How is it that a government that started eight years ago in such an atmosphere of hope and even celebration has ended up as probably the most negative administration in the past century. I mean here more than smoking and fox-hunting and even the latest law against glorifying terrorism. A bunch of MPs who voted for invasion and war clearly wants to feel morally superior about things rather less complex such as animals and health.
But these are just the most publicised eruptions of a spirit which is making almost every government intervention one of prevention and punishment. Failing schools, indebted hospitals traffic congestion, carbon dioxide emissions, drunkenness and immigration - they are all expressed in terms of bearing down on those who are thought to have failed or those who are seen as offending. It is as if no one in power now believes it is possible to do anything through exhortation, encouragement or incentives, only through harassment. The state, says a colleague who draws a parallel with Soviet eastern Europe, ceases to be the protector and instead is viewed primarily as predator.
I cannot believe that this is what Tony Blair intended. Nor do I think it is due to a lack of policy ideas. Few governments can have come into office with so much detailed policy already worked out as New Labour did in 1997. But as it has come up against the problem of implementation, so it has appeared unable to get things done with the carrot. The stick has been the fallback.
In part, this reflects the Government's notorious obsession with media response. If you spend much of your time, as ministers do, trying to react to the demands for action from the popular media, then it is to proscribing that you naturally resort - lock up the preachers, charge the motorist, forbid smoking, sack the failing teachers.
In part, however, it reflects a much more profound disillusionment with the state's ability to effect any change for the good. School academies, health trusts, opted-out services are reflections not so much of coherent policy as of despair that the state can come up with the answers. The result is, on the one side, a pervasive denigration of the public service ethos and, on the other, a gross overestimate of the ability of the private sector and business to provide alternative answers.
The result is that policy - security is the obvious example, but it could be said just as easily of the NHS, schools and transport - is not the result of a view of where the Government wants to be, and an examination of how to get there, but the accumulation of "initiatives" designed to give the appearance of movement. The most depressing development of the week is that the Chancellor seems to have decided to join this march of the morally bereft. Up to now, one would have marked Gordon Brown as a man who believed intensely in the ideal of the enabling state. If there was a criticism, it was that he pushed it too far, trying to make tax and incentive play a role in improving Britain's productivity and global competitiveness that the weapons at his disposal could not bear. Fond of fiddle-faddle is the accusation that strikes home.
Yet here he was on Monday using his first speech as potential prime minister to sing from the Government hymn sheet on security and the law, the antithesis of the enabling state. Now Brown may or may not believe the institutional line. Those close to him say any hopes that a Brown premiership will bring a change in libertarian tone are sorely misplaced. The Chancellor believes in order and, perhaps because of his Calvinist background, sees people as abstract groups to be corralled into doing what he believes is in their best interest rather than as collections of individuals to be set free.
But that is not what is so dispiriting about his intervention. It is that he should agree to make this the occasion of his emergence as Crown Prince. Gordon Brown, you can be sure, doesn't think that criminalising the glorification of terrorism is a major part of his policy for the future, or even a minor one. He can't seriously believe that security is some crucial plank in his distinct vision of the world. But he can, no doubt, think that this is all part of the price he pays for the succession.
He's mistaken, of course. You would think he'd have learnt by now after the number of times he's been stitched up by the Prime Minister. When in need, Blair calls on his "friend" to help him out on the basis of party loyalty and an early handover, only to slide off as soon as the crisis is over - still keeping the crown just beyond his Chancellor's reach. That makes Brown at the least naive, never the best attribute in a would-be leader. But it also makes him less than himself, and infinitely less than what he could, or should, be.Reuse content