Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Hope and despair in British government


It's easy to get depressed about British politics and policy right now - on this blog, too, though probably no more and no less than anywhere else. The big parties are locked in a tug-of-war about who is most unpopular, and who can hold on to their 'core' voters, as if grown-up adults belonged to them. Various shades of charlatan circle and laugh to themselves, offering their easy solutions - Tommy Sheridan, George Galloway, Russell Brand, Nigel Farage, that means you.

But as Steve Richards of The Independent points out today, that won't always be the case. A popular leader will emerge. A more coherent coalition will come together. Things will flow downhill again.

And British government - even this unhappy administration - still have their wins and their gains. Pensioner poverty is now at an all-time low, by the way, and the link between pensions and real wages stands to make that income stream much more secure for decades to come. The coalition has (extremely slowly imperfectly) managed to greatly reduce the evils of child detention among asylum-seekers and immigrants. The economy is growing, quite quickly - no thanks to the present administration, of course, but there you go. Even real wages are looking up, albeit in an extremely watery and anaemic manner - and mainly for those in secure employment, rather than the growing bands of the self-employed and the tenuously contracted. And hey, the Wales Coast Path is now open to all. Get out there, walkers.

These might seem like small gains. But they're part of a pattern. Most of us are richer, wealthier, more secure and more comfortable than ever before. Britain is, for the most part, cleanly and expertly governed - well, it is when you compare it to some of the other states, even in the European Union. And as we've noted here before, we stand on the apex of a half-century of gains. National Parks (above). A national minimum wage. Long-distance national trails. The right to roam. Children's Commissioners. The peace process in Northern Ireland. The engaging, peaceful, deeply democratic referendum on Scottish independence. The Channel Tunnel. Regeneration in Cardiff Bay. A new and better era for our mainline train stations (though don't look at many of the more neglected ones). Clean air, cleaner rivers and Blue Flag beaches. Civil partnerships. Gay marriage. The 2012 Olympics.

Much has been done. Much is being done. More has to be done. But especially at dark moments like the present, it's important to remember that even scholars of government failure, such as Anthony King and Ivor Crewe in their recent The Blunders of our Governments, remind us that focusing on failure and difficulty is a trap and a snare in public policy analysis:
The governance of the United Kingdom itself has been a substantial success over the past hundred years and more. Britain's governing arrangements have shown themselves to be free, democratic, legitimate, stable, non-violent, remarkably free of corruption and by-and-large effective. Taxes are collected and public services provided. The British political system is far from being the worst in the liberal democratic world. It is certainly not about to collapse.
Faint praise, perhaps, but praise nonetheless. Perhaps Winston Churchill put it best after all: never despair.

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