Bronwen Maddox reflects on how the political landscape is evolving since her inaugural lecture and the focus of priorities for the Institute. She considers the impact of the evolving political mood at home and abroad and what this means for governments.
You gave your inaugural lecture as the Director in January. Since then, the political landscape both in the UK and overseas has continued to evolve quite dramatically. Which events have most struck you, in light of the themes you pulled out in January?
We still have some of the themes very much there. We have countries where the sense of division and public mood is very strong with a roiling and febrile sense of politics.
There is still a picture of older democracies with very divided politics which is putting their institutions under strain. In the United States, we are seeing President Trump testing those institutions continuously. Whether it be attacks on the judiciary, his war of choice with the intelligence agencies, his questions about NATO and approach to international cooperation, these things make modern political challenges like cyberattacks very, very relevant.
Overall, I would say that politics is finding it very hard to accommodate new trends or to fully respond to people’s concerns.
After the results of the elections in France and the Netherlands, do you believe that the ‘unprecedented’ public and political mood is perhaps shifting back to a seemingly more ‘normal’ one?
I am not sure what ‘normal’ is any more. I don’t think people want extremism which is going to turn their countries upside down, but at the same time they do want change and Emmanuel Macron is the best embodiment of that. The unknown politician. Unknown, but on the other hand a centrist, his election was a very firm rejection of Marine Le Pen.
People want change and they want politicians to respond to their concerns. They are probably more short- tempered and cynical about how that response comes than they were in the past.
You talked earlier about challenges to established institutions of democracy. Do you believe that the role of government is going to be harder to define over the next 10-15 years than it has been in recent decades? Or do you think a clear, if different, role for the state is likely to have emerged?
I think the role of government is changing anyway due to globalisation and technology. Both of these are making it harder to run a country and government in a conventional way. One example of how it is becoming harder, is the difficulty in collecting corporation tax. It is increasingly challenging, and we are due to have a good debate about how we address that. The state has been pushed back; it has fewer levers than it had in the past. People still expect government to be the answer to many problems. I think government needs to define quite carefully which problems it chooses to be the answer to. It then needs to have a conversation much more directly than in the past about how it answers.
You’ve talked before about a number of things which make a government’s role difficult – globalisation, debt, austerity. But the UK Government also has the immense task of delivering Brexit. How can it ensure that other priorities aren’t lost?
There is no denying the Government needs to pare these priorities right back. The government will be judged on Brexit fundamentally. What it needs to do with those other priorities is to set a tone and make it clear that these are other priorities behind Brexit.
At the end of the day, delivering Brexit is an immense stretch for any British Government. Behind Brexit government needs to respond to basic competence questions, like the NHS. However, actually trying to bring through a significant agenda whether it be industrial policy or social mobility on top of Brexit is almost impossible in reality, but they can’t say it.
What impact do you think the ‘fake news’ agenda has on the Government and its priorities?
This is a really interesting area. I think the internet has changed things completely. People have access to views in the media in the broader sense, and also to people who believe what they believe. The evolution of the internet offers not only a vivid alternative to mainstream news, but also the opportunity to shape one’s view of the world, even without feeling particularly political. We can live in the world that we want and not come into much contact with those we don’t like or agree with. I think people find an enormous sense of support and legitimisation through that and particularly if they are actively political, or feel that they are. Even if they are not they can choose what they want to hear and what they want to ignore. On the other hand, Britain is a smaller, more tightly knit country than the United States and I think the spaces are smaller so it is more difficult to just avoid what other people are talking about.
At the moment, I think it is an advantage, but I do believe it will become a real challenge for political parties to have a more clear and standout voice. It means that parties have almost become parallel on things when arguing with each other. They are not so much arguing against each other for rival merits which means that it becomes much harder to win something by an argument or a persuasion or by a demonstration of fact.
In the US there are many Trump supporters who simply don’t believe what the news is reporting. This is a dangerous territory and politics is not the only domain for this. Science and the science of health is also where people feel they can pick their own philosophy and plan. I feel very much that this is to be resisted.
In addressing the need to ‘do government differently’, you outlined some key techniques that could be embraced. One of these was the frank message that government needs to acknowledge the problem. Do you see any movement here? Are we getting any better at having the difficult conversations?
Actually, quite a lot better. If you take the health service and social care it seems to me that there has been a really explicit attempt by this government to say ‘we really need to talk about how this is going to be paid for’. There is a reality behind that; healthcare costs are going up about twice as fast as GDP. A government can’t tax its way to supporting the health service forever. The Conservative government under May began that conversation but voters did not like some of the choices in the manifesto.
We will run a project soon about how to make that conversation palatable to people. Not just the stage of austerity and the uncomfortable messages being given to the older democracies about things that are just not affordable anymore.
I don’t know yet if there is receptiveness to it. You just hear that there are more conversations around it. Whether it be around people paying more through inheritance tax, or those who can afford it paying more for social care, or does Alzheimer’s care come under the NHS and how would that work.
Next year is the 70th anniversary since Nye Bevan spearheaded the establishment of the NHS. That comes against a background of conversation about the health service and the need for change. How much people buy into that I am not sure.
We need an honest conversation about the NHS. I do wonder if that will just be a one-way conversation to say: ‘you are simply going to have to pay for stuff. We will protect the least well off but others will have to pay more.’ I think this conversation is certainly beginning.
In your lecture you picked three priorities of the Institute’s work to highlight – Whitehall, policy making, and Brexit. Can you give an overview of the progress being made in these three areas?
These are still the three priorities. The focus on Whitehall is very much the internal machinery of government, looking at accountability, transparency and the professionalisation of the civil service. The rules of accountability were drawn up when the Home Office had 28 people. It has clearly moved on from that and we need to look closely at how we make civil servants accountable to ministers, and how to make both of those accountable to Parliament.
Professionalisation of the civil service is increasingly important in the modern world. It may seem banal but the culture of very bright generalists is still embedded in Whitehall. The world is now very specialised and we need professional people within the civil service producing commercial contracts, in HR, finance and in the buying and delivery of digital systems, for example. If we don’t have very specialised people with modern professional skills, they are going to have commercial businesses running rings round them.
On policy making, we will be doing a lot in the coming year. We have done a lot this year on tax policy and how to make it better. We will be looking at making the Budget an annual event, and making it more public. We want to get rid of the ridiculous ‘rabbit out of a hat’ approach, where the Chancellor then spends three weeks clambering back on things he had not foreseen a reaction to. It would be beneficial to move to a point where the budget is debated in public for a year beforehand.
We are doing a big piece of work on infrastructure, and how to proceed with the projects we want and need to, and curtail the spending on ‘white elephant’ projects like Hinkley, which have vast costs attached.
And finally, but importantly, Brexit. This is our fastest paced team. We have done a lot on immigration, clearly stating that we can’t have a brand-new immigration system two years from now. It is not ready, but even so, that is an easier problem than trade.
We published a large trade and customs union paper outlining that this is the hard one.
I am positive about the technical possibility of Brexit. I am less optimistic about the negotiations going on. There needs to be a deal.
Bronwen Maddox is the Director of the Institute for Government, taking up this role in September 2016.
From 2010-16 Bronwen was Editor and Chief Executive of Prospect, a leading monthly current affairs magazine. Prior to that she was Chief Foreign Commentator, Foreign Editor and US Editor of The Times, supervising its award-winning coverage of September 11, 2001. She was previously at the Financial Times, where she ran award-winning investigations and wrote economics editorials.
Before becoming a journalist, she was an investment analyst in the City and a Director of Kleinwort Benson Securities, where she ran its highly-rated team analysing world media stocks.
She has a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from St John’s College, Oxford. She is a member of the Governing Council of the Ditchley Foundation which fosters transatlantic relations, and a non-executive board member of the Law Commission, the public body which recommends reform of laws in England and Wales.