Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Simon Jenkins is mad as hell

Over the past three weeks Simon Jenkins has been presenting a series of talks on BBC Radio 4 under the title "Mad as Hell". You can find audio files and transcripts of them here.

He argues that government in Britain is too pervasive and, in particular, too centralised. More than that, he argues, that much of the blame for this lies with Mrs Thatcher. Far from rolling back the frontiers of the State, she pushed them forward.

As he said in the first of his three talks:
To rid Britain of socialism Thatcher claimed to need more power. It was the same claim socialism had made for its creation. Thatcher came to need more Treasury control, more quangos, more regulators, less insubordination, less lower tier democracy. She might claim that she only needed the power so as later to return it to the people (those in power always say that). But she took it, and we let her.
Jenkins is also very good on the way political debate is conducted in Britain today.

If the state refuses to wither away, their must be a cause.

One reason is vividly illustrated each morning by the BBC's Today programme, unofficial tribune of the political scrutiny. It is often accused of left-wing bias. I have never agreed with that. But then its bias is far more powerful, towards interventionism as opposed to devolution. It may anti-the government but it is fiercely pro-government. And in this it is no different from most of the media, indeed most of Britain's political community. Day after day its interviewers intone the same mantra. What are you doing, secretary of state, about the crime rate, hospital waiting list, traffic jams, trains, schools, litter, hooligans? Something must be done. Come on minister, what are you doing? Why aren't you spending more?

In response I have never heard a minister dare to say that anything is none of his business.


The major premise of political debate is that more must always be spent and be done. When a dog bites a child, the Home Office must look into dog licences. When salmonella is found in an egg, all eggs are suspect. If a man falls into a pond, all ponds must be fenced.

Worse, nothing must be different anywhere. Told that cancer cures are higher in Shropshire than in Surrey the media erupts. Told that speeding fines are lower in Dorset than in Durham we need to know why. Why is literacy lower in Liverpool than Ludlow or rivers cleaner in Cornwall than Cumbria? Why is the minister doing nothing about it? The target culture duly elides into the post-code lottery. We can't bear anything to be variable. It is unfair.

This analysis has much in common with the approach taken by Chris Huhne and the group which produced the Liberal Democrat report Quality, Innovation, Choice in 2002. It displayed the Lib Dem obsession with regional government, when voters' loyalty is to cities and counties, but otherwise its heart was entirely in the right place.

Unfortunately, the policies in this report have been largely set aside in favour of conventional calls for more spending and more public sector staff. Such policies may well be needed, but without the sort of reform Jenkins and Huhne call for, it is hard to see them having the desired effect.

Chris Huhne's report has fallen so far out of favour that there seems no longer to be a copy on the Liberal Democrats' website. But you can find a Word version on Huhne's own site here. It is well worth reading.


Anonymous said...

A pity, because I joined the LDs largely on the strength of 'Quality, Innovation, Choice' and 'Setting Business Free.' I logged on to the site in 2003knowing relatively little about the party, and after having read those I was hooked.

Anonymous said...

..although probably the reason it's been taken off is because it refers so much to regional government, now seen as a no-goer. Still, I hope the other elements aren't somehow taken out in the process of revisiting it.