Monday, 23 September 2013

Tatty little policies that add up to... very little


Our society faces a lot of challenges. An ageing population that will test our resources to the limit. Globalisation that's been straining our welfare states. Debates about the proper or desirable level of immigration. The question of whether we should remain in the European Union. You can pick any of them, and you could argue the toss about what to do in an honourable and a decent way.

But all too often what we've got right now is a politics of the little things instead - nudge-nudge wink-wink politics that sent messages about non-problems, just to grub up a few votes.

Take four 'debates' from recent weeks. The first is Health Ministers' decision to write to the General Medical Council about Muslim medical personnel who wear the full face veil in the NHS - an 'issue' about which there have never been any complaints, and which might involve precisely zero women anyway. Not content with that, the Health Secretary (above) then made sure that he said that, while as a Minister he couldn't do anything right now, personally he wouldn't want to be treated by a woman wearing a veil - a nasty old piece of line-drawing and gesture politics that didn't involve him actually having to do anything.

Here's some more. Vans that shuttle around bits of London saying 'illegal immigrants, go home' - a total waste of taxpayers' money, designed to make it look as if the Government knows what it's doing on immigration while it goes up. An 'innovation' that now won't be making a return, after the Liberal Democrats put their foot down. And what about the idea that the police could put you in a 'drunk tank', and charge you to come out? Another total dud, reminiscent of Tony Blair's infamous 'march hooligans to a cashpoint' debacle in 2000. British people have deep-seated and fundamental problems with alcohol. Instant fines of a few hundred quid will not solve them.

And then here's one from the Opposition: the 'policy', if one can dignify it with that word, that companies who hire non-EU workers will have to take on the same number of apprentices. What earthly connection is there in those two decisions? Why should a company who hires a Russian computer expert be made to take on a computing apprentice, when another company who's left with a not-quite-so-able Spaniard or Italian are told they need do nothing? Workplace training and immigration are two completely separate issues, and this attempt to mix them up is like putting jelly in your scrambled eggs: horrible.

It's governance by stunt, concept and tiny little gimmick. It's the politics of the Special Adviser - that fresh-faced band of political high-jinksers who think every technical idea is a great old wheeze. In alliance with a lot of politicians who've never had a job outside Westminster or Whitehall, or who haven't seen the outside of an endless round of activist meetings and party conferences for a long, long time. Who are easily sold on clever-sounding junk, until someone points out that it's been tried before. Or that it won't work.

And once you've had to sit through these four examples, by turns tawdry, ludicrous and threadbare, you have to conclude: it's not getting us anywhere.

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