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Sharing the burden
Written by Alex Massie
15 October 2020
Good politics and fine policy do not always go together, and for good reason. Politics is often a matter of short-term advantage; a series of improvisations motivated by not much more than expediency. Policy runs on a different timescale and a different track; seeds planted today cannot be expected to flourish by Christmas. Politics is often about the here and now; policy should be about tomorrow.
The tension between these imperatives is obvious and managing it is an art, for political leadership is in large part the art of reconciling them. As this emergency has dragged on – we are now in its eighth month – from time to time talk of a “government of national unity” has surfaced. Such a thing is always a matter of wishful thinking and usually a mistake, too. There is both a role and a need for opposition, precisely because of the urgency of the moment. Like the media, opposition parties must challenge the government. Policy must be scrutinised and tested on the understanding that no single party has a monopoly on wisdom at the present moment, and the government’s handling of the crisis – at Westminster and Holyrood alike – would benefit from sympathetic, but robust, criticism.
Notwithstanding that, however, the government’s responsibilities extend rather further than customary matters of narrow or partisan political advantage. Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon must each take the public with them. Public confidence is the single most precious commodity in Britain right now and if Sturgeon inspires greater confidence than Johnson, I suspect she is keenly aware how fragile – and consequently how precious – that confidence really is. It can melt more quickly than you might think. The first test for any initiative just now is a simple one: will the public wear it?
If the answer is “no” or even “probably not” then it is a doomed policy. The public can discern the difference between considered and unconsidered policy. They will, for the most part, adhere to the spirit of the latest Covid restrictions while reserving the right to make modest exceptions as and where their own lives require it. But that obedience only lasts for as long as the public has confidence in both the government and, crucially, their fellow citizens. If some people flagrantly disregard the regulations, then so will others. Pretty quickly discipline will break down and everything will fall apart; a rabble, not a society.
Hence the public must be persuaded that the rules governing their lives are not only fair and proportionate but that other people think that too. For if other people are living to the spirit of the restrictions, then the chances are you will too.
In such circumstances, cross-party initiatives – of which the public, it might be noted, typically approves even in normal times – are more valuable than ever. Happily, this would be good politics as well as good policy right now. Inviting opposition parties and the leaders of interested bodies such as the CBI and the TUC into the government tent is not just smart politics, it is also good policy.
In truth, this should have happened in March or April but, even now, it may not be too late for the prime minister and – to a certain extent – the first minister to pivot towards a new, more inclusive, approach. Asking opposition leaders for their input is both a means of tying them to the government and a way by which other voices – always needed, but rarely more so than in a crisis – may be heard.
Thus, it would have been sensible for the prime minister to have established an advisory council comprising the leaders of opposition parties as well as, importantly, the first ministers of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to consider both policy and the means by which it could be implemented. Such an approach might have allowed for greater consistency in communication and, at the very least, a better and shared understanding of alternative perspectives. It would have been a sign of political maturity and strength, not of weakness. A problem shared may not be a problem halved but allowing other parties to own a share of the problem is smarter than not doing so.
Of course, our respective governments have been talking to one another during this crisis and the bigger picture actually reveals a still striking level of agreement between them. Most differences have been of emphasis or merely relatively minor variations in policy. Despite that, dissatisfaction with the UK government vastly outweighs dissatisfaction with the Scottish government. That reflects the SNP’s grip on Scottish politics and Nicola Sturgeon’s undoubted communications skills; it certainly does not reflect policy outcomes.
But it does also highlight the British government’s lack of political wisdom. A ‘four nations’ approach reflects the reality of today’s United Kingdom, but a wiser, more generous, Westminster administration would have recognised that inviting the leaders of the devolved parliaments into the policy making process – and being seen to do so publicly – would have helped increase public confidence.
As it is, Johnson’s government is on its own. That has certain implications, few of which are cheerful. All governments have struggled with their response to this pandemic, but some have struggled more than others. This is not a British government over-weighted with heavy hitters; it could do with all the outside help it can get. Instead, it has squandered the opportunity to find that help and, as I say, this may be bad policy, but it is even worse politics.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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