Jack Perschke is the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Derby South. He is a former Captain in the army and spent three years as an aid worker after leaving the army. He now advises businesses and government departments on implementing complex and high value change programmes. You can read more about him and his campaign on his website.
On last Friday’s Today programme I listened to Lord Falconer describe his view of the significant ramifications of the Damians Green and McBride affairs. He suggested that the outcomes were helpful in that they had defined previously blurred lines and that this would allow future governments to better understand when the police should be called into a leak enquiry and how far special advisers can go. What he didn’t dwell upon is quite why this clarification has never been needed before.
If these rules were so unclear why was Damian Green the first opposition politician to be arrested for doing his job? If lines were as blurred as he might have us believe, why haven’t a multitude of Home Secretaries had political thorns in their side dragged away by police and threatened with life imprisonment? If, as he assures us, the role of special advisers needs so much clarification, why isn’t history littered with the use of government resources to create a campaign of hate and lies about the opposition and their families?
The answer, of course, is that previous governments haven’t needed rules to tell them what is right and wrong. Previous governments have understood right and wrong to be something that can never be fully codified. Our constitution, being unwritten, places extraordinary reliance upon holders of office to choose to do the right thing – to choose to avoid abuses of power. For about 400 years this has worked pretty well. But not any more.
This, of course, cuts to the heart of the failed New Labour promise. A government that came in offering hope and change and a new start that, in fact, has delivered targets, bureaucracy, empowerment of unelected bodies, authoritarianism and a deterioration of values. These things are of course interlinked and, to a degree, sequential. If deconstructed enough, they could be said to stem from one single unwritten, unspoken policy. Whoever they are, whatever they do, however much they want to help – don’t trust the people!
Doctors can’t be trusted to run hospitals, teachers can’t be trusted to teach children the right stuff, people can’t be trusted with their identity, councils can’t be trusted to provide services, businesses can’t be trusted to make money, none of us can be trusted to stay out of terrorism and there’s no way we can be trusted to elect the right people. In fact, the resignation of Damian McBride has probably cut the number of people that this government trusts by about 50%.
So if a lack trust is the problem, is more trust the solution? Yes.
The Conservative government of which I want to be a part will put delegating power at the heart of its activities. Let’s dare to imagine a future where councils can actually impact the quality of life in their local area and are, therefore, democratically worthwhile. Can we really be brave enough to have hospitals that are given money to make sick people better – not to hit centrally set targets? Let’s, for a second, enjoy the thought of a policeman who’s on the streets making it safer – not worrying about which form needs to be filled in next.
As utopian and revolutionary this may sound to a Labour centrist, I genuinely believe that the people of the United Kingdom can be trusted. I genuinely believe that there are smart, committed and honest people outside Westminster who will willingly do the right thing by those they serve if given the chance.
However, they can’t do it alone.
To make this delegation of power work, a future Conservative government must shake-off the mindset of the last decade and lead by example. On election (the ultimate display of trust from the people) they must show what life should look like when that trust is cherished. MPs have got to show that they will do the right thing when they’re entrusted with taxpayers' money, minsters have got to show that will take responsibility for the actions of their staff and the leader has to be willing to say, “sorry” when the inevitable cock-ups happen.
In the last 10 years, this government has failed to trust anyone to know the difference between right and wrong without the explicit guidance of rules. This has slowly been filtering up through the echelons of power reaching its crescendo last week as Jacqui Smith and Gordon Brown essentially admitted that even they cannot be trusted to do the right thing without clearer rules set by others. In the next ten years that process will need to be reversed. A Conservative government will need to lead from the front and allow a new culture of belief in our neighbours to develop.
Once that is done, we can then set about doing the more tangible stuff like ditching targets for hospitals, reducing the scope and complexity of our laws, giving councils more autonomy, thinning out the national curriculum and cutting much of the secrecy from government. You never know, if trusted, we may even find that values become important again and that as a nation we’re more responsible than we thought.