Monday, 20 June 2016

The Conservatives are giving us a masterclass in how not to govern

Zoe Williams in The Guardian

There is always a rueful moment following a Conservative election victory, disappointment tinged with the consolation that at least they’ll be solid. Sure, they will want to march back to a time of Victorian certainties, where if you lose it’s because you’re a loser, and if you win, it’s because you goddamn tried. But at least they will captain their vessel with competence and assurance. We might not like where it’s going, but at least we won’t drown.

Consider what good a government of any party can do, if it takes the business of statecraft seriously. It is within its power to solve the housing crisis: not chuck lump sums at the already privileged, but to undertake a building programme of breadth and vision that would change lives. It is easily within a government’s scope to make plans for energy and carbon emissions, half a century into the future. It is within a government’s purview to think radically about what people need, in order to feel optimistic about the future: not just a health service, but a great health service; not just pensions but proper social care; not just benefits but genuine security. All the life-changing architecture of citizenship has been undertaken by good government, thinking decades beyond the electoral cycle, with dreams infinitely greater than personal power.

That’s what is really crushing about our current situation: not that the political landscape was permanently scarred by a brutal act last week; not that we’ve been invited to unleash some pointless vandalism on the EU on the basis of lies from its most ardent proponents; not that all of us have been dragged into a vicious battle between ideas so hollow and limited – free-market fundamentalism versus the same with added racism – that you wouldn’t want to be detained by them for five minutes eavesdropping on the bus, let alone see them obliterate everything else in the public discourse. No, the really dispiriting thing is that we haven’t got a government.

When they’re good, governments embody civility; they can take the instinctive care that we have for one another and turn it into something solid, whether that’s a street light or a tax credit; they can turn hopes into plans; they can make people’s lives better. There were times before this referendum when it may have seemed preferable to have a government doing nothing to one as socially destructive as David Cameron’s. But it would be wrong to lose faith in politics altogether, because of the terrifying spectacle of people doing it wantonly. It is time to remind ourselves what good government can do.

Governments, when they are solid, maintain standards in public life. They do not panic when they’re criticised by the Daily Mail in the middle of a parliamentary term, or when a more radical party such as Ukip seems to be peeling off voters. They do not throw up their hands and offer referendums on amorphous, incomprehensible matters, because they do not sacrifice the stability of the nation for the sake of their own party, and they would not drag a whole continent into their squalid leadership battle.

But if that’s a little specific, let’s frame it more broadly: good governments insist on the decent and truthful use of statistics. They can’t enforce this – they can’t imprison their opponents for making up bogus numbers, and repeating them until half the country believes that they’re true. They can’t do much to insist that the press doesn’t twist or misrepresent the facts, doesn’t stir up hatred with relentless falsification. They can’t even make it a law, I shouldn’t think, that every time a newspaper lies about a foreigner, it has to print the correction with the same prominence as the lie. That would be far too intrusive, a bit too Leveson-y.

Yet a good government will set standards. It will tell the truth itself, and it will be trenchant about accuracy from others. It will not pander, and when it sees racist propaganda material it will say so. No general election has ever been as ugly as this referendum, as personal, as vitriolic, as full of accusations of mendacity, so that the casual voter basically has to guess who is telling the truth by how fast they’re talking and the look in their eyes (although this does give one pretty reliable answer: not Michael Gove). Good governments respect the institutions that provide sound and impartial analysis – universities, the civil service, statistics authorities – and advance their work, rather than routinely falling foul of it themselves.

Good governments, even in the teeth of internecine squabbling, continue to govern: they don’t announce a complete overhaul of prisons, then luxuriate in a six-month hiatus and leave the service wondering whether it was ever meant to be seen through. They don’t part-privatise probation and then lose interest, they don’t try to academise every school and realise the senselessness of that halfway through; they don’t pick a fight with the whole NHS that takes innumerable man-hours to solve and yields nothing but lasting unpleasantness.

Six months ago, this was, it was argued, all the opposition’s fault; a party with a slim majority was behaving like a party with a huge majority, because it knew it would face no resistance. It’s for another conversation whether the opposition has improved, but the question is moot anyway; there is nothing to oppose. The business of governing has ground to a halt, and in its place we find men arguing over whose exaggeration is the most egregious and who looks too scruffy for public life.

This is not the time to lose faith in politics; there has never been a more urgent time to rekindle faith. Remember what politics can do. We cannot conclude, from this sad episode, that its glory days are over.

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