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Cameron rolls Thatcher revolution on

David Cameron school library The Thatcher Governments of the 1980s gave people more power and control over their own lives by selling council houses to tenants and shares in nationalised industries to voters.  However, the Conservative revolution only went so far: the delivery as well as the funding of most local hospitals, schools, and council services stayed in state hands. Today, the Prime Minister will give notice that the revolution's to roll on: in a speech to civil servants, he'll pledge "to turn government on its head, taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities".

Elected Commissioners will set policing priorities; parents will run schools; charities, clubs, voluntary groups and local people will take over swimming pools, libraries, social services, youth provision, and services for vulnerable people, such as drug and alcohol addiction programmes.  Edmund Burke's Little Platoons will evolve naturally into Steve Hilton's Big Society.  David Cameron will say: "The real question is: how can we achieve these aims when there is so little money?...The answer is reform - radical reform.  We need to completely change the way this country is run."

If the ends are not unlike some of those envisaged by Tony Blair, the means of reaching them are to be very different.  Targets, performance indicators, comprehensive area assessments, directives - the apparatus of central command and control - are to be torn up, and replaced by milestones to be reached and dates by which to meet them.  Just as radical reform will "square the circle" of achieving people power with less spending than planned, so this looser framework will do the same in relation to national accountability and local freedom.

During the 1980s, Labour fought council house sales in the Commons, only to drop opposition when it saw how popular the policy was (though it sought to undermine the policy once elected).  The struggle over the Big Society will be groundhog day.  The Opposition will argue that buying one's own home or shares as a passive consumer is one thing, but running a school, library or swimming pool as an active citizen is quite another.  It will also maintain that as central control diminishes service quality will fall - a view straight out of the Gordon Brown textbook.

Conservatives used to be caricatured as pessimists, gloomily decrying socialism's utopian ideals.  Now the roles are reversed.  It's Labour that claims that people don't have the energy, vision, know-how and commitment to run public services.  They've three main allies, witting or unwitting to various degrees.  The first will be the Guardian, the left-of-centre media and the BBC with its institutional bias towards the 1945 public service model: all will scour the country seeking tales of experiments that go wrong.  The second is the Treasury, ever wary that devolved control will mean higher spending (remember how it delayed Andrew Lansley's Health White Paper.)

The third is the Civil Service.  Benedict Brogan writes a telling column in the Daily Telegraph this morning pointing out that it requires - and even wants - political direction from the Government of the day.  He notes that "there are those in Westminster who believe that by ceding power to the mandarins, for example by doing away with the political advisers who previously used to drive through progress, Mr Cameron is guilty of "unilateral disarmament", leaving ministers vulnerable to wily officials".  This fits in neatly with concerns raised previously by Tim and I on this site about the damaging consequences of the clampdown on special adviser appointments.

Thatcher's skill at finding new types of Tory voter, and her sense of catching the tide of social change, helped her dominate the politics of the 1980s.  Cameron not only has the chance to do the same today, but to take the Liberal Democrats with him, sparking the localist instincts that differentiate them from Labour.  Localism means experiment, risk and imperfection, but the new Leader of the Opposition may well find that being on the side of pessimism is a bad place to be.  That the state should fund but not run all public services - because others can often do the job better - isn't dogmatic ideology, it's common sense.

Paul Goodman


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