"Does a tree falling in an empty forest make a noise?" That was one of the questions in the short description of a philosophy option back at university which – my mind being far too scientific to consider the laws of physics capable of being suspended – made my pen veer irreversibly towards a course in economics.
So we'll never know the answer, but what we do know is the noise created when a policy falls – as witnessed last Wednesday at PMQ's when David Cameron, wielding his axe in a samurai fashion, chopsockied the misunderstood forestry policy, grubbing the lot and bringing it crashing down upon the head of poor Caroline Spellman like a felled Scots Pine – without so much as a cautionary shout of "Timb-er!" let alone the usual health and safety regulatory risk assessments.
Yew turn if yew want to? As someone who wrote about the merits of denationalising the forestry estate – namely local control by those that care and love their forests rather than distant diktat by those who do it just as a job, though there's obviously overlap in those groups – it is to me a great shame that this poorly promoted idea has been cut down before any serious debate. (And by serious debate I mean debate by people who have read the proposals, at least in bullet point summary form).
The 25,000 acres flogged by the last Labour government – and the lands that will still be sold no doubt, though in lesser acreage and without such fanfare – benefit not from the protections set out in the plans, nor will there be community rights to buy. The transfer of our ancient woodlands to dedicated, passionate, local trusts, a return to the more historic local stewardship, is likewise off the cards.
Rather, the Forestry Commission will seek to cut its annual operating losses by following suggestions from the paper sector to pursue more commercial practice and plant more conifers instead of promoting the "public access" that it has no legal requirement to facilitate and some people wrongly seem to think it exists for – as if it's a kind of state owned forest theme park or activity centre. Unlike under the previous plans there will be no chance for local buy out, and so no return to more native planting or less intensive forestry (management of forestry is often over emphasised, they were "unmanaged" for centuries before man).
Likewise, the Forestry Commission will be both operator and regulator, again hardly ideal (remember banking?). But beyond this issue the saga shows something bigger than the untimely felling of a minor but misrepresented policy: the fact that the government is not – as we are so often told – all style and no substance, but rather all substance and no style!
Back when David Cameron was at best expected to be an "also ran" in the 2005 leadership election the myth that his team were good at PR was created from two things: he spoke without notes at Conference, and he recovered from a drugs allegation. In one of the rare occasions that my political predictions come true, I prophesied in an Upper Sixth politics class when the drugs story had first surfaced that it would win Cameron the leadership – a claim that left the room stunned – but it was true.
Many MPs were voting based on public opinion polls, and the driving force behind polls asking the voters which leader they preferred was simple name recognition – they preferred whoever they'd heard of – and this minor scandal made Cameron known universally. With the attention on him his natural ease was able to shine through, the contrast with the past suddenly vivid, and after the Frank Luntz experiment on Newsnight sealed the deal, he won.
The "scandal" was publicity, and as they say no publicity is bad publicity. However this meteoric and well handled rise created a troubling image of being a good PR team and the charge of "all style and no substance" was levied. To this there was an over-reaction: policy commission after policy commission churned out policy after policy, but the style – the message, the language, the presentation – was neglected.
After a few disastrous photo opportunities with huskies and bikes in the initial "detox" phase, thankfully abandoned, the message went blank whilst policies stacked up around CCHQ. Today we see the result of all substance and no style. For starters there's a coalition, largely because policies weren't properly presented or explained before and during the election. ("What are your policies?" people would ask. "Where to begin…").
The Coalition now has the same problem. Policy after policy finds opposition beyond that which would be expected normally due to the dire presentation – both in terms of highlighting the problem and explaining the solution – and policy after policy is scrapped as a result. Leasing out forests – surely an example that the government has too many policies – was bizarrely presented as a sell off or "privatisation", a word scoring very badly on polling. Removing ring fencing of school sports budgets was allowed to be seen as a cut – rather than as allowing schools to spend the money on more important things such as repairs or extra teachers if they want or need to – and ending "free books" was allowed to be shot down by the very multi-millionaire authors who benefit from the scheme financially!
At greatest risk of all is the "Big Society", which no one really understands at all despite being an unquestionably likable thing. Where is the message testing to see what terms or descriptions best explain these policies and achieve public support? It can't be happening.
In less than a year the Coalition has pushed forward more reforms in more areas than any government in the past has done in an entire term, perhaps ever, from health to education to local government. Yet all of this is at risk if the substance is rolled out without a little style. Unless people know the need for change, want change, and understand the policy, then someone else will steal the narrative. And if 500,000 people take umbrage over forestry reform I dread to think what will happen when health reform takes centre stage.