As this weekend appears to mark the start, in earnest, of the General Election campaign, it seems the right time to reflect not on who might form the next Government but what is the essential essence of good Government.
Politics is often seen only in terms of policy or more often, sadly these days, in terms of personalities. However, how a Government goes about its task and how it chooses to exercise the power it is entrusted with can be of equal consequence.
There are four themes I would like to explore.
The first of these relates to the ambition of Governments. Increasingly in my lifetime, Governments have aspired to hyperactivity. Reform is de rigeur, initiatives are essential, reorganisations inevitable. The desire to be “doing things” or to be seen “to be doing things” has become a defining feature of Government, irrespective of the political complexion of the Government of the day. It is not just Governments of course which exhibit these characteristics, they are endemic in leadership in any aspect of modern life. However in Government, given its scale and influence, the consequences of such a focus on perpetual action is particularly significant.
There is a striking scene in the “Prime Minister” one Anthony Trollope’s lovely political novels (still the best read I can recommend for anyone with a penchant for politics) where the book’s two heroes – the Duke of Omnium, the eponymous and reluctant Prime Minister of the novel, and Phineas Finn, his ambitious young Irish colleague, discuss the nature of political power. Phineas Finn sees it like most modern politicians in terms of what he can do during his term of office. The older statesman counsels him differently. First do no harm is his advice.
There are undoubtedly times for Governments to act, but there is also an argument for some restraint on the relentless ambition for Governments to change things, especially when the motivation for that ambition is grounded in the need to respond a round the clock media whose appetite for announcements and initiatives is virtually insatiable. Try the Duke of Omnium’s advice on the Daily Mail.
But the main point is that, as in any walk of life, Governments need to ensure, especially in times of austerity, that they are focused and consistent in what they are trying to achieve and that there is some alignment between the scale of ambitions, the resources committed to it and the time allowed for change to take place. Even the best policy is easily undermined by poor implementation. It is particularly sad when the opportunity to do good is lost because poor follow though has eroded the support for what was proposed.
The second and related theme concerns the need for good laws. One of things which Governments can do is initiate legislation and so they do. While there has been much good legislation passed in recent years, there has been an increase in “knee jerk” laws without always the best consideration of whether a change in legislation is the most effective means of tackling a particular problem or whether the proposed legislative solution is workable in practice. I spent the first year of my time at Rethink Metal Illness opposing mental health legislation which had been conceived as a response to a particular (and horrific) case but which a wide range experts saw as unhelpful and retrograde. I am not convinced seven years later that it has added much to the effectiveness of the mental health system in this country.
Good laws need careful attention to their workability. They need to run with the long term grain of public opinion on whose consent they will rely for their impact and effectiveness. That is not say that new laws can’t be bold and, at times, controversial – the legislation to ban smoking in public places was a case in point – but they must be thought through.
The third theme relates to the role of Government in modern society as a bridge between public and expert opinion. The rule of experts can be as tyrannical anything but there is a place for broadly basing public policy around good evidence and expert consensus. In some areas such as public health modern Governments have followed this line but others, most notably criminal justice policy, they have been tempted to steer a course set too much by political doctrine or a narrow view of public opinion amplified through sections of the media.
This isn’t easy territory. Expert opinion as much as public opinion can be divided. Events, especially those given serious attention by the media, can blow even strong politicians off course. Some policy conundrums are difficult to solve and losers always make more noise than those who are set to gain from any proposed changes. There are, however, ways of managing these tensions. I remain a fan of the Royal Commission and other heavyweight channels of review as a means of building consensus around a way forward on difficult issues. They do not excuse politicians at the end of the day from needing to take difficult decisions as the old adage “to govern is to choose” makes clear. Sometimes politicians are right to modify expert ideas recognising as they do a political reality to what is proposed which the experts have not appreciated.
The final theme relates to the values on which Government is based and which, in turn, govern its own behaviour. It would be a foolish and naive person to imagine that those who take part in Government do so without any concept of self-interest. However there is an enormous gap between that and the chronic corruption which sadly still affects government in many parts of the world. Ever since the Gladstonian reforms of the 19th century which reinforced the principle of appointment to public office on the basis of merit rather than patronage Britain has had, in general, a good story to tell about the disinterestedness and honesty of its Government, particularly at a national level. Despite the shock of the expenses scandal of the last Parliament I still think that, for the most part, still holds true but the danger of the influence of lobbyists and big business is there to observe from across the Pond.
So as prepare for the long haul to the ballot box on 7th May let’s have some of the focus on the debate not just on claims and counter claims about the economy and the NHS but also on the crucially important issue of how we want to be governed in this country.