Saturday, June 11, 2011

An excellent analysis

Irwin Stelzer is an astute man but a kindly one. Well, he is kindlier than I am, but I suppose that is not saying much. He has, on the whole, been ready to give the Cleggerons the benefit of doubt but he seems to have reached the end of that road and says that the electorate will do the same very soon, despite the May 5 results that were favourable to the Conservatives.

His gripe with the government is one that is a familiar refrain on this blog: a complete lack of coherence at the heart of it, not because it is a coalition of two somewhat dissimilar parties but because the Conservative leadership is incoherent in its approach to most major issues. (Make that all major issues.)

Take the much touted policy of localism:
One of the best of those intentions is to devolve power from Westminster to local councils. There is, after all, an entire chapter in the Conservative canon about pushing power down to the unit of government closest to the people, and further to "local councils, communities and neighbourhoods and individuals", to cite David Cameron's statement when launching the agenda to implement perhaps his noblest vision, the Big Society. But this government is not engaged in a theoretical exercise: it is dealing with decades in which local governments have become increasingly infected with left-leaning, expansive and intrusive attitudes about the proper role of government; in which councils have become dominated by apparatchiks rather than by citizen-politicians modelling themselves after Cincinnatus; in which multiculturalism and relativism have become the received wisdom. In short, the government is not engaged in the rather standard and oft-practised process of moving the line that separates the powers of central from local governments a few millimetres to the right or the left, a periodic feature of democratic government. It is engaged in a revolution, an attempt to reverse powerful habits of mind and peel away institutional barnacles in which the existing local ruling class has a major stake. Revolutionaries do not succeed by delegating power to those whom it wishes to weaken or destroy. They succeed by recognising that the facts on the ground are nothing like those theoreticians imagined when they called for devolving power to the smallest unit of government. There are times — such as these — when powerful leadership from a democratically — elected centre is necessary to get the nation's business done, being careful always not to cross the line that separates such as Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher from Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler.
Readers with long memories will recall that it was this problem with local education authorities (LEAs) that led to the creation of a centralized curriculum, which has not been much of a success.

Mr Stelzer is absolutely right: there is no point in talking about localism if that means handing more power to people who are determined to prevent any loosening of the state's grip on social life.
This is one policy area in which the government is being crushed under the weight of its incoherence. It wants to devolve power from the centre, and it wants to direct newly scarce resources to purposes uncongenial to those to whom it is devolving power. If withdrawing some vital service prevents a cut in executive salaries; or funds construction of fancy, very green offices for councillors; or permits the hiring of a "head of strategic commissioning" at £79,000-£87,000 per annum, surely no one can doubt the wisdom of such a move. And if a civic group appears and volunteers to run a community centre on a self-funding basis, why permit such an intrusion on the government's sphere? Better to close it than to allow creeping privatisation.

You can't have decentralisation of power to a bureaucracy that quite naturally believes its pay cheques are top priority if you also want to keep libraries open; you can't hand the power to distribute pain to politicians who value easing the social problems of transgender citizens over well-lit streets; and you can't rely on the emergence of a disinterested band of politicians to challenge the entrenched bunch after so many years when the public has had no experience of a better way of running a town, and sees only short-run loss from transferring power to Burke's little platoons, if any such have survived the past decades of local misgovernance.

Despite such examples, the government sees no inconsistency in pursuing both the goal of decentralisation and the goal of resurrecting civil society. But, as in the words of the popular song, "It's gotta be this or that."
There is incoherence in many other policies. (What kind of government cuts defence back and promptly goes to war?)Naturally enough, Mr Stelzer concentrates on economic policies, attitudes to the fiscal sector (a dislike characteristic of safe-playing civil servants and people who live on inherited wealth) and entrepreneurship.
In short, the government is currently promoting an incoherent mix of policies designed to

-shore up the banks while draining them of capital

=reduce risky lending while forcing banks to lend tobusinesses at rates some analysts say do not reflect the risks involved

-encourage financial firms to set up shop in Britain while taxing their staffs more and limiting compensation

-foster small businesses while effectively precluding them from participating in the programmes aimed at helping them

-failing to exempt them fully from excessive regulation and Treasury harassment.
Read the whole piece.


  1. And of course, there is also little point of talking about "devolving" power when so many of the things being "devolved" are actually not controlled by Westminster anyway - the only thing being devolved is the authority to operate EU laws and regulations. Much of this extra layer of spending is done to (supposedly) comply with the demands of such laws (the gold-platers' argument being that if you do not have these highly paid departments then you may be in breach of the laws being imposed and the demands they create for implementation). The problem is that whoever is supposedly "in charge" in the UK, the end product has to be broadly the same. Spending cuts? Well yes, on areas which can be cut by Westminster. But not of course on any aspects of government controlled by the EU (which is, er, rather a lot). Steltzer is right and there are of course those whose left wing expansive dogma demands ever greater spending (and these include very large numbers of Tories) but he misses a useful additional point that neither devolver nor devolvee has enough leeway to truly make a difference anyway, except probably on the margins. If this is not addressed, then we will go on endlessly blaming the next government, then the next local authority, then the government after that ad infinitum in a re-run of past battles...when we should also be looking elsewhere for reasons why we are having, overall, to spend more money. The left leaning, expansive EU...

  2. Very true, Mr Hockney, but I don't see why we should not blame the whole lot of them: EU, Westminster and local authorities.

  3. And quite right too..."we are all to blame" (well except you and me)