Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Does anyone hear 1940s political language any more?

I have been reading the Lib Dem manifesto.  Well, I had a couple of days to spare.  And it is an impressive document.  No political party can ever have written quite such a detailed manifesto before.  I've been wondering why.

In fact, the manifesto reveals what the Liberal Democrats have become after five years in coalition.  Detail orientated.  Deeply pragmatic.  Determined to deal with the world as it is, not as it might be.  It's great advantages are that some of the commitments are vital and bold - the commitment to zero-carbon Britain by 2050, for example.  But there are disadvantages too.

It reveals itself as a document written in Whitehall.  Its small commitments are spelled out in painful detail.  Its big ones remain vague.  It has figures running through the thing like a piece of Blackpool rock.  And the language is old-fashioned: does anyone hear commitments in 1940s language - 'healthcare for all', 'prosperity for all' - any more?

Of course, this is not a document written for the public.  It is a document written to be used in coalition negotiations, and as such it works very well.  But it is so hard-headed a document that people may not feel like spending too long in the company of the party which drafted it, for fear that they will start spouting statistics at them.

Like other documents written in Whitehall, the authors forget how little people hear figures - especially when they involve amounts.  Most people, in my experience, don't hear a difference between million and billion unless they are very familiar with the debate already.

I have to declare an interest - the two major proposals I have been working on for the past two years are both missing.  This is very disappointing, but this isn't the moment to spell them out, and they are at least hinted at.

Perhaps the real problem is that it bears the scars from Whitehall battling over five bloody years.  It assumes the existing arrangements, uses the word 'continue' rather too much, thinks ahead too little and does not even attempt to inspire.  Its cover emphasises the failure to join up ideas.

Perhaps that is the right strategy this time.  I don't know.  But for all these reservations, it is a real achievement too.  It is an extraordinarily comprehensive compendium of how we would bend the system, without too many running battles in the corridors of power.  It leaves no doubt - and I realise this was the intention - that everything there is eminently achievable.

It is a hymn of praise to a highly complex system of government, and a commitment to change it a bit.  Yet don't be under any illusion - if we have a zero-carbon Britain by 2050, and free school meals, and a new Freedom Act, and a network of community level banks, and many other things that are all in there somewhere, the nation will look very different.

I just hope people read it, but wonder...

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1 comment:

Mark Treveil said...

And while the detail may be too great, and somewhat unnecessary, I think any of the three main parties could have published the cover page image. It says nothing of any real value. Pure motherhood.

Why do parties want to make 'pledges' at all? Voters all know that no party will be able to keep these in office or coalition. Why not be honest, sketch out an ideology, a set of priorities, goals that have multiple stages, and admit that not everything will be possible in practice. Less "we will" and more "we want to".

Politicians don't understand how savvy the population actually are.

Meanwhile, who formatted that manifesto? A civil servant tele-ported from the '50s? Indented first words to paras but no line spacing between paras (bottom margin etc.). No wonder just looking at it feels like being asked to eat your 19th portion of spotted dick.