Be careful what you wish for

by Mike Johnson [email protected]

Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

A coalition government is what the British people said they wanted and it’s what we got.

During one particularly acrimonious Question Time on BBC-TV before the last election, with rival politicians on the panel squabbling over who was to blame for the present financial crisis, a member of the audience asked, “Why can’t you get together to solve the problems? Why just keep blaming each other?”

That sentiment was echoed up and down the country in the weeks leading up to the election and it became obvious that the electorate was looking for something different.

We were fed up with the petty bickering and point-scoring. We wanted action – unified action – and that’s just what happened.

No single party was trusted with power and we finished up with a coalition of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats.

At first, one could actually sense a feeling of expectancy in the air. There hadn’t been a coalition government in Britain since the Second World War and most people wanted this one to work. In the beginning, the signs were good.

The two leaders, Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg seemed to genuinely like each other – a rarity in politics.

Both also seemed to have carried their respective parties with them as they were forced to re-define some of the principles on which they fought the election.

Soon, however, the first cracks appeared to emerge. The inexperience of the two leaders began to show and remember that most members of the cabinet had never held a government post before.

Being in opposition for 13 years was hardly the ideal preparation for running the country.

On a visit to India, Cameron answered a journalist’s question about neighbouring Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban.

He replied: “We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country (Pakistan) is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror.”

The backlash from Pakistan was entirely predictable. It was only the fact that it was in the interest of both countries to maintain good relations which prevented a major diplomatic rift.

Meanwhile, while Cameron was away, Nick Clegg stood in for him at the weekly Prime Minister’s Question Time in parliament.

Trying to demonstrate his party’s independence, despite being part of a coalition, he declared that he, personally, had always regarded the Iraq war as “illegal”.

Oh dear! He forgot that he was supposed to be speaking as Deputy Prime Minister and that the Conservative party had supported the war.

During the election campaign, David Cameron had made much of a phrase The Big Society, but what it meant, or stood for, few had any idea.

It has transpired that what he had in mind was a society where the government relinquished much of its control and handed more power to the people.

Against this, however, had to be placed the need to cut departmental budgets by an overall 40 per cent, due to the calamitous state of the economy – whoever’s fault that was.

One or two examples of this soon emerged – first in education. New Labour’s policy of creating ‘academies of excellence’, financed by the private sector, in areas where results were generally poor, had been a success.

The coalition announced it was to continue with the scheme but, instead of the state running the academies, control would be handed over to local parents.

They could create the kind of school they felt fitted the needs of the area, establish a curriculum and run it themselves. Some funding would continue to come from the private sector.

There was only one downside to this – plans to improve or re-build existing schools would be cut by 40 per cent, involving some 700 schools nationwide.

This means that some pupils will have to be taught in crumbling buildings or move to other sub-standard schools in the area, thereby placing them at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to deciding their future.

The next example of reducing state control came with the announcement of savings in the National Health Service of some 20 billion Pounds Sterling. These would not affect front-line staff – doctors, nurses etc – but could well result in a reduction of the quality of service to patients.

The plan is to cut bureaucracy and bodies such as Primary Care Trusts and, instead, hand control to GPs, who would decide on the specialist treatment patients required, instead of just diagnosing the illness. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that one.

Then came the coalition plans for tackling law and order issues. Here, they are planning to cut costs by encouraging local volunteers to take over some of the duties currently undertaken by the police and other public services.

Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) would be abolished and instead, volunteers would work with young offenders who commit street crime and their families, trying  to sort out the causes behind their behaviour. In theory, this would give the police more time to tackle serious crime.

Another concern of the coalition and the public is binge-drinking and its ensuing violence. When Labour introduced the so-called 24-hour drinking regime, it probably had in mind a ‘cafe society’, where people could enjoy a brandy with their morning coffee, or a glass of wine under a parasol in a shopping precinct.

Instead, bars and discos stay open all hours, spewing their drunken customers out on to the streets in the early hours of the morning, where they foul shop doorways and pavements and pick a fight with any innocent passer-by who happens to look in their direction.

There are plans now to review the licensing laws and give power to local councils, in consultation with residents, to decide the opening hours of any pub or disco.

There will also be legislation to prevent shops and supermarkets from selling alcoholic drinks at cost price or even less.

These are just some of the examples of how the coalition sees The Big Society looking after itself – but is that what we want?

I remember a respected Portuguese friend telling me soon after the 1974 revolution: “The Portuguese people don’t need democracy. What they need is a benevolent dictatorship.”

I’m not sure I would go that far, but I do know that, with the exception of those ‘control freaks’ amongst us, we like strong government.

Most of us have enough to do in our lives without running schools and hospitals. That’s the reason people go into politics – to run other people’s lives.

If they make a mess of it, and I fear Messrs Cameron and Clegg won’t be around for long, we can always vote in another lot.