Oliver Letwin and the Politics of Fear

Oliver Letwin does not have a particularly high profile in the coalition government. He is ‘policy minister’ within the cabinet office, which means he gets to look at policies as they are being constructed and implemented, but doesn’t have a high profile job of his own, no proper job such as health or education to get his teeth into and get him a high public profile.  But he has managed to get into the news lately, as in this article in the Guardian he is reported addressing a consultancy firm about wanting to instil ‘discipline and fear’ into the public services in order to address what he sees as 20 years of falling productivity from workers such as teachers, nurses and doctors. The broad idea he is outlining is that teacher and nurses and doctors need to be scared of being sacked, then they will knuckle down and do their jobs properly and the tax payer can get much better value for money.

His use of words is very telling. ‘Discipline’ and ‘Fear’ are excellent Authoritarian Tory concepts.  The whiff of the arbitrary exercise of power by prefects in the dorms mingles nicely here with overtones of completely random acts of thuggery to remind any downtrodden person who is ‘really boss’ and that they are subject to a social order which is external to themselves and which they must submit to, without question. Letwin was an oleaginous, misguided bully to use these words even to a quasi-private meeting (albeit one with journalists present) but nobody from the coalition has come out to correct or temper his language or brief against him, so we assume that deep in the corridors of Whitehall Letwin is pulling on the levers of power to ensure that, as and when needed, the political classes can smash a nicely timed punch into the face of the public sector and remind them just who is boss.

If this seems like an overreaction then please bear with me. Some supporters of reform to public services may think that maybe Letwin was just outlining how a supposed  ‘private sector’ fear of losing your job could bring a renewed sense of urgency to teaching and nursing; nothing too aggressive or hostile here, just a gentle reminder to nurses and teachers that ‘you work for us’. Surely no harm in a gentle reminder every now and again about who is boss.  But  remember how fear works. Fear works on its victims by laying out a series of possible future events. Followed home by someone on a dark night? Fear will tell you they are going to jump you in a dark alley and rob you, maybe when they’ve done robbing, they will stab you just for the hell of it. You don’t know; that is why you are afraid.  Found a strange lump in your breast? Fear will whisper to you all night long that this is cancer and you’ll be dead by Christmas, or maybe by Bonfire Night, you simply don’t know, so you lay awake sick with, well, ‘fear’. The phrase fear of the unknown’ is tautological, all fear is about the unknown which makes it psychologically the ideal weapon of the bully. Letwin is a bully and he wants to use the methods and tactics of the bullies to somehow miraculously motivate millions of public sector workers who, if he visited them at work, he would find are already doing their very very best to be good at their jobs.  Even if they are not doing their best, motivation does not result from fear. Fear creates cautious people, scared of making mistakes.  Letwin like most bullies also conveniently glosses over facts which disrupt his view of the world. Never mind the fact that the economy is flatlining right now and when government spends money on public services this is not cash which is lost for ever. It comes back into the treasury in the form of both direct and indirect taxes. The much feted resurgence of private enterprise which is going to rebalance the economy is not waiting around the corner it seems, so Letwin could have taken a more circumspect and reasoned approach, acknowledging the role of the public sector before setting out his carefully chosen steps to reform. Crucially as he selected himself for political leadership he could have tried to think of new approaches or policy ideas a little more sophisticated than simply pushing responsibility for innovation down to the shop floor and threatening punitive action if improvements are not made.

So what is really going on here? Well one agenda in play is that Letwin is banging his chest ahead of the party conference season to show his peers what a great reformer he is and how he will make sure that the public sector pays a heavy price for bringing the economy to its knees. Never mind that it was the bankers who did this, the new narrative mobilised by the Tories  appears to write off the banking collapse and subsequent tsunami of billions of pounds of tax payer money into the city as nothing more than a little local difficulty. Something which need not be mentioned again, a mere indiscretion, like the time one was caught kissing the au-pair behind the Christmas Tree. The new narrative paints the public sector as the dead weight and leaden anchor dragging the country down into an economic black hole, and Letwin clearly believes that only by slimming the public sector down and increasing productivity dramatically can we get out of the hole we are in. The trouble is that the coalition have few ideas about reforming public services which don’t involve privatisation and more competition from outside providers and they lack the political mandate to carry even these through. Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms were shouted down, although market reforms to open NHS services were recently announced as the world’s eyes were on the senseless massacre in Norway. Michael Gove’s reforms to education, whilst more successful in terms of policy implementation, have little to do with new thinking about productivity or creative approaches to teaching and learning as he cannot see beyond ‘the school’ as a unit of analysis.  Gove is eager to prise them all from local authority control and make them report directly to him, as if the dead hand of the local authority is what has been holding them back all of these years which is where his argument falters as I have yet to see any credible evidence that Local Authorities are a systemic problem in the delivery of high quality education in England. What replaces the responsibility of the local authority to plan provision on a macro level and ensure resources are used sensibly is nothing more than the wild and raging market place as schools compete with each other for pupils and the weakest fall by the wayside.

Ultimately Letwin’s fear, like the fear peddled by all bullies, is simply of himself. Lacking a sense of how to provide genuinely innovative and creative leadership for the education and health sectors, Letwin and his party have resorted to macho threats of sacking teachers and nurses hoping that this is interpreted as strong leadership and it masks the gaping hole at the centre of their approach to public services.

Image of Oliver Letwin licensed under Creative Commons.
Provided by Cabinet Office Flickr account, available: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cabinetoffice/4604382806/

Author: mjp6034

Education consultant specialising in educational technology and change management.

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