The current government is an exercise in power without policy

17th June 2020

There were two political events yesterday that were indicative of the key weaknesses of the current government of the United Kingdom.

The first event was the u-turn on free school meals this summer – a shift forced by footballer Marcus Rashford’s public pressure, as well as it being something that plainly should be done.

The execution of this u-turn by the government had all the dignity of a nutmegged defender.

The second event was the announcement that the Department for International Development is to be folded into the Foreign Office.

There is no good reason for this shift, although there are many bad ones.

The folding of Department for International Development into the Foreign Office follows the merger of Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office swallowing the Department for Exiting the European Union, and so if this trend continues we will eventually just have a few mega-departments under tighter Prime Ministerial (and his adviser’s) direction.

The weaknesses that both events indicate are that this government is concerned with power but not policy.

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By ‘policy’ I mean a seriousness about getting things done.

Policy is hard: it is more than just legislative changes, or deciding administrative or budgetary priorities.

And policy is certainly more than a mere press release or a media strategy generally.

Policy is about combining many things so that certain outcomes can be be achieved which otherwise might not be achieved, but for that policy.

This is not a party political point: Aneurin Bevan establishing the National Health Service and Norman Tebbit putting in place trade union reform are both good case studies of carrying through policy.

But this government appears not to have a grasp of policy.

This seems to be the case in all areas, not just those which come to light from time to time in the course of political events.

It is just that those other areas are less obvious or, in the case of Brexit, shielded by ideological commitment.

This government’s approach to policy is flimsy everywhere.

This in turn explains why this government – even with its eighty majority in the House of Commons – is blown off course so easily.

Sometimes the changes happen at or after prime minister’s questions, but this week’s u-turn came before hand.

And the positive policy announcements that are made – such as with the International Development department – seem to be either for media and political consumption or to provide cover for tightening central political control, or both.

None of this is surprising: key members of the government approach problems as if what is needed is to compose a rousing 1200 word newspaper column or to make some gesture that ‘plays well’ with voters, or to shut down any autonomy or checks and balances within the state.

An approach that is good for obtaining (and maybe retaining) power but does not really provide anything about how to use that power once you have got it.

The government has no solid notion of what it wants to achieve overall, on Brexit or anything else.

It just has a notion of how to play to its audience and to increase power.

Perhaps the flimsiness is a good thing: perhaps the ideological commitments of those in and around government mean that we should be grateful that those commitments are not – yet – reflected in hard, sustainable policy.

But this policy flimsiness still makes a difference: on Brexit as well as on other matters, the United Kingdom is, like a latter-day Withnail and I, drifting further into the arena of the unwell.

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9 thoughts on “The current government is an exercise in power without policy”

  1. But why is the departmental merger an indication of no policy? Has it not been a long-standing aim of the Tory right? One can disagree with it but is it bad policy?

    1. Then my post is not clear on a fast read, sorry

      It is indicative of a lack of seriousness about policy: of centralising power for its own sake

  2. I think the clearest example of the government’s lack of policy is Brexit. The only aim you can discern is to schism the UK’s links with the EU, but little thought has been given to the links that are absolutely in UK interests (Euratom, Schengen Information database, security interactions, spring readily to mind). Neither has any thought be given to “make Britain great again” in terms of how new markets will be found, where the pent-up exports will come from (big hint, there aren’t any and such markets were already catered for within the EU anyway via trading on the bloc’s WTO schedule); how existing EU export markets (and financial services) will be supported at current levels (they will be going backwards) and no thought appears to have been given to what happens to indigenous agriculture if cheaper produce from the global market floods the nation – nor has any thought given about procuring harvesting staff etc. All Brexit policy amounts to are catchy slogans and jingoistic boasts about the nation’s greatness and role as a (if not the) leader of global free trade. It is the equivalent of setting out on a great voyage of exploration on a leaky vessel, with no charts and a sudden realisation that you haven’t packed any stores on board before leaving port…

    1. I don’t disagree with your analysis, but I think the motivation is more philosophical: don’t want to be ‘ruled’ from Europe, don’t want EU making decisions on social policy etc. The usual concept of *Great* Britain derived from imperial nostalgia. Those who voted for it seemed happy enough, when asked, to accept there would be some negative economic consequences. Of course you’d hope that those who were proposing to deliver Brexit would do so on more than a wing and a prayer.

    2. I completely agree. ISTM that the absence of a policy on Brexit, leaving aside posturing and pandering to the Brexit extremists, may well be that Brexit, beyond the formal ending of membership which has already happened, may paradoxically not happen. Just consider. The Government will not reach a deal with the EU, but neither will it plan for No-Deal or extend the Transition Period. The likely outcome is that next year EU goods will be allowed into the UK without checks, just as they are now, and that EU regulations will in the main be retained for the sake of convenience. What sort of Brexit is this?

  3. Cummings’ blog of January this year – the ‘weirdos and misfits’ one – exhibits clearly the vacuity David is speaking about. Cummings refers to successful examples of decision making – he instances the Manhattan project – but one will look in vain for any clue as to what defined objective Cummings wants to bring about. (Even Brexit is, it seems, an issue about which reasonable people may disagree).

    The lack of an objective means that everything is a matter of how to make decisions, as if there were some general skill here, rather than specific skills related to specific kinds of problem. The consequence is what David points out. That this man is at the heart of government is dispiriting, and dangerous.

  4. The International Development department was intended to develop poor countries to make their lives better. It had the side effect that it would reduce pressure of immigration to the UK and longer term to improve the volume of UK trade. Under the new regime, development will be in support of UK trade, poor countries are not a good market for the sorts of products and services that the UK supplies, unless we heavily subsidize export them so the money will now go to richer countries in support of short term UK commercial benefits. The merging of the two departments is just a way of reducing the ‘development‘ budget, that is the real policy change, hidden within the rhetoric.

  5. Very true. Nick McPherson (ex HMT) makes similar point (Twitter) about the combination of ruthless centralisation and policy drift (ather like Trump!) – and also pointing out that Development and the FCO have been merged and re-separated now 3 times!

    One might add that never in modern history have we been so in need of policy and direction. The economic catastrophe that will become abundantly clear this autumn (made worse by a no deal Brexit) is outside all existing thinking and will require radical change on many fronts (radical rethinking from the Left too, since Left and Right now share the assumption that fiscal prudence or even forethought is no longer necessary because, you know, Keynes).

    I fear things will get very ugly indeed when the Great Britsh Public finally twig what their wonderful post Brexit future really looks like.

  6. Absolutely this blog.

    Johnson is stoked by a power grabbing Brexit fantasy team (fortunately outplayed by Marcus Rashford) who l feel have little skill/talent, let alone desire or want, to understand what to do next in terms of responsible government for the greater good.

    The absorption of The Department for International Development into the Foreign Office fits snugly with the ideological portrayal of poor, sick and starving foreigners as not being ‘deserving’ of the UK’s soft power polices that actually helped people. Yet for Johnson to use a ‘cashpoint in the sky’ analogy to channel the statue guardians anger onto his new popular front is a bit rich coming from a man who has probably had a few freebies in his lifetime!

    Boris and his ‘team’ undermine any attempts to be held to account and scrutiny and after watching Boris’s ‘Tim Tam’ speech l can only conclude that the UK is in deeper socio-economic trouble than l thought.
    Australia has a good economic trading relationship with Singapore/New Zealand. Both the UK and Australia already trade with one another and l can’t see an exchange in Tim Tams and Penguins being a substitute for free trade with the EU. Maybe l’m wrong.

    This must be what power does to Governments having to govern!

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