Political Commentary: Policies and speeches that vanish like the Chesh ire Cat

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE pollsters used to ask people what they had against the Liberal Party of Sir David Steel, the space most often filled in was: "No policies." This response was not just perverse but demonstrably wrong. The Liberals had policies coming out of their ears on every conceivable subject, though you had to buy up virtually the entire stock of the Liberal Bookshop to discover what they were. I have long ago relinquished the attempt to keep up with Liberal Democrat policies, but I am sure they are equally numerous.

This suggests that voters do not use "policy" or "policies" in the same way as politicians and journalists, to whom policies are detailed proposals which a party intends to implement in government. To the voters, a policy - the shift from plural to singular is significant - is a distinguishing characteristic which enables them to tell one party from another. There is the further, specialised use of "policymakers" by economic commentators to mean people at the Treasury and the Bank who fiddle with interest rates. This conceited usage, which implies that there is no other kind of policy except the financial, need not concern us here.

Detailed pre-election policies are not necessarily or even usually followed by good government. The administration of recent times which arrived best prepared for office was probably Sir Edward Heath's in 1970. After two years the government tanker had turned politically by 270 degrees. The Labour government of 1945 was more successful; though, when Emanuel Shinwell came to nationalise the mines, all he could find by way of guidance was a pamphlet by Jim Griffiths in Welsh. Harold Wilson made numerous speeches on policy in 1963-64. When the opportunity came to put them into practice, the projected aluminium smelters went the same way as two-tier interest rates (one for virtuous householders, the other for vicious financiers), all sucked into some political black hole by a succession of financial crises.

Mr Tony Blair has made more speeches than any leader since Wilson. He may even have made more than Wilson, though I have neither time nor inclination to count them. John Smith was reluctant to make speeches. Mr Neil Kinnock hated it. Or, rather, he liked public speaking but hated to have to write it all down beforehand - or have it all written down by someone else. In this respect he was like one Welshman in Aneurin Bevan but unlike another in Lord Jenkins. Mr Kinnock was niggardly even with his informal speeches.

Mr Blair is not like this. He makes speech after speech, all written down, circulated efficiently in advance. His industry and enthusiasm cannot be faulted. But, on a not particularly rigorous examination of his speeches, they tend to disappear, like the Cheshire Cat, leaving only a wide smile, or like a stream that rushes vigorously over the cliff rocks, only to trickle into the sands before reaching the sea.

For example, in his John Smith memorial lecture on 7 February - ostensibly a lecture rather than a speech, in which a certain clarity might reasonably have been expected - he talks about "the poll tax or the Child Support Agency or the quangos of each and every description that now run a large part of our public services: they are all imposts of central government". I think the word Mr Blair meant to use was "impositions" rather than "imposts", impost meaning a tax or duty. No matter. The point he is trying to make is that the poll tax and the CSA were creations of central government.

So they were. But it is absurd to compare the two. The poll tax was forced on a divided Conservative Party by a doubting cabinet (with Labour playing little part in the parliamentary fight). The CSA, by contrast, went through the House virtually on the nod, neither side foreseeing the dangers and injustices that were in store. Its procedures have now been modified, with what degree of success I do not know. Would Mr Blair have a decentralised body for the support of children, with the agency's present functions assumed by local authorities or regional boards? Or would he abolish it completely, transferring its powers to the courts which originally exercised them? Mr Blair does not tell us. He simply drags in the CSA as a discredited body - for which the Opposition bears almost as much responsibility as the Government.

When it comes to local government he wants "to enable local communities to decide more things for themselves" through councils. The councils' future "may not be as direct service providers in every area, but councillors have a crucial role in speaking up for the areas they represent and promoting the partnerships necessary to empower the community to realise its ambitions". This is mere wordzak, feel-good English, using contemporary hurrah-words such as "partnerships", "empower" and "community". And how is this imprecise though somehow desirable state of affairs to be attained? All I can find is that "crude rate-capping limits" should be removed; part of every council should be elected annually; and mayors should be elected for London and other large cities.

Mr Blair is careful to point out that this last proposal (originally Mr Michael Heseltine's) is not yet party policy. Why then bring it up at all? He can hardly, in justice, rebuke Ms Clare Short for suggesting an inquiry into the legalisation of cannabis, and Mr Ron Davies for questioning the position of the monarchy, when he himself indulges in the same activity. The difference is not so much that Mr Blair is leader and they are not, so giving him a licence to speculate which is denied to them (though that certainly comes into it). Rather it is that, while Mr Blair or anyone else can happily go on till the cows come home on local government and related matters, which are considered boring, no one must be allowed to breathe a word on subjects which are likely to arouse the unfriendly interest of the tabloid press.

The House of Lords comes somewhere between, on the boring side, local government and, on the interesting side, cannabis and the Queen. Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Tory chairman, has already had a go at linking the abolition of the legislative functions of hereditary peers (though not of the peers themselves) with a possible abolition of the monarchy. Oddly enough, Dr Mawhinney may be more right than he realises.

When the Labour backbencher Emrys Hughes introduced his Abolition of Titles Bill in 1967, the Queen improperly placed pressure on the Prime Minister to have it withdrawn. Wilson and his cabinet lackeys were only too willing to do Her Majesty's dirty work for her, but were compelled to retreat by the formidable combination of Lord Jenkins and R H S Crossman. The Bill fell, as Crossman had predicted it would. The Sovereign breathed again. Though she now has more things to worry her, poor old girl, she is probably equally concerned about Mr Blair's proposals today - and perhaps with greater reason.

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