That the leaders of political parties who win the right to form a government are getting their hands on is the power to spend. To choose, within the limitations of income and ideology, where our money goes. And money, as accumulated labour and wealth, and got from the tax-paying public, refreshes certain areas and is denied to others.
The Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition’s “fiscal assault” (as it was put to me by one shire councillor) of local authorities robbed them of their ability to deliver essential services. It decimated our police. And generally, via the ideological grip of austerity, concentrated on “balancing the books”. Those MPs got their power and proceeded to spend niggardly, what you might call, the social wealth of the UK.
The power to spend money gives the wielder enormous power of patronage, favour and office. And when it’s driven by a belief in the efficacy of their policies – part-privatising the probation service, for instance – then even examples of patent failure can take a long time to sink in.
Why? Because the ideology that allows them to trot on to the stage of history and bang on about their policy visions aren’t measured, assayed or audited by their success. The idea in the head of government, if you can imagine as simply as that, will not be budged until disaster (as in the case of the backfiring probation experiment) becomes undeniable. Of course, if governments weren’t following an ideological or philosophical belief in this, that or the other, they might encounter and acknowledge mistakes much earlier.
But it is the power of spending money that governments covet more than anything. It is the throwing out of the pet projects, pilots and initiatives of earlier administrations; viz the trampling of Sure Starts, centres that were a good bit of welcome thinking if there ever was one. And the replacing of it with precious little.
Thatcher’s imitation of America, where they closed their mental institutions, was ideologically driven. It didn’t matter that the streets filled up and the prisons did too, soon after. It was the power to spend on an ideological grand scale. ‘Care in the Community’ didn’t replace the mental institutions in Maggie’s vast ‘deinstitutionalised’ spring clean, but that was the ideological excuse.
It’s for this reason, as I mentioned in a debate I led in the Lords last week, that we need to spread Wales’ Future Generations Act to the other regions of the UK. Wales leads the way in the long term, sustainable, preventative policymaking; and I’m calling for the other parts of the country to introduce a Future Generations Act to tackle climate change, poverty and inequalities of education, health and social spending.
Imagine if we’d had a Future Generations Act that required the Thatcher government look at, and account for, what the closure of the mental health institutions would do to our wellbeing; and to the wellbeing of people in dire need.
Government thinking and spending has to move away from the concept of the personal fiefdom of the new leader and their cabal of similarly minded ideologues. Whatever kind of Tory we get running the next stage of our political crisis – Johnson or Hunt – they’ll need more than their ham-fisted prejudices and ideological claptrap to get us through the difficult times ahead.
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There has to be a higher authority in spending power, and I think that authority has to be Tomorrow. It has to be about making sure that we’re looking out for ourselves in old age, for our children in their maturity, and for our unborn’s cradle of opportunities.
A Future Generations Act, if enacted, would limit the silly, ideological dreams of puffed-up grandees who’ve assiduously absorbed the patina of civilisation that’s handed out through the elite schools and Oxbridge. A Future Generations Act would bring us all into the equation of political involvement because it would raise issues around how local democracy involves people in local decisions. It would continuously refine what the present should be in the future; and not simply allow the ship of state to blunder from one ideological argy-bargy to the next.
We can and must do much more with our politics. But it has to be done with the leadership and engagement of local communities
Medievalism lurks in every governmental corridor, ready to pounce and make us subservient to the next ideologue who believes there’s only “one way”, and that happens to be “their way”.
I see the idea of imitating Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act (that I’m trying to have brought to the rest of the UK) as the beginning of a new engagement with politics for everyone. No longer the politics of some centralised imagination who, for a period of their time on earth whilst in office, will experiment with our money, time and energies. Only to then shuffle off in disgrace, well-pensioned and able to earn a sizeable fortune from the lecture circuits, consultancies and think-tanks of the world.
We can and must do much more with our politics. But it has to be done with the leadership and engagement of local communities, working with those centrally. We have to try and win control of the power to spend. It cannot be left to the small club of insiders who, for too long, have lived a small club life from the sofas of Whitehall.
A Future Generations Act will address many of the questions over the power and privilege about how, as a country, we think, plan and budget for the future. And importantly, about how we’ll move away from the foolish, ideological and thoughtless reality of so many recent governmental cracks of the whip.
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.