What nature of beast?

It was, I think, Martin Rowson, perhaps our most ghoulish cartoonist, who first asked whether the coalition was evil, useless or both. Faced with David Cameron’s eccentric stewardship since May 2010, government opponents are often unsure whether to laugh, cry, or run away in terror. What Polly Toynbee and David Walker want us to consider is, that if the government is useless, it might be useless for a reason.

Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at half-time
by Polly Toynbee and David Walker
Granta, 90pp, £5

Dogma and Disarray is an old-fashioned polemic, pure and simple. There’s no attempt to win over government supporters here. Instead, for a fiver, they try to offer Cameron’s opponents (Lib Dem as well as Labour) a coherent idea of what they’re up against. If it is indeed a beast, what nature of beast is it?

Not easy. Unwieldy, ugly and hard to love, Cameron’s government remains a puzzle even to many of its own supporters: a hybrid composed of a Thatcherite brain, a liberal Tory heart and Europhobic limbs, with Liberal Democrat dangly bits sewn on here and there. It resembles less Frankenstein’s monster than the renegade Time Lord Morbius from Doctor Who. Morbius ends up as a decomposing brain yoked to a mélange of different body parts it can barely control. But the Coalition brain, if Toynbee and Walker are right, is still functioning. Worse still, it has a plan.

Austerity is the coalition’s one consistent and agreed theme. But to borrow a phrase from Aneurin Bevan, austerity isn’t a policy, it’s an emotional spasm. If austerity doesn’t bring growth and jobs, or even reduce the deficit, what is it for?

For the authors, austerity is the means to a different end: not fiscal rectitude but completing the Thatcherite revolution by reducing – to a cypher – the role of the state.

‘Market fanatics have long admired Joseph’s Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction: now it was to be adapted to the public sector,’ they warn. ‘Cameron is opening up a vast new field for private profit by bringing firms into territory previously considered fundamental to the state’s identity.’

This explains the government’s serial U-turns, its indolence and seeming indifference to failure, the retention and even promotion of discredited ministers, and its bull-in-a-china-shop reforms of justice, education and welfare, After all, if you believe the state is inherently useless, why bother to run the state well?

Seen this way, Andrew Lansley’s ‘circular disorganisation’ of the NHS was not a clumsy attempt to put GPs in charge, but a wrecking ball designed to make ‘the NHS a pioneer for privatisation across the public services. If it could be accomplished in the NHS, the most politically sensitive of all public services, then the field was open.’

For a prime minister who will presumably need a second term to complete his project, Cameron has been cavalier with public opinion, relying on cack-handed opportunism on welfare and Europe – his only consistently popular policies – to win over voters, but to limited effect. The authors faintly hope that Cameron (like Morbius) might be brought down by his own ineptitude before he does too much damage. If not, the people must decide whether he is bringing ‘creative destruction’ or just smashing things up. In a democracy it’s voters, not the market, who have the final say.

A version of this post was published in public service magazine, winter 2012.

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