A cycle in which intended results become reversed has overtaken Britain’s political, government and social scene.
All too many bold promises, targets or programs put forward by the government authorities supposedly to improve the lot of the British citizen, however sincere and well intentioned, have not only had minimum impact but have actually produced the very opposite results from those intended. Thus, for example, all bold efforts over the last decade to narrow the gap between the highest and lowest paid have left the gap far wider than ever.
Efforts to spread wealth have concentrated it. Efforts to narrow social divisions have deepened them. Efforts to help the poorest have made them poorer. Efforts to reduce fuel poverty have increased it. Efforts to increase energy security have led to riskier and more unstable supplies. Efforts to ensure better education at all ages, from nursery to university, and increase social inclusion have ended up with more social exclusion, overloaded teachers and closed down university places.
Meanwhile, efforts to assist small businesses have stifled them. Efforts to integrate ethnic minorities have increasingly alienated them. Efforts to protect the British rural environment have led to faster deterioration than ever before. Efforts to cement the union of the U.K. have lead to increased separatism. Efforts to reduce the prison population have resulted in record high numbers in prison. Efforts to improve policing have reduced public trust in the police. Efforts to reduce knife crime have resulted in a spate of incidents. Efforts to improve transport flows have worsened them. Campaigns to curb over-regulation have ended up with more regulations and red tape than ever.
The list goes on and on. Efforts to modernize the constitution have left Parliamentary government crippled. Efforts to strengthen the House of Lords have weakened it. Trumpeted commitments to more openness in government and greater freedom of information have engendered more secrecy. Efforts to make public administration more accountable and trustworthy have made it less so and destroyed public trust. Cascading statistics have produced less knowledge and more skepticism about official figures.
The baffling perversity extends overseas. Despite efforts to place Britain “at the heart of Europe,” public EU-skepticism is higher than ever. Despite efforts to stick close to America, U.K.-U.S. relations are at their lowest ebb in years. Efforts to mount a stronger attack on world poverty have held back development through misplaced aid flows. Efforts to build democracies in developing countries have destabilized them. Efforts to increase some sense of Britishness and national purpose and identity amid current global turmoil have in practice lessened and weakened all such sentiments.
And after the failed emergence of a grand global deal at Copenhagen on curbing climate change — a fruitless search that was bound to fail — it will no doubt be correct to say before too long that efforts to cut the growth of carbon could well lead to the very opposite outcome — higher emissions and more climate extremes.
The consequence of these unending reversals, as loud official promises to go forward take things backward instead, is a steep decline of public trust in government and almost all its pronouncements and works.
But not just in government. A wide array of professions and official bodies have seen public respect and trust drain away. Top figures in banking are viewed with contempt. Trust in the media has plummeted. Trust in politicians has withered, especially after revelations about the expenses claims of members of Parliament at Westminster. Trust in the military top brass (although not the deeply admired fighting men and women) and in the Intelligence services has sagged. Trust in scientists, religious leaders, even trust in the reliability and competence of the once universally admired BBC has diminished.
“Things cannot go on like this” is the battle-cry of the Conservative opposition and would-be U.K. government — and that is certainly so if British society is to stay stable and unified. But the questions then inevitably follow: “So where are we going? How is the modern nation state to hold together if trust and belief in all officialdom is weakened at every level and the gap between promise and performance so glaring?”
To some extent it can be argued that all governments today — whether in the U.S., European Union, Japan or even nondemocracies like China — face the problems of public challenge and empowerment that the information age brings. But an even deeper cause of the malaise lies in the flawed principles and shallow thinking underlying the public policy debate.
The flaws are, first, the misplaced belief that the citizen’s contentment and fulfillment can be enlarged by government action from above; second, the delusion that government measures can somehow deliver all this promised betterment; and third, the notion that everyone has a right to the good life and it is the government’s job to provide it.
It was Thomas Paine, hardly a reactionary rightwinger, who warned that “A Declaration of Rights is, by reciprocity, a declaration of duties also.”
And it was Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke who reminded us that nations are built and held together not by vainglorious projects from on high but by the small associations and bonds of trust between individuals and within families.
In short, governments, political leaders, high officials and appointed experts must be very humble and very honest about the limits of what they can do — probably more so today than ever before. They must grasp that by reaching beyond these limits they will again and again achieve the very opposite of what they hoped for. Good intentions will lead to bad outcomes.
When leaders show by the careful moderation of their words, plans and promises that they truly understand this they will begin to restore the ties of trust required to hold society together.
David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords (www.lordhowell.com).
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.