‘Sit back, keep quiet, let the government unravel and you will be in Number 10.’ If I had a pound for every time these words of advice have been uttered to me over the last year or so, I’d be able to make a sizeable contribution towards easing the pain of Labour’s debt crisis.
But the advice — however well meaning — is plain wrong.
The election is far from won and I still hold to the belief that governments don’t just lose elections; oppositions must deserve to win them with a positive mandate for change. And there is one central idea which shows clearly that we are not sitting back waiting for Labour to lose, nor backing off the changes that have been instrumental in the Conservative revival of recent years.
It’s an idea so radical and ambitious that it could, if we are not clear and passionate in our advocacy of it, be distorted by a cynical Labour party desperate to cling to the power they have so comprehensively squandered and abused.
What is this idea so big, so bold and so wide in its scope? Well, I can describe it in the terms we’ve been using for several years and explain that we want to usher in a new post-bureaucratic age, where we bring together the opportunities of the information revolution and the deepest values of Conservatism to create a massive transfer of power from central government and its agencies to individuals and local communities. Or I can sum it up in terms that our new party chairman Eric Pickles might prefer: we want to give folks power over their lives.
Either way, the point is this: our masterplan for fixing both our broken economy and our broken society is quite simple — the people of this country. Collectively, they have the ideas and the energy and the commitment to get our economy moving, to improve our schools, to make our neighbourhoods safer, to keep families together, to create the new jobs we need, to help people get the skills they need to find those jobs, to invent new ways to protect the environment and to make this country a better place to live for everyone.
But today, the ideas, the energy and the commitment of people in Britain to do all these things and more, and to help forge a better future for themselves, their families and their communities is shamefully smothered by a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, bossiness and the arrogant belief that the political elite — ministers, their officials and their place-people in Labour’s obscenely bloated quango state — really do know best. As a result, enterprise, initiative and above all a sense of personal and social responsibility has been steadily drained from our national life.
So part of our agenda is inspired by our revulsion at what Labour has done to our country and our determination to put things right, informed by our instinctive Conservative optimism about people. While those on the political Left are essentially pessimists, believing that people will do the wrong thing unless told what to do by government, we on the centre-Right are optimists: we have faith that most people are good and will do the right thing if only you trust them. But there is more to our agenda for changing Britain than a simple rekindling of this traditional Conservative view of human nature.
We are fortunate to be in politics at a time when technological innovation has — with astonishing speed — developed the opportunity to decentralise power in a way we’ve never seen before. For the first time, every citizen in their home can have access to exactly the same information as the most powerful bureaucrat in a ministry. The argument that has applied for well over a century — that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and to make wise decisions on our behalf — simply falls away, cut down by the invigorating, liberating power of the information revolution.
That’s what we mean by the post-bureaucratic age: the satisfying clunk-click of political philosophy matching contemporary reality to produce a genuinely historic shift in how we organise our affairs. That’s why the idea of the post-bureaucratic agenda is so central to all the changes we want to make, and why, on reflection, it makes those big myths about the current political situation seem so ridiculous.
It is the post-bureaucratic age that allows us to deliver progressive goals through conservative means, and thereby stick to the changes we’ve made and stick to the political centre ground. In the past, there was an assumption that the only way you could make society fairer, make opportunity more equal and help the poorest live a decent life was through central government redistributing money and running programmes aimed at tackling disadvantage.
Today, that assumption no longer holds. After 12 years of intense and committed bureaucratic intervention the poorest have got poorer, there are more of them, and social mobility has stalled. So while there will always be a role for redistribution, we can confidently argue that what is called for today is a post-bureaucratic response to poverty: advancing social justice by really understanding the causes of poverty, family by family, and giving people and organisations in local communities the power and the responsibility to help themselves and each other.
Similarly, there was an assumption in the past that you could only achieve improvements to environmental protection through central government regulation and rules laid down by experts in the bureaucratic machine, both nationally and locally (and under New Labour, regionally). But we’ve seen the results of that: over the past decade of Labour government, despite its endless green pronouncements and initiatives and plans, and its new armies of highly paid environmental analysts and inspectors and officials — our carbon emissions actually went up.
Contrast that failed approach with a simple fact from the post-bureaucratic age. In pilot studies around the world where people have been provided with accurate information about their energy use in the home — information which technology now allows anyone to have — their energy consumption fell by at least 10 per cent and in some areas much more, without any other change in their circumstances. If we achieved that kind of change in Britain, we would save the amount of electricity produced by two large nuclear power stations.
Just giving people more information, more power and more control over their lives makes them more responsible. That’s the way to change people’s behaviour for the better, not the top-down nanny state bossiness of Labour which simply makes people resentful — not least about the vast, unproductive expansion of government that it has required. It’s because we know that individual happiness and social progress will only come from personal and social responsibility that all our key reforms — in schools, in welfare, in family policy, in prison rehabilitation and in fighting crime — are designed to transfer power from the political elite at the centre to people and communities across the country — and it’s the post-bureaucratic age that makes it possible.
So it is the post-bureaucratic age that offers this country a route map out of recession, towards recovery, renewal and a bright economic future. It is the post-bureaucratic age — as we will be setting out in a London conference next week — that shows how we can properly regulate capitalism without crushing its wealth-creating benefits. And it is the post- bureaucratic age that offers our best hope of winning the next election as people see the real change on offer. The task for us now is to explain this vision clearly and confidently.
Our crusade to give power to the people is terrifying
to a statist Labour establishment that can’t imagine how things will work without them being in control. That’s exactly why, for us, it’s so exciting.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 21, 2009