Friday, 4 October 2013

The best form of (neo-conservative) government is attack

The above was a phrase I came up with in  a previous post, but it got me thinking. I watched some of the lovely David Cameron's speech to the Tory party conference, which took place at the same time as the Tea Party Republicans were engaged in the hamstringing of effective government in the USA. What I witnessed from both was a pugnaciousness that seems actually to underlie much of the attitude of today's neo-cons whether in opposition or in government.

The central message of the neo-cons appears to be that government of any sort is essentially destructive and counter-productive: the dead hand of the State weighing down the burgeoning energy of private sector enterprise. Markets still hold the solutions to all problems (including those that markets have created) and state control is the embodiment of all that is contemptible and wrong.

This is, incidentally, perhaps why the neo-cons enjoy electoral success: politicians are bad, inept, out of touch; government is (or appears from the outside to be) done by politicians; government is bad, inept, out of touch. QED. Vote for the ones who want to tear down government.

And tear down government is clearly what the Tories in the UK are setting out to do. In education Michael Gove has systematically set out to denigrate every element of the State education system, presenting his solution in the form of Free Schools, which are free from almost every aspect of government by any State body. This even applies to the provision of school places. What used to be seen as the central responsibility of the branches of government concerned with educating the nation's youth has now been removed from that control and "freed up" for provision by the private sector. Local government has no say whatever in the location of any new Free School, and virtually none over the provision of new places in Academies, but they have no finance to build schools themselves.

In Health, the current government seems almost to relish the constant flood of negative news stories about the NHS (hardly surprising, since they have been the origin of many of them). Their narrative, it is beginning to appear, is that the NHS is too big, too unwieldy, too uncaring, and essentially too governed to carry out its role effectively. The answer, it is becoming abundantly clear, is to develop health provision where the private sector and the profit motive are the guiding principles, rather than the pernicious and stultifying dead hand of government.

And of course as regards the economy this is the very central narrative. The financial problems the UK (and the rest of the world, presumably) are currently suffering are down to government spending. The solution: less government. Then we'll all be happy. This appears to sweep under the carpet the indisputable fact that the majority of the world's current economic woes were caused by the precipitous and virtually ungoverned rise in the size, power and recklessness of private sector entities like banks, hedge funds and derivative dealerships. It was precisely the lack of government oversight of the scale of the gambles in which such institutions were engaged that enabled the bubble to inflate so massively and then burst so cataclysmically.

There are huge advantages to this sort of narrative if you happen to be in government though. Time was that if something appalling happened in an area of public life (like the crisis in A&E care; like the decline in GCSE performance in schools or the looming school place crises; like the prolonged inability of the economy to show any sort of recovery) the minister involved would have to take responsibility, or at least endure long periods of anguished squirming. I used to feel sorry for such ministers sometimes, because clearly the problems they were facing had been long in the making, but them's the breaks: if you're the one in charge at the time, you take the responsibility when things go tits up.

Or so it used to be. Nowadays, government ministers seem to relish bad news almost more than their opposition shadows. They glory in it- trumpet it to the right wing tabloids. Because each piece of bad news is further proof that GOVERNMENT ISN'T WORKING and needs to have its monopolistic power (and funding) reduced. The role of those in government, in the UK at least, really seems to have developed into one of attacking rather than defending the areas for which they are responsible. And the populace, fed up with politicians of all parties and keen to see them brought down a peg or two, seem quite content to go along with it.

It is interesting, of course, to ponder a little on how this notion could come about. I believe that partly at least it is down to our use of the word "government" itself. There is an urban myth being peddled on facebook and elsewhere apparently that the etymology of the word reveals that it means "control the mind" (from Latin "gubernare"=to control and "mens, mentis"=  mind). This is utter bollocks of course (the -ment suffix has nothing to do with the word for mind) but it reveals a strand of opinion of what government is and what governments do.

In fact, the word comes originally from the Ancient Greek κυβερνάω, meaning to steer or pilot a ship. Of course "steering" and "control" have similar meanings, but as ever it is the connotations that make the difference. "Control" (particularly as in "State control") implies a diminution of freedom and of the capacity of individuals to function effectively. "Steering," (as in "steering a steady course" or "steering through a difficult passage") implies almost the opposite. It is about enabling individuals to function effectively and happily, free from the dangers they might encounter were the vessel they were in unsteered.

But if governments begin to set their face against the process of government: to renounce their duty as helmsmen of the ship of State, then what?

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