7 December 2009

Minority government in poetry & prose...

Minimum alcohol pricing, installing legal presumptions against short term prison sentences, replacing property taxation with local taxation based on income. Not perhaps the stuff which turns society on its head. Within the structure of devolution, within the Hegelian constraints of the Scotland Act, however, these are substantive changes. Yet most, if not all, of these policies will founder and fail for want of parliamentary support. A failure of governmental advocacy? Parliamentary intransigence and petty politicking? Principled objections simply pursued?

Part of the whole justification for proportional representation is that it prevents the inflated majorities boasted by Westminster and the unilateral and unerring imposition of the minority’s preferences which duly follow. Civil society and pre-existing institutional and organisational arrangements in our diffuse state weigh heavily on the possibilities for change. The force of inertia can be profound and determining. Radical shifts may be easy to narrate, but difficult briskly – or even slowly – to bring into effect across complex bureaucracies of the welfare state. This difficulty constrains those with thumping parliamentary majorities. What does it do to minority administrations whose capacity to bring about legislative changes is limited? Our answer to this question will depend very much on how keen we are on naval metaphors, and the idea of flagship policies. From one perspective, focus on particular measures is a way for the press to be lazy, for the ascendancy of the political gossip society and neglecting the dry, technocratic achievements that are the simple stuff of managerial government. Speeding up the rates at which government deliberates upon and reaches planning decisions, changing our legal definitions better to align them to our contemporary understanding of the world and what work our courts should undertake, etcetera, etcetera.

One of the appeals of an SNP government in 2007 – or not a Labour government, at any rate – was its language of insurgency, an eruption of the periphery against the stolid centre, promising alternative approaches. Something, dare I say, even revolutionary in tone. Part of the reason why incarnation following poetic possibilities of this sort invariably disappoints the public is the technocratic considerations animating government policy - and the ennui that consumes most citizens and their media newsgrubbers when a detailed survey of the activities of the servitor state is attempted. The familiar epigram capturing this divergence is that you campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. The patron saint of this discrepancy in our own time will inevitably by Barack Obama whose salutary fate as a saintly victim will be to disappoint the whole world. While the Maximum Eck may not be carrying the same weight on his shoulders, the SNP government is I think caught in the same trough, between poetry and prose. Understandably perhaps, a new government, uncertain (however stylishly uncertain) on their feet will attempt to reach accommodations with and incorporation of existing structures of power in civil society. While it is by no means fair to regard all of those structures as inherently reactionary, people who have much invested in their own way of doing things and their good conscience about their work can be tricky to convince about the virtues of radical change – and the chastening critique of their current activities implicitly alleged.

In that context, turn your mind back to a parliament of minorities, where the opposition have little to do but bash the government. Typically, any weapon will do. Thus, one month you’ll accuse ministers of cosying up to business figures in a blameworthy way. The next you’ll seize on a critical quote from those same entrepreneurial moneygrubbers to criticise government for failing business. Although this might look contradictory, its familiar oppositional stuff. Trading quotes from civil society organisations has become a staple of our parliamentary debates. “I’ll see your CBI and raise you a Royal College of Physicians”. Not that this is inherently objectionable. Rather my point is that, in a parliament divided into multiple minorities, its always possible to cluster around a civil government dissenter. Tentatively, I’d suggest that it is more likely in a parliament without majorities that at least one or more of the parties in opposition will heed a particular lobbying section and dissent.

Indeed, people who seem to be intimately involved in a particular area of policy will disagree with some new expedient designed to address a particular problem or inefficiency in our system. The reasoning runs, who to know better about these things than the people involved? Up to a point, maybe. Yet these lobbiers with grand titles and learned membership certainly have their own agendas. Bored oppositions represent tantalising, low hanging prospects for these organisations. Sometimes, this is just as it should be. Outré government impositions are not what are wanted. Equally, however, if radical changes are needed, what logic is there in sitting in the familiar, clapped-out ‘stakeholder’ room, leaving the balance of decisions as they are? Surely only a delusional soul would imagine that same-old, same-old can realise changes when, given a long roll of opportunities in the past, have singularly failed to do so. Out with the old, in with the old isn’t a poetic mantra to beguile the electorate. Its also not a plausible account of how reverses in public policy and victory in determining debates is likely to be achieved.

If all parties agree on a particular end – grand. Consensus, jolly beast she is, waddles by unremarked. Yet, if the parliament is minded to be divided, in these circumstances, intransigent members of civil society represent a real problem. Minorities’ use of those members’ views for political cover can become endemic. In the absence of parliamentary majorities, radical suggestions can find themselves fenced in, staked within the pre-existing constraints. The poetry that brought about our minority government finds itself snared precisely by this problem. This is no longer simply governing in prose – but governing using the same old lines, the tired vocabulary and strained metaphors.

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