Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Poll Tax, or Iraq?

The Poll tax, it helped to bring down Margaret Thatcher and was widely seen as totemic of the political catastrophe which can result from pushing a deeply unpopular policy too far. Little wonder that Ed Miliband has chosen to employ it to strike a contrast between the Health and Social Care Bill and the closing years of the last Tory Government. With division over Europe and economic woes at home, it must be sorely tempting to invoke the images which drove voters to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the 90s. But as tempting as that is, there just might be a parallel closer at hand.

When we look back at the 2003 Iraq war there are many features which stand out. At the time many experts outside the government were very clear in their view that the invasion would be illegal under international law.The Government in turn refuted this, turning to their chief lawyer to deploy an elegant but flimsy justification. The public were resolute in their opposition, with polls and protests gracing papers and television screens for all to see, and for years-- indeed even to the present day-- many have never forgiven the man in charge for his role in the debacle.

The public hated the Iraq war, not simply because they disagreed with it, but because the majority were clearly against it, they were ignored, and when they were acknowledged, it was to be told that "While I understand why other people might take a different view, I think if they saw the evidence we saw then, they'd understand" (to paraphrase). They felt not only that their views were ignored and trampled on, but that they were then handled like difficult children asking questions of their betters.

I know many people would be alarmed that I might compare the Iraq war and its many tens of thousands of deaths to the current political battle over the NHS, but to the average voter the NHS is actually a far more sensitive, far more personal issue. And David Cameron has adopted precisely that method: he is ignoring the clear wishes of the majority, he is ignoring the experts and listening only to those who tell him what he wants to hear, and he repeatedly defends himself by blaming the communication, not the content.

That could be true in principle, policy and legislation are complex and the average person is too busy to unravel the intricate realities of public policy. What remains is that Cameron has locked himself into the classic Macbeth policy position: “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er.” He has determined to press ahead *despite* the resistance. This can sometimes work, as changes in policy lead to shifting political and social norms, and people lose sight of the change, though some might say that after so many u-turns, this was a strange time to hold steady.

Tony Blair held steady on Iraq, no doubt believing he would be vindicated in the end, but its shadow proved long and deep, and it followed Labour even after the 2010 defeat,  reappearing in the 2011 Labour Party Conference where Blair drew boos from some present, which in turn drew a great deal of comment from some not present. By contrast Cameron and his increasingly glum front-bench neighbour Nick Clegg cannot draw comfort from economic success or broader popularity as Labour did in 2005, instead the healthcare disaster has compounded an already devastating series of political  realities. Worse, it is in direct violation of the mandate on which they were elected and Cameron's much-cheered pledge that there would be no top-down re-organisations under him.

Instead this legislation stands to sweep away efforts to detoxify the Tory brand, compound any lingering distrust of their intentions towards the NHS, all the while presenting the Prime Minister as the leader of a small cabal at the top of society determined to exercise political power to push through changes to a beloved national institution against both the professionals and the public at large. His abject isolation, his increasing defensiveness and his patronising attempts to pacify entirely reasonable public fears have increasingly made him seem out of touch and weak in a way that nothing before this had. Cameron's usual talent-- undeniably extraordinary-- for turning bad situations to his advantage, has finally met its match here, just as Tony Blair's affable charm did with Iraq.

Loss of trust and loss of connection to the voter have long term effects, they are extremely difficult to shake off. And for an example of that, Labour does not need to look to 1990. This is part of what Bagehot referred to in his 'The English Constitution' in noting the capacity of public mood and opinion to play as large a role in shaping policy between elections as during elections; opposition to political projects such as this are a key strength of meaningful democracy. Any politician who thinks they are not for turning has to be very careful they aren't marching off a cliff, because the electorate will not tolerate being flouted.

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