Hot Dog politics
Government by commentary
On GB News this week, Jacob Rees-Mogg gave a 5-minute segment of what the channel called ‘his shadow Budget’.
'This bonfire of taxes will ignite the British economy and’, he said, ‘as Gladstone put it, allow money to fructify in the pockets of the British people,’ adding on a retweet that ‘We need to cut spending as well as taxes. The State does too much and does it badly.’
If only you were a member of some kind of institution that that could affect this kind of thing, Jacob. Perhaps some kind of organisation that would be in charge of government spending and taxation, and have some control over what the state does. Perhaps elected by a majority of the population in order to reflect the general wishes of the populace. That had perhaps been in charge of those things for over a decade, so it really had time to embed any specific policies it might wish to implement.
This is a phenomenon becoming increasingly known as ‘Hot Dog’ politics, and I’m not unpleased to say I have played some small part in popularising it;
In that article I wrote that;
One of the fun things about being a councillor is I get to try and figure out who did this (and what to do about it). Being a councillor gives you a modest little platform to speak from, but it’s modest enough that I can still run a nice line in thinkpieces on what I’d like to see done differently without getting into too much trouble.
But there is a difference between doing that as a councillor and doing that as a member of Her Majesty’s Government. That’s because the primary task of being a councillor is often to mitigate the fallout from structural problems or policies that are beyond your power to change. You’re implementing a planning system clearly incapable of meeting demand, providing transport when budgets are being slashed and delivering social care when it’s in such high demand (and staff numbers are so low) that the system is basically gridlocked.
I have the ability to talk freely about where I think we’ve gone wrong with government policy because I’m not in charge of these issues. This is not true of JRM, who has not only served in government but has previously been given the specific task of reducing spending and getting government to do less.
Jacob was elected in 2010, the election that delivered David Cameron to government amidst promises of a ‘bonfire of the quangos’. But that bonfire never really got blazing - instead it merely smouldered. Although Cameron’s review slated 200 bodies for abolition, 120 for merger and 176 for substantial reform. The reality is that many of the abolished quangos had their powers and functions absorbed into government, rather than being eradicated entirely.
But Jacob was a new backbencher. He can’t be blamed for that initial failure, can he? No, not really - but what he can be blamed for is the fact that he was ordered by Boris Johnson to lead a plan to reduce the costs of public bodies, which were rising too fast even for Johnson’s cakeist instinct and costing the taxpayer £220 billion last year. In a letter to secretaries of state, he wrote:
Necessary public bodies are an important delivery mechanism for the Government. The cost and number of these bodies continues to increase. Public bodies should only exist when there is a pressing need, must be accountable to Parliament and be efficient and effective. Please review your public bodies for any that you consider could be provided by organisations other than the state and therefore closed.
In fact, Jacob Rees-Mogg served for 8 months a Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency. But the only lasting improvement to government efficiency that seems to have been made was the abolition of the post once he vacated it.
I think it’s a very fitting metaphor for the last 13 years of Conservative government to see a former Government Efficiencies Minister complaining about the lack of government efficiencies. It’s almost poetic; were't not for laughing, I should pity him
Some of this is to do with the Blob. For 13 years, the Conservative Government has been building its house on the sands of the Blairite political settlement; and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. I have already written on the history of the Blob for J’accuse, but I quote myself at length here;
New Labour saw potential in ‘agencification’ and developed a strategy that Peter Burnham calls ‘the politics of depoliticisation’. He describes it as ‘the process of placing at one remove the political character of decision-making’, in which ‘state managers retain arm’s-length control over crucial economic and social processes whilst simultaneously benefiting from the distancing effects of depoliticisation’. Thatcher’s original concept of the executive using NMI’s as a means of bypassing Whitehall to implement radical reform would be ‘worked upon’ by devolving the executive’s authority entirely to that of the NMIs. They would no longer be a tool, a means to an end, but the end itself…
Many saw Cameron’s Big Society as a vehicle to reduce the role and size of government. That is a misconception. As he said in his 2009 Hugo Young Lecture, “Our alternative to big government is not no government—some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire.” Rather, the Big Society marked a move from the state as sole provider to a facilitator, an enabler; as Cameron continued, “we understand that the Big Society is not just going to spring to life on its own – we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen. We need to use the state to remake society."
Taxpayers money would still be funnelled in to dubious social causes, power would still be held by unaccountable ‘stakeholders’, but with a sprinkling of Cameroonian devolution (an obsession of mid 2000s ‘reforming Conservatives’). The Mandarins would be uprooted from Islington and scattered across the regions, charities would be funded by local government and NHS trusts in Tyneside as opposed to the big bad government in Westminster.
What Cameron’s ‘strong and concerted government action’ entailed, in essence, was an increase in both resources and rights to an increasingly widely defined ‘civil society’. Although it is hard to define, this has been a bright new dawn for the mix of NMIs, charities, lobbying groups and private trusts that form the Blob.
NMIs outside the control and accountability of Ministers have fuelled the rise in the third sector, throwing increasing amounts of funding at organisations that have been allowed increasing capacity to oppose government policy. As these lobbying groups have increased in both funding and influence civil servants have become increasingly hostile to government policy, because they are fed policy by those groups whilst being protected from democratic accountability by their status as NMIs.
Ministers have finally cottoned on to the idea that the Blob might have been stopping them governing conservatively. But blaming the Blob is, like Rees-Mogg’s shadow budget, a symptom of Hot Dog politics.
It’s papering over the fact that Conservatives have been in government for nearly a decade and a half and are entirely responsible for the Blob’s empowerment, for a state that does too much and the resulting runaway government spending. They have failed to overhaul New Labour’s governing strategies - in fact, they might have made things worse. New Labour had a similar amount of time to create a governing strategy that suited them, as did Margaret Thatcher. That is why those two governments were successful in their aims, and we have not been.
This failure is the original sin at the heart of Conservative government. As we surge towards opposition we should be taking a long hard look at our record in government and ask why every policy was a struggle, every new idea was resisted, and why a Rolls-Royce Civil Service handled like a Lada. Conservatives need to stop commentating and start governing. And change out of that Hot Dog costume.
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