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I agree with the description but not the analysis
on 4 January 2015
Others have given quite a lot of detail of the content of this book and I don't intend to repeat what they have said. Suffice to say, I take no issue with the overall content in terms of what it describes. The direction of travel that government has taken over the last 30 years is convincing enough. The state has not been rolled back - there has been greater and greater centralisation of power, a kind of 'Marxism-Thatcherism'.
Having said that, I do find the reasons given for why we have reached this state of affairs as inadequate. It is too easy to blame the control freaks at the Treasury and power-hungry politicians. What this book does not address is the role the public has played in all this.
First of all, the question is begged as to why people like Blair and Brown feel that they had to steal Thatcher's clothes. The answer is obvious. A party committed to old-fashioned tax and spend had a snowball's chance in hell in getting elected. Jenkins of course knows and acknowledges this but does not seem to accord it the explanatory power it deserves. Thatcher's detractors note that she never obtained the majority of the popular vote. This is true but it misses the point. The public may not have been all that enthusiastic about Thatcher but they liked the alternatives on offer even less. To take the 1983 election as just one example: Labour stood on a distinctly radical platform, in total contrast to the SDP/Alliance and the Tories, and it was routed. The Falklands effect was and still is used to explain this away but the Falklands cannot account for Labour's defeats in 1987 and 1992 (incidentally, I voted Labour in 1992 and have done ever since).
Sure, the public say that they would be happy to pay higher taxes but look at what happened in 1992. People want better public services but not at the expense of paying for it out of higher direct taxes. There is no use in decrying this. The public are not convinced that the burden of higher public spending can be financed merely by soaking the rich or the one percent. It would have to come out the pockets of the moderately affluent majority. Whether they are right or not is beside the point. This is the sort of reality that politicians have to reckon with, if they want to be elected.
This to me is why Brown felt that he had to rely on private finance and indirect taxation to square the circle of keeping direct taxation down while financing improved public services. As it happened, this approach enjoyed a degree of success. When Labour left office in 2010, the British Social Attitudes Survey recorded the highest level of reported public satisfaction with the NHS in almost thirty years (70 per cent reported very or quite satisfied in 2010). Satisfaction has dropped off greatly since the coalition took power. So there are no differences between the political parties, right?
I do not disagree with Jenkins' analysis of the sort of control freakery that has overcome public services in the last decade or so, a trend that intensified under New Labour. I work in the public sector and experience it first hand. Leaders in the public sector are not leaders in the dignified, noble sense of this word - they are spineless, risk-averse functionaries who devise a whole plethora of policies designed to cover their backs against litigation lawyers and muck-raking journalists. But politicians alone cannot be blamed for this sorry state of affairs - unrealistic public expectations and the cynicism of journalists also need to be part of the explanation Again, Jenkins touches on this but does not give it the salience I think it deserves. The public admires people like Jeremy Paxman and John Humphries but they are part of the problem in that public sector bosses and politicians are terrified of doing the slightest thing wrong, lest they be crucified by the media. This to me encourages spin and evasion. I would however concede the cynicism of Blair and his cohort have had a corrosive effect on public confidence in the political process, something on which the media can feed. But the public itself should not be let off the hook.
So overall, while I agree with the description of what has happened in the last 30 years, I am less than happy with the explanation as to why we have got to where we are.