15 December 2006

Smoke and mirrors

In Why I've lost my faith in Gordon Brown in the UK ‘Times’ yesterday,  Anatole Kaletsky says:

                                Perhaps the most worrying revelation about Mr
                                Brown’s approach to politics has been his
                                obsession with institutions and processes,
                                rather than results. Everyone knows that Mr
                                Brown’s proudest achievement has been the
                                restructuring of the Bank of England, but is it
                                possible that restructuring other government
                                departments is Mr Brown’s “big idea” for the
                                next decade? Following the merger of the Inland
                                Revenue with the Customs and Excise, Brown
                                allies hint at reorganising the Department of
                                Trade and Industry, revamping the Cabinet Office
                                and maybe even abolishing the Treasury itself.
                                Even more depressing is Mr Brown’s apparent
                                addiction to commissions and quangos run by
                                former businessmen, financiers, civil servants
                                and newspaper editors. It is as if the mere
                                appointment of these commissions is enough to
                                satisfy Mr Brown’s insatiable desire for
                                information and the appearance of governmental

Unfortunately, on this record Mr Brown is exactly in tune with current policymaking priorities. For political purposes, results hardly count. It’s cheaper and less effort to get Public Relations people to spin the facts, rather than to change them.* The parties tacitly conspire in this shell game, stressing in their election campaigns rhetoric and image, under an electoral system that allows voters a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee once every four or five years. Voters are seen as taxpayers or beneficiaries with Attention Deficit Disorder – a self-fulfilling belief system given that (as Kaletsky continues) educational policy itself is subordinated to meaningless spending targets:

                               On the substance of policy, meanwhile, Mr Brown
                                seems to have nothing of interest to say — or
                                do. Education, for example, is supposedly Mr
                                Brown’s top priority for the “next Labour
                                decade”. Yet his only positive idea in this
                                sphere is to keep spending more money on school
                                buildings and renovations, without any apparent
                                regard to what these schools teach or how, until
                                he achieves his newly proclaimed target — that
                                the average cost of educating state school
                                pupils should reach the amount now spent in
                                private schools.

This is gesture politics at its worst. Spending is not a legitimate policy goal. It is a means to ends, not an end in itself….unless, of course, Mr Brown’s real educational objective has more to do with placating the teaching unions than with actually educating the electorate of the future. The solution of course is to express policy goals in terms of results that are meaningful to real people. Meaningful goals for education, oddly enough, are educational goals: things like numeracy, literacy and the physical and intellectual well being of young people. Trickier to measure, to be sure, but far more relevant to real people than the lazy (or corrupt) pseudo-goal of ‘higher spending per pupil’.

* And if you think I am being overly cynical about the role of image-making in politics, check out this Mail on Sunday report that the British Government has agreed on a multi-million pound PR campaign to make British citizens feel better about the European Union. The plans, entitled Reframing the Debate, suggest promoting the ‘EU brand’ by linking it to popular or ‘warm’ European themes, like the Eurovision song contest, or the Cannes Film Festival - even though these have nothing to do with the EU.  It also suggests banning Ministers and officials from referring to unpopular EU institutions like the European Commission, places such as Brussels and Strasbourg, the euro, terms like 'Eurocrat' and 'EU directive' and controversial policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the EU Constitution.

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