Sean Robinson: Review – “Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-time” by Polly Toynbee and David Walker


Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-Time: Granta Books, £5.00, Sept. 2012.

If journalism is the “first rough draft of history”, as Alan Barth of the Washington Post wrote in the 1940s, then this new book by two Guardian columnists is the second. In Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-Time, Polly Toynbee and David Walker give a comprehensive yet concise (88 pages) recap of the last two years of the coalition, sketching a convincing pattern of “disarray”: the contradictions and confusion in almost all areas of government, alongside the “dogma”: Cameron and Osborne’s “determination to dismantle the state”.

The book’s main argument is that Cameron came into government with one overriding aim: to complete Thatcher’s revolution: “she had privatised the nationalized industries, but Cameron would privatize the state itself”. The programme of austerity was ideologically driven and fiscal arguments, made possible by the financial crisis, were useful justifications. “Claiming cuts caused recovery served a prime purpose: to get rid of as much public spending as these opportune circumstances would allow”.

The main bulk of the book is a well-presented, wide-ranging litany of the policies of the last two years. The argument is repeated and rephrased a few times but on the whole the authors realise that a clear description of the policies and the decision-making process will be more powerful and more persuasive than page after page of argument. This is not the first book of the kind they have written: in 2011 they released The Verdict: Did Labour Change Britain?, a much more positive account of Labour’s 13 years in power. That book asked the question: “Why not more in so long?” This new book leaves you wondering: “How so much, so quickly?”

Cameron, with help from advisor Steve Hilton, spent his time before the election convincing the country he was a “compassionate conservative”. He understood that the electorate were “liberal and welfarist by instinct” and so told us that the Tories were “the party of the NHS”, told us to “vote blue go green” and cosied up to community organisers like Citizens UK. He gave us lots of meaningless phrases, Toynbee and Walker tell us, to cover up his intention of shrinking the state. We had the “Big Society” – “as if people would spontaneously give up profiteering and rigging markets and turn altruistically to do good by their fellow citizens”; we had “nudge” – an unoriginal and extremely limited idea to change behaviour using incentives rather than spending, and therefore providing yet another excuse for cuts; and we had “choice”, an easy buzzword that has been used just as much by Labour as by the Tories.

The authors argue that Cameron and Osbourne used the financial crisis, coupled with “nursery economics”, to persuade the country that there was a fiscal necessity to make massive cuts to state spending. They ignored the lessons of the 1930s cuts which led to deepening depression, ignored the evidence that increasing tax works better than cutting spending, and unfairly characterised the British deficit as unhealthy, like that of Greece, when it was actually much more like Japan’s economically pretty successful deficit – both British and Japanese deficits were owed mainly to home nationals and denominated in the domestic currency. Backed up by Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, they ignored the repeated warnings of serious economists like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and two comment editors from the Financial Times, Samuel Brittan and Martin Wolf – the latter describing the plan to cut demand as “unmitigated folly”.

Many are calling for a Plan B now that there is growing evidence that the austerity measures are doing more harm than good. In 2010 Osborne said that growth would be at 2.5% by now; in April 2012 it was negative, at -0.3%. Toynbee and Walker say that such calls will fall on deaf ears. The reason that we have seen no Plan B is because “there is none, because the goal is not fiscal equilibrium but completion of what Margaret Thatcher began: nothing short of a revolution.”

This argument is a tempting one to subscribe to, but Toynbee and Walker undermine it by seeming to argue simultaneously that Cameron had a real but entirely misplaced faith in the notion that “cutting and growth are profoundly and indissolubly related”. In other words, the fiscal policy was not merely an excuse to “get rid of as much public spending as these opportune circumstances would allow,” but was also motivated by a very real conviction that austerity was the right way to get the economy back on track, because “ratings agencies and bond traders would sustain UK national debt at low interest rates only if they could feel the pain”. These are two seemingly contradictory arguments presented side by side – though they could have been reconciled. Toynbee and Walker could have argued that whilst leading Tories believed these economic arguments, they did so only because the arguments fit neatly into the Hayekian ideology that they were brought up on. It is much easier to embrace an economic argument which corresponds to your existing political values than it is to embrace one that contradicts them. Cameron and Osborne genuinely believed the economics they used to justify their attack on the state – and they believed it precisely because it justified their attack on the state.

Very little time is given to the coalition partners: Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats. Yes, Chapter Three is entirely devoted to the “Fellow Travellers” – but it is only four paragraphs long. It ends by characterising the Lib Dems as “useful idiots”. The Liberal Democrats agreed to the “two great planks of the [Tory] platform: to carry out deficit reduction at a reckless pace and the bigger project of deconstructing the state”. They concede that Clegg prevented the repeal of the Human Rights Act, but that beyond that “even Hercule Poirot could not detect much Liberal Democrat influence” on policy. Clegg’s demanded referendum on voting reform was watered down so that it was on the alternative vote, not on proportional representation. And after making this concession Clegg watched as the Tories donated £660,000 and the use of their offices to the “No” campaign. The authors reckon that House of Lords reform looks “as likely to be realized as Clegg’s winning the next election”. They are right to argue that very little Lib Dem policy has been realised, but they underplay how important it was to the realisation of Tory policy that Cameron had such willing coalition partners. Nick Clegg can take a lot of credit for facilitating the Tory policies of the last two years.

The hardest chapters to read are those on the NHS (Chapter 6, “The Ultimate Privatisation”) and welfare reform (Chapter 8, “The Cruellest Cuts”). “The Ultimate Privatisation” begins with a quote from Mark Britnell, an intimate of David Cameron’s, at a conference of private health care executives in 2010: “the NHS will be shown no mercy”. The chapter goes on to confirm this statement: 49% of beds in NHS hospitals may be available for private patients; private companies already control swathes of the service – in Bath patients are being referred by Virgin Care primary care clinics to Virgin Care secondary care clinics, a conflict of interest not allowed even in the US; approval for the NHS was down from 70% in 2010 to 58% in 2011; with a frozen budget and rising administration costs, clinics have closed and waiting lists have risen. All this from the party that promised “no top down reorganisation of the NHS”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has described the cuts to welfare as almost “without historical or international precedent” and said they will certainly increase child poverty. The cuts were uncoordinated, so that any one family could be hit several times over by cuts from the local council and various government departments. The government used tabloid scare stories to justify its removal of welfare. Mail and Sun articles were invoked to give the impression that all families drawing benefits were workless immigrants living in Kensington mansions, and so Cameron gained support for the policy to cap annual benefits for a working age family at £26,000, meaning that 67,000 households lost on average £83 per week. Those on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) were exempt from this policy but, utilising the same scare tactics again, the government planned to take two thirds of those currently receiving it off DLA by 2013. With social housing rents pushed up to 80% of the market level, those on minimum wage in the South East will have to move; the authors describe the Tory housing policy as “vindictive class clearance, unrelated to any strategic thinking about employment, transport or housing supply,” a perfect example of both the dogma and the disarray in this government.

Whether or not you agree with Toynbee and Walker’s argument itself, the book is a depressing read. You are bombarded with example after example of the government’s attacks on the poor, their policies that inadvertently or intentionally increase the social divide, their doublespeak and their arrogance. Most of it is not new: you will probably have felt much of the anger and upset at these Tory policies before at some point in the last two and a half years. This takes all of that frustration, which you have spread out over a manageable period of time, adds a lot more to distress you and then removes the one consolation that you have had until now – that you can fight it, that it is not over. This second draft of history is written in the past tense – the NHS has been privatised, welfare provision has been decimated, education has been made more elitist – and we can no longer hold onto the comforting illusion that there is something we can do to stop it. Even if the Tories are voted out at the next election, they say, Cameron may “leave the field a winner”.

Sean Robinson is in his third year of a History BA at Queen’s College.

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