The US should worry when their political parties agree

Many people say they wish their political parties would work together more often, try to find a consensus, stop arguing so much. Modern political parties are likely to take this at face value, and find more agreements than are desirable. It seems to be happening at the moment in the USA.

Both Presidential candidates agree that the State should bail out Fannie and Freddie. Both agree that the US should run down its troop levels in Iraq as “victory” allows. Both want to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. Now Mr Bush himself is joing the consensus, announcing troop withdrawals from Iraq, ordering more troops in to Afghanistan and bailing out Fannie and Freddie.

Obama calls for change. Mc Cain announces he and Palin are the change. Mc Cain urges tax cuts, so Obama comes up with the need for some tax cuts. Both recommend substantial borrowing by the state.

When the political parties agree it usually means you should look out for your wallet. It is usually agreement based on ever bigger and dearer government. Sometimes the projects – nationalisation, or the more active engagement in a particular war – are destined to have an unhappy end, but any critic is sidelined because the great political machines are behind them.

A lively democracy needs choices. Every major policy by an Administration needs challenge from a vigorous oppositon, to make sure it is tried and tested properly. In the UK the outbreak of consensus has often done huge damage to the public interest. The public is deprived of choice, government is not put on its mettle by having to answer an alternative approach and the public suffers from the smugness and folly of the monopolist down the ages.

Remember the Exchange rate Mechanism? This disastrous economic policy was the only economic policy of the Conservatives that came fully recommended and supported by Labour.
The 1990s in the UK saw the advent of what I call Blajorism – John Major and Tony Blair copied each other to a great extent, and both were fixated by how it appeared in the press rather than by will it work and will it help people?

The US had better be careful. Too much consensus makes the politicians lazy, and may not yield good results for the country.
It is interesting to see how Mrs Palin has changed the race. The latest communications from Mr Obama sound negative and desperate – just like so many other politicians.

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14 Comments

  1. Stuart Fairney
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    You make a very good point and the front bench consensus about ERM membership at the time. The stupidly high interest rates that resulted from it should be a salutary warning to us all. (I had thought we were re-running the 1970's, but the central bank being fixated with inflation when recession is the clear danger seems very early 90's).

  2. Thatcher-right
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard it described in terms of the “Ice Cream Van effect”. If you have two ice cream vans on a beach then, in an attempt to maximise sales, they will end up next to each other in the middle of the beach.
    (If ice cream A van moves towards its end of the beach then, for some of the people on side A, van B will be closer. Van B will still be closer for all the people on side B)

  3. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Your perceptive analysis applies equally and demonstrably to this country. In particular your statement that: "Too much consensus makes the politicians lazy, and may not yield good results for the country." is very apposite.

  4. Tony Makara
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I would prefer to see a corporate style of government to run alongside an elected parliament, with areas such as education and national health taken away from ministers and administered by the professions themselves. This would be a way to roll back the political state, although of course such bodies would still have to remain tied to the state for funding, but such funding should be capped and open to independent, that is non-political review, and thereby accountable. Nothing is more distressing than to see a grubbing career-politician given made minister for education or health. Unfortunately corporate government got a bad name in Italy under Mussolini when it was used as a front for dictatorship, however corporate government, used sensibly across certain areas, would be a way to take politics, and thereby ideology, out of our public services.

    I have long belived that political parties gravitating to the centre is a sign that the era of political parties is over. Any party that stands to the left, or to the right, becomes unelectable, this tells us that people are tired of the divisions and ideological extremes that tear our country apart. People want an end to ying and yang politics and want to see the country run pragmatically, the best way to do this is to roll back the state in certain areas and have a form of corporate government. Of course there shall always have to be legislators, and an elected assembly, but we now need to be looking at the post-political era, the age when political parties and divisive ideology become redundant.

  5. NigelC
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    John,
    I agree that democracy needs choices and challenge.
    What is you view on landslide victories are they good or bad?
    My local council is over 80% Conservative, the opposition has no chairs of committees, even scrutiny. There is no debate. Council tax is planned to increase 4.5% per year for the next few years.
    Would a Cameron landslide at the next election be good?

    Reply: What matters is that the opposition, however many seats it has, offers a choice, so it might have more seats next time

    • Mike Baldwin
      Posted September 10, 2008 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Would a Cameron landslide at the next election be good?

      Yes but only to drive a stake through the heart of the Labour Party so we dont ever get into this mess again

  6. Blue Eye
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I am very worried that Mr Cameron appears to be thinking along these "consensus" lines. We hear that the Tories won't look at thorough reform of the Barnett Formula because the party is already ahead in the polls so why be radical. We hear that the Tories won't seriously address the size of the state because they party is already ahead in the polls so why be radical. Will someone tell Mr Cameron that it isn't good enough?

  7. APL
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Tony Makara: "Unfortunately corporate government got a bad name in Italy under Mussolini when it was used as a front for dictatorship, "

    He he he he! Why am I not surprised to hear this from you Tony?

    Tony Makara: " .. however corporate government, used sensibly across certain areas, would be a way to take politics, and thereby ideology, out of our public services"

    The problem is, why would you trust government to act sensibly? In short "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

    ANY democratic government will eventually abuse its powers, the only sensible solution is to make sure it has as few powers as possible. From my perspective, that means the authority to defend the country and maybe run the police and courts system. Although looking at the pigs ear this latest government has done there, I am not sure they can be trusted to do that!

    • Tony Makara
      Posted September 10, 2008 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      APL, I think we can all agree that we need to role back the state, both in terms of what the state owns and what the state does. Unfortunately there are some areas that can never be completely privatized, education and health being prime examples. So, where the state cannot relinquish control it can at least stand back and allow these sectors a greater degree of autonomy. Who could object to educational and health professionals being the prime movers in directing policy in these key areas? Of course they should be accountable and where they fall short they should be removed, but such a process should be undertaken in-house and without the damaging political imput that comes with ministerial control. Senior Conservatives often talk about rolling back the state, but have little proposals for doing so. We need to look at ways to take more amenities out of state control and granting more indepedence to those that cannot be separated from the state.

      • Acorn
        Posted September 10, 2008 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

        Now now girls, play nicely. This is one of the more intelligent sites to blog on, Christ, John even lets me in.

        "Unfortunately there are some areas that can never be completely privatised, education and health being prime examples." You need to explain your thinking a little further on this one Tony.

        I see no fundamental reason why they cannot be privatised completely. We have to separate the PURCHASER of a service from the PROVIDER of that service. There is nothing to stop the state from equalising access to a service by purchasing it using say multiple, competitive versions of BUPA funded by taxpayers, to cover all the primary requirements of that service. [bit like the Swiss system]. Same goes for Education; any kid can go to any school he/she can get accepted into. If your kid can get into Eton or similar, then an education equivalent of a BUPA card will pay some state approved amount toward the fees and you, or some bursary organisation, pay the rest.

        Hospitals and Schools would have to demonstrate value for money and actually compete to offer you, say, the best hip replacement job, with a ten year / six million steps warranty.

        I would even extend this principle to local government. There is no reason whatsoever why waste collection and disposal, should be purchased and provided by the state.

        Remember; free at the point of use leads to abuse. So everybody gets a bill with numbers of pound notes on it, regardless of which "BUPA" card is paying for it. Knowing what things actually cost to supply, can be very enlightening, even to socialists who think money grows on trees.

  8. mike stallard
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I can think of lots of times when a consensus of politicians led to disaster.
    How about appeasement under the Conservatives in the late 1930s. Or Butskellism? How about Heath and the three day week? (He did try to break the mould, I admit).
    What seems to me to be the trouble today is the fact that parliament has been sidelined. The major debates seem to be here on this blog or in the papers. Most politicians seem to try harder for the Media and for speeches to other people than to parliament.
    In a truly parliamentary government, the present front bench would not last 5 minutes.

  9. Puncheon
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    John – You are so right. Whenever there is cross-party consensus on anything the policy goes west. NI is a good example, closely followed by the EU, immigration, the NHS and education for many years. The effect is to take such policy areas out of the debate and so no-one questions what is being done, and that equals institutionalised drift. It is usually caused by cowardice among opposition parties. Their job is to oppose (was it Churchill who said that?) nothing more or less. Another example was when IDS allowed himself to be seduced by Blair on Iraq. It simply does not work. An elective democracy needs the oxygen of an opposition that opposes. Oddly enough, the Labour Party (old) always understood this better than the Conservatives.

  10. APL
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Tony Makara: "Unfortunately there are some areas that can never be completely privatized, education and health being prime examples."

    Why?

    How long is is since you have heard a politician say "The NHS is the envy of the world"? Not for a long time, not least because it was never true, and the lie would be even more blatant now when we hear almost weekly about MRSA or some other antibiotic resistant strain that seem to thrive in filthy NHS hospitals.

    By the way, WTF is a 'deep clean'? A thing is either clean or is isn't!

    Or schools, Why do you think the Labour party in particular hate private schools (yet send their children to them)? Collectivists hate diversity, not the sort of miserable diversity they keep whinging on and on about, but real diversity that could only exist in a privately organised school system.

    So on both points, I disagree with you.

    Tony Makara: "So, where the state cannot relinquish control it can at least stand back and allow these sectors a greater degree of autonomy. "

    It is not a case of the "state cannot relinquish control", rather the state will not relinquish control, unless it is forced to do so.

    Tony Makara: "Who could object to educational and health professionals being the prime movers in directing policy in these key areas?"

    Not me, but just a minute! Wasn't that the situation we used to be in about twenty years ago? Perhaps not in the schools but I am sure in the medical profession. What you have seen is an ever greater encroachment into the day to day running of the health and education service by central government.

    Yes, you are right, the Tories always talk about rolling back the state. But rarely actually do anything about it.

  11. Rose
    Posted September 11, 2008 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    There is a good piece in the current Salisbury Review on this.

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  • By Quote of the Day at The ThunderDragon on September 10, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    […] When the political parties agree it usually means you should look out for your wallet. – John Redwood. […]

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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