Politics is paralysed. I want to write about my schemes for the reform of welfare, or university funding, or healthcare, or prisons policy. But what would be the point? The Conservatives and Lib Dems can no longer agree on almost anything, the Conservatives aren't inclined to push the Lib Dems into openly disagreeing with them, and so policy cannot significantly change in any area now until we have another General Election.
There is an obvious upside to this: if nothing changes, then neither does the deficit reduction strategy. That's not to say that the strategy is perfect – spending cuts should have come sooner, VAT shouldn't have been raised, the NHS shouldn't have been ringfenced, etc. But a change to the deficit reduction strategy at this stage would very probably go in precisely the wrong direction – towards fewer and slower spending cuts and even more tax rises. Paralysis thus has its advantages.
If matters hadn't been quite like this, we would see one of the significant disadvantages of fixed term parliaments. If, say, the Conservatives were currently well ahead in the polls it would be daft to insist things had to carry on in coalition until 2015. There should be General Elections when no party has a majority but an election might deliver one, or when there is a major change in policy to be tested by an election. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the system before – the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 was nothing more than a cynical attempt to lock in the Coalition for five years to protect the Conservative leadership from being abandoned by the Lib Dems or replaced with a minority administration seeking a snap election.
We are where we are. Things aren't great but they aren't terrible either, and, absent of any good theory of how to make things better and facing massive economic and political uncertainty (especially from Europe), policymakers are terrified of fiddling for fear of making them much, much worse.
Things not being terrible may not seem like much of an achievement, but it's not to be under-rated. Britain has been in an almost-continuous party since the Jubilee – the same bunting is still up where I live. There is every chance that 2012 will go down in people's memories as a fantastic year. Things not being terrible on the economy has allowed that. The Jubilee, the European Championships, Wimbledon, the Olympics – we sat and watched them on our TVs or down the pub or checked out the BBC website at work – and we were able to share in these great social events, instead of thinking about riots or wars or vast marches by the unemployed or the shutting down of masses of companies.
Peace and order and the absence of unreasonable economic or political volatility provide a backdrop in which people can enjoy their everyday lives. Most of us interested in politics want there to be more than that – we want the encouragement of/stripping away of barriers to innovation, faster economic growth, the reform of public service provision, the development/healing of our constitution, intervention to oppose wickedness and oppression at home and abroad. We want action. We don’t feel we could meet up with our idealistic seventeen year old selves, be asked “What will I achieve?”, and reply “Stuff won’t get too much worse.”
But sometimes stuff not getting too much worse is a pretty decent effort, not to be sniffed at. This might be one of those times. I might think it unlikely, but it is just possible that the Government can get through to the next General Election and Britain has just kind of ticked over without much improvement or collapse, whilst in Greece and Portugal and France, and even perhaps the US and China, there has been mass unemployment, economic catastrophe, and deep political strife.
Pondering that scenario, political analysts might fear the Conservatives would struggle to say what had been achieved in office. But there might be the chance of saying: “What we achieved was what has not been achieved elsewhere and is no small thing: Things kept on much as before.” Perhaps a reckoning with our debts and the internal contradictions of our political order would yet await us, but provided that delaying had not made the final such reckoning worse, delay would be no small achievement. Delaying the inevitable is called “life”. More probably, delay would mean we would be better placed to meet the challenge.
Though dull, such a pitch – “At least with us things didn’t get worse” – would be quintessentially Conservative. Socrates understood the Oracle of Delphi as saying he was the wisest man because he alone, of all men, knew something: he knew that he was ignorant. Perhaps the Conservatives could add to their dull pitch with the argument: “We don’t have the answers, but neither do our opponents, who are ignorant enough to claim they do.”
Since I am an arrogant meddler, who believes I do know some of the answers, I am not recommending this path. But its power and appeal should not be underestimated. The dullest Prime Minister of the 20th century was surely Stanley Baldwin. A Punch cartoon celebrated his retirement with a picture of him in farmer’s garb as “The Worcestershire Lad”, John Bull commenting “Well done, Stanley. A good long day and a rare straight furrow.” If only David Cameron could hope for such praise.