Steve Richards: The dangers of shock and awe politics

In its first six months the Coalition has accelerated with a dizzier speed than Thatcher in 1979 – and on more fronts

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For this government the pace of change seems to matter almost as much as what is changing. In contrast, the previous, timid Labour government regarded the projection of radicalism as far more important than being radical, at least in its early days. The difference is marked, and all the more astonishing given that Tony Blair won landslide victories and that the current administration comprises two parties that failed to win a majority of any kind.

The politics of speed is an overlooked theme. Substance and direction of travel are more important, but pace matters too. Look at the success of The Trip, one of this year's surprise TV hits. The series took the form of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travelling around the north of England, having dinners in scenic locations. It worked for several reasons, but one of them was the elegant pace and simplicity of the six episodes. Most TV these days is produced on the assumption viewers need a change of shot every few seconds, as if the audience is a bunch of demented teenagers with the concentration span of an ape on speed.

The editing of Piers Morgan's recent interview with Elton John is more typical than the risky stillness of The Trip. For all I know the original chat show interview was an interesting and witty conversation, but it was broadcast almost as a series of soundbites interspersed with short jerky films, with sudden jumps to the piano when Elton performed a song or two.



Evidently the producers were too nervous to let the conversation breathe, so they turned the exchange into the equivalent of a bad 1970s disco in its contrived, artificial rhythmic brightness. In contrast, The Trip allowed a conversation between Coogan and Brydon about nothing very much to run for much of the programme, interrupted only by long wide shots of beautiful scenery. Somehow or other the audience coped.

Since the election the Coalition has moved so fast it makes the editing of Piers Morgan's chat show seem laid-back. In its first six months or so it has accelerated with a dizzier speed than the Thatcher administration in 1979, and on a wider range of fronts. Such is the focus on the novelty of coalition that the scale of radical ambition is easily obscured.

Leading figures in the Coalition seek to recast the relationship between citizen and state in ways that could be as significant as the changes that took place after 1945 and 1979. Already ministers have unveiled plans to cut the deficit faster than any equivalent country in the western world, reform welfare, overhaul the NHS, loosen the rules over who runs schools, in effect privatise universities through the trebling of tuition fees and introduce elected police commissioners.

The common themes running through the seemingly disparate eruptions include a wariness of the state, a faith in various forms of local accountability, and a conviction that markets, the private sector and individuals acting on their own are more effective than planning from the centre.

Some of the most perceptive figures in Labour's ranks are sceptical about the ministerial proclamations of radicalism. On the Today programme yesterday Douglas Alexander argued that the Government wanted to give the impression of radical ambition but was far less confident and more neurotically pragmatic in reality. He cited David Cameron's U-turn over the scrapping of the school sports' programme. Alexander believes that Cameron and Osborne want the dividing line to be their radicalism against Labour's status quo, but in reality they will run a mile from any trouble. He predicts that Cameron will intervene to stop or moderate the planned crazed restructuring of the NHS.

There is some evidence for Alexander's thesis, not least the way Cameron and Osborne changed their tax and spend plans several times in opposition in an incoherent attempt to reconcile their own convictions with credibility and popularity. But more powerful evidence points in the other direction. Cameron is an attractive, emollient public figure to lead the charge compared with the stridently provocative Thatcher. Yet what the Conservatives are doing in power is so close to their ideologically rooted plans formed in opposition I have no doubt their radical intent is real and not an echo of New Labour, when a brief visit by Tony Blair to a council estate was hailed as a revolution in welfare.

Indeed what is happening now is a classic lesson about the virtues of paying more attention to opposition. Over the four and a half years before the election Cameron's closest adviser, Steve Hilton, organised a series of day-long seminars on their plans for what they called a post-bureaucratic age. The seminars were the accumulation of detailed work from shadow Cabinet members and others. It is a myth that Cameron's entourage was obsessed only with presentation in opposition. Their main theme then was a smaller state and a redistribution of power. The vision of those early years is being implemented now.

There are advantages in high speed, or as one minister put it to me yesterday, "the politics of shock and awe". An administration has momentum. Opponents have little time to mobilise before the policies are implemented. The official opposition looks even more impotent than usual as it decides how to respond to a mountain of initiatives. Time is not wasted when power can be fleeting.

But in this particular case and context there are big risks in moving at the speed of a train untroubled by snow. The Coalition acts in a hung Parliament. Attlee had a landslide in 1945. Thatcher had a respectable majority in 1979 and went on to secure two landslide victories subsequently. Her genius was to recognise when she had the space to move fast, but at first she was fairly pragmatic. Only when Labour split with the formation of the SDP did she speed up.

In hung parliaments governments tend to behave with the modesty appropriate for the circumstances of their election. Labour's minority governments in 1974 dumped some of their more radical ideas, to such an extent that Tony Benn accused its leaders of betrayal. The easily derided leaders were responding partly to electoral realities based on their failure to win a lasting overall majority. In contrast to battered humility the current administration acts as if pre-election policies had won it a landslide. As such we are living under a very British coup.

I wonder also whether the pace is good for the Coalition's own longevity. One minister involved in a radical reform tells me that he would have preferred pre-legislative scrutiny of his proposals in Parliament before hurtling forward towards implementation, but there was no time under the demands of shock and awe. In this administration speed matters, unless it is a controversially progressive proposal such as reducing the prison population, when safety takes the form of a consultative Green Paper.

A lot of the Government's policies involve letting go of levers in the unproven hope that others will pull them more effectively. "Power to the people" is a theme that is impossible to oppose in theory, but as the current weather conditions prove there is a limit to what individuals can do on their own and an awful lot a government could do if it chooses to. Without following the paralysing caution of New Labour, the semi-elected administration has cause to consider the virtues of The Trip over the frenetic impatience of unwatchable chat shows. Partly for its own sake it needs to slow down.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/steverichards14

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