Is the Coalition government truly radical?

We must question the assertion that the Coalition government is a radical administration, on a par with the 1945 Attlee and 1979 Thatcher governments. That judgment can only be made retrospectively, in view of the legacy the Con-Dems leave behind.
Nick Pearce
21 December 2010

I was surprised to hear Steve Richards, whose journalism I admire greatly, declare on the Today programme that the Coalition government was a radical administration on par with the 1945 Attlee and 1979 Thatcher governments. For one thing, the Owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk, not dawn. It is impossible to judge prospectively whether a government is truly radical. What matters is the legacy it leaves behind and how much of its reforming zeal endures, as Douglas Alexander pointed out in the discussion afterwards. We must therefore await the verdict of history, even if today the first historians to record a judgment tend to be of the contemporary variety (such as Anthony Seldon and my ippr colleague Guy Lodge, co-authors of a new book on Gordon Brown's premiership).

But radicalism is also not self-determined by politicians, however much leadership matters in politics. Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, as Marx once said, and we must look to deeper and broader currents of social and economic change to inquire whether we stand at the threshold of epoch-making change. For example, the Attlee Labour government came to power at the end of a war that had demanded a supreme national effort from the British people. This burnished its collectivism and grounded it in practical common experience.

The government's policy programme also embodied a new intellectual consensus on the importance of full employment and a strong welfare state, which had been constructed by radical liberals as much as by socialist thinkers, and which then defined a new settlement in British politics that lasted until the late 1970s. This settlement in turn rested on the strength of organised labour, within a relatively coordinated national economy, and it was only when these pillars of class and nation started to shake that the Conservative Party could embrace a radically right-wing Thatcherite agenda. Thatcher's great genius was to turn the deeper waves of change that were breaking down the post-war settlement – the decline of the industrial working class, the rise of individualism, the birth of new social movements, and the first stirrings of globalisation – into a transformative political project that reshaped Britain.

In retrospect, we can see that New Labour's radicalism was greatest in those areas that Thatcher had left untouched. Between 1997 and 2001, it presided over radical democratic and constitutional reforms to a state whose institutions and apparatuses had become both highly centralised and ossified under Thatcher. These New Labour reforms will endure: there is no prospect of rolling back devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, or even the Human Rights Act. Only where New Labour was unreformist – such as in English local governance – is there currently any real political action taking place. Labour was also strongest in its reform and funding of public services, which had never been Thatcher's central focus and which had suffered from both under-funding and insufficient reform during her time in office. (Save perhaps for the 1988 Education Reform Act, which was the most important piece of legislation in education since the 1944 Butler Act.) And New Labour changed Britain for the good on equality issues, such as civil partnerships and family-friendly working rights, which Thatcher's social conservatism prevented her from opening up.

Conversely, Labour was broadly accomodating of the institutions of the UK political economy which Thatcher had done so much to transform: the labour market, privatised industries, the post-Big Bang City of London, and so on. In these areas, it left her settlement largely in place, concentrating instead on making it perform as effectively as possible in raising growth, productivity and employment through further supply-side interventions.

What does this historical perspective tell us about the radicalism or otherwise of the Coalition government's reforms? First, we can see that the Coalition appears most radical in those areas in which New Labour's governing project had silted up in its dying days, that is in education, health, policing and local government reform. By the end of its third term, Labour had run out of steam on public service reform and was only near the end groping towards a new agenda of citizen entitlements and radical devolution (Seldon and Lodge cover this history well in their book). By contrast, the Coalition's reforms appear to carry energy and conviction – even to the point of wilful recklessness, as in the case of NHS reform.

Second, the Coalition is enacting an historically significant reduction in government spending, which necessitates deep cuts in particular service areas and a transfer of funding responsibility to the citizen, as in higher education. This gives it the appearance of rampant radicalism, and there are certainly many Conservatives who view this process as a necessary retrenchment of the state, while their opponents are only too willing to impute such ideological intentions to the Coalition's reforms. But it is not obvious that any overarching agenda for recasting the relationship between state, citizen and family is at work here, as Gavin Kelly and I have argued elsewhere in relation to welfare reform. Significant cuts are taking place to services, and these are beginning to define our politics, but they are not unified by a consistent logic of reform and they are not accompanied by the hue and cry of a resurgent Right – as is happening in the United States – at least for now.

Third, the Coalition is united by a liberalism that is suspicious of state power and its exercise, and which feeds off a broader hostility to New Labour's statecraft. This has given it early momentum on restoring civil liberties, abolishing ID cards, and recasting public management away from a regime of targets, indicators and plans. It underpins their localism. But it does not travel into wider democratic reform, on which the Coalition presides over uneasy compromise rather than an agenda driven by conviction. Nor does it equip the Coalition with an agenda for meeting some of the big challenges Britain faces: how to grow the economy in a globalised world, meet the costs of an ageing society, restore full employment, or tackle our chronic housing shortage, to name but a few. On these critical issues, the Coalition is reviewing its way forward, rather than staking out new territory.
If this account is a somewhat complex and contradictory one, that is because the historical situation does not lend itself to the kind of radicalism we saw in 1945 and 1979. We are witnessing a major retrenchment to the state, which has followed directly from the deepest recession since the 1930s. But other underlying drivers of change are less easy to discern. There are no new social actors on the stage, as there were in 1945 or 1979, willing and able to articulate demands for societal transformation. Globalisation is shifting economic power east, leaving policymakers with lots of opportunities and threats, rather than solid levers of power to pull. And the public is wary and distrustful of politics itself, mobilised more by dissent and rejection than renewal. These are shifting sands, rather than tidal waves of change.

Radical? Only time will tell.

This piece was originally posted on Nick Pearce's IPPR blog.

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