June 17, 2003
The cry of 'anyone but them' rises from the bog
Libby Purves
I was driving along the A14, brain in neutral, when a daub on a bridge jolted me into a whirr of questioning. It simply said: "Time for a change. Kick them out."
I tried to assess the age of the paint. Local authority cleaners are hard-pressed, so it could be pre-1997 (a bridge in Ipswich said "Pay no Poll Tax" right through to the millennium). On the other hand, could it be that we have already reached the stage in this Government when the old, restless cry of "Time for a change" plucks at the collective consciousness? After all, through postwar decades it was normal for Labour and Conservative parties to wrestle power off one another at average six-year intervals, and before that Liberals and Conservatives switched places at about the same rate. Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997 was an aberration, three times the norm: Margaret Thatcher's premiership was a record and only the chaos inside Labour gave John Major his chance.
So historically, it would not be at all odd if people were climbing on bridges with paintbrushes to proclaim: "Time for a change." This restless urge is not necessarily sensible: a settled nation might consider that real improvement takes time, and that stability matures governments. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that in practice it rots them. The late Thatcher and Major eras added nothing except a botched railway privatisation, a botched shot at the ERM, and an outbreak of sleaze. And the Blair regime right now looks less like a well-planned programme than a panicky lash-up.
"Time for a change, kick them out." If people aren't saying it yet, part of the reason is the same as in 1992: the Opposition. But last week Iain Duncan Smith suddenly woke up, spat on his hands and came out of his corner fighting. Admittedly, the issue was one especially dear to his party, concerning a man in a wig and breeches sitting on a bale of wool to keep the constitution safe. But it was a start. IDS sounded like a man who is beginning to believe that people might believe in him.
One of the problems that Duncan Smith faces is that after the long years of Conservative power, the old sense of necessary change is weakened. In 1992 one sensed the nation thinking: "Always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of meeting something worse." That is echoed now: I doubt the Tories would win tomorrow. But when the ballot comes, and as Tony Benn marvellously said, "for one day we are all equal", we may be willing to give nurse the bullet.
What would it take to feed that willingness? Matthew Parris made a striking metaphor once: a government's mistakes and dishonesties are like rocks thrown into a bog. At first they vanish with a plop and are forgotten. But they build up on the bottom, until one final layer of rocks (perhaps quite small ones) breaks the surface and you have a solid causeway. That was long ago when little rocks like the Formula 1 scandal and the Mandelson loan were vanishing under the glossy surface of new Labour. Now, an avalanche of rocks later, the causeway grows nearer the surface.
What does it take to drive an electorate into an "Anyone but them!" vote? I think three things: unforgiven bungles without apology, leading to a sense of incompetence; a belief that the Prime Minister is exceeding his powers; and a whiff of corruption and waste. Those three accusations finished the Tories, and all could be levelled at new Labour.
To take the first: the unforgiven bungles. The Dome at Greenwich, symbol of them all, still stands empty. It has cost more than a billion and eats #250,000 a month of our money, even after being given away with 190 prime acres to a foreign consortium, on a best estimate that we will get back half our cash in 20 years. The minister responsible was Lord Falconer of Thoroton. While his Government berates big business for rewarding failure, he is promoted.
Worse bungles abound, and although the media spotlight moves on, many do not forget. The arrogant, brutal mishandling of the foot-and-mouth crisis did immense damage to countryside business, and to our sense of Britain as a kindly and gentle nation that values living things. Public authorities were unable to cope hygienically with the Herod policy, and the Army was brought in. It was a horrible time. You may have forgotten it. Rural voters haven't.
The education funding crisis might seem a mere administrative hiccup, but when schools draw down years of future capital funding to pay teachers, it contributes to the sense of incompetence. When a thousand teachers and support staff are made redundant, it is not impressive that education quangos have doubled their administration costs in the past three years. If your child's teacher is laid off, you may feel a bit short-tempered about the increasing costs of the curriculum authority with its half-baked examination changes and unproven innovations such as the "National College for School Leadership". Nor was the grassroots nation impressed with the debacle over the Criminal Records Bureau, when teachers stood idle and playgroups collapsed through the inability of the private contractor -- Capita -- to process information fast enough to meet a hasty new law about vetting. Don't send me the excuses, I know them:what I am saying here is that it feels incompetent, it annoys voters, it is another large rock thrown into the bog.
What else? Starting the Iraq war on evidence that now looks shaky; the collapse of Railtrack, the damning verdict on Potters Bar, the NHS and pensions crises. The electorate knows that not everything is the Government's fault; but to take the example of pensions, it is unarguable that Gordon Brown made it worse, and that it took ten weeks for the Prime Minister to bother to appoint a new Pensions Minister.
Which brings us -- via Lord Irvine of Lairg's vast pension after six years' unelected office -- to the second and third factors in time-for-a-changeism: arrogance and cronyism. The nation accepted Tony Blair's promises to change things for the better. But his record on big reform is feeble, and touched with hubris. The hereditary peers were thrown on the scrapheap, yet years later no sensible replacement has been found. Good ideas put forward for the second chamber -- representatives of professions and trades, for instance -- were ignored, and the Lords is used chiefly as a shameless leg-up into the Cabinet for the PM's old friends and new toadies who can't be bothered to stand for Parliament. Thus Clare Short is replaced by Baroness Amos; his old pupil-master became Lord Chancellor, succeeded by his old flatmate.
At the end of last week all three time-for-a-change factors -- incompetence, arrogance, cronyism -- fused into what may be the marker of the beginning of the end. With Lords reform still incomplete and a ripple of deep disquiet over the European constitution, a huge structural reform was suddenly bounced in, with no consultation (even, apparently, no word to the Queen). There was unprecedented confusion over who was doing what, who represented Wales and Scotland, and whether Lord Falconer was Lord Chancellor. On top of that, it must be repeated, Lord Falconer is a placeman with no popular franchise whatsoever: to put such a figure into such a job at such a moment is unbelievably tactless.
And in a curious way, it is often mere tactlessness -- evidence of arrogance -- that sets the final seal on an electorate's disgust. I have lost count of the number of people who commented sorrowfully on the Sun interview that the PM did just after the Iraq war, chortling over how Leo knew nothing about it (plenty of Iraqi two-year-olds did) and telling parents whose lives had been ragged with anxiety for weeks that his own student son -- of military age, but not under military discipline -- rang home every night to support him. That was tactlessness with knobs on, a man who has lost contact with the reality of what his decisions do to people. It is no good Mr Blair for ever asking us to trust him because he knows what is best and sees secret papers: we have less and less evidence that he understands anything. That is why we may eventually take fright, and decide to remind him that he is only a temporary incumbent who rules by consent.
I have no simple message. Certainly not "Vote Conservative". But as a mere observer, I would judge that this is no time for a wise PM to be seen promoting his best friends, up-ending the constitution and signing big treaties. Yet he is. Odd.

Join the Debate on any of these articles at