Unseriousness did not start with Johnson

One of the legacies of the soon-to-be-former prime minister (STBFPM) is a somewhat scrambling of the political spectrum.  As Ian Mulheirn observes, the fiscal approach he precariously allowed is far from right-wing, at least neutering the standard Labour attack on under-funded public services.  Remember, he supported higher taxes to pay for more money for the NHS and social care. But his was also a government proud of an appalling deportation policy, clumsily picking culture war fights, and damagingly nationalistic in trade policy.

Hence I found myself drawn to a different political line: that of seriousness. This might stand for a certain principled consistency on policy matters – are you liberal about immigration or not? Do you support action on climate change, or do you think wind turbines couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding? Which oped really represents your view on the EU? But it is also a style of governing. Talk to enough people about what it is like to work with a politician, and you can pick up indications, such as “he is interested in what actually works”, or “she read her box meticulously”. (You may be rightly appalled that this is such a distinguishing mark).

Very few politicians are judged on whether what they caused to happen made things better – they don’t hang around long enough, and the case is usually disputed.  But some act as if they will be so judged.  Many others appear to judge policy by the sound it makes coming out of their mouths (“policy by mouth-feel”): whether it gets them through parliamentary questions or gives them a good rebuttal line. Another sign is when they are known to go with whoever last spoke to them. Then there are those too quickly convinced of a position who love the sense of being decisive that accompanies an impatient refusal to dive into the policy detail.  I see this as a sort of intellectual nihilism – “oh, this is hopelessly complicated and no one really knows the right answer, so let’s just back whatever horse sounds plausible”.  

Maybe some of this is knowingly cynical – we may not know the right policy, but neither does anyone else and no one can pin it on us.  This contains a barely hidden disdain for the entire policymaking function. “These wonks, they make everything too complicated when the answer is really obvious.  It just needs me, the Decisive Politician, to ride in and Get On With It”.  I may have labelled this the Paradox of Nuance.   You will have your own favourite example (“Just cut the civil service by 20%/Build More Houses/Double R&D and spread it around/Invest to Boost the Economy/End Short-Termism by making Buybacks Illegal/Set up a giant investment bank/etc etc”)

The past three years have seen a mishmash of all these flavours of unseriousness.  Setting out rules for a pandemic and then not following them with sedulous care deserves mention for being the one that finally cut through to the public. But Brexit was the gold standard, the ultimate example of a policy where the details were meant to follow. Don’t we just want control of our borders, laws and money? I would also include Levelling Up; a worthy objective and now dressed up with a White Paper stuffed with theory – but it was launched without a definition, a methodology or even much of a budget. Then there was the disrespect for institutional constraints, and the tunnels, bridges, yachts and other monuments.

While the departure of the STBFPM may finally mark the ebbing of this tide of unseriousness, his arrival did not start its flow.  In 2011 the Cameron-led coalition government (in which I was a spad) thought a smart growth policy towards Europe was to produce a short pamphlet called “Let’s Choose Growth” and hand it around. Seriously. I remember sitting in the room where my boss, Vince Cable, somewhat shamefacedly handed a copy to a bemused looking Michel Barnier. Europe was about to wrestle with the existential dilemmas of a single currency unbacked by a fiscal union, and he was having to look at a PDF full of exclamation marks. The same Downing Street thought the way to encourage more socially conscious behaviour in the corporate world was … by putting another PDF called “Every Business Commits” on the chairs at some Business in the Community event. “We cut your taxes, now you must Improve Skills and Create Jobs.  Also do more car sharing”.  In similar vein, there was a bizarre suggestion to scrap most business support and replace it with a new organisation called Start Up Britain – no doubt worthy enough, but all business support?

OK, OK, I know: this reflects one particular maverick whose shenanigans I was forced to write about in 2015. The spasms above were mostly annoying but nothing more – usually someone could stop them. Pity the single official whose job was to ‘do’ Every Business Commits. But there were so many other examples. The attempt to change employment rules with a review led by a single, party donor businessman (detailed at more length in this IFG pamphlet).  The hasty and politically charged decision to scrap the Audit Commission. Getting rid of the RDAs and Government Offices in the Regions, before we had even asked what would take their place in case, you know, serious economic disruptions took place in the Regions.  In fact, the whole attitude towards austerity was shot through with an unserious, details-to-follow approach.  The timetable itself, I was told, was determined by the simple rule that it should be done with a year to go before the next election. The departmental pain allocations – 0%, 10%, 20% or even more – were determined in a way that seemed ultimately unserious. No sense of what each spending function needed, just crude headline numbers that had to be made to work.  Want to stop further education being cut to zero? You had better raise tuition fees on HE.  The whole method by which spending for unprotected departments was determined was mad, and led to the Conservatives publishing headline fiscal plans that just literally couldn’t work (see my workings here).  Going into the 2015 election, the Bagehot columnist called Cameron’s approach “wilfully slapdash”.

I only really experienced the last 12 years of government. I don’t know if things were better under Labour. I do vaguely remember stupid moments, such as “British Jobs for British Workers”. But even in their wrong decisions they appeared serious, an impression reinforced by those of their advisers I have met. One of my first wonk experiences: in 2008 I helped to staff a seminar intended to update “Options for Britain”, a book written in the 1990s that was highly influential for the incoming Labour government. My main memory of it is how dense and worthy and serious it was. Boring, even. The way politics should be.

So let us hope the tide is beginning to ebb.  But the way so many of the candidates to be our actual Prime Minister have launched with a vow to cut taxes, without any explanation for how to fill the gaps, is not encouraging.  The STBFPM may have looked at his school rival and predecessor and assumed that winging it is fine. I hope his successor isn’t of the same mind.


Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

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Freethinking Economist

Economic advice. No longer special.

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