It’s been derided as snake oil by an Oxford professor, and—by Lord Lawson, no less—as a PR ploy. But the announcement last week of plans for the Spending Review is actually rather interesting and exciting.
There’s obviously a PR angle, of course. But the fact remains that, faced with a similar debt crisis, the Canadians pulled off the extraordinary feat of making budgetary cuts of as much as 50% without social unrest in four years or so—and proper consultation was a vital component of their approach.
The Canadian government pulled all interests and voices—public, private and independent; management and unions; urban and rural—together over a year of public discussions. They put the issues plainly to people in language they could understand. And they published interim targets for success, so the public could see how things were going.
But if anything, our Government faces an even tougher challenge than the Canadians, for three reasons. First, it is hoping to do in six months what took the Canadians more than 12. Secondly, Canadian society is smaller and in many ways more cohesive than British society, allowing greater scope for rapid consensus-building.
And thirdly and most importantly, the Canadian people were ultimately prepared to support the government because they had already experienced a decade of smaller running cuts. This made the case for dealing with the deep problem unavoidable, and allowed the Canadian government to make the case that their proposal would succeed. But in this country we have the Labour party, and large sections of the media, still in utter denial about the magnitude of the problem.
So a successful Spending Review alone would be a major achievement. But in fact the Government’s plans are far more ambitious than that. What they are proposing is nothing less than what I called in Compassionate Conservatism (Policy Exchange, 2006 and downloadable from my website) a Full Audit of Government. This is a complete reassessment of the nature and functions of the state, and where and how they should be executed.
And the implications of that are potentially enormous.