A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

A Government Over-Stretched; Are We Expecting Too Much?

In Home Affairs, Ideology on August 29, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Where exactly did Gordon Brown go wrong again?

That was one of the questions puzzling me for some time last week. He’s unpopular, led Labour to the worse poll rating in living history, and his name has become a byword for incompetence. Since the initial ‘honeymoon’ once Brown took over, Labour’s poll has been on a downward spiral (http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/polls.html), brief respites for the G20 meeting aside. Was it really because Brown didn’t call an election in October? That’s certainly when it started to plummet, but it seems a petty reason to hate a government so.

Gordon Brown is just one example of a fundamental problem with democratic governance

Although he certainly hasn’t been the amazing Prime Minister we were all expecting in 2007, he definitely hasn’t been as bad as many people have made him out to be. So, why the angst? The problem lies in our expectations of government, and a naive view of the opposition. Gordon Brown is just one example of a fundamental problem with democratic governance.

Firstly, every time we vote our government into power, we have surprisingly unrealistic expectations. Our belief is that they should fulfil ‘every promise’ they’ve made to get elected. Although one should stick to their word, can we honestly expect governments to ignore changing circumstances? Manifesto promises made before an election may be simply impractical to achieve once elected; nor can we blame political parties for doing so. Any competition that is essentially ‘who is the most popular’ will involve people promising things that, once put together, simply will not work. Cameron’s promise to increase funding for the NHS whilst cutting the deficit is just one example.

On the flip side of that, some people believe governments shouldn’t do anything they weren’t elected to do. One particular ire I have is with the idea that ‘we didn’t vote Labour to invade Iraq’. No, we didn’t, but we shouldn’t need to elect a new government every time a major decision needs to be made, nor could they ignore the (supposed) intelligence reports they were given. Whether the Iraq war was justified or not is irrelevant – the point is, governments sometimes need to act without a public mandate.

Secondly, the government is now for some reason meant to do everything. The directory of central government departments is a perfect example of this: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Dl1/Directories/A-ZOfCentralGovernment/index.htm. My favourite one is The ‘Zoos forum’, a government department dedicated to looking after and maintaining zoos. The public have now got it into their heads that if there’s a problem ‘we must get the government to change it!’ It’s no surprise there is a lack of individual initiative today – it is not the government’s role and duty to regulate and look after everything, nor are they necessarily the most efficient group to do so. Plenty can be achieved by local groups, individual action, and expert associations.

Thirdly, we seem to consider our elected leader as responsible and the overseer of all events that happen in Britain. I can’t help but sympathise with Brown at points – apparently, he’s meant to be the lead spokesman on pretty much everything. From foot and mouth to knife crime, and most bizarrely, on the Lockerbie bomber, Gordon Brown needs to have an opinion and plan of action for all. The Lockerbie bomber case is bizzare when you consider that this is a matter for the Scottish Government, not the British one – any direct comment would be in direct contrast to the devolved powers we’ve given them.

This coincides with the rise of Presidentialism we’ve seen in the UK. Theoretically, every minister in our cabinet government is the overseer of that particular area – for Defence matters, we turn to the Minister of Defence etc. Now, the Prime Minister is the one-stop guru of government matters. Originally, the Prime Minister was the overseer of the other ministers, and a real ‘first amongst equals’ – when did we allow him to become the face of the government? The PM is not qualified to answer all matters on government. He is, after all,  just one man (or woman).

Of course, this problem isn’t restricted to the UK – the US has a much worse case. Originally the President was voted in just to sign legislation (veto if necessary) and raise an army in defence when needed – now Obama is the fixer of the economy, master of healthcare and diplomat to the Middle East rolled into one. Here’s all hoping that we can achieve all the things he set out to do, but realistically, he won’t; he’s set himself up to become the most unpopular President in history, as expectation fades into disappointment, and four years passes in the blink of an eye.

There are a lot more issues I’m bringing up here than I probably have the time, or expertise, to sift through, but the general idea is this. As democracy progresses, we’re going to find parties and politicians giving more and more incredulous promises e.g. George Bush “We will…defeat evil”. What we need to change is out attitude towards governments, which are not all round ‘fix-it’ shops, but should focus on the most important issues – Defence, Education, Health to name but a few. Brown’s not going to save the world, nor should he have to; he should just be getting on with what’s important, like the economy, not bombers on death’s doorstep.

Advertisements
  1. “Firstly, every time we vote our government into power, we have surprisingly unrealistic expectations. Our belief is that they should fulfil ‘every promise’ they’ve made to get elected. Although one should stick to their word, can we honestly expect governments to ignore changing circumstances? Manifesto promises made before an election may be simply impractical to achieve once elected; nor can we blame political parties for doing so. Any competition that is essentially ‘who is the most popular’ will involve people promising things that, once put together, simply will not work. Cameron’s promise to increase funding for the NHS whilst cutting the deficit is just one example.”

    In this paragraph (correct me if i’m wrong) you seem to be conflating two issues. (1) should governments be blamed from deviating from their manifesto commitments because of substantial changed in circumstances? (eg if a recession necessitates a change in economic policy.) (2) should governments be blamed for deviating from their manifesto commitments simply because they change their mind – or even worse, having never intended to stick to them? (as perhaps with cameron and nhs). i think the second is much worse than the first, as it shows that politicians are treating the people as ideally passive, easily deceivable agents whose only function is to vote for them. also a government could commit the first offence without actually breaking the spirit of their manifesto (eg if keynesian policies were promised, it’s ok to embark on a programme of fiscal stimulus).

    “Whether the Iraq war was justified or not is irrelevant – the point is, governments sometimes need to act without a public mandate.”

    i think there are legitimate concerns about the prerogative powers of government – i might talk about this if i write a post on democratic republicanism. am reading “building a citizen society” edited by stuart white on this very topic, really recommend it.

    • On the first paragraph, point taken. I definitely agree, politicians that actively seek to deceive the public is bad, but change in policy due to circumstance is generally understandable.

      And on your second points, yes, there definitely are concerns, and there needs to be a debate on the subject.

      And I believe I forgot to add something to my blog entry – the opposition, which I did start to mention at some point. One reason for particuarly low poll ratings is the public using polls as a means of showing disapproval for the government as opposed to support for the opposition. Once the elections roll around, expect to see Labour poll ratings fight back towards the tory lead.

  2. “There needs to be a debate on the subject.” — you sound like a professional politician already!

    For the opposition you could always do a sequel! And re: Labour’s poll ratings I certainly hope so — I don’t want a Tory landslide. Though making the party likeable again might take some doing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: