The Conservative manifesto - a somewhat slapdash exegesis
A couple of days ago Michael Howard laid out his party's masterplan for "The British Dream" (a particularly clunky appropriation of American political terminology).
In fairness, the Conservatives have had the decency to keep their propaganda short, so for once I've actually managed to read the whole thing (700kb pdf download from this link).
The design brief appears to have been, "imagine being hectored by an opinionated and somewhat old-fashioned middle-aged gent over a garden fence in Surbiton". Each policy synopsis begins with a key question setting up the Conservative Party's plans in a manner reminiscent of William Hague's infamous appeal to 'common sense'. These questions often hide ominous implications behind an innocently cartoonish scrawl - for instance, "What's wrong with a little discipline in schools?’, 'I mean, how hard is it to keep a hospital clean?' and 'Why ARE there so many darkies living on my road?' (last one may not be true).
The main thrust appears to be empowerment. The Tories aim to persuade voters that control has been lost in many areas of British life, and that they are the ones to restore it. "...a Conservative Government will tilt the balance of the justice system in favour of the victim... will restore control of our borders... will settle our relationship with the European Union by bringing powers back from Brussels to Britain." (page 3). In addition, "The British people should feel confident that they can get on with their lives while their Government concentrates on tackling the practical problems which matter to them.” (Page 2). This is as close as the document gets to political philosophy – a nominal commitment to small government while not ruling out splashing money on “practical problems”, presumably policing, national security and immigration.
Economic Policy (“My taxes keep going up, but what have we got to show for it?”), gets off to a pedestrian and unconvincing start – apparently Britain is in an advanced state of penury, and the only way to save it is via the perennial gambit of the opposition party: cutting back on 'waste'. Rather optimistically, savings here are predicted to be £12 billion pounds by 2007-8 (Page 3), so it will, of course, be possible to reduce borrowing and lower taxes while spending more on the NHS, the police, roads, defence, pensions and education. Hmmm. “Lower taxes promote enterprise and growth. But they also promote the right values…” (Page 3) A rather nasty euphemism, though later promises to half council tax bills for pensioners and increase pension payments seem rather more attractive. Business will be helped through an opt-out of the EU Social Chapter with its annoying commitment to worker rights).
Education (“What’s wrong with a little discipline in schools?”) It’s the Blimpish nature of those questions that get me – the sort of thing that could be snorted by an indignant major. In fact discipline plays little part in the manifesto beyond a promise to hand power of admissions and expulsion back to headmasters (basically a licence to bounce problem pupils around the area until they end up in a “special Turnaround School” (page 8). sounds like something out of The Invisibles). Schools are also offered more independence in spending their budget, as well as greater funding - £15billion in 2009-10 (see above for economic scepticism).
Interesting suggestions with regard to the scrapping of grade targets and publishing of marks alongside grades are watered down with the vague assurance to root out “political correctness” (page 9). *Sigh*. More promising is an increased commitment to vocational education. Oh and sport, which has of course been in decline over the last eight years especially in terms of Olympic performance (though interestingly, no mention of playing fields – wonder why?)
Health (“I mean, how hard is it to keep a hospital clean?” – Umm, pretty hard I reckon). Ah, once again a promise to reform through slashing bureaucratic waste. Aside from a dedication to increase funding (though not by much) little else here, save a promise to pay half the costs of those who choose to have operations carried out privately (a fairly old Tory idea) and an early mention for immigrants – who will be screened for diseases such as TB (it’ll be just like Godfather II).
Crime (“Put more police on the streets and they’ll catch more criminals it’s not rocket science, is it? [sic]). Ah, the Conservative Party - “Ensuring order is the first priority of government” (Page 15). It’s pretty much what might be expected of a Tory manifesto, though there is one surprise – “We will break the link between drugs and crime by massively expanding treatment programmes, including 25,000 residential rehab places (compared with fewer than 2,500 places today), and by giving all young users of hard drugs a straight choice – effective treatment or appearing in court.” (Page 16) Harshly put, but fairly progressive. Less sensible is the bizarre insistence, brought in a while ago, on a “Homeland Security Minister". What was that about cutting down on waste?
Borders and Immigration (“It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” Hmm… isn’t it though?) An overblown reaction to a ‘problem’ that exists only in the minds of leader writers for the Daily Mail.
Parliament (“Why can’t politicians be more accountable?”) Tackles the West Lothian Question head on, “Now that exclusively Scottish matters are decided by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, exclusively English matters should be decided in Westminster without the votes of MPs sitting for Scottish constituencies who are not accountable to English voters.” (Page 22). Also promises a harder attitude to those parties in Northern Ireland linked to paramilitary organisations. A rag-tag section this, also containing plans for Local Government (largely regarding traveller encampments and “less interference from central government”), increased road building and (*groan*) a swing back to rail privatisation (“We will bring stability to the rail network, avoiding further costly and inefficient re-organisation. Successful train operating companies will have their franchises extended…” Page 22). Oh, and the hunting ban would be overturned.
International Affairs (“Obviously the world is more dangerous and we’ve got to keep up our guard.”). Ooh goody, lots of war – a sure-fire vote-winner in the current climate. To be fair, the Conservatives offer better communication with the public over any future wars, but then look how Tony “Freedom of Information Act” Blair has handled things. My personal Occam’s Razor in these cases - don’t trust anyone who promises to boost spending on the army by nearly £3billion. Europe’s only manifesto mention (aside from the Social Chapter withdrawal and some mild comments on the Commons Agricultural Policy) comes here, a vague promise of ‘reform’, and commitment to EU enlargement.
And that, thankfully, is that. It’s unlikely that anyone will be swayed by reading this document, especially as much of it relies on ‘problems’ that are highly subjective in nature, and ‘solutions’ that are equally questionable. Nevertheless it does set the agenda for the next 23 days in Toryland, though the most shocking question it raises is whether such a document is really worth £2.50.