A little over three weeks from now, Britain goes to the polls to make an allegedly vital decision: whether to reform its voting system. Ironically, we are being asked to decide based on a grubby compromise that emerged from the failure of the old system. A fair better system than anything on offer – PR using Party lists – would be my option, for three reasons: you still vote only for one person – your candidate; the list top-up reflects the Party shares at a national level, and thus requires no expensive boundary reforms; and the recognition that a national decision has been taken erodes the link between MP and constituency. This last is the clincher for me, because MPs with constituencies are neither fish nor fowl. My view is that they should become legislators with more power over the Executive, and we should devolve further power to constituency level in a way that cuts MPs out of the equation entirely.
As for AV, it is a dogs-dinner compromise between FPTP and PR that will lead to the strengthening of Establishments and bland policy. It is a non-decision cobbled together by two Parties, neither of whom really want it. And as such, it reflects perfectly the nature and output of the Coalition’s first year.
The odd thing for me, however, is that I don’t think it is Coalition politics that has produced such a shambolic Government performance. The clique running our country at present is through-and-through traditional English upper middle-class Tory – with just two things missing: an eye for the detail of consequences; and bottle.
I would be the first to accept that from the day of its inception, the current Government had too many enemies. Put together the mad Left, the fluffy Left, LibDem grass roots screamers, the bark-over-bite Tory Right and most of the Press media, and you can see fairly easily why the Coalition has been given an unfairly rough ride. Right from the off, the former Daily Mail evacuees snapped up by the Barclay Brothers’ Telegraph Group began exposing, taping and fingering anyone they thought represented ideological impurity. So my immediate reaction was one of sympathy: let’s give the Cleggeroons a chance.
The Government has blown that chance for the same reason the Conservative Party leadership blew the election: arrogant sloppiness followed by panic-stricken retreat. One careering policy direction after another has been followed by humiliating climb-downs spun as ‘a time for reflection and rethink’. Very few voters will have been hoodwinked by such a clumsy rationale, and anyway it is internally illogical: you cannot rethink any policy to which no thought had been applied in the first place.
It is easy to generalise of course. But the bad news for the Cameroons is that it is equally easy to evidence the syndrome with a stream of examples.
The overriding umbrella strategy of the Government has been to stop our descent down the dry well – into which we were thrust after thirteen years with an arrogant Scottish historian in control of the bucket. To make drastic cuts was a good decision – albeit an obvious one – but the execution has been lamentable on two bases: an utter lack of selectivity, and a failure to deliver.
Cutting programmes always evoke an army of NIMBYs, but the idiocy of some of the slashing reveals just how much the Cameron clique has no real grasp of what is and isn’t important to civilisation. To cut police numbers and add a tier of politicians at the top is a crazy plan. To cut CPS funds still further is madness in the light of its already proven unwillingness to prosecute crime because of financial strictures. And to fall into the same trap as Thatcher over the local-authority Left’s political service-reduction does tend again to suggest that George Osborne is not a diligent student of recent political history.
But the policy overall has failed. And it will fail further because of another Cameron desire: to sell Britain down the road to Brussels rather than split the Tory Party. As fast as Osborne was announcing cuts that will only start this month, the EU was removing huge bailout sums from the Treasury by instant Direct Debit. And DD is the correct parallel, because despite the bollocks put out at every stage of our money disappearing, we are powerless to stop it under the Lisbon Treaty. Only yesterday Osborne said we would “offer no direct loan to Portugal” but these are weasel words: as the Independent affirmed last Thursday, we are due to cough up at least another £3 billion DD at some point soon.
Basically, the impression has been given that George went in with an axe, hacked down every pleading orphan, and then rifled their pockets for money to give to bloated foreign bureaucrats. The PR was hopeless, the cuts were compromised at every stage, and the commitment to the EU doomed them to failure in the first place. Today’s Treasury estimates suggest (as Jeff Randall pointed out in the Telegraph recently) that the Coalitionistas have made almost no short-term difference to Government expenditure – and it is still projected to rise all the way to 2015.
When Iain Duncan-Smith first appeared with his simplified package of welfare reforms, there was another short-lived glimmer of hope. Here was a patient man who had thought things through with a system designed to simplify things, increase claim honesty, reduce dependency, and cost a lot less. But as soon as IDS submitted his proposals, things began to go awry. The Treasury tried to chisel on the cost, and when Duncan-Smith politely declined so to do, other feather-heads concluded that if it was going to be expensive, then at the very least it should be presented as a historic triumph.
The result was an expectation management programme that oversold the reform’s benefits, and headlined the new ‘single flat rate’ old age pension of £155 per week. Only later did the media gradually winkle out how disadvantageous this would be to the most deserving….and how arbitrary the 1950 cut-off was. Later still, it became clear how unfair the overall approach would be to the average mother. Now it transpires that any real Government financial benefits will probably not be felt for at least thirty years.
Andrew Lansley’s proposed NHS reforms started off on a bad foot in that they hadn’t been trailed in a single Conservative election document before last May’s dead-heat. They were pilloried in The Slog from day one, purely on the basis of execrably poor mathematics being applied to the budget split, and a fully justified suspicion that this was the hidden preface to health privatisation.
With all the sensitivity of a smiling scud missile, silver-haired fox Andrew Lansley began confidently enough, but the flaws in the plan soon brought forward an eclectic pack of dogs to tear him apart. Lansley has managed to do what nobody has previously achieved: to unite GPs, hospital authorities, nurses and even consultants in opposition. Now Cameron has been forced to drag poor tired old Nick Clegg down to a shiny southern counties hospital in order to hail another rethink.
Meanwhile, current account budgets are in disarray and long waiting times have begun to resurface. Thus between them, Lansley and Cameron have managed to create a crisis from a muddle. Before long, it will be a messy bankruptcy.
Michael Gove’s education reforms are also in the IDS league of quality, if only because a big-picture vision lies behind them. But here again, despite having a man trained in PR at the top (and surrounded by Hiltons) Ten Downing Street created a botched presentation of the reforms so inept, even a senior Cabinet minister was moved to remark to me that “We have completely lost the battle on this one”.
The battle was not pitched by the Cameroons on the high ground of education content reform, but instead in the elephant trap of further education. Not courageous enough to accept that University entrants should be drastically cut from the outset, the Coalition proposed to ‘let the market decide’. The market being a motley crew of Universities used to very light budgetary punishment, their response was to say they’d put up tuition fees.
The result was a series of pointless riots, and an equally pointless promise that “only a very small minority” of Universities would charge the maximum allowed fee of £9000 per annum. To date, some two-thirds of institutions have declared their intention to charge precisely that sum: give those owning a market such things to decide, and this will tend to be what they do.
Had tough action been taken against Britain’s truculent investment bankers, the British public would not have given students and Labour marchers the permission to moan about cuts and changes in the educational mindset. But once again, the Osborne/Cameron duo talked a good game, only then to walk away from the problem – before limply announcing that bankers could pay themselves what they liked, whether or not their ownership of a job was down to the hard-pressed taxpayer.
Of all the mistakes made since last May, this is the one I firmly believe will come to damn the Cameron Administration. I think this chiefly because the inevitable outcome of a banking sector living on another planet to the socially-responsible economy will be Crash 2: this time at least ten times worse than the last fiasco, but with the added ingredients of national recession and widespread personal insolvency. I do not doubt that Cameroon spinners will play the Gordon Brown card of ‘world disaster, nothing to do with us’, but the electorate isn’t going to see it that way.
There is one thing in this ghastly econo-fiscal brew that will ensure the banks are never again (at least in Britain) allowed to pauperise the rest of us: the fact that, even were it politically possible to bail them out again, the Government couldn’t. Ask Mervyn King after a few Armagnacs what he thinks about that one. He will confirm the obvious truth: if our banks are overwhelmed again by calls on funds – as they assuredly will be – we are in the same boat as Ireland.
Too close an association with the banking community is one thing. But in private, George Osborne has remarkably similar views to King. What the banking surrender demonstrated for all to see was the item lacking throughout the Coalition’s first year: a spine.
Staying with the plight of Messrs Osborne and Cable, the economic approach has offered an identical stream of unconscious contradictions. Taxes on big houses became taxes on very big houses, and the need for regulation morphed into a war on red tape. There was much talk of encouraging entrepreneurs, but no serious action at all to help them. There were cries of joy when manufacturing increased, but no thought for the fact that this was little more than 11% of an otherwise stagnant economy. The deliberately massaged-downwards Pound brought the inevitable factory-gate inflation, and the current spectacle of an MPC committee split down the middle on what to do with interest rates.
Here too, the expectation management has been laughable – largely because Ken Clarke has once again been ordered to put a sock in it, but also because every last statistical digit pointing upwards has been hailed as ‘A Sign’. Above all, however, the terrifying thing to me has been some recent minor-league gossiping with junior Treasury officials. I am at best once-removed from these bods, but it is very clear that the Cameroons came into Government having given no thought at all to the question of how the non-services part of the economy might spearhead a recovery once QE had finished. (These same civil servants ten months ago were almost tumescent at what a pleasant change the new Government represented. Now the mandarins are dismissive of the amateurishness involved. “I just thank God for Mervyn King” said one, a statement I never expected to hear from the Treasury.)
The man I expected to see in Number 11 Downing Street one day was William Hague. But if ever management consultant Chart Bollocks Man was found out in office, then Foreign Secretary Hague has proved to be the living embodiment of CBM. Of all the Coalition’s fallen stars, he is the one who has proved the most spectacular disappointment – if people can in general be such a thing. Hague is, but I’m not sure about the rest of us.
British foreign policy since May 2010 has suffered from three primary problems. First, Hague went native from Day Two, and accepted the incompetent FCO line in its entirety. Second, the Prime Minister likes interfering in this area, because it has great potential for glory. And third, the Prime Minister knows nothing whatever about this area, because that would involve a degree of diligent reading.
David Cameron went to Ankara and glorified the Islamist control-freak Recep Erdogan. Then he called the Gaza Strip a concentration camp. Then he met some of the leaders in the regions inbetween, most of whom have since been forcibly retired. Then he came home and dissed every known form of Islamic behaviour – having only three months previously said the key thing was “equal calm on both sides”.
He went to India and insulted Pakistan. He went to Afghanistan and promised undying support to the armed forces there, having already given some potential dates for complete withdrawal.
The Arab spring took North Africa by storm, and the FCO by surprise. When the contagion hit Libya, Hague described Gaddafi firing on his own people as “diluting his credibility”, and within two days had the Libyan leader on a plane to Argentina. The plane and its destination existed entirely in Mr Hague’s wooden imagination.
The upshot is that nobody in Britain has the remotest idea what our foreign policy is, beyond a make-it-up-as-you-stumble approach on a par with Obama’s. The American President himself clearly dislikes us (no sign of comment on that from the Special Relationship loons in the FCO) and Irael’s leader now describes us as “an ally for whom I would fear, if I was sure Britain was still an ally”.
But I think that for me, the final stimulus to write this piece came while I was watching lions in Botswana. I returned to the game-drive camp to read that the British and French had invaded Libya. And my first thought was, ‘What with?’
The MoD/armed forces cuts announced last year represent yet another example of pathetic hubris, and very poor hierarchising of priorities. The gigantic, big-eared African bull elephant in the understairs loo on this one is Britain’s nuclear capacity. Up until roughly 1992, we definitely needed this capacity – but purely as a continued assurance of mutually assured destruction. Now we don’t.
There are two simple reasons for this. First, whether or not we are all speaking German, Chinese or Russian forty years from now, a British nuclear strike force could never hope to stay up to speed with what American and Chinese research in weapons is now bringing to the Party. And a headcase North Korean or Iranian attack is unlikely to be aimed anywhere near us.
Far more likely is the secret importing of a mini-nuclear weapon into Britain by extremists – itself the second (and overwhelming reason) why we do not need a remote nuclear strike force. Although none of us are supposed to write about this, the main nuclear powers have had nuclear blackmail packages in most of their important embassies for the best part of twenty years. We are never, ever going to launch a nuclear attack on anyone – a certainty that comes as a great moral relief to me, and one based on the absolute lack of any need to do so.
The decision to save our nuclear capacity and slash conventional forces is the equivalent of killing spiders while buying DDT in bulk: we’re keeping the nasty pricey part, and wiping out the natural fly-killers. The current cost of maintaining Trident alone (without modernisation or replacement) currently stands at just over £3 billion per annum, and rises at an average of 10% per annum before inflation. According to the MoD itself, if it is to be retained, the UK’s ageing “ultimate deterrent” will need replacing by 2024 at the very latest – at an estimated cost of £20 billion per annum to maintain.
Defence Minister Liam Fox asserted in a speech last year that 70% of our defence spend is on conventional forces and their weaponry. As with so much that Mr Fox emits, this is inaccurate. On the MoD site, after a great deal of tiresome searching, it’s obvious that some nuclear deliverables (aeroplanes to you and me) are included in that 70%. My best estimate is that conventional weaponry and men make up about two thirds of the budget now. But when you add in the future acquisition and maintenance costs of nuclear replacement, this could easily be completely reversed: post cuts, the Defence Budget is £33.4billion for 2012, but as you can see from the preceding estimates (and estimates are always exceeded) it’ll cost 60% of that just to maintain the nuclear renewal as planned. The rate of cost increase alone on nuclear weaponry is 6.3 times faster than that for conventional.
The whole idea is a nonsense – but could have been an open goal for any brave Government keen to both save and improve. With a cost of defence after cuts at £34 billion, we could increase recruits’ pay and armed strength, update conventional weaponry, and still knock circa £7-8 billion off the cost by dumping nuclear. The idea that by 2015 (when the nuclear/Trident decision comes due) we will be in a position to maintain an independent nuclear force is a fantasy wrapped in a cloud of MoD obfuscation and sealed in a leaden box of childish jingoism.
But the Coalition hasn’t taken the right decision because (a) Cameron fears the power of the military when leaking to the press (b) he is scared of his Right wing’s reaction, and (c) he is still living in a Boy’s Own cloud-cuckoo land of British imperial glory. Nothing evidenced this more than his decision – the minute my back was turned – to help the French start firing air-to-graound rockets around in Libya. Somehow in the Prime Minister’s eccentrically arranged brain, it seemed a good idea to use the newly neutered part of the armed services on a pointless military intervention.
We now have ‘a stalemate’ in Libya, and Dave wants a defence-cuts rethink. My oh my, how did that happen?
All of the foregoing argument does, I hope, support why the one-word headline sitting at the top of this article is as apt as it is succinct. The only reason many people are still unaware of the degree of shambolic government from which they suffer is that their own standards of discernment – and expectations of public figures – have plummeted so drastically in the fourteen years since things could only get better.
This is why, I suspect, after the regeneration of an effective cost-cutting programme, the policy that matters above all others is education. And the catalyst that will change attitudes even more quickly is what Macmillan famously called “Events, dear boy, events”.
While it may take a good fifteen years before the fruits of a re-engineered education system are seen, imminent events will jolt enormous numbers of citizens into a state of complete alertness. For a while, most of us were asleep – and then just dozy or distracted. But the loss of job, services and home alongside rocketing costs will sober every last one of us up….for be it uncles, kids, siblings or parents, we are all going to share the experience of seeing the unthinkable come to pass.
How those events are handled will decide a lot more than whether we stay in a rapidly crumbling EU or avoid debt default. Which is why I do still want a stable, sensible Government to prevail: because the alternative of pie-in-the-sky pc aided and abetted by the dead hand of a corrupt State would be the end for anyone who genuinely understands the responsibility of being British.
But I’ve given up on this lot. They are governing in the only way they know how, and it is nowhere near enough to guarantee our survival in the harsh world that must pertain for the next decade or so. Somewhere between Etonian toffs and obese bar stewards lie the rest of us. All we ask is a Government that reflects our decency, commonsense and courage. It surely cannot be too much to ask; but equally surely, it won’t happen unless more of us get off our backsides, get together on the internet, and get real about what really matters in life.