Is it back to the 1990s?

Sitting in Blackheath Halls for the recording of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions two weeks ago, I realised how reminiscent of a recent decade our politics is becoming.

No, not the 1980s (even if Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten, Lord McAlpine and several other 1980s political figures have featured heavily in the news media recently, for a variety of reasons). It is the 1990s that seem to have started replaying.

The John Major Government of 1992-1997, with its limited ambitions, sluggish economic growth, splits over Europe, Hospital closures, by-election disasters, and petty and regressive measures to curb benefit entitlements, seem eerily similar to the current Government’s travails. It is too simplistic to label the current Government Thatcherite – I think Majorite is much more spot-on.

On Any Questions, local Labour party member Jean Bloch (a council candidate in Blackheath Westcombe ward back in 2006) asked one of the best questions of the night – should Government force people to cut their cloth according to their means (a reference to that week’s announcement that benefits may be capped for claimants who have two or more children).

The Hall was packed, and like Blackheath in general, very diverse in its opinions – host Jonathan Dimbleby conducted a straw poll of the audience to see who was in favour of a benefit cap for those wh0 have more than two children, which saw a nearly 50-50 split.

The answer from Sajid Javid, a Conservative MP and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, had not convinced many of the merits of the policy. He made me think not of Thatcher, but of 1990s Majorism. It was frankly bumbling – he said that people on benefits should have to think about how large their family should be, just as those who are in work do. When another panellist, Katherine Rake, said that there are many cases of people with large families becoming benefit claimants unexpectedly, due to redundancy, disability or bereavement, Javid replied that these are “exceptional cases” which don’t make such a policy unfair or unworkable. He forgot that there is no clear distinction between benefit claimants and the rest – while child benefit may be taken away from some high earners soon, it is still a universal benefit for now and all mothers who receive it are  benefit claimants.

And, as any mother knows, there is no incentive in the system to have more children, but the opposite – child benefit for a second or third child (£13.40 a week) is a good deal less than for the first (£20.30 a week).

To accuse those who have large families of being feckless, irresponsible or having more children simply to scrounge more off the state is just as insulting as the last Tory Government’s great myth –  that  single mothers would start families merely to get moved up Housing waiting lists and have an “easy life”.

Sajid Javid is one of the new Conservative MPs elected in 2010, and is close to another five of that intake – Chris Skidmore, Elizabeth Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab – who have recently written two books together, “After the Coalition” and “Britannia Unchained” offering policy ideas for the rest of the coalition Government’s period in office, and beyond, which I have recently read.

While some of the ideas they contain have some merit, both books are dominated by a 1990s world view, where reduction in unneccessary “red tape”,  greater “consumer” choice in the public services, competition between providers, are seen as the solution for all ills. One statement at the start of the first book – “Millions of our most vulnerable remain trapped on benefits, while the only new jobs are taken by more entrepreneurial immigrants. Our influence in the world is constrained by the ever-growing strength of the European Union” – could, like Sajid Javid’s remarks on Any Questions, have been said by almost any Conservative politician in the early 1990s, wanting to make a clean break from Thatcher.

Both books contain lots of examples of supposedly successful policies tried out in Canada, South Korea, Israel, Japan, Australia, Sweden, the US and Singapore (but hardly ever an EU country) and which should be imported to the UK. This makes for some useless comparisons, and clunking arguments. For example, China is praised for having a motorway network ten times longer than ours – a completely meaningless statistic as China’s land area is almost forty times bigger than the UK’s. British students are praised for beginning to work harder as they “are not brought up in the cosy European tent” – a statement that any Spanish or Greek teenager would laugh at, grimly.

Throughout both books, there is some seriously muddled thinking. In a chapter on the NHS, the five MPs argue that the NHS is “chronically underfunded” on page 109, but needs “great efficiency gains to be made” on page 111. On page 112 we find out how this circle can be squared – the UK apparently needs to set up US-style Health Maintenance Organisations to discourage hospital visits.

Elsewhere, free schools are praised for getting bureaucrats off teachers’ backs  – a few pages after an Australian teacher working in the UK is quoted as saying her children are unmotivated because her head of department “urges her to experiment rather than using the tried and tested methods.” Sounds just like John Major’s confused 1990s “Back to Basics” campaign to me. When you read the ludicrous statement that the BBC has “held back British broadcasting”, you remember how David Cameron spent most of the 1990s – as a spin doctor for ITV company Carlton, whose lousy television was one of the low points of that decade.

A chapter on penal policy is headed “prison works” – the precise words used repeatedly by Michael Howard when he was Home Secretary in the 1990s – but now with added contradictions: we are told that prisons should be “tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places” where nonetheless education and training must be improved to “introduce a wave of innovation and achievement”.

A chapter on foreign policy starts with a complimentary reference to Douglas Hurd “knowing the limits of idealism” – a world-view that meant little or nothing was done by the international community to halt genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda in the 1990s, while Hurd was foreign secretary. A worse starting point for a foreign policy fit for the 21st-century could hardly be imagined: in the earlier of the two books, written before Gadaffi’s fall, it led the authors to warn against further intervention in Libya, which would have left Gaddafi in power.

Sweeping generalizations are the norm in both books – for example, even though it is widely seen by everyone else as having saved Britain from unplanned urban sprawl in the 1940s onwards ,these five authors assert, without any supporting evidence, that the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act’s “effects on growth have been disastrous”. Later in the first book we are told that to tackle climate change, “the last thing we need is more planning”. The second book quotes no scientists talking about climate change – but plenty of taxi drivers.

Even Thatcher would not have claimed these things – I am reminded of John Major overreaching himself with Railway privatisation, an idea that Thatcher never dared to implement. Maybe the coalition’s planning reforms of the 2010s will one day be remembered as fondly as the railway privatisation of the 1990s now is?

Another key feature of these two books, like so much rhetoric from the Conservatives nowadays, is how often they refer back to the 1970s and its economic woes – page after page refer to the 1970s’ fuel shortages, trade union  excess, inflation and sluggish economic growth. Again, one is reminded of how often Conservative politicians of the mid-1990s would remind voters of the 1970s, and warn that any New Labour Government would inevitably condemn us to a repeat of that decade.

The 1970s are indeed back in vogue, with writers Peter Hennessey, Dominic Sandbrook, Francis Wheen and Andy Beckett having all recently produced books and TV series about that decade. But 30- and 40-something politicians harking on excessively about the 1970s are not just being nostalgic for the time they were first getting on their Chopper bikes. They normally do so to distract attention from contemporary problems, with irrelevant warnings that their opponents want to recreate the inter of Discontent, the three-day week, and the six-month wait for a telephone line to be installed. It is so much easier to reminisce about the 1970s than face today’s very different challenges.

I should point out that one of these five MPs, Liz Truss, is someone I like and admire – before she became an MP she was a councilor for Eltham South ward in Greenwich from 2006 to 2010, and before that she had stood unsuccessfully for election as a Councillor twice here in Blackheath in 1998 and 2002. One of her daughters is roughly the same age as mine and a couple of times Liz and I found ourselves pushing swings next to each other in the playground at Greenwich Park. I admire her hard work, perseverance and pluck in getting selected as a candidate in South-West Norfolk despite some unpleasant local opposition, and I wish her well now she has recently been promoted to be children’s minister (Her appointment seems to indicate that the current Government will always have one woman  Minister with Blackheath connections, but not two – the former environment secretary Caroline Spelman, who was sacked in the recent reshuffle, used to live in Blackheath and worshipped at St John the Evangelist).

But Liz, and her co-authors, need to look to the future, not the past. These are Conservative “Modernisers” who sound like creatures of the 1990s, and who hark on constantly about the 1970s – hardly a recipe for good government in the 2010s.


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