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.
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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