Tuesday 17 January 2023

Picking fights


Underpinning much of what the UK government is doing currently, there seems to be an almost desperate and somewhat indiscriminate need to pick fights with people. Perhaps their internal polling, or their focus groups, have been telling them that taking a macho stance against all comers will bring electoral rewards amongst their target groups, but there is little evidence to suggest that such a finding is backed up by information available publicly. Perhaps it’s even more simplistic than that – they are just harking back to the Iron Lady without studying the detail of the way she chose her fights. Whatever the reason, picking fights once positions have been taken, with no attempt to avoid the need for them by advance discussions, seems to have become their default position.

It's possible that they genuinely believed that the public would turn against strikers as the inconvenience caused increases, and maybe – had it been only the railways involved – that might have worked. But taking on the nurses in particular was just foolish. Eventually, they will have to settle; they won’t give the RCN everything it asked for (but being accustomed to the idea of negotiation, the RCN never expected that), but they will have to make some serious concessions, however they attempt to spin them. And having settled one dispute in that fashion, they will have to settle the others in a similar way (the Chancellor’s reported concerns that settling one dispute will lead to a domino effect are valid, but it’s the government which lined up the dominos). Had they only been willing to sit down and negotiate properly before the first strikes, it could probably all have been avoided; turning it into a fight looks to be deliberate.

Yesterday, they announced that they will block the Gender Recognition Bill passed by the Scottish parliament, teeing up another entirely avoidable fight. They could have expressed their concerns in advance and tried to discuss potential changes with the Scottish Government, but chose to wait until the Bill had been overwhelmingly passed by the parliament before using the nuclear option of over-riding the democratic voice of Scotland. It will, undoubtedly, end up in the Supreme Court. It’s not entirely clear who will win the legal argument, but there can be little doubt that the Scottish Government will win the political argument.

And there’s also, of course, the long-running (three Prime Ministers and counting) dispute with the EU over the Brexit terms, another area in which concessions will eventually have to come.

There are times when picking fights might be a sensible strategy for a party or a government, which can look ‘strong’ (apparently that’s a good thing among the electorate) as a result, but only if it wins a reasonable proportion of them. Repeatedly picking fights which it is easy to predict it is doomed to lose can only have the opposite effect. The Tory Party has become not so much a government as a suicide cult. As Richard Murphy points out today, looking at the main elements of their legislative programme, one might easily conclude that they are governing for the world as they wish it were rather than the world as it actually exists. Fantasy has become the new normal.

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