The avalanche of cuts that are due to be announced later this month could decide the fate of the government, perhaps even of the country. Most Liberal Democrats I know are extremely nervous about, and they are right to be.
But beyond the arguments about the deficit and the national debt, there are other reasons why some cuts – the right cuts – might be a welcome opportunity. I believe this, I suppose, because of William Cobbett.
Cobbett was the great radical campaigner, as much of an influence on the future Liberal Party as Cobden or Bright, and he used to direct his rage at what he called ‘The Thing’, that great mountain of placemen and aristocratic pensioners paid for by the struggling farmers and labourers of the nation.
He believed that Britain was run not so much by a government, but by a financial system which had “drawn the real property of the nation into fewer hands … made land and agriculture objects of speculation … in every part of the kingdom, moulded many farms into one … almost entirely extinguished the race of small farmers … we are daily advancing to the state in which there are but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents.”
Cobbett’s analysis is dated, of course, but it is not entirely out of date, because – let’s face it – the Thing still exists.
We remain the abject dependents of a huge upper middle class machinery for self-aggrandizement. It covers the pension managers who cream outrageous sums from our pensions, through to the quangocrats and directors of those vast instruments of New Labour control. Not to mention those high-paid pinnacles of the arts establishment pedalling a miserably out-of-date post-modern arts bubble.
They are not the landed aristocrats that Cobbett condemned, but they might as well be. We pay for them all, plus the £800,000 salary to the BBC director-general, the handouts to Tesco and their kind for ‘regeneration’, the huge subsidised industry of tick-box business training or public sector standards. I could go on.
I mention Cobbett, who died before the Liberal Party was formed, because he explains why I find part of me is cheering on Danny Alexander as he wields an unprecedented scalpel into the public finances.
That is my first cheer for the cuts. Emotion rather than logic, I admit.
My second cheer is because of the other deadweight which New Labour has hung around our necks – it is the weight of the bureaucracy and control systems around public services and delivery systems of all kinds.
Anyone who reads John Seddon’s book System Thinking in the Public Sector will be staggered at inefficiency of housing benefit processing, thanks to the weight of DWP rules, the Audit Commission and the rest of the targets, standards and specifications which will turn out to be the most disastrous aspect of the New Labour legacy.
It all derives from the mistaken idea that public services can be standardised and reduced as if they were industrial assembly lines. It is a disaster brought about by discredited economic doctrines about economies of scale, combined with the efforts of the IT consultancies to sell yet more inappropriate systems for standardisation and central control, and yet more expensive and bureaucratic divisions between front and back office systems.
You might call it the Administrative-Industrial Complex (there were five representatives from PA Consulting on the Gershon Committee). These are another aspect of the Thing, of course, and cost about £70 billion in fees to taxpayers over the past decade.
The result is not just facelessness and inflexibility, it is vast efficiencies – which are hidden from view – and a situation where, by the end of New Labour rule, somewhere between one in five and one in three public sector workers were employed to control the others.
So my second cheer for the cuts is that only a serious crisis can dislodge this kind of complacent deadweight that is weighing down our public services, and making them much less effect deterrents to the rebirth of Beveridge’s Five Giants.
Two cheers for the cuts. But there is no third cheer, because I’m not naive. The chances are that the Thing will survive at the expense of the foot-soldiers it purports to benefit. It is the Thing that will be putting the cuts into effect, after all.
Worse, we may get an even more ferocious and counter-productive systematisation of services – another shift away from human contact, another cull of local courts, local police stations, local schools.
Will the Treasury, or those in Glasgow or Maidstone understand the kind of radical change that might both improve services and lead to major cost reductions – mainly because, for the first time, the services are effective?
Will they understand that real, Liberal efficiency stems from effectiveness – putting things right once and for all, reaching out upstream of problems to prevent them.
The answer, if I’m honest, is probably not. The chances are that most places will cut the wrong things. There is no evidence in the Treasury outlines so far that they have a strategy along these lines.
We may face the destruction of the very institutions local institutions that can provide the cost effective local services that are flexible and human enough to have a long term effect.
Those of us who describe themselves as radicals, like Cobbett, may have to re-group around a vision of public services that is genuinely liberal, flexible local, flexible and human.
What I will not accept, in the meantime, is the idea that somehow any attempt to cut the cost of services is bound to hurt the poor. As if every penny culled from New Labour’s Administrative-Industrial Complex is somehow a crime against the users – when the real crime, and the source of the waste and ineffectiveness, can be laid squarely at the door of Blair and Brown.
If we can articulate that, in such a way that it is more widely understood, then maybe we can keep our nerve another day and take on The Thing.
David Boyle is a member of the federal policy committee of the party. He is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and co-author of Eminent Corporations, published this month by Constable