Politics, unlike commentary, is the art of the possible. It is about getting things done and surviving in the process. One means of survival, however, is to try to do as little as possible, and we have had a very graphic example of that recently. The Labour government led by Gordon Brown can be rightly condemned for an almost pathological inwardness that meant that the continued maintenance of the leader was all that mattered. Policies were always made for the short-term and actions were always determined by tactics and never strategy.
In comparison the coalition led by David Cameron is a revelation. It gives every impression of being a government that is actually trying to get things done. Clearly, not everything, or perhaps even anything, the government is doing is perfect and beyond criticism. Yet it does appear to have some clear idea of how it wishes to govern. I wish to point to three breaks from the recent past.
First, there appears to be a genuine attempt to decentralise. The Prime Minister does not wish to be involved in all decisions and departments are allowed to think for themselves rather than being dictated to by the Treasury. The result is the first signs of clear thinking on issues like education and welfare reform. The policies that are being developed may have their faults and they may not go far enough. But as we saw with the Thatcher governments, reform has to be done incrementally. So we need these first steps before we can start running.
Second, the government is not trying to be monolithic and present a corporate view. In other words, as we saw with Vince Cable’s pronouncements at the Liberal Democrat conference last month, dissent is to be allowed and debate encouraged. Clearly there are limits to this, but we do seem to have a government that is genuinely diverse and so more likely to be representative of the country as a whole.
Third, the government is already showing signs that it is not being burdened by short-term decisions but is actually going for the radical option. The key example again here is welfare reform, where there seems to be a genuine attempt to overhaul a corrupt and corrupting system. Moreover, the coalition seems to have clear principles that underpin these reforms and have some idea of how they might be implemented.
Of course, these reforms might stall and the government might not achieve all that it sets out to do. But what we have seen over the last six months is government by grown ups – which is really quite interesting now that the kids have just taken over the Labour Party.