t automatically assume that all ‘sides’ of the debate (or not) actually have the same end-point in sight.

    You’re both right about there being different types of experience, but I doubt this Government has an agenda anyway of making social policy deliverable, itself.

    What they surely want is to make social issues totally devoid of intervention by government at national level, if not always locally (though ideally both?).

    An intention to go full-on for de-governance means that, whether they want to or otherwise, they don’t need to have ‘meaningful dialogue’ (s0mething I’d really welcome too) with those fussy / fluffy social policy people at all….

  10. Strategist says:

    My comment on “evil or clueless” is to suggest “evil and clueless”. Cock up and conspiracy.

    Of course they are profoundly clueless. They are so young for a start, and they are the product of a restored social structure where the kids from the most elite public schools are back in charge. It is fantasy to expect real insight and mature wisdom from them on the effect of “being careless with others’ livelihoods”.

    But, there is evil too – which of course can be banal. Think about the pressures they are under from the grown ups. The City looking for easy low risk high profit investment opportunities. The outsourcing companies who pay the bills for the party conferences and the HQ staff, who can cut up surprisingly rough if they detect any wobbling from the boys they have bankrolled. I boggle at the extent to which the purpose of NHS reform is being misunderstood. Health outcomes have precisely nothing to do with it. Private profit outcomes have precisely everything to do with it.

    There’s a few madmen who have constructed a religion around market fundamentalism. There’s a lot of evil guys who find that religion works very well for their power and profits. And there’s Cameron and Osborne, who in quite a traditional aristocratic way find it the most convenient not to question the simple faith that God (in this case an unreformed Anglo-capitalist market system) will provide, in order not to feel so bad about doing the paymasters bidding. And those guys do have a ‘shock doctrine’ agenda and they are to all intents and purposes evil.

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