The Queen came to town the other day carrying with her a menu of restrictions, freezes and massive spending cuts and reversals confirming the new coalition government determination to adopt an aggressive deficit-cutting strategy that will turn the British economy around.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, British government spending is now 53 percent of G.D.P-a level that surpasses Greece and Spain and Portugal. Many political observers and commentators say the announcement this week was aimed as a symbolic shot across the bow of a public sector that has, over the years, benefited from billions of pounds of spending from the past Labour government.
Ministers, senior civil servants and other senior government and public services official will no longer be able to fly first or business class and there is to be a One billion pounds cut in public advertising whilst all vacant positions in government and other public offices are to be left vacant until further notice.
What came as a shocker was an announcement from the British Treasury or Ministry of Finance last Tuesday saying that; “In future, no minister should have a dedicated car or driver other than in exceptional circumstances.” Insiders say that the directive actually came from the Prime Minister David Cameron, who has taken to the street, walking to Parliament and other government business engagements since he came to office two weeks ago, against the advice of his security personnel.
The Prime Minster pledged last year to end the practice of “politicians swanning around in Chauffeur-driven cars like they’re the royal family after reading a hilarious account of the government car service (GCS) by the former Labour government minister Chris Mullin. In his diaries, A View from the Foothills, Mr Mullins wrote about the wasted spending on cars. I am entitled to a car and a driver. Entirely pointless since the 139 and 3 buses will continue to run past my door, even though I am a minister,” Mullins wrote on the day he was appointed a minister in 1999.
These days it is not uncommon to see the British Prime Minister walking out of the gate of 10 Downing Street on to the main Whitehall Parade that leads to most of the government office buildings in Westminster.
The directive from the British Ministry of Finance signed by the Liberal Democrats deputy minister of finance said. “Ministers will be expected to walk or take public transport where possible, or use a pooled car.” This is a bitter pill to swallow after Conservative and Liberal Democrats parliamentarians for years have watched with envy as Labour cabinet minister were whisked through the ornamental gates of the palace of Westminster in chauffeur-driven cars.
One government driver I know, told me that his boss for nine days feels humiliated and that his colleagues driver are furious and very worried about their jobs. Whitehall drivers have a reputation as the guardians of the top-most secrets when its comes to senior government ministers and civil servants and it is common for minister to glean vital gossip about their colleague cabinet minister if they keep on the right sides of the drivers, who form the most high-class grapevine in Britain as they wait in the Speaker’s courtyard at Westminster while their bosses attend parliamentarian business inside the Houses of Parliament.
Another driver who voted for the Liberal Democrats told me that he is heading for Australia in a few months time. Asked why? He said “this is not the “liberal moment” we had been hoping for when we voted on May 6th although our new deputy PM keeps telling us it is an opportunity for a new politics”. By his voice and body-language, this man is depressed and resigned to the fact that he will be leaving the country very soon.
Many people across the country will argue that the Conservative-Liberal agenda, scrapping of ID cards, HIP, and curbing the excesses of the surveillance states and electoral reform are not only welcome and overdue but that these are the bedrock of a modern society; Freedom, fairness and responsibility.
Others however will argue that as the austerity dawns, the government is unfurling two contradictory visions of Britain. One is of a settled country reclaiming equality and freedom. The other shows a future so divisive that its strictures may rupture our tacit social contract and threaten civic peace. Indeed, one social commentator has argued that although cuts are a must, we should not allow the government to draw a veil over the pain that is to follow.
Over the years watching politicians trying to make changes in their respective countries and looking back to the time when we had strong political leaders who force changes in their countries, one thing is certain. In politics, momentum is very crucial. If a government, or a party, is not pushing forward, it will find itself pushed back. If a government is not setting the terms of the argument, its opponent will do so, to its disadvantage.
This brings to mind the leadership of President Obama and the former British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair. Both of them understand this theory; Momentum in politics.
President Obama two years into his presidency is working hard on this theory whilst Mr Blair failed in many aspects, despite his knowledge about the power of the narrative, which he set out to achieve by taking hegemonic command over political debate but never knew what to do with the powers, domestically as Prime Minster. He allowed himself to be consumed by power instead of using power to change the country.
According to those who are close to David Cameron, he spent a lot of time studying Tony Blair’s government: wondering how he could ever weaken its grip on office. Friends of David Cameron say that while he was watching and waiting, he learnt an important lesson; how not to squander power. And that he would often say that it had taken Tony Blair nine and the half years to learn how to be Prime Minister. With those lessons still fresh in his mind, this David Cameron, Prime Minister of Great Britain is not going to repeat that mistake.
Looking at the Conservative-Liberal programme for the next five years tells you one thing. These two men; David Cameron and Nick Clegg want to stamp their legacy whilst they are still in office not after they have left. But to do that they need something people can believe in. And it should dominate their every thought, every decision they make, every meeting they chair and every briefing they give. And this should go down the line to their respective lieutenants and bag handlers.
Why you may ask? Because they have to overcome a dangerous enemy. No instrument we have can measure it. It does not show up in any official statistics. It is not counted in the inflation rate, the immigration rate, the bank rate or the crime rate. Yet, its thinking has griped the mind of a generation in British politics and it has never been known in African politics. Hence the sad state of Affairs in African politics.
What is it? An idea-an ideology, something your party stands for-that politics is a commodity market, that political parties are like wool or leather, commodities with “nothing to choose between them.”
Surely you must have heard the saying even in Sierra Leone that there are “no dragons left to slay.” Well there is one-The absence of ideological dragons leaves a vacuum which nature abhors.. This void–loss of belief is the new disease in British politics and the disease that has been eating the soul of African political life since independence. [email protected] By Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay