Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Conservative proposals to reduce the deficit (part 2)

  • Cutting the cost of Whitehall and quangos. We will cut the cost of Whitehall bureaucracy and quangos by at least a third by the end of the next parliament.
Ah yes, one of my personal favourites, and clearly one of politicians everywhere.


The problem with this is, that if it were so easily achievable, everyone would do it. There is no doubt that there is too much bureaucracy in this country, and much of it could be more efficient. However, how did we end up with all of these quangos and bureaucracy anyway?


Governments have been so keen to avoid charges of increasing the size of the Civil Service that they devolve to agencies, to quangos, anything to dodge the charge of creating a massive bureaucracy. Many of these bodies are difficult to hold to account, with Ministers only too happy to stand before Parliament and say that, no this is not their responsibility, and that questions should be put to the National Commission for the Co-ordination of Paper Clips, or whatever.


The problem is that we have in this country a tendency to respond to any situation with the cry, "something ought to be done". And so something is. A new body to monitor this, a quango to measure that, it all adds up. The presumption that all of those things that are already being done should continue means that you are adding headcount in order to carry out these additional tasks. And guess what, that headcount costs.

There appears to be no great philosophical coherence to this proposal, more an attempt at salami-slicing on a great scale. What is government for? What purpose should it have? No, the only question being asked is, "what size of government can we raise funds to maintain?".

More and more of government, both national and local, is about targets. Yes, targets are easy to understand. Unfortunately, once you've set them, you have to demonstrate progress (or the lack thereof). Someone is needed to monitor those targets, others to measure and evaluate data. Again, more headcount, more cost.

So, why not return to basics? What is government for? Where should the state intervene and where should it take a back seat? And until those questions are answered by the Conservatives, with a degree of intellectual rigour, this particular policy plank is going to prove difficult to achieve...

3 comments:

adamcollyer said...

The questions in your last paragraph are well asked.

David Cameron seems to be groping his way towards a real answer to those questions, with his emphasis on community, on the family, on marriage and on the idea of the State as an enabler rather than a provider for the people. Which is more, sorry to say, than the Liberal Democrats - when did they even attempt to answer these great questions with anything more intelligent than "we're somewhere in the middle"?

Mark Valladares said...

Adam,

A difficult position to sustain when your leader is describing himself as a 'liberal conservative'.

However, it is surely more than just a leader who must grope towards answering those questions, unless you are suggesting that the rest of the Party should follow along simply because he is the leader.

Liberals have always believed in balancing freedom of the individual with the rights of the community as a whole, and perhaps here is an example of where we differ. On community and on the State as enabler, we're probably not far apart. However, on family and on marriage, there is divergence.

Our definition of family is somewhat broader than yours, in that we believe that the quality of the family is of more importance than its composition. If you believe in freedom, you believe in the right of people to live their lives free of interference from the State in terms of how they choose to form lastings relationships and with whom. The Conservative Party often gives the impression of allowing the same freedoms, but only to those whose lifestyles they approve of.

If you believe that the quality of child rearing is the key issue, and my understanding was that Iain Duncan Smith's policy commission was focussed on that as a basis for its suggestions, then marriage is secondary to the nurturing of children. If a lesbian couple raise a child so that it is well-educated and well-adjusted, isn't that a good thing? Or are Conservatives suggesting that this is impossible?

By determining that marriage is the preferred option and that, by extension, all other forms of family are less desirable, you demand conformity, valuing it over outcomes.

It is a contradiction of modern Conservatism that, on one hand, there is a strong body calling for the State to cease its interference with people's personal lives yet, on the other hand, there are equally strong calls for the State to reward certain lifestyle choices over others.

These contradictions cause a tension that dissatisfies those very liberals that the Conservative Party wants to attract. Do you believe in liberty or not?

adamcollyer said...

"If a lesbian couple raise a child so that it is well-educated and well-adjusted, isn't that a good thing?"

Yes. (I support gay marriage.) There is strong evidence that married relationships are less likely to break down, and that children do better when their parents' relationships have not broken down.

"It is a contradiction of modern Conservatism that, on one hand, there is a strong body calling for the State to cease its interference with people's personal lives yet, on the other hand, there are equally strong calls for the State to reward certain lifestyle choices over others." - both these views are top-down State-centred views. There is another way, which is where Cameron is going, about leaders who inspire individual people to work together to create communities from the bottom up.

"Liberals have always believed in balancing freedom of the individual with the rights of the community as a whole". Most people claim to believe in that (including the Tories). The tricky part is how you balance those. It creates a tension for everyone - except Libertarians, who only care about individuals, or Socialists, who only care about the community as a whole.