Alex Massie

The Coalition Must Tell the Public: Be Not Afraid

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Tony Blair's political legacy was making "progressive" the contested ground in British politics. Hence "progressive Conservatism" and "progressive Liberalism" and, I suppose, "progressive Labour". George Osborne once even talked about "progressive austerity". It shouldn't be a surprise that some voters are turned-off by this marketing triumph. Yet this apparent consensus masks the real differences between the coalition and the opposition. Julian Glover's piece in the Guardian today makes an important argument: the coalition needs to be more ideological.

Why be spooked by social democrat squawking? The coalition should shrug its shoulders and confess: the charge its enemies lay at its door is broadly correct. This is an ideological government with a plan for a smaller, less centralised and more liberal state. The left dreads the obvious fact that spending cuts are central to this plan – and they are. The left senses that the government is staging a cultural revolution against social democracy – and it is. The coalition does not want to make mild adjustments to the old order. It intends to smash it.

There is an element of mad Maoism to it all: the re-creation of a country fired by a spending review that will feel like a fetishistic exercise in the application of extreme pain. To say that cuts are being forced by necessity and nothing more, is to imply that when fatter times return ministers will reverse them. Nobody who knows the leaderships of this coalition believes that. Much of what the government must do to balance the books it would have wanted to do even if they were in balance.

Yet ministers, by and large, hesitate before admitting this. Liberal Democrats worry about scaring their voters. Conservatives aren't sure the country will understand their big idea. It's easier to take refuge in the alternative truth that cuts are happening because they are needed.

[...]The point of reducing spending is to change the state, not just spend less. Success can't be measured in terms of the ratio of government expenditure to GDP, as someone on the Tory right – say, John Redwood – would like.

This point was there in Nick Clegg's description on the Today programme of state dependency in the north-east as not only unaffordable but unhealthy. It is there in a book published this week by the Tory MP and Cameron ally Nick Boles. He describes "genuine horror at the overweening power of central government and its treatment of citizens either as supplicants ... or lab rats in some vast social experiment, designed to improve mankind".

Quite so. (Though see Sunder Katwala for a typically-elegant dissenting view). As Glover says, this is not simply a matter of making a virtue from necessity. It is a virtuous, liberal-conservative goal regardless of the health of the public finances. So ministers - starting with the PM himself - need to do more to make the case for their worldview. This may prove tricky since any argument with more than one prong to it is likely to be too subtle for much of Fleet Street and, for that matter, whole swathes of the public too.

Nevertheless, the coalition needs to make the case for its agenda without being quite so defensive about cutting public spending. It needs to point out not just that current levels of extravagance are unaffordable but that even if they were they'd not be desirable. But on the other hand, the coalition needs to remind the public that even if it reaches its spending targets, the state will still be spending £700bn a year by the end of this parliament. Nick Clegg is quite correct to argue that suggestions Britain is retreating to the 1930s are preposterous.

So: yes, the public spending review will be painful and yes there will be cuts but in many departments these are desirable not simply inevitable. Nevertheless, the suggestion - made by much of the opposition - that the poor will be evicted from their homes, condemned to slum schools, left to depend upon charity for healthcare and generally victimised by a brutal government of millionaire toffs is quite absurd. £700bn is not, even today, nothing.

This is necessarily risky and because it requires winning an emotional argument (public spending is not always virtuous) and an intellectual one (good to have you back Mr Hayek) you can appreciate that it could all end disastrously for the coalition. Hence - as suggested by this blog in May - there's fresh talk of an electoral pact at the next election. I suspect neither party is ready for such a notion but that may change. An arrangement whereby a number of Tory candidates don't campaign very enthusiastically in Lib Dem seats and vice versa may be more likely.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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