Nick Clegg is our Buzz Lightyear
The government’s belief that volunteers can sort out society’s problems is nothing short of fantasy.
Watching Toy Story 3 last weekend, I found my mind wandering again and again to the government. As with the Toy Story films, the special effects - Nick Clegg performs a startling U-turn, Buzz Lightyear makes a fantastic leap - are so gripping that the storyline is of secondary importance. But it's becoming clearer that the Clegg and Cameron doll-like duo are starring in a fantasy of their own.
Before parliament rose for the summer, departments rushed out a series of fantasy policies, from a pointless police reorganisation to a welfare reform plan that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions left uncosted because he knows the government will not fund it. Yet this is the department that the Chancellor is hoping will find the highest savings by autumn. To infinity and beyond!
Gavin Poole, executive director of the think tank the Centre for Social Justice (set up by Iain Duncan Smith), warned about "salami-slicing" without bothering to calculate the social and financial benefits of policies: "What we won't see is an overarching, rational approach that looks at what works in achieving the government's core objectives. Why? Because so far there has been no clear statement about what the government is trying to achieve." Exactly. There is no strategy. There is no script, just some characters making it up as they go along, and a crazed director yelling: "CUUUUT!"
Looking after number one
The idea is that the "big society" will be organised by volunteers, who will join the police and run the local planning system, village by village. I know these volunteers; they run everything in villages in England already. They are retired, well-intentioned, conservative and church-going. They don't generally welcome other people's involvement. And they are deeply hostile to change - they always vote against new housing, for instance, in the name of protecting the countryside for the next generation (what they are actually doing, wilfully or not, is protecting property prices for their children's inheritance).
As primary schools, pubs and post offices close around them, they campaign for public subsidies to keep them open while continuing to block out of the housing market the young families that would save their communities. Not so communitarian, then. In one village I know, the local activists spent the village funding on a tennis court instead of a children's playground - and then charged club membership fees for it. In the overpriced area where I live, the local authority housebuilding plan was abandoned late last month, pending clarification, said the council, of the government's "localism agenda". Thousands of new homes ordered by the last government bit the dust.
Instead we shall have "collaborative democracy", in which villages and neighbourhoods develop their own plans. Every resident will be approached to take part in producing local plans. It's all very well to promise that everyone will be consulted, with "the full involvement of democraticrepresentatives at all levels" - parish and town councils, ward councillors, accountable residents' associations and other elected representatives; in many areas you will find that these are all exactly the same people.
The government plans to enable them to "develop their vision for their community on a well-informed basis (this will need to include analysis by the council of the likely need for housing and for affordable housing for local people in each neighbourhood . . .)". My village tried that before. All residents were consulted over which of three proposed areas for affordable housing would be best, A, B or C - all of them rather beautiful sites. What happened was that around 90 per cent of respondents invented a fourth category, D, and replied: none of them. So much for collaborative democracy. Each village will consult and then decide that affordable housing should go elsewhere. Fantasies do not necessarily have happy endings.
In the end, the planning role will go back to the local authority. The Conservative proposals envisage a residual role for the planning authority "in helping neighbourhoods to develop their visions and in brokering a rational and coherent plan for the area as a whole . . ." In other words, ordering people to accept new housing.
Meanwhile, the education revolution turns out to be a dreamworld, the "700" free schools dwindling to 62, and the "1,114" new academies to just 153. Nobody who knows anything about the NHS thinks the reform plan will happen in two years. The impossible "40 per cent cuts" even come replete with their own fantasy villain, Danny Alexander, quite as ridiculous an antagonist as Lotso in Toy Story 3 - the fat pink teddy with a sweet strawberry scent.
This man has been an MP for all of five years, before which he was a career press officer - to the Cairngorms National Park; to the ineffectual Britain in Europe organisation, which campaigned for entry to the euro and then for a "Yes" vote in a referendum on the European constitution that never happened; and to the Liberal Democrats. Now, he's a Treasury minister in a fiercely Eurosceptic Conservative government, charged with cutting up to 40 per cent from departmental budgets. It's too silly. Only a wild screenwriter would give nice Danny all the tough lines.
Even the polls are fantastical: Labour and the Conservatives are within a few points of each other and Labour doesn't yet have a leader; while the Liberal Democrats, according to the latest YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, have sunk to 12 per cent. Clegg should learn a little from Buzz Lightyear, the toy that has always struggled with his identity. In Toy Story 3, Buzz forgets his past, joins a rival gang, turns on his friends, and then spends much of the rest of the film as a romantic poseur spouting Spanish drivel.
Tags: Nick Clegg