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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Chairman Mao and the Coalition Government

In this morning's Observer, Andrew Rawnsley concocts a marvellous conceit in which he finds elements of Tony Blair and Mao Tse-tung within the coalition government.

His basic proposition is that the government are talking of unleashing a "cultural revolution" in the public services and of hailing devolution of power away from the centre using Mao's old slogan: "Let a thousand flowers bloom." He says that there is a belief among the senior members of the government in the creative chaos of individual decision-making and that this is the glue which binds David Cameron's liberal conservatives with the Cleggite liberals:

Just about anywhere you look in Whitehall, there is a secretary of state unleashing upheaval. Ken Clarke challenges two decades of orthodoxy about the criminal justice system. Michael Gove battles the educational establishment to create his "free schools". Iain Duncan Smith has ambitions to be the man who definitively reformed welfare. Chris Huhne is dramatically recasting energy pricing. Nick Clegg wants to rewrite large parts of the constitution. Over at health, Andrew Lansley proposes the greatest upheaval in the NHS since its foundation. They are urged on from within Number 10 by the prime minister's principal strategist, Steve Hilton, who is probably the most Maoist person in the government. He has been heard to tell colleagues: "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything."

Some of their plans may win your approval; some of them may leave you sceptical; some you will hate. Most people on the liberal-left will be supportive of Mr Clarke's challenge to the philosophy of "prison works". It is traditionalist Tories and the right-wing tabloids who are worked up into a froth about what they caricature as being "soft on criminals". Some of these ministers may have a great success with their reforms. Others will prove a dismal flop or a ruinous mistake. What we can say with certainty is that both the degree and the range of experimentation is quite breathtaking.

It is the more so because the radicalism of this government has come as such a surprise to most people. It was widely assumed to start with that the coalition would not want to invent any more challenges for themselves when they were already committed to one of the most ferocious spending squeezes ever embarked upon by a modern government in Britain or anywhere else in the world. The protests and unpopularity provoked by the cuts would be quite enough to cope with.

As it has turned out, the squeeze has not dampened a reforming zeal, but fired it. One Conservative member of the cabinet says: "The state of the public finances has forced us to be more radical." Another Tory cabinet minister offers a differently nuanced explanation: "It has been politically easier to argue for reform – it gave us an excuse, if you like."

He says that there is an urge to prove that coalition can be a bold and decisive form of government, a motivation which is particularly strong in Nick Clegg and like-minded Lib Dems. Another driver is the feeling that time is against them. Although the coalition still has four-and-a-half years to run that is a short time in Whitehall politics, especially if you are trying to execute and embed reform to complex public services.

Members of the coalition do not want to make Tony Blair's mistake of being over-cautious. However, Rawnsley argues that coalition is running the risk that it learns this lesson too well and lurches to the opposite extreme:

Where Mr Blair was too timid, they are too zealous. Where he crept cautiously on domestic reform, they leap recklessly into the unknown. Where he was nervous of making any enemies during his first term, they attempt to fight on too many fronts at once.

He concludes that Ministers are competing to be more radical than the rest:

This competition for glory has been facilitated by David Cameron's chairman-like style of managing the cabinet which encourages ministers to have their head. And so, in the most surprising discovery about this coalition, we find we are governed by Maoists.

So much for the notion that coalitions lead to centrist do-nothing governments.
Wasn't the "thousand flowers" campaign a devious ploy by Mao to get independent thinkers to put their heads above the parapet so that they could later be lopped off?

Very far from liberal thinking.
It's true, straight from the Coalition document-

"In the likelihood of peasant uprisings and violent class struggle, Lib Dem MPs will be provided with a mechanism to abstain from voting."
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