Apologising for what she got right


After two weeks of huge fuss, Caroline Spelman MP has received the grudging respect of MPs by publicly announcing in the House of Commons that she was sorry, she had simply got the policy to sell Forestry Commission wrong.

Er, no, Caroline. The policy was exactly right. The Forestry Commission is a conflicted quango, trying to regulate forestry while also being the sector's biggest owner, manager and producer. Most of its land is not green and pleasant leafy groves that welcome the public. The private sector could manage things much better.

What was wrong was the presentation. It's not too difficult to predict that the 'selling the family silver' charge is going to be hurled against any privatization (or in this case, merely leasing-out) plan. That's the statists' nuclear weapon. Most people don't realise that the family silver is already bashed and tarnished – that part of it that hasn't been stolen in a smash and grab raid by the trade unions and the officials in Whitehall who actually run things.

Still, Eric Pickles MP is doing far better at justifying his cuts to local authority spending, albeit after a bit of time on the back foot. He's pointing out the sheer scale of the waste that goes on. Again, the government could have been better prepared, though. Like forests, the fuss on libraries was predictable. When faced with budget tightening, the first thing a bureaucracy does is axe the services that will cause a fuss, in the hope that its paymasters will back down in the face of that fuss. Nobody in the back office loses they job, of course. But it is easy to counter this policy. Private firms who run libraries in the US reckon they could shave a third off the libraries budget, and extend opening hours and buy far more books at the same time. Westminster politicians need to tell us things like that.

I do hope this government is not going to be like Blair's, tossed on the sea of public opinion as it ditches good policies that don't go down well. My guess is that it will not, and that it has a better sense of direction as to what it wants to achieve and the difficult measures it needs to take to achieve them. But when you know you will face difficulties, you need to prepare well to get through them.