23 November 2010

Big Society - the cost of cowardice

"Politics is the art of the possible", has long been the mantra of cowardly politicians and policy failure. Falsely attributed to Bismarck, it can more certainly be linked to Rab Butler, the Tory half of the post World War II Keynesian economic consensus known as "Butskellism", which led to the train-wreck of the 1970s.

It was always apparent, simply from their demeanour, that Cameron and Osborne are weak men, and that, allied with their wishy-washy clone Nick Clegg, they would preside over a period in which the economic and financial legacy of their Labour puke predecessors would be consolidated rather than confronted.

There is at least one Tory MP, Westminster and the City's Frank Field, who is not afraid to admit that the odious Brown set a trap for his successors, which they should have denounced at the the time and which they should certainly be emphasizing today instead of rabbiting on about fairness and the "Big Society".
In his bid to ensure the Labour government took the kudos for sparkling new schools and hospitals while avoiding current accounting of its cost, Brown used PFI as a means of keeping infrastructure investment off the public balance sheet by entering into long term deals. While the capital value of PFI contracts was only £55bn, the vastly higher sum that we will eventually pay reflects the huge mark-up costs of lengthy maintenance contracts. It was a political masterstroke, allowing him to boast of prudence by keeping the headline proportion of public debt to GDP below 40%, as promised, whilst at the same time generously ‘investing’ in public services for immediate gratification.

He (correctly) calculated that by the time his trick was revealed, it would not only be someone else’s problem but would prove too complex a manoeuvre to capture the public’s imagination. After all, what is the more terrifying prospect to politicians? Telling their constituents that the last government has given the country 37 years to pay off a £200bn bill or that the current government is cutting the number of police patrolling their local neighbourhood? The other smart strand to his ruse was that the other chief beneficiaries of these flawed PFI deals were middle class professionals (consultants, lawyers, architects, accountants, building contractors), normally the most vocal and articulate critics of public sector waste.
The scam was perfectly apparent, as was the awarding of PFI contracts to Labour constutuencies regardless of merit. The point is that Brown set out to buy the electorate with their children's money, and were it not for the intervening international financial crisis, he would have succeeded.

There was only one way to undo his work, which was to confront his legacy with the same ruthlessness that he demonstrated. Being "nice" and "fair" cannot hack it, because the status quo he created is neither.

We are going to live through another Edward Heath interlude until the LibDems panic and the Coalition falls, at which point the Labour pukes will return to power and complete the destruction of the British economy. The LibDems and the Labour pukes will just be doing what comes naturally to them - it is Cameron and Co who will bear the greater responsibility, for offering no meaningful alternative when in opposition, and for frigging around at the margins instead of going for the kill when they slithered into power.

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