January 07, 2007

New Labour: The Technique of Government

This Blog spends a lot of its time analysing the way that governments should think about governing the country. Its preoccupation derives mainly from the fact that the government of the UK is about to change, and its at times like these especially as ideological divisions narrow, that the technique of government becomes both more visible and more interesting to the observer. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have been two of the most successful politicians of the last twenty years- their presence in the cabinet together was Peter Hennessy quiped like having Gladstone and Disreali serving in the same government- there are obvious tensions between them as well, tensions over substance. Gordon Brown is giving out strong hints at the moment that he is in favour of a more economic look at the problems of the Middle East than Tony Blair- Blair has always doubted his Chancellor's ability to see beyond the strategic to the detail, to the day to day activity of politics.

Issues do divide them and a bitter personal war over Blair's departure from Number 10 has not helped but a more basic frame of mind unites them- and I am not sure that it is neccessarily a good frame of mind.

Take two articles from today's Observer. The first by Martin Bright explores the way that Gordon Brown wishes to conduct his foreign policy, it lays out the rumours that I mentioned above about an economic approach to the Israel-Palestine problem. The second is by Matthew Taylor and attempts to suggest that long term strategic thinking is being done in government designed to cement together the Blair premiership that has been and the Brown premiership to come. Both approaches sound reasonable: solving economic problems in the Palestinian territories would help with the political problems- as the Bible suggests messes of potage do help people in being moderate about their birthrights. Longterm thinking by ministers too often caught up in the headlines of the Daily Mail is also a good idea- just going away and sitting down with some numbers and thinking about anything from the environment to health policy is useful.

Both articles portray an intellectual approach to policy that suffers from vast flaws though. Mr Kettle shows us a Chancellor who is about to transplant his entire Treasury staff to Number 10, to the extent that he wishes to appoint a Treasury man to be his diplomatic advisor. Mr Kettle's article portrays a Chancellor who beleives that the solutions suitable to his previous department will be the same as the solutions suitable to every department- one can imagine Brown arriving into a meeting and faced with a Palestinian envoy talking about Hamas, answering balance the Books (that's slightly unfair to the Chancellor). It might be worthwhile though if the Chancellor were to consider the moment that he becomes Prime Minister an opportunity to open himself up to receiving information from new people, from experts in the new fields he will have to master, instead of surrounding himself with growling Treasury gatekeepers.

If the Chancellor's lack of intellectual variety is a worry, then so is the Prime Minister's. Mr Taylor's article is written with the endorsement of Number 10, it is Mr Taylor who has been running these policy reviews he says and he is strongly affiliated to the Labour Party as this article from 2003 demonstrates. Taylor includes in what is a typically waffly piece (and who can blame him for that neccessarily) a stunningly problematic statement, he writes that his review will be

envisaging a radically reformed central state - smaller, more strategic, less controlling, focused more on the causes of poverty, ignorance and sickness than the Sisyphean struggle to ameliorate their consequences.

Its all very sensible to look at causes and try and deal with them- Mr Blair justifiably made his career out of the tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime slogan- but is Mr Taylor really arguing that government will give up on the consequences of poverty, ignorance and sickness. Is he really arguing that the government should abandon feeding the hungry, educating and founding hospitals- if he is he is moving far beyond what even the most rightwing Tory would endorse.

I don't think Mr Taylor does beleive that for a minute. But I do think that its interesting that he said it becuase it shows how conservative he actually is- he could not entertain the thought that his words could be interpreted in that way because, swallowed in the consensus, he doesn't really entertain the thought that the state might not do those things. Mr Taylor's state is the state of the last fifty years and is the state that exists within the West. He hasn't looked beyond or into history or philosophy, because if he had he would have realised there are people who take the line he has just written. A statement full of civil service waffle and incoherent statements shows that its drafter isn't going back to first principles and reassessing what he does from them, but rather in an adhoc spirit is adding on new laws and new works which might work and which are ameliorations of what he had done before. The proposals aren't radical- but are a kind of lazily conservative effort which relies on unspoken intellectual assumptions assumed and granted immunity from argument- Mr Taylor ought to at least look at his own ideas a bit more and see if government is consistant with them, instead of telling us that he is radical because he proposes a couple of new laws.

Both Mr Taylor and Mr Brown therefore lack something and that something is introspection. The business of politics, of appearing to have quick and simple answers, has taken over from the substance of politics. Neither of them are willing to expand their horizons, to admit to doubt. There is an intellectual timidity in both reviews of policy- one won't allow his ideas to contact people outside a small circle- the other waffles incoherently without testing his principles or even trying out his policies against his principles- but both you sense need time to rest, time outside politics to rethink and reposition. Both men are intelligent but they need wider reading and wider contexts to understand fully what they are about- being in government is not a substitute for being good at government, having ideas doesn't mean that they are coherent.

Mr Taylor and Mr Brown shouldn't be judged on two pieces of journalism- but it does bring out some of the weaknesses of our political class. Going back to the First World War, all sorts of intellectuals have moaned that we lack a political class truly open to new ideas and to long term perspectives, too unphilosophical and too adhoc in their approach- too focused on the short term- neither Mr Taylor nor Mr Brown on this evidence seem to be changing the mould of British government.


CityUnslicker said...

A very shapr analysis. I find it hard to disagree. Except to note that Brown will not understand what you are saying here. He thinks he is very deep and meaningful with a long-term plan. As evidence he will use waiting out El Tone.

Also note all that son of the manse rubbish.

Of course the reason he would not understand this analysis is as you say. A monumental lack of self-awareness.

Gracchi said...

I agree its exactly what Brown lacks which is a view from the outside that stops him understanding that is what he lacks.