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Shirley Williams talking sense on NHS, Philip Hammond talking sense on rail, but Big Society could derail him

Posted on 28 February 2011 | 7:02am

For the second time in less than a week – well done Charles Kennedy on re-election as Rector of Glasgow University – I intend to be nice about a Lib Dem.

I did not see BBC Question Time last week, but several people have mentioned to me how impressed they were with Shirley Williams.

The former Labour minister and founding member of the Gang of Four is being impressive again this morning, as she takes the government to task over the NHS reforms for which, as I have pointed out before, there is no point and they have no mandate … NO POINT, NO MANDATE … NB campaigners, good slogan.

Shirley (I’m hopeless at using those Lord and Lady titles) has a piece in The Times which not only takes apart the proposals on their (de)merits, but makes a very good point for her fellow Lib Dems, namely that they ‘are under no obligation to support coalition NHS reforms because they do not appear in the coalition agreement.’

That echoes my NO MANDATE point, not just with regard to the lack of any commitment to these reforms in the Tory manifesto, but in the coalition agreement too.’ ‘Why we should dismember this remarkably successful public service for an untried and disruptive reorganisation amazes me. I remain unconvinced.’ Well said, Shirl. Let us hope a few of her Commons colleagues take note as the reforms proceed through Parliament.

She also takes successful aim at the government’s attempts, as part of Operation Save-Clegg, to paint the proposals as progressive. ‘Many clinicians fear the private sector will skim off profitable routine operations, leaving expensive, complicated treatment to the NHS,’ she says, adding that the new GP consortia will face little local accountability on how they use £80 billion of public money.

Meanwhile, in another part of the local accountability political jungle, I spot a Tory I actually agree with, namely transport secretary Philip Hammond in his efforts to get a high-speed rail link going. It is much needed, and provided the economic case can be made properly, something that should be supported.

But here’s the glitch … as part of the Big Society (can I suggest a Giant Question Mark as a logo?) the government is committed to localism (its definition only slightly less vague than the BS?) And something like a high-speed rail link cuts through a lot of localisms, so many of them are getting organised in a Big Society kind of way to stop the link.

As he launches the consultation on this, I happen to agreee with Hammond when he says that the decision should be taken in the national interest.

‘It is about bringing the UK together,’ he says (tick). ‘It is about closing the North-South gap’ (tick) ‘and stimulating economic growth,’ (tick) ‘a 21st century infrastructure for a 21st century country.’ (tick).

But in common with his boss, he does not like criticism and starts to lose the plot tonally when he says of opponents …‘They are mainly Nimbys. Although they express a principled opposition to what we are proposing, most of them happen to live in the Chilterns. That is not to ‘diss’ them.’

Mmm, quite a good dissing if you ask me … and watch the Nimbys get even more agitated once the cuts affect local services and they start campaigning on those too, asking why money is being spent on a rail-link nobody (sic) wants when our local this that and the other are being cut.

Politics is so much harder than it seemed when Dave and Nick were sitting down to write their coalition agreement on a fag packet and forgetting to include anything about reforming the NHS.

  • Jose

    I’m pretty sure that good old Tone had NO MANDATE for invading Iraq but did it stop him? I’ll go along with the NHS and Big Society arguments but the NO MANDATE argument is just BS; whenever the politicans need it, they find ways of having the mandate.

  • Duncan Phipp-MacIntyre.

    As incohesive as they are ll-conceived, this ragtag collection of policies really do have a massive internal contradiction at their core. All in this together? Truly some animals are more equal than others – or is it that their snouts are closer to the trough?

  • Sarah Dodds

    Had a family reunion yesterday and caught up with cousins and their partners etc who I have only had internet contact with since the general election. Nice. Should have been cosy. But out of a toal of 10 of us around my age, 7 of us are employed in the public sector. Four out of that seven have lost employment as a direct result of the cuts. Two are waiting to find out where they will end up in a massive restructuring – but it is sure to be a massive demotion and loss of pay for both. Out of the 3 private sector employees, one has just seen their business, which was reliant on public sector contracts, go to the wall.
    Two of the families are going from the full employment of both partners to both being out of work, unless they can find something very quickly. Both of these families have kids.
    It is a family tragedy, and a waste of lots of work, energy and talent that has gone into serving the public. But it also represents a cull of the public sector, in the same way that mining was culled under Thatcher. And I agree totally that Dave and Nick are about to be very surprised at how BIG society can be. From where I am, I am seeing that people who have so far been politically minded with are small “p” are quite prepared to be politically active with a big “P.”
    I predict and hope that it won’t be just a high speed rail link coming down the tracks at this governement.

  • Jonbg

    More nonsense from Alastair

    It is an utter disgrace that those on the left are using this ridiculous no mandate argument to simply score political points in their campaign to save the failing NHS which cost money and lives due to its inefficiencies across the board. I was impressed by the GP on Any answers who confirmed many progressive GPs are ahead of the game on reforms and broadly supportive of taking control of PCT excesses. I speak as one whose wife has been in hospital for two years in spite of the fact that her doctor wants her discharged, she wants to go home with a care package and we want her home. Only the PCT believes it acceptable to keep her in hospital at £5000 per week to the tax payer as she worsens for so-called budgetary reasons. As for the high speed link. What a white elephant. £33bn for an extra 20 minutes? Green rubbish.

  • Laura Payne

    In just under a year the Tories have rewarded their banking donors, tried to sell off our forests to their landed gentry supporters, now want to hand the NHS to private administrators (large medical assurance companies with very profit driven agendas) who no doubtedly helped the Tory election purse. The next will be our schools into private funded academies. Let’s not get carried away that this is some parent power movement – most are large international firms who have undoutedly signed up as political benefactors to further their interests once in power and will want rewarding. And we are being encouraged to buy into the Tories’ PR myth that this should happen as part of the some economic pill we have to swallow…More public outcry please along the lines of the forest sell-off…we do still have a voice…

  • Behind all of the governments plans, good or bad, everything is tingded with pornographic ammounts of money going to prop up the life style of a very few individuals, a good percentage of whom do not even bother to spend their money here in the UK but abroad in some tax haven or other. The current Administration are products of this group, Clegg’s father used to employ Ken Clark, for instance in a bank so even the Lib Dems are not immune from what the electorate quite rightly percieve as a stitched up gov.
    Unfortunately for the tories, and I think Ashcroft realises this and why he is out now, modern media is instant and a lot more less controlled than when just a few newsp[aper magnates ran the show. We have facebook, Bloggs, emails, twitter etc and all these mean that facts can be placed in the public domain far quicker. It would be a foolhardy newspaper proprietor who disregards this explosion of ‘knowledge’
    We have recently seen this with Murdock’s attempt to now distance himself
    and his money grabbing power hungry empire from the gathering storm of phone hacking.
    Whoever reads the real ‘engine of change’ in this post Brown/Blair era will be the party that becomes successful. So far the tories havent got it and Ed, who used that phrase so well in the early days, has dropped what everyone else is now picking up. They really dont get it do they?
    Now Mandy has said his piece we can hope for a little less interference from him publicly as he is about as welcome as a pint of beer was to Maggies old man in the 80’s
    The NHS reforms are not neccessarilly going to be the ideology that kills off the tories for good, they have reinvented themselves more times than Madonna. With a bit of luck it will be their arrogant gaff’s that will see them off as nothing now gets missed in this new enlightened electronic age. That is the engine we need to use and protect before they wake up. the liberals are and will remain on the sidlines of politics and they should enjoy this ‘one moment of fame’ The labour party should and must concentrate on exposing the ideology of the tories and show how it clashes with that of the Socialists. ‘People before Profit’ should be part of our Mantra as we lay down our heads to sleep each day. We British are no different than any other people in any other country we all want the same self actualisation goals. Peace, food, clothing, shelter,prosperity (for all) fairness, tolerance, art and recreation….

  • Olli Issakainen

    David Cameron claims to be a liberal Conservative and one nation Tory in the tradition of Harold Macmillan. In fact, he and Messrs Osborne and Clegg are implementing rightwing neoliberal policies against the will of the majority.
    Mr Cameron speaks of “reform” and “modernisation”, but this is all cover for his extremist agenda. Even Mrs T knew where to stop.
    We are on the way to American-style market state. Market forces are being injected to public sector. Cameron wants to replace Big Government with Big Society with Big Citizens.
    In order to achieve this visionary paradise, he must first cut, cut and cut. So please do not believe the metanarrative of the Tory-led government which states that we do not want to cut but are forced to do so because of nation´s “credit card”.
    The government does not occupy the centre ground. It wants to privatise the entire British state. Profit-hungry private companies are waiting in the wings.
    The Tory-led government is on ideological mission to destroy the welfare state. But Big Society cannot protect people.
    Cutting the deficit is being used as an excuse. In reality, the policies of the government benefit only bankers and big corporations. This is a government of millionaires for millionaires.
    David Cameron wants to end state monopoly in provision of public services. Private sector bodies will be given automatic right to bid for public work. Mr Cameron is about to completely change public services, but does he have a mandate for it?
    The coalition´s actions do not match the manifestos – not even the coalition agreement. But not since 1923 has election been called over policy change.
    Britain´s economy contracted 0.6% in last quarter last year. Inflation is 4%. All this before the £81bn cuts! Taxes will also go up.
    But bankers are still enjoying their bonuses out of taxpayers´ pockets and big corporations are avoiding taxes thus adding to the deficit. A trillion pounds has been poured to the banks.
    Why do people accept all this?
    Commodity prices are up. Economic policy must always respond to the facts. Yet Mr Osborne boasts that he has no plan B.
    But double-dip could be caused by a policy mistake, an external shock or a loss of confidence. It is totally irresponsible not to make alternative plans.
    Messrs Cameron and Osborne cannot distinguish between a policy and a strategy. Strategy requires a plan!
    The Tory-led government has forgotten growth and high employment. Its ideologically-driven cuts will only make things worse.
    Ideology is driving the government´s agenda. Victorian Britain was a land of laissez-faire capitalism and self-reliance. Regulation was minimal and welfare was left to charity.
    The government is promoting Victorian values. But nostalgia without nuance is dangerous. Victorian Britain was a country of poverty.
    The welfare state was the answer to the social problems. But the Tory-led government is about to dismantle it.
    We must put stop to the activities of this rightwing government before permanent damage to Britain happens.

  • Tom Eden

    You mention that you failed to catch Question Time, I would thoroughly recommend watching it on iplayer. The reason? A few weeks ago you wrote a piece which suggested the argument ‘it’s all labour’s fault/the mess we inherited’ argument from the Tories would wear thin, and this episode of question time proved that. As soon as them words left the Tory’s lips, she was greeted by resounding groans and boos. What a wonderfully apt response, and what good foresight by you Mister Campbell…has anyone suggested that you should advise governments?

  • Chris lancashire

    Mr Campbell – you’re beginning to ramble ….

  • Richard

    Praising Shirley Williams and Charles Kennedy in one blog, eh? We are deeply suspicious. Thinking of leaving the soggy colander before it sinks?
    The rudderless, hopeless shadow cabinet of “Blank Sheet Of Paper” merchants couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo and far from holding the coalition to account, are letting them regroup and regroup again.
    Last year you howled with derision at how inexperienced the coalition cabinet were. The fact is that Moribund’s pygmies are very experienced, and still incapable. But you may bet that Cameron is learning fast.

  • ambrosian

    The ‘no mandate’ argument in relation to manifestos is not a strong one: manifestos are aspirations rather than pledges and governments often have to take unforeseen action in response to events. But as AC mentions, the really shocking thing is that the coalition agreement specifically stated that there would be no re-organisation of the NHS. So this Government has taken broken promises and betrayal of trust to a whole new level.
    Shirley Williams is right to say that her party has no obligation to vote for something that was not in the coalition agreement – indeed ruled out in that agreement. Whether that means the LibDems will find some balls and oppose NHS re-organisation is another matter. After all, most of them – including the Blessed Shirley – voted for the increase in tuition fees.

  • Sorry to go off-topic, but this is urgent and very much relates to the sort of government we have in Britain, and will get in the future.

    According to Ben Fenton of the Financial Times, who knows about these things, this week Murdoch is likely to be given a green light for his takeover of BSkyB. The belief is that a deal has been struck, whereby News Corp hives of Sky News, thus allaying concerns about the plurality of news provision.

    As we’ve blogged at DemocracyFail, news plurality is just part of the problem. There are many reasons why the takeover should not go ahead, one being that it would be another nail in the coffin of public services, another being that it would help sustain the Tories in power for years to come.

    Labour needs to speak out loud and clear, before it’s too late, and those of us in the party should make our voices heard. Meanwhile Tom Baldwin should reverse his warning to the shadow cabinet to hold back on linking the BSkyB bid to the phone hacking. It’s a new ball game out there. No need to be creepy crawly any longer.

  • Richard

    Since when did any politician, businessman etc whilst carrying out one strategy bugle the existence of “a plan B”.
    GB did not spend much time telling us ” if we return to boom and bust I will…..” TB never said ” if on the other hand there were to be no WMDs……..” Your naivety is astonishing. Come and spend some time in the real world.
    “Ideology is driving the government´s agenda.” What a complaint! Did you get this one from a “GCSE failure textbook.”
    “But nostalgia without nuance is dangerous.” Have you suggested this as a new strapline to the two Eds? They would probably buy it.
    Finally, “We must put stop to the activities of this rightwing government ….” Presumably you are suggesting something other than waiting for the next election?
    Have you thought of appling for the job of speech writer for “Two Jags”?

  • Laurapayneuk

    tempted to say we can’t see the wood for the economic trees at present but recent Tory U turns proves that when they are barking up the wrong tree in the shape of forests the British voice will roar…lets hope we feel the NHS and our schools are worth the same fierce response before they are chopped down ???

  • Ehtch

    Part of “The gang of four”, of course. SPILTTERS!

    If only she had political patience with the Thatcher about – she would implode soon, as she did, but the talent was lacking in the early 1990s to really go for it, because some jumped ship when it became extremely uncomfortably with Hatton and the media, and they went after some fantastic fantasy.

    Still see Shirley Williams turning up on telly, ducks back, and water.

    The self-publicist. If she was japanese, sword time, years ago.

  • Pam

    You sound just like Alastair Campbell!


  • Pam

    This is Alastair Campbell trying…….with a last gasp…….to rally the troops.


  • Pam

    Yes, I’m afraid this is Alastair Campbell…. bitter and twisted and jealous of the coalition.

    He needs to get a life.

    He nor Mandelson are pulling the strings any more.

    You came second in the election…..and THERE IS NO MONEY LEFT.

    You spent it all.


  • Pam

    I like this Richard.


  • Nicky

    That Tory lady was Cheryl Gillan – it has to be said that although during her contributions she was quite forthright in loyally peddling the usual ConDem cobblers, in repose she looked pretty depressed.

    Back in 2009, she was the architect of the Autism Bill, which sought to improve the lives of children and adults on the autistic spectrum. (I have a particular interest in this as both my children have autistic spectrum disorders.) Now Ms Gillan’s government seems hell-bent on making life worse for people with disabilities, through their ill-thought out and callous cuts programme – people who weren’t responsible for the global banking crisis, but seem to be being punished for it.

    I would speculate that she isn’t a happy bunny about the way things are panning out.

  • Dave Simons

    Thank you Richard for yet another well-argued, logical and entirely persuasive contribution to the debate. Did you used to work for Norman Tebbit as speechwriter? Was it you who invented ‘I could eat you for breakfast’? Surely your immense talents are wasted on this blog?
    Pity about the rest of us though, so naive, such GCSE failures, and so incapable of coping with the real world. All we do is rant, complain and call people names.Why can’t we see what a wonderful government we have? Doing its best to clear up the mess left by that wicked, incompetent Gordon Brown!

  • alienfromzog


    I’m sorry to hear about your wife but your wrong on the substance of your argument. Firstly the issue with care packages and delayed discharges is a major one for the NHS precisely because they are nothing to do with the NHS. Community care is entirely within the purview of the local authority and nothing to do with the NHS.

    Moreover, if you want to argue that the NHS is failing, you’re gonna need some evidence – as this [] article in the BMJ points out, the UK has the fastest improving cancer and heart disease outcomes despite only have just reached the European average level of spending.

    Oh, and one final thought, the majority of GPs that have signed up for so-called pathfinder status are not enthusiastic about the reforms. They take their responsibility to their patients very seriously and know that reforms will be forced on them and are desperate to minimise the damage. []

    Dr AFZ

  • Anonymous

    Actually, Francis Maude got an even bigger raspberry two weeks ago when he launched into “it’s all Labour’s fault…”, see here.. ….. pre-dating Alistair’s prediction of same…

  • Quinney

    Ally, all part of the LibDem propaganda machine to make some us think that the LibDems aren’t that bad really when someone like Williams says things like this. No mercy, they are LibDems, terminate with extreme prejudice, these are the people who told us not long ago that they were the real progressives. Now they prop up a regime which pursues ideology dressed up as austerity far to the right of anything Thatcher tried.

    On the rail link, no problem as long as it unites all of the country by going up to Scotland, not just a high speed commuter link for the south east.

  • Richard

    Sorry, Dave, your point was……………? I have drawn attention to the out-spewing of meaningless language which formed the posting, “liked” by so many readers of this contribution by Olli. Which part of my analysis did I get wrong, oh humble one?

  • SG

    ‘or is it that their snouts are closer to the trough’

    They’d have a job getting to the trough as they’d find their way blocked by Blair, Mandelson, Kinnock, Prescott………

    As for NO MANDATE, remember the EU, uncontrolled immigration, Iraq……

  • Dave Simons

    You don’t have to walk very far into the English countryside before you realise that feudalism did not end with the emancipation of the serfs in the early fifteenth century but is still alive and kicking. Despite that I find myself sympathising on this issue with the middle class nimbys of the Tory-loving Chilterns. Any economic benefits from running a high-speed link straight across an actual or potential Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are for me completely nullified by the immense spiritual loss to all those people who are currently able to breathe relative fresh air, exercise their limbs and appreciate the relative peace, quiet and landscape beauty of places like the Chilterns. I accept that a lot of people just see the countryside as an open air factory, prime site for urban development or dumping ground for excess packaging, but think of all the photographers, artists, poets, authors and musicians who have celebrated the Chilterns and places similar and imagine how bereft and barren English culture would be without their work. New Labour scored a major plus when it passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000). Let’s continue in that tradition – riverbanks, coasts, woodlands – and not always be putting economic arguments foremost, especially when we witness what a mess clever economists have made in the last few years.

  • Gilliebc

    Hello again Pam, thought you’d left this site? Anyway, welcome back!

  • Anonymous

    typing my comment, will it go in this time!

  • Dave Simons

    Perhaps I could get you both a drink?

  • Gilliebc

    That’s funny 🙂