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.