“A new dawn has broken, has it not?”
- Tony Blair, Royal Festival Hall, 2 May 1997
All governments – in order to win votes and hopefully more importantly because they do think their ideas are better - want to be new and different and better than anything that ever went before – but by the nature of democracy, they will (and must) lose at some point, and they will get things wrong.
There are, I think, a few reasons that Mike Smithson made his suggestion. One is that the massive over-hype of New Labour was followed by such suspicion and disappointment. Another is that as consumers in our private lives, we are becoming more and more used to speedy, effective results on pretty much anything we want. A third is that the Coalition was – is – a very different way of governing.
So why is everyone so down at the moment? Again, there are several reasons, but perhaps the two biggest ones are firstly that the Conservatives (and the Lib Dems but much less attention was paid to them) went in for a huge amount of gloom pre-election about the austerity that was to come without explaining why it would be worth it in the end. And secondly, that the government spends a lot of time saying very gloomy things, then does a very optimistic short burst, and then goes back to the gloom again.
We need to remember a few things. The Coalition had to be optimistic about what it could achieve – and had good reason to be. While it was forced onto the parties by the electoral maths, there are some enormous advantages to it. It was two parties, with a hefty majority, determined to address the underlying structural problems of the economy, and not waver (and they haven’t) from their plans. Despite that, they also had a bigger message than just the economy – there are substantial and essential reforms to government, governance, society and the state in that Agreement. It was hugely ambitious; they’ve passed much of the legislation; and they continue to work to implement it all properly (that is a separate issue to what I’m considering at the moment though).
As I wrote recently, a Coalition Agreement 2.0 is almost certainly not the answer; a renewed focus on what the original one was meant to achieve is far likelier to succeed. A review should focus on the spirit of the original, being honest about where they have fallen short, understanding why and why other areas are succeeding, and highlighting where there are substantive successes that have made a difference to citizens’ lives.
I am all for realism rather than over-promising and under-delivering. And I accept that governing is difficult – it takes time, energy, effort and will beyond what most of us will ever have to imagine to actually plan, pass and implement a change in policy. But the government has got to be consistent; it’s got to explain what it wants to do, why, and how; and – perhaps most importantly – it has got to start showing us why it’s worth it, and inspire us with a sense of optimism about our future rather than just endless gloom.
* With apologies to @AlbertoNardelli and Silvio Berlusconi for the title…