Like nearly everybody, I don't have much idea what to expect from the Comprehensive Spending Review tomorrow - but it doesn't stop me worrying about it. Of course I'm not alone either.
There haven't been many Lib Dems who have clung courageously to the Liberal concept of thrift through thick, and even through thin. I have but I don't have any illusions about what, in practice, the coalition is going to do tomorrow. The basic thinking about how to structure Lib Dem services was never finished (it wasn't really started). We had little or no theory by which our ministers could determine what should stay and what should go; no theory to rival the conventional Coonservative or Labour structures of controls and systems.
I wrote about this on Lib Dem Voice and one of the comments afterwards, which I take seriously, said that I had a responsibility to be clearer about what I thought should be cut. I think that is true. I think maybe we should all of us, me included, also have been clearer about what should definitely not be cut.
The Browne review of higher education, for example, is a testament to the worst kind of miserable utilitarianism. It is no basis for any kind of humane future for universities.
So, at this rather late stage, I thought I would set out three ways by which we can judge tomorrow's announcements. Some of the trade-offs will make sense. Some will seem bizarre - some will seem as if ministers have been in the grip of the kind of frenzy of spending cuts that I believe takes over the collective mind on these occasions. But it makes sense not to leap to any conclusions. So, if there is anyone out there waiting for advice from me - humour me here please - here are the questions I think we should ask. Will the spending changes lead to public services which:
1. Prevent ill-health, poverty, misery or ignorance? Will they be more able to reach out locally upstream of the problems and prevent them from happening in the first place? If not, then costs are bound to rise in the future?
2. Increase the chance of effective relationships between public service users and professionals? If not, then we can expect our services to be less effective, and therefore more expensive in the long term.
3. Are delivered through real local institutions which make us proud of being citizens?
This last one is very important. The biggest failure of the New Labour years was the way they sucked meaning out of our institutions, closing local offices, undermining frontline relationships, tying them up in red tape, procedures, targets and systems - and did so at vast expense. The justification for cutting spending is that it forces a change to this miserable hollowing out.
That is my touchstone. If the CSR hollows these institutions out even further, it will undermine their effectiveness even more. That means bigger bills in the years to come, but it also poses a threat to what is most humane and civilised about the UK.
These are important issues, and especially for Lib Dems. We will know tomorrow what the shape of the debate is going to be for the years ahead, and I must say - I am pretty bloody nervous about it. Perhaps that's the only sane response right now.
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