12th November 2020
(This is the corrected version of the previous post, for email subscribers.)
The current government of the United Kingdom has a distinctive approach to politics, and it has a distinctive approach to policy.
In both cases the approach is associated with the government’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings and, to a lesser extent, the prime minister Boris Johnson.
The approach to politics has as a feature a disregard for the settled norms and practices of conventional politics: elections and referendums are there to be won, and it matters little about how that is done.
It is a focused and, in terms of both the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election, a successful approach.
And because of this approach, they have power and their critics, however justified do not.
The approach to policy is similar, and can also be characterised as moving fast and breaking things.
There is no need for formal consultation exercises or procurement procedures, it is enough for there to just be central direction and directives.
And any policy will be formulated and implemented not by the traditional civil service in its traditional way, but by external hires and special advisers.
It is an approach which is not so much contrarian as indifferent to how policy was made and done previously.
But the lack of structure and the constant sense of rush comes at a cost, and because of that cost such an approach may be unsustainable in the medium to longer term.
There are currently news reports about a resignation of a Downing Street adviser and of general dysfunction around the prime minister.
And this would be bad at any time.
It would be very bad if the United Kingdom faced just one major challenge – either a pandemic or the imminent departure from the European Union in practice (though technically the departure was back in January), with or without a deal.
But for this disarray to happen in the midst of a resurgent pandemic (and a second lockdown, that in and of itself will be widely devastating), and days away from the end of the Brexit transition period, is about as bad as politics and policy can be in peacetime.
At the base of the current predicament is a lack of seriousness about policy.
Whether it be the self-inflicted problem of Brexit or the force majeure of a pandemic, the government at its most senior level has not taken policy making and implementation seriously.
This is because policy is just regarded as politics as other means.
And, in turn, this comes down to populism – which can be described as the promotion of easy answers in exchange for electoral support.
Populism can succeed in elections and referendums, and it has recently done so, but it cannot deal with hard policy.
And therein is the contradiction forcing the current political chaos: what works in obtaining power can often be the very reason why being in power then goes so badly.
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