One of the reasons I will always vote Conservative is because of their ideological belief in reducing the size of the state. The majority of ‘problems’, for which government seeks policy ’solutions’, are national in nature – schools, hospitals, immigration, housing – but local in their specifics. One council might have a housing shortage but plenty of excellent schools, another might have a deficit of overseas workers, another might have too many. It has never made much sense to me, therefore, to claim that central government should dictate as much policy as possible and grow continuously larger in its remit; something social democracy and all those on the Left inherently advocate.
Someone once said something along the lines of, to the right person, every problem presents an opportunity, or something like that. The point is, the recession has handed the Conservatives an initiative in the area of cuts. Hitherto, a whispered utterance of the word ‘cuts’ was akin to telling anecdotes about the success of the Poll Tax through a loudspeaker in Salford Working Men’s Club. The difference now is that, having had it rammed down their throats for over a year, the public are fully aware of what a recession means; it means cuts, in their shopping bill and petrol useage, but (surely, they might say) also in government. Nobody expects a £10bn schools building programme to be announced tomorrow. Indeed they would be deeply suspicious as to the source of the funds, because they have now realised those funds represent their money. It’s not hard to see why people are so angry given that they have finally realised that the ‘tax’ part of their payslip - a figure that has grown exponentially over the last twelve years – has a direct relationship with bankers’ pensions. And who controls that relationship? Government.
The Conservative argument about government, and in particular, David Cameron’s upgraded Conservatism 2.0, is analogous to arguments that have been taking place in journalism since the internet arrived and newspaper profits started to vanish. Many editors blamed and still blame the internet for taking their market share of advertising and propose all sorts of heavy-handed solutions. They claim that ‘proper journalism’ is different from blogging and get all teary-eyed about the inevitable death of print media. This is what I like to call the ‘either or’ argument and a version of it can also be found in Labour’s approach to government. A logical abstraction of it states that you throw away all your CDs when you’ve ripped them all onto your hard drive, burn all your encyclopaedia because you have the internet and never buy another newspaper when you’ve bought a Kindle. We all know this is not what happens. What actually happens is that you use whichever is most convenient or takes your fancy at one particular time. In other words, both.
I said a version of the either or argument can be found in our current government because it is not quite the same as the one you hear from old media types. Where they think it’s either the internet or newspapers, Labour simply believe central government should handle as much as possible; they don’t see an incoming threat. The similarity is that they both fail to see the great advantage of the post-bureaucratic/multi-platform age, which can be summed up in one word: specialisation. If you do something better than everyone else, it’s yours. But don’t start up in other areas where you are clearly deficient. Microsoft made this mistake with Live Search which everyone knew would be useless (its most searched-for term is ‘Google’) and Labour made this mistake with the NHS IT database. In this month’s Wired magazine, Google CEO Eric Schmidt makes the point when asked about Google falling behind Twitter in real-time search:
There’s some implications that this is a zero-sum game. Again, I just completely disagree. All of us benefit when Facebook or Twitter get more users, because it means people are spending more time online.
Precisely Eric, and it’s the same story for newspapers and government. Newspapers aren’t dying; circulation is actually rising. They have greater gravitas and authority than the blogosphere, which itself has the advantage of being more immediate, democratic and cheaper. Twitter spreads news faster than it can be uttered whereas print magazines allow for long, well thought-out and heavily researched in-depth journalism. Every platform has its ace to play. Things are ‘replaced’ very rarely.
David Cameron understands this, it seems. My example of the NHS IT database is deliberate, because it is on this issue that Cameron has shown his hand. As The Times’ Sam Coates reports,
“patients will be given the option of moving their medical notes to private companies after the Conservatives said that they would replace Labour’s “centrally determined and unresponsive national IT system”.
Note private companies plural, i.e. specialisation. Let’s chuck in choice, diversity and consumer power. Coates continues,
“This has raised issues of privacy and security, with MPs and health professionals warning it could hamper doctors’ ability [sic] to access medical records quickly in an emergency”.
I can’t see how a central database solves any of these problems. How many times have we heard about a Google or Microsoft employee leaving our data on a train? Yes I know those actually responsible are usually private subcontractors, but the point about incentives – the argument at the heart of privatisation – is still absolutely relevant. Google’s reputation would suffer immediate and extensive damage were it to make a privacy blunder on the same scale as losing 25 million people’s bank details (which was the government itself), whereas we still haven’t been given the chance to punish this government for a whole swathe of data catastrophes despite them happening several years ago. The incentive on private companies who are independent of government to ensure such a database ran smoothly would be enormous.
Fraser Nelson says this is all part of the Conservatives’ Californication. Here once more we find the idea of an inclusive, heterarchical and devolutionary Conservative relationship with technology.
Websites like www.theyworkforyou.com and www.upmystreet.com have been set up to help the public scrutinise their MPs and find out more about schools, crime, etc. These are independent, organic groups – all the government did was make information available in a way that is useable. So a public service isn’t something that’s necessarily provided by the government, it’s just one enabled by it. This distinction is crucial to the Tories – I’m told Steve Hilton is now striking out the word ‘provided’ when he sees it in speeches and documents and having it replaced with ‘enabled’. This is to be encouraged. All we need is for Lansley to think like this about the NHS.
The provided vs. enabled distinction is this column in a nutshell. Where the Tories have to be careful is in their salesmanship of this approach, because people are still suspicious of companies handling their data. I for one could really do without hearing any more about people’s privacy fears. It’s exactly that kind of nimbyish, ignorant, illogical, scaremongered, me-and-my-things, arms-round-packed-lunch don’t copy my homework bullshit based only on received opinion from the Daily Express that gives government’s like ours the mandate to spend £12.4bn on an IT database that will be four year’s late at best. Cameron knows this, but he cannot be seen to be in bed with Google, not least because of the marriage between one of his closest advisers and Google’s VP of global communications and public affairs. I emphasised the plurality of ‘private companies’ earlier for this reason and I remain confident that, while Labour and much of the press will seek to paint this as corporatism, the Tories of 2010 will be nothing of the sort. Nothing could be further from the ideology I outlined at the start and while they might not admit it too openly, it’s starting to sound to me like the Cameroons have some extremely sound ideological underpinnings. About bloody time.