The coalition’s first 100 days: is Britain freer?
Sombre sound bites about the scale of the deficit, the need for deep cuts and the opportunity to use this as a time for comprehensive reform deliver huge promise, but the last hundred days provide precious little evidence that this promise will translate into much else.
The problem of government debt cannot be underestimated. The national debt is officially around £800 billion, but if pension liabilities are included it rises to about £4.8 trillion. Accordingly, we face grave economic problems. The last hundred days have shown a government willing to acknowledge this in its rhetoric, but in actual fact the cuts announced so far only serve to curb planned real terms increases in spending, rather than reducing it. The comprehensive spending review coming this autumn provides an opportunity to actually deliver, but the big question is will the coalition seize it?
Reform alongside cuts has been a mantra of the coalition, but again the policy so far simply doesn’t bear this out. Each government department, especially those of health and international development, should have been gone through, its functions, structures and budgets reassessed – which services should be delivered by the state and which by the voluntary and private sectors? Innovative thinking and an eye to successful policies in other countries is needed. Entire departments such as BIS could and should be closed.
This is indeed an opportunity to improve society – reform combined with cuts can deliver more for less. Again, though, the coalition falls short. The only area where wholesale change is being implemented is education policy, but even here the coalition has failed to endorse for-profit schools, an important component of successful reform.
What of the Big Society? Here again the coalition has tried. The vision has spoken deeply to what good government looks like – small and limited, giving people the ability to run their own lives. But the communication and policy do not reflect this. The mainstream public interpretation of the Big Society has become, “my community needs more government money”, hardly what Burke meant by “little platoons”. Fostering community does not mean government intervening further and directing more taxpayers’ money into projects. It requires putting the onus back on people, letting them keep more of their money in the first place to invest in those around them and reducing the bureaucracy which makes it hard for individuals to get involved with their communities.
To be fair, it is possible to point to some areas where the coalition is delivering to some degree (such as education) and at least the last hundred days have finally put paid to the idea that fiscal stimulus works. But what of the next hundred days and the ones after that? Much needs to be done to create a freer Britain where people have a greater sense of responsibility over their own lives and of those around them, where services are delivered better because funding and delivery is moved out of the public sector and into the private realm, and where the country’s economic problems are resolved. Deep cuts and the wholesale reform of government and its responsibilities must be the standards by which the coalition is judged. The first hundred days has seen the coalition acknowledge this, but now it must develop and implement policy that bears this out.