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18/10/2010

Early Bonfire?

Bonfire Night has come early this year in the UK. It is only mid-October and we are having the bonfire of the quangos – getting shot of hundreds of state-funded agencies and government advisory bodies.

Every new regime has an initial clear-out and this is no different. New Labour cleansed public bodies of Tory wives, collecting 6K a year for their ‘committee work’. (Wasn’t that something their mothers did for nothing?) This time, boards packed with New Labour faithful are being culled like turkeys at Christmas.

This is because, we are told, the national deficit means we must cut back government spending. This may be true, but is it anything more than a convenient justification for traditional Tory policy?

There are certain Tory ideas that simply won’t go away. Downsizing the state and feeding their major funders was common last time round and, now they are back, some of the old faces and discredited projects are starting to reappear. So much for a new approach to politics.

As with quangos, so with my books. And if not a bonfire, then at least a major clear-out. Sorting through thirty years of work books, I find that there are some I can’t quite bring myself to throw away, like Roy Stevens’ Education and the Death of Love (Epworth Books,1978)

In this book, Stevens appeals for a more child-centred approach to working with young people and condemns our relentless pursuit of exam results at the cost of the humanising and liberating force of education.

As an aside, he describes how a Labour-led integrated transport strategy (Doesn’t that sounds familiar?), which co-ordinated docks, road haulage and rail freight, was dismembered by an incoming Tory administration in 1951.

In 1947, following years of increasing public subsidy to the private rail companies – £60 million in that year alone – the Atlee government nationalised the railways. Fifty-six years later, in 1993, they were re-privatised. On both occasions, change was justified on the grounds of inefficient management requiring too much subsidy from the public purse.

But it is clearly not only nationalised industries that are inefficiently run. Government can  and do run good systems with big budgets successfully. Education and the NHS would be classic examples, if the politicians would only leave them alone. Policing and the military are others.

What we are seeing is the cyclical change in traditional ideologies. After public protection through big government comes big society via small government.

So, as we face the Comprehensive Spending Review in a couple of days, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves what should be run by the state and what by the Big Society (whatever that is)?

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From → Communities, Policy

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