The Government seems to be reconsidering its proposals on
taxing philanthropy, on taxing conservatories, on the type of jet it will order
for aircraft carriers and perhaps on reform of the House of Lords and on reform
of the law of marriage.
Media headlines label these as U-turns and offer
encouragement to all who are perplexed by any government announcement, that it
might be a false alarm.
Whether they are to conserve-a-tory vote in the
forthcoming local elections, including for mayors in London and Liverpool, or
because the Government recognises the force or weight of opposing arguments,
one impression given is that the Coalition has no consistent or underlying
principles, that it is merely swaying in the wind.
Conversely, some opponents of particular changes argue
that it does have a consistent philosophy but it simply fails the competency
test of being able to follow its principles. In particular, the Budget
proposals to restrict tax relief on philanthropy have been ridiculed as being
at odds with the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about the Big Society encouraging
Although they seem to be opposed, both lines of attack
can be deployed against the Government at once. It could be said that its
philosophy is so abstract and vague that different interpretations of the same
idea can be applied by different elements within the Government.
One way of putting this is to say that people can have
different conceptions, when it comes to working out the detail, while being
able to profess allegiance to the same overall concept. Indeed, cynics think
that is an attraction, especially for a Coalition, that politicians can agree
on an undefined big idea.
In most of these policy controversies, the lack of
quality in the Government’s thinking is central to the debate although in some,
the emphasis is more on opinion polls and other ways of indicating that the
public disagrees with the Government.
In particular, as last week’s Universe went to press, the
Coalition for Marriage had secured over 400,000 signatories, opposing any
attempt to redefine the traditional understanding of marriage. This week, its
steady accumulation of supporters was heading towards 450,000.
By the end of the consultation period, however, opponents
will also be making their case on the merits or demerits of reform, despite the
Government trying to restrict responses to the practicalities of their
This week, the boldest political thinking came from two
lords, one a former Labour minister, the other a cross-bench peer and former
Lord Adonis suggested moving the House of Lords to Manchester,
leaving “Planet London”. His argument was not to follow The Universe, which has
returned to the centre of Manchester and to Salford cathedral, but to follow
the BBC, which has moved some of its operation to MediaCity at Salford Quays.
Just when you think that the BBC is being praised for its
pioneering approach, along comes Lord O’Donnell to criticise it and ITV for
being “pathetic” and “ridiculously skewed towards the status quo”.
He was talking about the BBC’s focus on candidates from
the main political parties in its coverage of London’s mayoral election. The
broadcasters are being accused of ignoring the independent candidates, which is
regarded as perverse if part of the point of elected mayors is to encourage
participation beyond traditional parties.
Lord O’Donnell, who led the civil service, is advising a
former civil servant, Siobhan Benita, who seems to be the leading independent
candidate in London. He has pointed out that past percentages of the vote is an
inappropriate test of who should be in a debate when independents are doing
well in opinion polls.
He said that bookmakers’ odds would be a better indicator
of who are the prime candidates – “The best form of objective evidence are
probably the betting odds” – and was scathing about political parties: “One in
a hundred people belong to a political party. If you add up all the political
parties together, there are fewer members than in the Caravan Club.”
Quite so. The Caravan Club has over one million members.
Moreover, it is not alone. The Camping and Caravanning Club has over 400,000
members – about the same number of members as the Coalition for Marriage has
supporters, at least so far.
My sense is that there is something in all this for the
churches and other faith communities to ponder, not only in relation to the
debate on the law of marriage. The numbers and views of believing Muslims in
the UK, for example, are significant. Although the media portrayal of the
Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church is of declining numbers attending
on Sundays, the influence of parishes and church schools remains significant.
As the media join the former head of the civil service in
questioning assumptions of deference to the relatively small membership of
political parties, so we can look forward to arguments in the public realm
about the quality of thinking behind all manner of proposals for law reform.
We can look beyond party politics for inspiration. The
churches might wish to pay attention, for example, to the cultural festival
accompanying the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics this summer as giving us
pause for reflection on the big ideas swirling around our democracy.
I would have liked to have seen that celebration of the
arts encompass a revival of a play from 1948, the year when London last hosted
the Olympics. Christopher Fry’s drama in verse, The Lady’s Not For Burning,
explores themes of displacement and original sin and gave rise to the phrase
Margaret Thatcher famously used when she was accused of U-turns: “You turn if
you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”
It seems that the Prime Minister herself was not aware of
the pun, crafted by her speech-writer, the playwright Sir Ronald Millar, but
then, there is always more to a big idea than it appears at first.
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