Mr Major invites us to join a very unsurprising revolution
King Lear does not make a very good role-model for any modern politician, or a very likely one for Mr Major. One of his mistakes was to try to impress people by promising to do things before he had worked out what would or could be done: `I will do such things — What they are yet I know not — but they shall be The terrors of the earth'.
The point is not that it is a bad idea to make empty promises; politicians have made them since the beginning of time, and have generally thrived on them. But a promise to surprise people is not so much empty as self-evacuating. By the time you get round to doing whatever it was that you were planning to do, people have lost the capacity to be surprised; they may even have persuaded themselves by then that they have always taken such things for granted, and merely wonder why it has taken you so long to catch up.
Something like this is happening with Mr Major's 'citizens' charter'. In his speech to the Scottish Conservatives at Perth on 10 May, he promised that within a few months he would announce 'nothing less than a revolution' in the public services of the United Kingdom. 'It will be the most comprehensive quality initiative ever laun- ched', he said. 'New and tougher standards will be set. We will introduce a wide range of mechanisms to ensure that they are met to the citizens' satisfaction. There must no longer be any hiding place for sloppy standards.' Or, as Shakespeare might have put it, 'I shall have such a wide range of mechanisms — What they are yet I know not — but they shall be The wonders of the earth'.
July, the appointed time for Mr Major to surprise us, is fast approaching, but it seems that he still does not know what his citizens' charter will contain. In the bad old days Mrs Thatcher would have got the people in her Policy Unit at No 10 to list all the essential proposals first, and then allowed them to go round bullying the departmental ministers and their civil ser- vants into working out how those require- ments could be met. In his more gentle- manly and consensual way, Mr Major has sent out a general description of the sort of measures he is looking for, and has invited the various departments to come up with their own big ideas. The result has been a not very large quantity of very small ideas, most of which are now filed away in Mrs Douglas Hogg's capacious waste-paper basket.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party has had all the time in the world to explain that citizens' charters for the public services have been fundamental to Labour's policy since time immemorial — i.e. about 1987. When Mr Major recently told the House of Commons that he had been advocating such things since 1987 too, Labour resear- chers went away and dug up a proposal for financial compensation to users of sub- standard public services which was con- tained in the Labour Party's 'Statement on Social Ownership' in 1986.
What we are dealing with here is, in any case, not a single big idea but a strange and rather shapeless amalgam of rhetoric and reality. For the Labour Party, the 'quality programme' and the 'consumers' charter' were ways of trying to import a little more user-friendliness into the public services and nationalised industries while con- tinuing to oppose all the mechanisms of the market — privatisation, competitive tendering, and so on.
The rhetoric was consumerist because that was the way to harness the resent- ments which had built up against the public services in the 1970s and 1980s, resent- ments from which Mrs Thatcher had drawn such considerable political benefit. 'Con- sumer' sounded distinctly non-socialist and market-oriented; but the reality was that this charter was just a charter for expand- ing the powers of the public services and pumping more money into them. It is very easy to set up achievement targets and quality thresholds and compensating dead- lines for local authorities, when you are also promising to remove all limits on their powers to raise taxes. Do you really want all broken street-lamps mended within 24 hours? Fine, just wait while we go and hire another 1,000 electricians . . .
With the Conservatives, the gap be- tween the rhetoric and the reality is rather more puzzling. Perhaps it could more accurately be described as the gap between two different kinds of rhetoric. For the free-market think-tank theorists who have been demanding 'service contracts' in the public services, the whole object of the exercise is to mimic the actions of a market. Even in areas where you do not have a real market economy, you can still have a market psychology. Give people something called a contract, and you give them a sense of power and responsibility. We enter into contracts as free agents, and are empowered by the law to enforce them. Contractual justice is thus a clear-cut thing which enhances human dignity, un- like 'social justice', which turns us into passive recipients of what other people think is good for us.
That is the theory, anyway. If the pro: viders of the services are cash-limited, or paid in accordance with their performance, applying this theory may yield real im- provements in efficiency and productivity. And in the long run it should break down the mental barriers which separate the way people think about public services from the way they think about private ones — thus becoming more willing to step over the dividing-line and go in search of whatever private services they can afford.
But that is not quite the theory, and certainly not the rhetoric, which Mr Major has been voicing over the last month. Talk of a 'charter', of 'rights' and of 'citizens' suggests a very different set of attitudes. It actually sounds rather closer (closer than the Labour plans do, at least) to Mr Tony Benn's proposals in his Commonwealth of Britain Bill, where he declares that every citizen will have a constitutional 'right' to a job and a home. Once you start talking about the 'right' to receive high-quality public services, you are just reinforcing the old assumption that the state must provide.
Three weeks ago, Mr Major declared that he wanted to make public services so good that people would not feel the need to use private ones. Mr Nicholas Ridley pointed out the fundamental foolishness of this statement by performing a simple thought-experiment: imagine, he said, what would have happened to housing in this country if government policy had always been to make council houses so good that no one would ever want to buy a house of his own. He may have forgotten that Mr Major's words were a paraphrase of something Mrs Thatcher had said about the health service when addressing the 1922 Committee in the summer of 1989; so this element of empty rhetoric has been around for some time. But at least when Mrs Thatcher said it, you could be reason- ably confident that she did not really mean it.