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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Coalition Government: 100 Days, and Counting

Friday, August 20, 2010

Over that long night and the strange following days of the general election, I blogged a few thoughts about the advent of a Liberal-Conservative coalition. With the media churning out editorials on the fact that the coalition has survived its first 100 days, I thought I would add my brief review to the mix.

Back then, I predicted that Cameron's government would prove to be more centrist than it might otherwise instinctively want to be, as it was kept in check by the Lib Dems. Yet - and I say this as a Lib Dem voter at the election - I have been baffled and disappointed by how little impact the Liberals are able to have on the Tories. Aside from a progressive increase of the income tax threshold to £10 000, I can think of no headline policies that have emerged from the Lib Dem side. Partially, this may be due to the fact that the two parties have indeed found a deal of common ground around the centre, especially with regard to civil issues. The classic example came when Kenneth Clarke, one of the more leftist Tories, revealed plans to reform the prison service, something the Lib Dems have long called for. When Michael Howard criticised the plans, he served to triangulate the coalition, away from Thatcherism, away from Labour's big state, and towards a more liberal civil society. Frankly, anything that Michael Howard rejects is likely to find favour with me.

Sticking with the positives, I have been surprised by how statesmanlike Cameron appears to be, supported by William Hague as Foreign Secretary, whose undoubted eloquence plays well on the international stage. On Afghanistan, in defending BP in the United States, in adopting a more forceful attitude towards Pakistan's partial permission of terror, Cameron and Hague have come across well.

However, to focus on civil liberties or foreign policy is to be talking about a mouse, when the elephant is dominating the room. On the issue of cuts, I remain quite pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that cuts have to be made, it is impossible not to imagine that the 40% knife is being wielded not with solemn determination, but with a degree of glee in some corners of the Conservative party. I also dislike the mantra of "efficiency savings" and "cutting waste" that comes from the political top. On the ground, an efficiency saving means a parent losing their job; what may be waste to the politician is a serious and valuable responsibility to the person performing a role.

But regardless of the language that smooths the great gashes in public spending, I have a very real fear that the cuts are making their marks most deeply on the young. Cuts in Connexions and the Future Jobs Fund will hurt those at the very bottom of the ladder, who may have dropped out of education prematurely, but who have not yet unfairly piggy-backed on a lifetime of benefits.

In a different area, the government's Higher Education funding policy is a mess, and the fact that 150 000 students will miss out on a university place threatens not only these individuals, but also the whole ethos - admirably developed by New Labour - that Higher Education should be accessible to all. On the news last night, I heard a young lad in tears, who had achieved two As and an A* at A-Level, but who had not been offered a place on the medicine course he wanted. He had no hope of getting an alternative place through clearing. The first in his family to aim for university, he had been promised that it offered the route to a premium career. He maintained his side of the bargain by getting excellent results; this government (and, to be fair, the last year of New Labour's) has not kept theirs. What message will this send out to those from poorer background who have never before seen university as something to aspire to, and who may not now do so again?

It seems to me that the big risk of cuts like this is that they are barbed with no possibility of reversal. Cut jobs in the civil service, or hospitals, or even schools, and staff can be re-recruited once the economy recovers. But cut funding for university places (or for for the environment and sustainability, another major concern of mine) and you cannot simply backpedal. Those who miss out on university this year, may end up never going; rural areas left to degrade and species left to decline may simply never return to their present state.

Nevertheless, at 100 days, it is fair to recognise that we are in the early phases of the government. Many of the "cuts" exist at the moment as paper hypotheses, and it is not until the October Spending Review that we will see more clearly what the future four years hold in store. Whereas Blair and Alistair Campbell seemed to follow each election by immediately planning for the next in pursuit of that "historic third term," the present government faces shorter hurdles, coming at an unprecedentedly rapid rate. The coalition has survived its first 100 days fairly well. But the next hurdle looms with the Spending Review. Then, as cuts bite early in the next financial year, it will arrive in the form of figures that show or deny a double-dip recession. In this fast moving political climate, the only thing that is sure is that the next checkpoint will arrive sooner than 100 days hence.

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Posted by Alistair at 5:53 pm


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