Thursday 2 July 2020

The Conservative Party and the State

Speeches by leading Tories are ten-a-penny and not worth your time. This rule to live by doesn't always hold, and Michael Gove's latest loquacious offering does repay careful reading. His 'The Privilege of Public Service isn't a paean to civil servants as the government cuts their numbers and drives down their salaries, but something more significant: the Tory view of the state and its role in the decade of post-coronavirus and post-Brexit reconstruction. It is a meditation on Tory statecraft: on what the state is for and what the state should do, and as a contribution to Conservative Party 'theory' it could become a significant milestone. Or is it? Might this, after all, just be an exercise in cloaking the Tories' latest doings in a pseudo-intellectual veneer?

On Monday, Boris Johnson did his big reveal and promised £5bn to get the country moving after lockdown. A paltry offering to be sure, but it is in the context of a (rhetorical) Tory turn to big spending, and one even avowed Thatcherites are signed up to. Gove's contribution is about tying it all together in a new Tory rebadging of what Keynesians might call the activist state. i.e. Using the power to make the law and its spending clout to stimulate the economy.

Let's peel back the mystical shell of obligation and "privilege" festooning the speech and get to the kernel of Gove's contribution. Faced with a huge raft of current and future challenges, he recommends looking not to Attlee (heaven forfend!) but across the sea to the New Deal administration of Franklin D Roosevelt - perhaps because he read a biography, as well as being more politically permissible to the Tory faithful than The Major. For Gove, Roosevelt's example is useful for mainstream politics today because he solved three problems. In the midst of the Depression, his New Deal programme got the gears of social mobility moving again and gave millions of Americans a stake in the everyday life of their nation again. As Gove puts it,
There are too many in our time and our society whose economic interests, and indeed whose values, have been forgotten. In our unequal times we must attend increasingly to those who have suffered from neglect and condescension and to those whose lives have been scarred by racism and prejudice. Our contemporary work of reform must put them first.
Second, by doing this Roosevelt was able to overcome the popular alienation from the state. However, it required more than just putting money in a worker's pocket. Like most Tories, or for that matter most mainstream politicians, the state is a lumbering thing as likely to cause harm as it fixes social ills. Roosevelt's solution, Gove gushes, was the creation of new institutions that proved to be "flexible, adaptive and empirical." If the state is a state of action, if things are seen to be done and are done, then it can restore its authority through its own form of the propaganda of the deed.

Roosevelt's third innovation was the empowerment of reformers. These were, effectively, entrepreneurial state bureaucrats whose "role was not to administer existing machines, or proclaim abstract virtues, but to act – to achieve real and concrete change in the lives of others." Therefore the lessons drawn for today can be summed up as inclusion, adaptability, and action, and therefore this should provide a blueprint (and an ethic) for reforming the state, and for governments to reform themselves. What then do the Tories have in store?

Government needs to prioritise getting things done over and above the analytical, evaluative and presentational: improving lives through the delivery of projects matters most. It therefore follows that government has to be enabling: to provide life-changing improvements or good services, ministers have to think about delivering for those who do make the difference. Second, as a means of reforming itself government has to define what "success" entails. Here Gove defines it in terms of "making citizens flourish", and so the assessment of government programmes has to be more than the bottom line. Reform also means not carrying on with the ceaseless churn in the civil service: not only should more technical and data literate skills be prized, career progression has to be dissociated from movement from one department to the next: the state would work better if it builds up expertise. Or, as Gove puts it, "deep knowledge as the servant of public interest." Nevertheless, the snobbish (nay, class conscious) impulse reveals itself as Gove looks forward to welcoming more people with a technical education into the state's employ - presumably because he, wrongly, thinks they're more likely to be less critical and easier to manage than civil servants with history or anthropology degrees. Lastly, there should be more experimentalism in the state. "The whole culture of Government, and the wider world of political commentary, is hostile to risk, adventure, experimentation and novelty," he opines. He might also be speaking about business.

In Conservatism according to Gove Thought the state is no longer a hindrance but the means for delivering Tory modernisation. And, is that it? While Gove has provided an account of the Tories' governing philosophy, his speech reads like a post facto rationalisation for their extreme short-termism, contempt for due process and accountability, and desire to pursue their hobby horses as they see fit. In this regard, there is a fundamental continuity of statecraft running through all the Prime Ministers, yes, even including those nice gentlemen Mr Blair and Mr Brown, back to Thatcher. Johnson and co have ditched the language of neoliberal economics, but their state order politics remain entirely consistent with it: remodel the state system so the centrality of government is overweening and checks on the executive's remit - other state institutions, watchdog quangos, parliamentary scrutiny and media accountability - are brushed aside by authoritarian, action-oriented government.

This then isn't a break with received Toryism, but a change of emphasis. There is a more hands-on approach to economic management, but that's really all that has changed. Johnson and Gove still have need for their authoritarian state, and the received forms of governance remain unchanged. Indeed, it's quite funny to see Gove moaning about the timidity of public institutions when you consider how thoroughly marketised they are, a transformation of the civil service John Major and later Tony Blair justified in terms of, ironically, unleashing the entrepreneurial talents of state employees.

What is sad though is I can imagine any number of Labour politicians listening to or reading Gove's speech, and finding nothing wrong with it whatsoever. Why shouldn't the state promote economic growth through targeted investment? Why shouldn't the state support a technocratic renovation of the civil service? Why shouldn't the state privilege a "what works" philosophy? What Gove has managed is to distil the behavioural characteristics of the otherwise empty "Johnsonism, and repackage it in a way that would appeal to those who fancy themselves as one-nationists, or technocrats. I'm surprised Andrew Adonis hasn't tweeted his enthusiastic praise. But what this spells out is Gove, Johnson, Cummings, and the rest are interested in empowering the state above all around their objectives. The rest of the settlement we've lived with for decades, the one underpinning political polarisation and rising social dislocations, is staying untouched.

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Boffy said...

The New Deal shouldn't be fetishised, and its importance should be carefully evaluated. Europe had gone into a long wave downtrend by 1920, whilst the US continued to experience rapid growth during the Roaring 20's. It continued to sell lots of stuff overseas, and drew in large gold reserves as its trade balance grew. because of the Gold Standard, this meant US interest rates fell, its money supply expanded, and that led to US inflation, and a hyper inflation of its asset prices, which ended with the 1929 Wall Street Crash.

The Us only entered the long wave downtrend in 1929, ten years after Europe. By 1933, when Roosevelt introduces the Dew Deal, the conditions for Europe beginning to grow again were already established. The new industries such as cars, domestic equipment, petrochemicals were already being created in the Midlands and South-East, paying high wages, which also sparked a boom in house building in those areas. This is what created the foundation for the rapid growth in the post-war long wave boom.

The New Deal undoubtedly played a part in the short-term in the US, but already by 1937, it was beginning to falter, as the underlying economic played out. Had WWII not intervened physically destroying large amounts of capital that had to be replaced, and thereby consuming large amounts of profit that could have gone to capital accumulation, the post-war growth would have been even faster and stronger.

Dialectician1 said...

I wouldn't read too much into Gove's ramblings. When he was Secretary of State for Education, it was clear that he had only surface-read stuff by E.D. Hirsch (the US educationalist)to justify his elitist curriculum changes. He also drew on David Hargreaves to justify his Academy programme of networks of schools; and God knows where the Free Schools stuff came from, probably from the eugenicist Toby Young. Much like Johnson's tedious references to ancient times, Gove is a gob-shite fraud with a pretence towards erudition.

Dipper said...

Just to repeat the obvious, Cummings is not a Tory.

@Dialectician1 - 'the eugenicist Toby Young'. So you don't believe in screening foetuses for genetic diseases then?