John Harris

Journalist & Author

The coalition has sneaked a coup on a sleeping public | John Harris

Its project to drastically remodel British society is speeding ahead without any regard for what it told voters last year

As people elsewhere are killed for their belief in democracy and the rule of law, the supposed controversies of British politics inevitably rather fade. By comparison, we live in an Eden of stability, and argue over mere increments: to be getting in a lather about Cameron and Clegg can easily feel not just indulgent, but indecent.

Still, in the broadest terms, there is a tale to be told that includes Westminster as well as Tripoli and Cairo, and underlines what watershed times these are. Much of the world’s current tumult is traceable to the long and tangled fall-out from the crash of 2008 (note the role of rising food prices in Middle Eastern unrest). And though most commentators seem either too polite or deluded to recognise it, the British side of this story is rapidly being revealed: not just cuts, but the most far-reaching attempt to remodel British society in 60 years, undertaken at speed, and with a breathtaking disregard for what was offered to the country only months ago. Last week, Labour MP John McDonnell wrote to the Guardian arguing that the increasing gap between claims of fiscal necessity and a transparently ideological project merited another election. It won’t happen, but he has a point.

The other day, I picked up a copy of Naomi Klein’s underrated book The Shock Doctrine, and was reminded of a celebrated quotation from Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

The Klein book, published in 2007, examines how Friedman’s instructions were followed, and free-market “disaster capitalism” forced on Iraq, eastern Europe, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, in the wake of wars, natural disasters and revolutions (watch out Libya and Egypt). Four years after it came out, I was struck by a simple and mind-boggling fact. Here, as the coalition sets about the benefits system, marketises the NHS, threatens to do the same to schools and now apparently plans to put the entire public sector out to tender, what crisis was it that set the stage? Answer: that of the very economic model that is being pursued as never before. Welcome, then, to a new phase of history, when a crisis of laissez-faire capitalism begets that same system triumphant, something which brings to mind not so much Friedman, as Marshal Foch: “My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I am attacking.”

Around the time of last year’s comprehensive spending review, some highlighted a “democratic deficit” between what was being proposed and what the Tories and Lib Dems had put before the public. The Fabian Society’s Sunder Katwala accused David Cameron of “amnesia about what he did and did not ask for a mandate for”. As Katwala pointed out, the central deceit was embodied in a reading of the election in Cameron’s 2010 conference speech: “The result may not have been clear-cut when it came to the political parties. But it was clear enough when it came to political ideas.” It takes Etonian chutzpah to spin a line as disingenuous as that.

From there, via Cameron’s famous insistence that “frontline reductions” weren’t an option and a jaw-dropping commitment in the coalition agreement to “end top-down reorganisation of the NHS”, the about-turns and unexpected proposals have extended into the distance. Certainly, on VAT, child benefit, the educational maintenance allowance, increasing NHS spending “in real terms every year”, incapacity benefit and more, the merchants of anti-politics have conclusive proof that some politicians will say anything to get elected. By way of a contrast, you may think back to Labour’s travails over the introduction of top-up fees in 2003, which was ruled out in their pitch to the electorate two years earlier. “It is not a lot for the electorate to expect the government to keep their manifesto commitment,” the Lib Dems’ then education spokesman told the House of Commons. Now, an entire legislative programme contravenes scores of pledges and offers transformative plans of which there was no warning. No one even flinches.

What are we faced with? A polite kind of coup, in the service of an all-encompassing project that Klein and her followers surely recognise, and of which Friedman would be proud. The Labour party seems punch-drunk, and racked with confusion about how much the coalition has taken from peak-period Blairism (a simple solution: disown those aspects of your disgraced past, and start truly opposing). Every lurch to the free-market right shreds the idea that the Lib Dems are there to pull the Tories back to the centre. With Lib Dem backbench MPs and such grandees as Shirley Williams, I keep having the same conversation. They say they oppose some policies, but are heartened by others, and all is just about OK. In response, the old hippie phrase comes to mind: you are either on the bus, or off the bus.

It speeds on, anyway. And it really is the most amazing thing: not just that this most illegitimate of revolutions is happening, and fast, but that we are sleepwalking into it.

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