What the Queen’s speech tells us about this dysfunctional government

by Atul Hatwal

One thing is clear from this derisory Queen’s speech. Underpinning the paucity of content and the laundry list quality to this rag bag of measures is a central truth: the gangrene of government has well and truly set in.

The most obvious tell-tale sign is the absence of a top-line.  If the BBC is calling your programme a “hotch-potch” with “no over-arching theme”, you know something has gone wrong.

The package of 15 bills and 4 draft bills is rare in that there is virtually no truly distinctive or news-worthy initiative. All of the headlines from these proposals will be generated by the politics of their parliamentary passage, notably with Lords reform, rather than the substantive impact of their delivery.

In coming forward with a programme like this the government has ceded the news agenda. It will be pushed and pulled by the rebellion du jour from right-wing Tories or left-wing Lib Dems on a variety of amendments to Dave and Nick’s anodyne bills.

The real question that should be asked about this Queen’s speech is why? Why is there not a single bill that will draw a dividing line between government and opposition? That will draw their side together and focus the debate on a distinction with Labour. How can the coalition party managers in have been so incompetent?

The answer lies not in their political ability or ambition, but the process of government.

When an opposition wins an election, it moves into government as a political party with an agenda to implement. Ministers are keenly political and the manifesto gives them a clear programme to deliver.

Over time, the process of government sucks the politics of the ruling party. The morass of civil service briefings, evidence-based analyses and options, swamps ministers in choices they never had in opposition.

Every decision becomes more complex as civil servants tut through the consequences of precipitate action. Ever growing concern at the potential for negative headlines means ‘safety first’ becomes the new guiding philosophy within the department, regardless of the political background of the minister.

And after the initial parliamentary sessions when the bulk of the manifesto is implemented, the capacity to develop distinctive policies dissipates as self-doubt dominates. The lowest common denominator is all that is left after policies are filleted in a multitude of cross-governmental committees.

Normally this takes a few years to set in, and frequently characterises second term administrations.

Labour might have turned on the investment taps for schools and hospitals after 2001, but this was a case of distributing the bounty of a booming economy.  The most contentious domestic political decisions were all made in the first term: joining the social chapter, implementing a minimum wage and slapping a windfall tax on the utilities.

Labour’s subsequent domestic political choices in the 2000s were increasingly defined by the stultified, bureaucratic process of government.

Anyone who worked in the implementation of initiatives such as the RDAs or any of the various project-specific funding streams of this period would have felt the dead hand of bureaucracy in all their workings.

It is this sclerosis that has gripped David Cameron’s government. He will undoubtedly have tasked his ministers and advisers to go forth into their departments and ‘think the unthinkable’.

All frustrated, embattled prime ministers issue this directive. And he would have got back exactly the same response that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did.

The problem with the unthinkable is that there will be a myriad of reasons not to do it. Otherwise it would have been done already. Some reasons will be valid, some chaff thrown up by the civil service. The impossible task for ministers is to discern which is which.

In 1970, when Barbara Castle was considering legislation that became the Equal Pay Act, the weight of academic evidence presented by the civil service suggested it would disadvantage the position of women in the workplace.

But she pressed on regardless, because she believed it was the right thing to do.

In the end, all radical policy that challenges the status quo will be opposed by the existing evidence.  And all radical policy that makes it through into legislation will essentially be faith-based, just as with the Equal Pay Act.

To make these decisions, a minister, and more pertinently, the prime minister, needs clear beliefs.

After the debacle of the health reforms – which in their initial version clearly did display a radical vision (albeit fundamentally wrong from a Labour viewpoint) – the prime minister has clearly had enough of belief.

So he is left. Wanting to do something striking but too scared by the omnishambles to take a chance. Gripped by the inertia of the civil service while wracked by the protests of his backbenchers.

No amount of re-launches, re-committal of coalition vows or revamped communications will change this essential condition.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut

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One Response to “What the Queen’s speech tells us about this dysfunctional government”

  1. swatantra says:

    Perhaps so little in the Queens Speec because this is the’Technocratic Govt’ that was cobbled together to ‘deal with The Economy Stupid’. Thats its main and only purpose. When, and if it does that, then it will dissolve itself, in theory, and be defunct. But to winkle out PMs from No 10 is nigh impossible once they get the taste for power.

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