Remember the days of the Tony vs Gordon scraps? Tony Blair was all out for power, but Gordon had a genuine social purpose, to eradicate child poverty. It led to a conflict between the two which was hardly hidden. The people who came out of the fight the worst were, of course, us.
For the first five years of David Cameron’s premiership, we were told that the conflict in government was between the Conservatives and the moderating Liberal Democrat coalition partners. That the conflict was along party lines. It never seemed to make sense; why would a minor party in a partnership have so much influence, and why would the Conservatives accept that?
But a short time into an unexpected majority Conservative government, I think we need to look again at what we’ve had and what we’ve got. What if the conflict is actually David vs Gideon? David Cameron is often seen as a successor to Margaret Thatcher. But what if he’s not? If he is actually continuing the work of John Major, who recorded the highest popular vote ever recorded in a general election and who was behind a fundamental shift in government, from the Westminster centre to the citizen.
It’s easy to laugh at Major’s legacy as just the Cones Hotline, but actually his legacy is found in the Freedom of Information Act, which started with the Citizen’s Charter. This gave us, for the first time, access to information about how local authorities were performing, data about schools, NHS targets and set times for treatment, and a shift towards a more open, accountable democracy. It allowed us to compare and mark one authority or service against another. A Trip Advisor for democratic institutions.
Major also rebuilt a collapsed British economy, bringing down both borrowing and unemployment. And maybe Cameron was continuing that spirit, with the Big Society (still, at heart, a good idea) and Localism as the children of the Citizen’s Charter.
So where, if that’s the case, does the Nasty Party come from? Gideon ‘George’ Osborne, maybe, continuing the work of Thatcher. His economic policies have hit the poor hardest, derailed the Big Society project, and are very much in favour of big business, privatisation and a heavy handed state capitalism. Today, he announced automatic planning approval for development on brownfield sites, undoing five years work on Cameron’s Localism project in one move. Tens of thousands of hours spent by local people, developing plans, by local authorities, redrawing the planning system to give local people a louder voice. All undone.
If we reconsider what we’re seeing as a conflict between Cameron and Osborne, Major vs Thatcher, things look rather different. The coalition shifts now, with the Lib Dems and Cameron’s allies all moderating the harder policies of Osborne and co.
And the worrying thing is, Osborne clearly has the winning hand – he’s destroyed first the Big Society and now the whole philosophy of Localism. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a property developer’s workboot stamping on a human face – forever.