Britain? It’s quite well governed, actually
Pasty taxes. Granny taxes. Petrol cans. Queues at the pump. Chaotic NHS ‘reforms’. A looming debacle over changes to the House of Lords. Aircraft carriers which won’t, then will, then won’t again, be mounted with catapults. Embarrassing emails between Ministers and powerful press barons. The arrest of donors to political parties. It’s been a torrid few weeks for a government that had seemed for a while above the fray, but will probably now have to deal with years of unpopularity. What it apparently suggests about British governance – short-termist, chaotic, uncertain, wasteful and sometimes even hysterical – is worse.
Small wonder, then, that the public feels disenchanted with politics and public life as a whole. The Prime Minister’s negative attributes as measured by public opinion polls are still not as vast as most of his predecessors, but his party’s image and its perceived values are atrocious. It’s basically thought of as a party of the rich, for the rich. That’s the whole reason why cutting the 50 per cent tax rate for high earners in the March Budget has led to a wider intellectual retreat across the piece. Labour may ride high in the polls for a while, but its economic message and its leader are widely disparaged and distrusted. Voters ask: more debt? A young, untested and sometimes ill-at-ease leader? Should we not stick with the devil we know? As for the Liberal Democrats, it’s probably best to draw a veil over what the voters think of them. We wouldn’t want to enquire into private grief.
It is this that helps to explain the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party, and – less noticeable in opinion polls, but more successful at local council polls – the Green Party too. In Scotland, the growing strength and authority of the Scottish National Party has gone so far that it has given rise to fears of a ‘tricolore Britain’ – SNP gold in the north, Labour blue in the middle, and Tory blue in the south. There’ll perhaps be a little splodge of Lib Dem yellow left in the south west of England after the next General Election, but little more. In May’s local government elections, the Greens gained a few new seats, and UKIP managed to gain 14 per cent of the vote where they stood. These parties have one thing in common. They all represent fundamentally different ways of doing things – neo-conservative for UK, nationalist for the SNP, local, small-scale and ‘sustainable’ for the Greens. All of them tout a radical break with the past.
But consider for a moment how much worse it could be – all of them related to the governance of the UK since the Second World War. The country has long been derided as what James Hamilton-Paterson, in his 2010 book Empire of the Clouds that follows the post-war aviation industry, called ‘consistently the worst-governed of any advanced industrial nation since the Second World War’. But our policy inheritance gives the lie to that assertion. Britain has a low stock of public debt by international standards (despite what some Ministers will tell you), which allowed us to turn on the money spigots in 2007-10; it retains strength in critical and burgeoning sectors of the international economy (for instance aerospace, pharmaceuticals, computer games, film and – yes, despite their unpopularity – financial services). The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2011-12 places the UK in tenth position, up from eleventh the year before.
Above all, Britain is actually quite well governed, a fact that issues from deep-seated cultural norms as from many decades of boring-but-disinterested day-to-day administration. According to the World Economic Forum, its institutions rank fifteenth in the world in terms of indicators such as legal framework, the transparency of government decisions, and ‘favouritism’ in public life. Transparency International rates the UK the sixteenth least corrupt state in the world – below the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, to be sure, but well above France (25th), Spain (31st), Italy (69th) and Greece (80th). The last two countries’ states are almost pathetically stunted, their tax bases too small, and their electorates complicit; while personal and familial connection counts for far too much in the job market of most Mediterranean economies. Britain can undoubtedly be frustratingly classbound; but its social and public spheres are sparklingly pure compared to some of its rivals.
Its six major political parties (given UKIP, the Greens and the SNP) very well represent the spectrum of Britons’ views, from Eurosceptic Right to environmentalist Left. Its civil service was able to broker a workable coalition agreement that just about still rubs along, unlike the fractured and fractious negotiations in Greece which seem doomed to failure. Her political elites emerge from very narrow networks, to be sure: it often seems as if all front-rank politicians took Oxford University’s degree Politics, Philosophy and Economics. But at least they emerge from a university sector that is the second most successful in the world in terms of both research and teaching – on a shoestring budget that places her twenty-seventh in the world. And at least they seem rigorously held to account. The present administration is struggling to stay afloat amid not-so-surprising allegations that it was too close to Rupert Murdoch. Italians struggled to get rid of Silvio Berlusconi.
None of this means that we should become complacent, still less overbearing. But what is does mean is that our institutions’ capacity to react to rapid and fundamental change might turn out to be quite high. As the Greek and Spanish storm clouds build, that may prove to be of some small comfort.
Dr Glen O’Hara is Reader in the History of Public Policy at Oxford Brookes University. His new book, ‘Governing Post-War Britain: The Paradoxes of Progress, 1951-1973’ , has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan. He also blogs, in a personal capacity, at http://publicpolicypast.blogspot.com/.Tagged in: budget, david cameron, government, green party, house of lords, nhs, Scottish National Party, tax, ukip, world economic forum
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