Perspective Unlimited

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Post-Bureaucratic Age

When I first returned to London in late September for the new school term, the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown was still riding the crest of a wave of popular support. It was the so-called honeymoon period for the new office holder. Since then, he has become the subject of much political ridicule.

Brown's Troubles

First, Brown prepared for a surprise election to cash in on his popularity. Except that the surprise was how he “bottled it”, after it emerged that the Conservatives’ promise to cut inheritance tax made them popular with voters. The opposition leader David Cameron threw down the gauntlet and Brown blinked.

Second, there was the case of the government miscounting immigrants. What was more shocking was that it emerged that illegal immigrants were even contracted to work for the government security services such as the police. Brown’s car was in fact guarded by an illegal immigrant. Then came another shocking announcement that the personal data and bank account details of 25 million child support recipients were lost (including mine!). Last week, I received a letter from the British government to apologise. The letter said that they suspected, but could not confirm, that the data discs to be still within some government office. The government is now putting up a reward of 20,000 pounds for the missing discs, which in my opinion is ill-advised. Given how easily data can now be transferred, downloaded and uploaded, this reward simply creates for more temptation for mischief.

All these occurred while the economy was deteriorating, house prices falling, and the bailout of Northern Rock swelling with no resolution in sight. The bailout of Northern Rock is costing the British government almost 30 billion pounds (or 90 billion Singapore dollars). It is an astonishingly large number, which means that every man, woman and child in the UK has incurred a debt of 500 pounds to bail the bank. There is no guarantee that this loan to the bank will ever be repaid.

Finally, there was this political scandal where the Labour party and Labour ministers were found taking campaign contributions without properly declaring the source, thereby breaking the very laws they themselves wrote. Last week, the acting leader of the Liberals almost brought the roof of parliament down when he likened Gordon Brown to Mr Bean. According to the polls, Conservatives’ support rose to the highest level since Margaret Thatcher.

But do all these really constitute a sea change in British politics?

A New Philosophy?

The fact that the government is in a rut does not necessarily mean that the opposition is ready to govern, or that people would trust the opposition enough to vote for it. David Cameron has often been branded as a policy lightweight. However, Brown’s troubles have presented Cameron with an opportunity to shake off his timidity. In recent weeks, the Conservatives are announcing more policies, and a political and governing philosophy is gradually emerging.

Cameron calls it the Post-Bureaucratic Age (here, here and here). This is his indictment of the Labour government, "No longer committed to nationalisation of the economy, Labour instead devoted their energy to the nationalisation of our society. No social problem, no public service was considered immune to the magic touch of the master bureaucrats. Everything would be achieved through the benign intervention of a new army of technocrats, equipped with the latest in bureaucratic weaponry, initiatives, units, tsars, strategies, partnerships, pilot programmes, roll-outs, co-ordination and evaluation. At the head of this army of interventionism was the bureaucrat-in-chief, Gordon Brown."

My instinct is that Cameron is right. Blair, as the chief of New Labour, probably understands how the world, the economy and people's aspirations have changed while Brown doesn't.

The New Third Way

In style, what Cameron is now doing very much reminds people how Clinton and Blair wrapped themselves in the Third Way agenda to break out of the left vs right ideological logjam of that era. In short, David Cameron is styling himself to be Blair’s heir – constructing a political narrative to fundamentally change the relationship between the state and citizens. The government is essentially a network of bureaucracies, and bureaucracies do not improve people’s lives in the long run. While Brown wants more power to the state to help change your life, Cameron will cut back the state to let you change yours.

Though Cameron has yet to give enough policy substance to this ideology or done enough to convince the voters to trust him, I suggest that the political pendulum in Britain – after years of rising taxation and ever greater interference of government in daily lives – might just be ready for the turning. There is a good chance this chap Cameron will become the next British Prime Minister.

[This post was discussed with, and approved by Grace.]


  • This guy looks like an unluckier version of John Major.

    The housing bubble thing is probably not his fault or Blair's fault. It was quite widespread even in Ireland there was a messy bubble. The western govt probably don't have the experience to handle property bubbles which are rare in their countries compared with the PAP which tackles roughly one property bubble per 12 years ...we are in the midst of one right now and you can see how well the PAP handles it.

    So your "child support record" is lost? Gee, the British are just as bad as the japs who lost 50M pension records. Don't they know there is something known as "backup". You (a foreigner) are getting "child support" in England? Shame on you!

    After a while the British people sort of forget how bad the conservatives can get. ..although they just need to look to American to see what is happening there.

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 6:42 am  

  • Lucky,

    I receive child support because I am a taxpayer here too - national insurance and taxes are deducted from my teaching. And I pay VAT too. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how Singapore should not begrudge our PRs with the same benefits since they too contribute to Singapore. Many people disagree with me.

    Anyway, what happened was that some guy at the Treasury downloaded the data onto discs, to be sent to the National Audit office for auditing. But the discs never arrived. The fear now is that the data and bank details will fall into hands of criminals, for identity theft, fraud etc.

    I agree, the last Conservative govt was pretty bad. But that does not mean the Tories' ideology of smaller government is bad. I think it is a good thing when government recognises the limits of government. Will wait to see how Cameron articulates this vision.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 10:20 am  

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