I discovered yesterday afternoon that, as an ex-civil servant, I spent more than twenty years of my life as an enemy of enterprise. In his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Cardiff yesterday afternoon, David Cameron – aristocrat, old Etonian, Bullingdon Club, PR Executive, arms salesman and sometime Prime Minister – decided to give us his views on usefulness in society, and launched a vicious and dishonest attack on public servants whom he describes as “enemies of enterprise”. The Guardian’s Martin Rowson’s take seems entirely appropriate.
His speech contained the following widely-reported passage:
So I can announce today that we are taking on the enemies of enterprise.
The bureaucrats in government departments who concoct those ridiculous rules and regulations that make life impossible, particularly for small firms.
The town hall officials who take forever with those planning decisions that can be make or break for a business – and the investment and jobs that go with it.
The public sector procurement managers who think that the answer to everything is a big contract with a big business and who shut out millions of Britain’s small and medium sized companies from a massive potential market.
So you want to know my strategy for growth?
When people say ‘spend lots more money’ I say forget it – Labour spent it all.
There’s only one strategy for growth we can have now…
…and that is rolling up our sleeves and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to start a business to grow a businesses.
Back small firms. Boost enterprise. Be on the side of everyone in this country who wants to create jobs, and wealth and opportunity.
I know there’s an enterprise culture in this country.
I know that we’ve got the people, the ideas, the talent, the energy to make things great.
And I’m going to make sure this government does everything it takes.
So I can tell you today, the Budget in a few weeks time will tear down the barriers of enterprise and be the most pro-growth Budget this government, this country has seen for a generation.
It’s an ignorant and ideologically-motivated picture, obviously designed to appeal to an ignorant and ideologically-motivated audience. Bureaucrats in Government departments simply do not concoct rules and regulations – all new regulation is carefully assessed for costs and benefits. The benefits may not accrue to the people for whom Cameron speaks, but the assessment is there and public. And, crucially, all regulation is agreed by ministers and laid before Parliament where they are scrutinised – in other words, they’re political decisions. Of course, if he’s saying that the Conservative MPs in opposition were too idle, stupid or too busy in the day job to scrutinisine secondary legislation properly, that’s a different matter. But to claim that regulation is produced by unaccountable bureaucrats is simply untrue.
Town Hall planning officers are already working with one hand tied behind their back – witness the problems they encounter in dealing with big supermarkets damaging diversity in the high street – and are often dealing with difficult political decisions. Of course Cameron sees such decisions as being entirely about business, not about communities – of such things is the Big Society made.
The passage about bidding for government contracts is an outright lie. All government contracts of any significant value have to be advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union, and are open to competition throughout the Community
And he has nothing to say about the bankers who have tanked the economy in an unregulated free-for-all, or in particular about the ambulance-chasing lawyers who have made billions out of developing the compensation culture – whose results are all too often laid at public servants’ doors. If Cameron is serious about dealing with enemies of enterprise, let’s hear a bit more about these groups.
An admission of defeat
The Coalition’s economic strategy is all about the private sector creating jobs to outstrip the job losses in the public sector. It’s a piece of economic nonsense – no peace-time economy has ever sustained that rate of job creation, let alone one that has taken £80bn out of the economy in public expenditure cuts. This speech looks to me like a recognition that it’s not going to happen; the Tories are getting their scapegoating in early.
And of course none of the bureaucrats slandered by Cameron can answer back. It’s the old trick of the powerful trying to lay the responsibility for the failings of power on the powerless. It’s a classic Tory tactic, none the less shabby for being dressed in a Bullingdon waistcoat.