I’ve always found this time of year faintly unsettling. These few days sandwiched between the huge anticipation of Christmas and the promise-filled New Year.
Through my career I have been lucky to have projects and work to occupy me at this time of year. To take my mind of that faint unease. This year, of course, it is all different. I have been thrown back onto my own resources and so I plan to spend my time in some contemplation.
I’m a keen student of history. So I have decided to alleviate my unease by doing a bit of a backwards look at the year just ending.
Looking back I would divide the year into PC and AC. (That’s pre-coalition and after coalition.) For the RPS family the election was pivotal.
Looking back now I seem like a different person. Preoccupied with the minutiae of a working life whose pattern now is broken. Its weft sheared in the smashing of the engines of public service to which I’d given almost all my adult life.
It’s hard now to put myself back into the mindset I had before May 2010. But today I’ll try.
At work we had been watching the policy platforms of all the parties as they were developed. Looking at the public finances it was obvious that a significant correction was going to be needed. Our planning reckoned on a budget reduction of over 25 per cent over the term of the next spending review.
Many of us got deeper into the policy workshops of the parties trying to understand what, beneath all the guff, they might do if they ended up holding office after the election. It’s always easiest with an incumbant administration. We’d had 13 years of Labour so their policy drift was pretty clear.
With the opposition parties it was slightly harder. One of the beauties of opposition is that you do not have to be too specific about anything. But we looked at some of the work of the various think-tanks aligned with each. Trying to read between the lines was hard though.
When the various manifestos were launched it didn’t get any easier.
The Conservatives issued an Invitation to join the government of Britain. It said,
What is that change? Some promise solutions from on high – but real change comes from collective endeavour. So we offer a new approach: a change not just from one set of politicians to another; from one set of policies to another. It is a change from one political philosophy to another. From the idea that the role of the state is to direct society and micro-manage public services, to the idea that the role of the state is to strengthen society and make public services serve the people who use them. In a simple phrase, the change we offer is from big government to Big Society.
To get a sense of what this meant you had to do something that is sometimes necessary in a gallery. Stand well back and try to see the thing as a whole. Even doing this it looked more like an abstract set of forms than a landscape.
No one I met who knew anything at all about public finance believed that it would be possible to eliminate the structural deficit in one Parliament using the weapons described in the Invitation. A bit of pay restraint, eliminating ‘waste’ and buying smarter would get you nowhere near the aspirations being set out.
Labour meanwhile promised A future fair for all with this clarion call,
The argument of this Manifesto is that to deliver a future fair for all we need to rebuild our economy, protect and reform our public services as we strengthen our society and renew our politics. We, Labour, are the people to carry out this next stage of national renewal because of our values and our understanding of the role of government: to stand by ordinary people so they can change their lives for the better. It is our belief that it is active, reforming government, not absent government, that helps make people powerful.
The Labour manifesto promised lots of ‘tough choices’ but was again woefully lacking in any detail. Again we knew that even on a shallower trajectory for cuts there would be pain ahead.
And, of course, given the closeness of the polling we took a keen interest in what the Lib Dems were saying. They promised Change that works for you – building a fairer Britain. Mr Clegg told us in the foreword to the manifesto,
Don’t settle for low politics and broken promises: be more demanding. Set your sights on the Britain you want for your children and your grandchildren, and use your vote to make it happen.
The manifesto later addressed how the deficit would be dealt with,
A Liberal Democrat government will be straight with people about the tough choices ahead. Not only must waste be eliminated, but we must also be bold about finding big areas of spending that can be cut completely. That way we can control borrowing, protect the services people rely on most and still find some money to invest in building a fair future for everyone.
Unfortunately, like the other manifestos, the Lib Dems failed to provide any detail about the ‘tough choices ahead.’ One of the only major areas of clarity in the Lib Dem manifesto was the one that encouraged my children to be activists.
We will scrap unfair university tuition fees so everyone has the chance to get a degree, regardless of their parents’ income. (Their emphasis)
The run up to the election, the campaign and the televised debates dominated the first half of my year. Writing this post has brought back vividly how all of this felt. The conversations with colleagues and management about the future. The passing back of vague reassurances about the future that you grasped as hard as you could because there was simply nothing else to cling to.
The all-pervasive dread that I think was common to public servants who could see the gap between the rhetoric and the reality.
We knew what was coming would be bad. We just didn’t know how bad.
Looking back at the PC time it seems now like the same strange half-life that each of us experiences every year between Christmas and new Year’s Day. An old year, an old life not yet done and a new year, a new life not yet begun.