You can't always get what you want ...

20 Apr 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 20 Apr 2023

Pic: Unsplash

You can understand why some politicians in Northern Ireland might not be too uncomfortable escaping the responsibilities that come with power.

They involve spelling out uncomfortable realities, the gaps between what we would like to do and what we can do and developing plans when that gap cannot be breached.

Both being governed and governing involve difficult, often painful choices. Unfortunately in Northern Ireland we are some way from confronting them.

Most lobbying comprises compiling lists of policies interest groups would like to see implemented. It is still relatively rare for lobbyists to trouble themselves with identifying how those asks will be funded and what, if necessary needs to lose out in order for their aspirations to be met. 

Even when they do put a cost to their objectives the cost is considered someone else’s problem, one, they say, which would be readily fixed if we had a different approach to government, or better still a different government.

The trouble with this is that identifying the need to spend is much, much easier than identifying where the money is going to come from. This is especially true for a devolved administration like Northern Ireland.

We can argue about the rights and wrongs of this until we are blue in the face but our spending is determined by the Barnett formula and given levels of political instability devolution of further tax raising powers is unlikely.

We are therefore dependent to a very large extent on the policies of the main parties at Westminster. It is looking likely that there will be a change of government after the next General Election but we’d be deluded if we thought that might free up budgets and usher in a period of real, lasting change.

The distinguished philosopher John Gray recently analysed the two main British parties approach to policy in a coruscating piece in the New Statesman.

He wrote: “The response of the two main parties is a descent into corporate newspeak. Mimicking the bland tones of CEOs of failing companies, Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have each produced lists of five “pledges” and “missions” that are interchangeable in their emptiness. These are not workable policies but public relations exercises of a kind common in the brand of capitalism whose decline their parties are competing to manage.”

He added: “Blithe indifference to uncomfortable realities is the hallmark of Britain’s ruling elites … The pattern is likely to continue as the Tories and Labour contend as to which of them props up the decrepit market regime.”

A central problem for the political classes stems from the disastrous last few years of the current regime, the mismanagement of Brexit and the faltering performance of the economy that has ensued, the cronyism of Boris Johnson’s time in office, followed by the car crash of the brief Truss regime.

So the dominant issue for British politics has been that of competence, an attribute that used to be a given for any party aspiring to govern. Hence the corporate PR gibberish and the lack of vision, strategy or anything that smacks of radicalism.

Look in vain across the political spectrum for bold ideas on wealth distribution, public ownership, funding health and social care and although Brexit is rightly blamed for some of the present economic malaise, the roots of Britain’s decline go much deeper. Britain’s fundamental problems – dismal productivity, regional inequality, dilapidated infrastructure – long predate the EU referendum.

There is to date no sign that either the Conservatives or Labour are prepared to grapple with them. Instead we are seeing the emergence of a quiet consensus between the two main parties on the fundamentals of economic policy: spending, taxation, public ownership and Europe.

It may well be the case that the economic malaise has been caused by 13 years of Conservative mismanagement.  But the result has been to limit options. Where will any new government find the investment that public services so desperately need given we have such low growth and high taxation?

We appear to have reached the point where we don’t have the economic strength to provide the services and living standards we deserve. As far as the political classes are concerned radical new policies are out. The battle ahead will be over “competence”. 

This is the reality. We can and should rail about the unfairness of it all and demand change, but for the moment we cannot escape it.

Ironically much of the crisis stems from politicians putting off difficult decisions and not grappling with reality. We are now reaching the stage where reality will soon come looking for them.

In the meantime those of us left grappling with growing social and economic problems will find the work increasingly difficult and exhausting. It will become more important than ever to ensure that every penny we invest is effective and that our work helps transform lives.

Having the right policies is only the start: doubters need only look at Scotland, which for many years has been regarded as a model of best policy. It might make all the right noises but for all that it still has collapsing public services, falling educational standards, rising health inequalities and outcomes, strapped-for-cash local government and a collapsing infrastructure in cities and rural areas.

Competence may be the new buzzword for politicians. Effectiveness has to be the word for those seeking to drive change.




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