Oliver Letwin (PA Photos)
At any given moment, there is a fashionable thing to say about British politics.
Some years ago, the fashion was to regard the Conservative Party as a near-death experience. But fashions change. When David Cameron came along, the near-dead became "resurgent". Soon afterwards, Gordon Brown decapitated Tony Blair and the fashion switched again — to assuming an early election triumph for the new Prime Minister. But this fashion didn't last long either. It was quickly replaced by the fashionable view that Mr Brown was a "dead duck" — a view which lasted only until it became fashionable instead to say that the PM was a hero who had saved the world from financial meltdown. But then people caught up with the fact that Mr Brown has difficulty making decisions and that his tenure at the Treasury left the country in appalling debt. So it is now fashionable (though wrong) to suggest that a Conservative government is inevitable.
The real truth — that nobody has any way of telling at this stage what will actually happen when there is a general election — is not, of course, a fashionable thing to say.
To a degree, all of this is harmless nonsense. There is, however, one kind of fashion that does tend to corrode the workings of our democracy. It becomes very difficult to conduct democratic debate if there is a collective decision to avoid engaging with the policy put forward by one or other of the participants in democratic debate.
Britain is at present experiencing exactly this sort of democratic deficit, due to the current fashion for balancing the false presumption that a Conservative victory is nearly certain by tossing in the further false assertion that the Tories are in this supposedly enviable position despite "having no policies". Stephen Glover's article in the July/August issue of Standpoint is a classic example of this tendency.
One of the things that makes this particular fashionable canard so bizarre is that, for better or worse, the Conservative Party under Mr Cameron has actually chosen to be more open in its policy development and to publish more detailed policy papers than any Opposition in recent times.
An inspection of the Conservative website will reveal a dozen Green Papers, setting out detailed policies on schools, welfare, the Health Service, prisons, the low carbon economy, international development, the voluntary sector, local government, housing and so on. Alongside these Green Papers, of which there are more to come over the next few months, there are major speeches on foreign and security policy from Mr Cameron and William Hague, and a series of important papers on tax, financial regulation and the fiscal framework from George Osborne and the Treasury team, as well as a large assembly of more minor policy pronouncements by other members of the Shadow Cabinet.
In short, it is absolutely impossible to substantiate the assertion that there is an absence of detailed policy from David Cameron's Conservatives.
So how do the fashion-conscious respond if presented with the large pile of Conservative policy?
In my experience, they usually respond that such detail is all very well, but that they can hardly be expected to spend wakeful nights reading hundreds of pages of worthy and detailed policy programmes. No, what they want to see is clarity of purpose, direction and method. In other words, they want the bold lines of policy, not the fiddly detail.
But this secondary response is at least as bizarre as the primary assertion that David Cameron has yet to reveal his policies. The Conservative programme carefully constructed over the course of the past three years (whether one agrees with it or not) is not only detailed. It also has a unified purpose and employs well-identified and consistent methods to move the country in a clear direction.
Its purpose is to achieve the progressive ends of rebuilding our broken economy, mending our broken society and fixing our broken politics.
Its method is to apply Conservative means: in other words, to strengthen society rather than the state; to give more power to the people through increased localisation, transparency, choice and accountability; and to encourage enterprise by liberating individuals, communities and businesses from the dead hand of excessive bureaucracy.
And the direction in which the programme seeks to take Britain is into a post-bureaucratic age. The ambition is to liberate the energies and reinforce the social bonds of our people so that they can achieve what has not been achieved and will never be achieved by the mechanisms of centralised bureaucratic micro-management.
Perhaps the fashion-conscious, faced with the fact of a large amount of detailed policy, and faced also with this description of purpose, method and direction, will next resort to the tertiary argument that "there may be policies and there may be purposes, method and direction, but what is the sign that the two are connected?"
But this tertiary argument is as curious as its primary and secondary companions. Look at Conservative proposals to liberate schools, hospitals and GPs from Whitehall micro-management and to make them depend upon the ability to attract pupils and patients. Or take the Conservative proposals for using the voluntary sector to move people from welfare to work and to rehabilitate prisoners on the basis of payment by results. Or consider the proposals for line-by-line transparency in government accounts, detailed neighbourhood crime maps (allied to elected police commissioners) and transparent information about outcomes for patients at each hospital and GP practice — or, indeed, the plans for local housing trusts, mayors in our cities, a new general power of competence for local governments, or the various proposals for referendums and rights of initiative for electors. Wherever you look, and regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what you see, you are bound to spot a pattern in these policies — the same general themes, the same purposes, the same methods, the same decentralising, de-bureaucratising direction.
Of course, one can argue about whether the purposes are the right purposes for today's Britain. One can debate whether the proposed methods will achieve the intended purposes. One can discuss whether the direction is the right direction for Britain. But the one thing that cannot rationally be asserted is that there is either any paucity of policy or any absence of a consistent approach.
Today's Conservative Party may be right or it may be wrong, but it is absolutely undeniably "about" something.
But even this will not, I suspect, be sufficient to prevent people making the assertion that the policy box is empty — because the fashionable consensus can easily deal with the falsification of its hypothesis by moving on to a higher plain of sophistication. "Ah, yes," will say the proponents of this more sophisticated version of the fashionable thesis, "you Conservatives may once have put together a progressive, communitarian and de-bureaucratising programme, but that was then and this is now. A combination of Mr Brown and recession have now bust the public finances. You won't have the money to carry out your progressive conservative programme. So tell us, what you are going to do about that, then?"
At first sight, this sophisticated variant of the crude "you ain't got no policies" argument, looks attractive — especially if one squints a little, stands on one's head, and wears a pair of thick sunglasses.
But to anyone who cares to take off the sunglasses, stand the right way up and stop squinting, a little further inspection will reveal that the sophisticated "you ain't got no money" variant of the fashionable argument is as hollow as the crude version.
It is certainly true that the Green Paper proposals for fundamental reform will take time to bear fruit. Even the most enthusiastic proponent of the Conservative policy programme could not reasonably assert that schools, hospitals, the welfare system, the criminal justice system, the housing system, local governments and central government will improve out of all recognition overnight or that the Conservative reforms will immediately produce efficiencies great enough to solve our grotesque public sector deficit. But it can reasonably be asserted (because it is true) that each of the reforms has been carefully crafted to ensure that none requires additional funding at the start. And it is also true that one of the aims of each reform is progressively to reduce demands on the taxpayer. This is to be achieved partly through the progressive strengthening of social responsibility and partly through progressively increasing efficiency — engendered by increased transparency, increased accountability and increasingly liberated enterprise.
In other words, the decentralising and de-bureaucratising programme aims to achieve substantially better economic, social and environmental outcomes for any given level of input — stabilising our public finances in the medium term in the right way, by getting decisively more bang for the taxpayer's buck.
Of course, during the early period after the next election, and before these reforms have begun to produce an increasing bang for the buck, the bucks themselves will need to be very carefully managed. But that, I fear, is inevitably the case, regardless of who wins the next general election.
The question is not, therefore, whether there is a coherent Conservative programme, nor whether that programme can be afforded in an age of austerity, but rather whether anyone else is offering any serious alternative and affordable programme to achieve the social, economic and environmental ends sought by most of us across the political spectrum. I recognise that this is not the question which it is currently fashionable to ask — but I suspect that it is the question that people will be asking themselves by the time of the next general election.
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