It was with the three words "Education, education, education" that the architect of New Labour first defined his priorities in government. By the time Tony Blair left office, a jaded public was more likely to be heard muttering "Presentation, presentation, presentation". The lavish use of "spin" to control the message rebounded on the Labour government in a very big way, creating a climate of deep and corrosive distrust between power and people.
Thirteen years on, it is perhaps not surprising that a government headed by two men who have spent a part of their working lives in public relations so clearly appreciates the need to prepare the ground before elaborating unpopular measures. Nor is it surprising, with the example of New Labour so fresh, that the coalition is going about it in a very different way. As the Chancellor, George Osborne, set out his intentions yesterday, the idea is for a "collective discussion" involving as many sectors and individuals as possible, to meet what he described as the "great national challenge of our generation" – getting Britain to live within its means.
Now it may be that ministers, from the Prime Minister down, are painting the financial situation in more apocalyptic colours than strictly necessary in the hope that the emergency Budget will be received with sighs of relief. But we cannot, and should not, bank on that. The figures for the country's indebtedness speak for themselves. If, as David Cameron said earlier this week, Britain stands to be paying £70bn in debt interest within five years, that is, as he said, "a terrible, terrible waste of money" and a liability to be shrunk as swiftly and substantially as possible. To this end, the coalition's new and thoroughly welcome themes are transparency and participation. Winding up the debate on the Queen's Speech in the Commons, Mr Osborne introduced the criteria the Government would use for establishing value for money and set out a timetable for what is being described as "a period of external engagement between the Government and all parts of society", and that includes the general public.
It is easy to be cynical about such efforts. Experience of broad consultation exercises suggests that they can soon descend into futility at one end of the scale, or become fig-leaves for politicians to slough off responsibility for difficult decisions at the other. And those who forecast that the consultation process could cost more money than it saves may in the end be vindicated. But the Government's stated desire to open up the process and harness as wide a constituency as possible to an evolving austerity drive designed almost as a national crusade does not deserve a knee-jerk rejection.
The Government has done at least some of its homework, studying how other countries, such as Canada, managed to slash their debts. And its apparent determination to reassess the justification for all aspects of public spending, rather than identifying familiar targets or trimming across the board, is promising and something only a new government can do. It is hard to escape the impression that at least some parts of government spending have become ritualised and flabby. The question that has to be answered is which.
There are, of course, risks in this approach. One – already evident from internet chat-rooms – is popular suspicion that the Chancellor's only purpose is to spread the blame and pass the buck. Another is that the "national discussion" could turn divisive, as one group tries to save itself at the expense of others. We hope these risks can be avoided. For while it is true that taking difficult decisions is what we elect governments for, those decisions will be far more palatable if the rationale for them is clear and the widest possible range of views has been heard. This is why it is in everyone's interests that, at least for now, Mr Osborne's invitation should be accepted in good faith.