James Roberts is Political Director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Our de facto prime minister, Michael Gove, has been a busy man. On Tuesday, he was in the Commons explaining Mark Sedwill’s sudden departure. At the weekend, he delivered a much-vaunted address to the prestigious Ditchley Foundation, joining a long line of luminaries: Mark Carney, David Milliband, John Major, Chris Patten, to name but a few.
Sparing the blushes of the distinguished Ditchley crowd, Gove didn’t mention Brexit much. But what he did deliver was a rare tour de force about the challenges facing Western governments, delivered with daring incisiveness by the Government’s ‘Hand of the King’. If the ever-authoritative media talking heads (and rapidly-departing civil service barons) want to know what ‘hard rain’ that nasty Dominic Cummings has in store for them, Gove’s lecture was a good place to start.
He didn’t pull his punches. For the ‘Forgotten Man’, faith in the system has been broken, “compounded by cultural condescension and insulation from accountability”, with the policy-making elites in political parties and the civil servants in the dock.
Reasonable demands, or taxpayers’ money to be well spent on accessible public services that actually work have been ignored. The top tiers of mandarin management are stuffed with like-minded PPE-ists, dripping in self-reinforcing groupthink, preaching every form of diversity going – except diversity of thought.
Gove described with brutal accuracy the tendency to coalesce around a cosy Westminster consensus, perpetuated by media commentary and pressure group plaudits, with almost non-existent evaluation of real world delivery. But the government eco-system is dying – its credibility eroded away by constant deforestation to feed an insatiable 24 hour media cycle, the whims of easy-choices-only politicians and the childish tantrums of the Twitterati. The spirit of intellectual challenge has been driven out of the forest, with generic generalists climbing high and genuine innovators buried in the undergrowth.
He’s bang on. As Matt Ridley identified back in 2013, policy-making has long been broken: sometimes little more than a string of special interest spending demands; elaborated on by so-called experts; written into submissions by pedantic pen-pushers; approved by malleable ministers; and made into law by preoccupied politicians.
‘Doing something’ is the name of the game. If social media demands it, laws can be changed. If the media suggests it, money can be found. The Forgotten Man – that is, the taxpayers who pay for all this – be damned. Their preferences are secondary or even, as Gove suggests, absent entirely. A quick reference to ‘taxpayers’ money’ seems often enough to settle the consciences of Tory ministers, as they implement evermore expensive government intervention, because a hashtag told them to.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance knows calling this out doesn’t win you many friends: you can count on one hand the number of policy-makers willing to go against the grain. At DEFRA, lest we forget, Michael Gove was quick to join the chorus of environmentalist big spenders, navigating Theresa May towards a non-negotiable £1 trillion net zero commitment (which by our reckoning no government department has any idea of how to achieve). But then, there’s no zealot like a convert.
But a form of zealotry is exactly what government reform needs. The so-called ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service has broken down by the roadside. On that front, Gove wasn’t short on bold solutions. As our landmark polling last year with ConservativeHome’s columnist, James Frayne, showed, more than six in 10 working class taxpayers agree with the suggestion that we should move more central government offices and jobs outside of London.
Almost three quarters of them believe that all civil service jobs should be open to applicants without a degree, perhaps hoping to break the hold of the hapless humanities graduates. A hard-nosed look at value for money is vital, too.
Gove namechecked numerous programmes, including his old chum David Cameron’s £1 billion National Citizenship Service, which could benefit from a proper quantitative analysis of success and failure. There should be nothing noteworthy about a politician taking aim at programmes, like the £920 million Troubled Families scheme or (Gove’s own) Pupil Premium, and asking if these really delivered for taxpayers. But in the punch-and-judy pantomime of the current political debate, this feels revolutionary.
The same can be said of some of his other policy proposals. In a speech so wide ranging it would usually have a Prime Minister worried, Gove called for planning reform to fast track beautiful development, better use of data in the NHS, transparency on court and school results, reviews for failed anti-radicalisation programmes, interrogating defence procurement contracts and accountability on the impact of aid spending. Many of these things should be music to taxpayers’ ears.
But the implications of all this are far from clear. As the punters know, policy outcomes matter more than policy processes. Reviews often come to nothing. Promises aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The devil’s in the detail. What does Gove actually want to achieve?
Does turning to more data in the NHS mean only allowing for government-made track and trace apps, which inevitably fail? Does it follow that reviewing a failed social programme results in it actually being abolished, and taxpayers getting their money back? Does accountability for aid spending mean cutting back the £15.2 billion cashpoint in the sky, or simply swapping money between dodgy dictators and wasteful NGOs?
he voters we polled wanted foreign aid reduced and reallocated to other priority areas such as the police, the NHS and schools. Very few people care how the sausage is made – they just want aid cut. But that’s an uncomfortable view in SW1, and incidentally not one that Michael Gove shares. It’s the same with the majority (68 per cent of C2DE voters) who backed abolishing the BBC licence fee. When he becomes inconvenient, or wants things that really upset the Westminster village applecart, the Forgotten Man is once again forgotten. Politicians just come up with better ways of ignoring him – the endless reviews and the broken promises.
In that sense, Gove’s speech could easily have been given by a much more fitting figure for the Ditchley Foundation: Tony Blair. Like Gove, he reached for the model of America’s big spending New Deal, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New Labour offered innovation, clever solutions and new public service delivery models, with a pledge and a commission for every occasion. Gove and his Cameronite contemporaries looked on in awe, while most Conservative voters were horrified at the economic paternalism, metropolitan condescension and fiscal vandalism of the Blair years.
Many still believed that reams of government data and endless initiatives can never outgun the free and rational choices of millions of individuals. Their ears still rung with the mocking rebuke of Ronald Reagan: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Endless cash flow means that civil servants, not taxpayers, still made the rules. The TaxPayers’ Alliance itself was founded to take a stand.
Blair paid the price for ignoring his own voters, and taxpayers got sick of the Westminster consensus he created – ‘expert’ policy tsars, expensive PFI, and constant right-on crusades – arguably leading up to the EU referendim result in 2016. For a man so intimately involved in that campaign, Michael Gove may sadly be in danger of starting off down the same path. Replacing Oxford-educated experts with world-beating data whizz kids, or swapping a programme here with a review over there, won’t change the Blairite policy-making consensus – unless there is fundamental change of political intention at the top.
Britain’s forgotten taxpayers need Michael Gove’s intentions to be as bold as his analysis.