Thursday, 21 May 2015

Hurrah for the nihilists


You know what? we've been getting it all wrong for many, many years. Every since Public Policy and the Past fired up at the start of the last Parliament, five years ago this October, we've been analysing public policy based on data, statistics, quantification, a dash of scientific validity and falsification, debate, cut-and-thrust - and a little bit of rhetoric here and there.

But all of that rather missed the point. For UK public policy is not in the hands of people who think it should be objectively effective at all. It'd be nice for them and us if it was, of course, but that's not it's main point.

No. Each issue and every initiative exists only to create a shadowy-but-cumulative and persuasive impression in the minds of voters, and to drive a wedge between the governing Conservatives and their opponents. And specifically, to spread fear and panic about the enemies of Englishness, sound money and the rule of law.

Here's the main example. We thought that Prime Minister David Cameron's (above) rhetoric on 'English votes for English laws' after the Scottish referendum was a mistake, and one that put the Union at risk. It wasn't. It was designed to address English concerns (since almost all House of Commons seats are in England anyway), undermine Labour in Scotland and create a useful Scottish enemy in the shape of the Scottish National Party's epoch-making surge - all the better to scare English voters with. It worked a treat in the short campaign, too, especially in Liberal Democrat seats, completely blindsiding the London media class and Opposition strategists - as Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby intended throughout that it should.

Once you see the shape of the technique, you can see it everywhere. We 'experts' thought that the continuing debacle of English student fees (most of which the taxpayer will never see again) was an error. It wasn't. It was specifically crafted to create the idea that the Government was 'saving' money and that Labour (committed to reducing student fees) would blow it all. The reverse of the actual figures, of course, but hey - why let some numbers stand in your way?

We divined a crucial flaw in the erstwhile Coalition's macroeconomic strategy, for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in alliance cut capital spending too quickly in 2010-12, before realising their error and ramping up the idea of a 'northern powerhouse' centred around Manchester. That definitely held back growth in the early part of the last Parliament, but it was designed to, so that growth and real wages - and consumer confidence - would sprint ahead just at the right moment in the new fixed term Parliamentary regime, namely in 2014-15. That strategy worked as well.

So now? The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary talk big about 'cracking down' on the wages of illegal immigrants, all the while trying to ignore the fact that their policy of limiting immigration has fallen rapidly to bits. They can't ignore the reality that a modern economy, especially one which is growing quite quickly but has an appalling record on labour productivity, cannot survive without a large-scale influx of foreigners. So they basically focus on one element of the problem which probably will not make a blind bit of difference - while suggesting that they are 'getting tough' and 'being serious'.

Then they threaten the UK's adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, while they must know that there is very little chance of disassembling the whole edifice. Even if they could get round objections in Edinburgh and Belfast (they can't), English law has been changed so fundamentally by the Convention that repealing the Human Rights Act and changing our relationship to the Convention will probably make very little difference anyway. But think politically, not rationally and factually. This makes it look like Ministers are 'rolling up their sleeves' on Europe, 'renegotiating' Britain's treaties, and the like. They're not, and they're not going to, but it looks like they are.

The result? A doleful landscape of anti-outsider rhetoric, dodgy out-of-control landlords, empty pension pots, heavily indebted young people, ill-resourced public services and four nations at each others' throats... all of which spreads despair, mistrust and hatred, all the better for the Crosbys of this world to feed on in their turn.

It's just nihilism. Whenever you see a Minister stand up and make a speech, whenever you hear about a new so-called 'solution' or 'initiative', you should see it in the following light: how is the dog whistle of the language designed to appeal to low-informational swing voters in English marginal seats? And how is this designed to make the Conservatives' enemies look bad?

For that's what we've got to: a kind of Disraeli-and-Macmillan-plus, allying those two Conservative leaders' natural chameleon qualities and mordant cynicism with the more modern techniques of focus grouping, big data and telemarketing. 'Dishing the Whigs' and 'stealing Labour's clothes', as Disraeli and Macmillan set out to do, still involved trying to make the United Kingdom a better and more prosperous place. This, now, is all just hollow posturing - a policy that tacitly admits how broken the Conservative brand is by tainting all around it in colours of cynicism and hatred. They've become a political black hole, sucking in and destroying everything they touch just to stay alive.

But that's modern politics for you. And why? Because it works.

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