Warning: this is a musing sort of posting (though not necessarily amusing) about the Cleggeron Coalition and the general situation. I hope people will pile in but I also hope that the discussion, if there is one, will become reasonably constructive.
Earlier today I attended a talk and a discussion about the Coalition government, one year on, led by a well known journalist. As Chatham House rule was operating and it was not in Chatham House itself, which tends to leak like a sieve, I cannot go any further in identifying either place, organization or person. But I can use material gathered and can certainly put down my own thoughts on the subject.
One odd idea that cropped up is the fact that, one year into opposition, the Labour Party has still not been able to find any feeling or words of humility or acceptance that their 13 years of government was a monumental failure on almost every front. This is remarkably different from the Conservatives who went into opposition in 1997, having left a relatively (no more than that) healthy economy and having actually passed a number of reforms in their 18 years that have improved the situation in the country and have, mostly, survived. Much was left undone but that was not the reason why the Tories went into a full-scale self-criticism mode. For some reason, they accepted and internalized the criticism levelled at them by the left-wing bien-pensants, the media of which the BBC is the finest example and numerous vested interests that they were the "nasty party". What exactly, asked the speaker, is nasty about wanting to control public spending, improving public services and strengthening law and order? These are or ought to be popular policies and the alternatives (as advocated by numerous members of the Cleggeron Coalition) are paid for by the electorate.
Far from arguing that point, the Conservatives have been grovelling and beating their collective breast about some unspecified crimes against the people, who were, on the whole, left better off at the end of the Conservative government, though the public sector was not reformed or improved and, sure enough, we are paying for that now.
We can all recall the Conservative discussions as to what should be "their Clause 4"; what should they discard from what had been, let us face it, a victorious collection of policies the way Labour had discarded a backward looking idea that had made the party unelectable for almost two decades. Apparently, the Conservative thinkers (and I use the term losely) could not see the lack of logic there and spent no time explaining how very successful some (not all) of their policies had been.
The speaker, who, being a journalist, was relatively sympathetic to the government's travails but thought that Cameron was shaping up to be a good Prime Minister, without defining or explaining any of that, nevertheless, admitted that a golden opportunity to explain the real situation and to present the electorate with some hard truths immediately after the election when people were receptive to those and to the idea of radical reforms, had been lost.
One reason, as we now know, why that opportunity had been lost and radical reforms not presented in a coherent fashion was that very few of the incoming Ministers had any blueprints for what they wanted to achieve. That goes for the Conservatives who expected to be in government as much as for the Lib-Dims who did not.
The general opinion round the table was that it would have made no difference had the Conservatives won a majority as they seem to be as much in favour of big government policies and green energy, which is likely to increase people's bills considerably as well as showing no understanding of future demands and supply, as the Lib-Dims.
The national debt is rising and there are no obvious cuts in government spending. In other words, a bad situation is being made worse, despite the curses and plaudits heaped on the government for being heartless destroyers of the public sector.
Incidentally, I think it is time we responded to all those who were calling on us to preserve the public sector and, above all, the NHS with a direct comment about them simply wanting to preserve jobs rather than provide good care. Let us go into attack and point out that it is people who campaign for the preservation of the NHS who do not care about patients as long as they can keep all those jobs behind desks. That, after all, is what preserving the NHS is about; oh and about ensuring that the big pharmaceutical companies that have a cosy relationship with the management do not lose their monopoly of supply.
My own contribution was two-fold, neither particulary original. In the first place, I cannot understand why people refer to the Conservative Party as being eurosceptic. Apart from the odd mumble about "not accepting further integration" just before they do, and "fighting for Britain's interests" just before they abandon them, there has been no sign of any coherent thinking about the European Union and Britain's part in it, let alone any real opposition. As a result of it, we see no sign that anybody in the government actually understands the catastrophic developments in the EU that may well engulf this country; developments, I may add, that were predicted by a number of genuinely eurosceptic economists who were comprehensively ignored by the Conservatives as much as any other major party.
That took me to my second point: what is so disconcerting about this government and the Conservative Party is the lack of any political framework within which they operate. There is no background understanding or ideological underpinning to their activity. What is it they actually want to achieve? To reduce the deficit? Well, fine but then they should look at all the spending and, above all, start thinking what kind of society they want at the end of it.
What, among all the plethora of government activity, is the task of the state (defence and law and order spring to mind) and what should the state start disengaging itself from? What sort of healthcare do they want to achieve - do they want people to be in charge of their own healthcare as far as possible or do they simply want to save money on the NHS? The latter cannot actually be achieved without the former.
As for education, Michael Gove's famed reforms seem to be as much of a dog's dinner as all the other reforms. The free schools are not exactly free in that they do not really control the conditions of entry and have to stick to the examination boards and their ever dumber curriculum. In any case, they are not going to be more than a drop in the ocean.
Grammar schools are off the agenda and the mere mention of the word vouchers gives government ministers the vapours. Recent shock-horror articles about the level of illiteracy in primary schools do not shock anyone who has looked at the subject. Year after year we have seen the results of ever higher examination rates and heard the complaints of potential employers that our school leavers are illiterate and innumerate as well as often unemployable; year after year we have heard complaints from secondary school teachers that before they start teaching subjects they have to teach 11 year-olds basic literacy and numeracy because the primary schools have not done so. Melanie Phillips caused a scandal by her book All Must Have Prizes a decade and a half ago.
The problem is only partly to do with the number of children who arrive to this country not speaking English as even the shock-horror articles have admitted. Still less does it lie with so-called poverty. Children who get free school meals and are thus counted to be poverty-stricken seem to possess a good many electronic gadgets as, yet again, the articles in the Standard and the Daily Mail admitted.
Nor it it the fault of the Labour government though they have not made things much better. I well recall taking a top primary class at the time of John Major's government with its "Baker days" of evil memory to the Museum of London. The school was mixed with a fair proportion of children who had free meals but that is not, in itself, an indication of anything much. There were very few children who arrived at the school without being able to speak English at all, thought there were quite a few who also knew another language, which is not usually considered to be a disadvantage. Yet, to my stunned horror, nearly half of the 10 and 11 year-olds could not read. They read the first two letters of a word and tried to guess the rest, the way 5 year-olds do when they are just learning. When I raised the issue with the head teacher, my complaints were dismissed with a few breezy comments.
The point is that there is no coherent idea of what we want our education system to do and to achieve any more than there is a coherent idea of what we want our defence forces to do and achieve and what we would like to see in many other sectors. It is not altogether surprising that the Conservatives who are doing relatively well in the opinion polls and did surprisingly well in the recent local elections are not really very popular either. They are not seen as being any different from either Labour or the Lib-Dims, though the latter have lost any popularity they ever possessed. But that does not seem to bother them any more than the fact that they are not on the way to achieving any reforms or presenting any solutions to the thornier problems we face. As long as they can get enough votes to stay in government, nothing else matters. It is, of course, up to the electorate to disillusion them on that score but those kind of shifts take a long time and the asinine behaviour of what ought to be the obvious alternative, UKIP, does not help.