Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mid-term check up

Are the strains of coalition threatening the partnership government?

I never promised you a rose garden
TWO years ago Britain’s first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s set out to prune the state. Defying the long trend in which power was centralised in Westminster, it sought to push it out to cities, towns, schools and doctors. It moved to shake up public services by encouraging firms and non-profit groups to compete for tasks generally done by the state. Schools, local government, policing, health, planning, welfare, justice—almost every arm of the state was to be transformed. All this as the government cut spending more deeply than any since the second world war.
The coalition faced a dilemma in its Queen’s Speech on May 9th… The government plans lots of incremental changes: loosening labour regulation, tightening public-sector pensions, and establishing a new agency to fight organised crime and strengthen border security. As for making the House of Lords more democratic—a key Liberal Democrat demand that many Conservatives oppose—a bill has made it into the government’s agenda, but it is unclear how much priority it will have…
The government’s mission to trim the state and deliver more cost-effective and innovative public services… has run into problems. After two years in power, the coalition has chalked up a few clear successes. But the list of failures is growing, and so is the general sense of drift…
The coalition’s greatest achievement has been to set the country on the course of deficit reduction. It has raised taxes and curbed public spending…
Until recently the clearest failure seemed to be health care. The government’s attempt to decentralise and diversify the National Health Service by making local doctors more accountable for the money they spend and opening the door to private practitioners has been botched…
The attempt to devolve power to cities is another failure… On May 3rd the government held referendums in ten of England’s biggest cities, asking people if they wanted elected mayors. Voters in all but one—Bristol—said no…
Welfare reform also illustrates a big problem with the government’s programme: the lack of money to lubricate changes…
Some reforms are simply evolving, in ways that make early pledges seem silly. One of the Conservative Party’s early ideas was to create a flourishing “Big Society” composed of voluntary and local groups doing tasks once monopolised by the state… The Big Society has given way to big business—no bad thing, but a departure from the blueprint. Meanwhile contradictions are emerging, between both policies and politicians…
Most seriously, there are growing doubts about the government’s basic competence. Mr Cameron rightly deplored the micromanaging style of his predecessor, Gordon Brown. But he may have veered to the opposite extreme with a magisterially hands-off approach. Whereas Labour made Downing Street an unofficial “Department of the Prime Minister”, with battalions of political advisers helping the government impose itself on wayward departments and recalcitrant civil servants, Mr Cameron undid much of that. Insiders increasingly concede that Downing Street now lacks “grip” on the rest of government…

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