Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced last week several health service reforms for the coming months. These changes will focus on the structure of the NHS and the rolling back of reforms implemented in the early years of David Cameron, particularly the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. Whilst this article is not focused on the merits of these particular changes, what is noticeable is that the Health Secretary is promising to free the NHS of ‘burdensome bureaucracy,’ much of it the result of policies that his party championed.
It is rare and should always be commended on when politicians admit their mistakes and look to correct them. But this recent announcement fits into a growing trend amongst top-level Conservative ministers trying to overturn policies they wholeheartedly supported in the early 2010s without later acknowledging the failure of those policies. Whilst the rapid U-turns surrounding the pandemic have understandably received more coverage, political opposition and the media cannot allow the government to announce fundamental changes so glibly to public sector policies they had deemed ‘essential’ to save Britain’s economic prosperity.
In the aftermath of the 2017 election, then Prime Minister Theresa May and other prominent cabinet ministers began to announce the end of austerity, a policy which has been proven to do ‘more harm than good.’ Boris Johnson made similar statements about the end of budget cuts throughout 2019. This came after years of David Cameron, George Osborne, and the majority of the Conservative Party declaring the elimination of the deficit through austerity was the only option for Britain’s economic recovery, a statement at odds with the rollbacks from recent Conservative prime ministers.
Although backing down from these policies should be a good sign for a Conservative Government, the party has a record of consistently reverting to this neoliberal dogma in times of even light economic uncertainty. The most recent example of this came with former Chancellor Sajid Javid’s quick abandoning of May’s policy with a new round of public sector cuts. Such a rapid change of direction made it clear that the Conservative Party may have preached the end of austerity, but not learned the lessons from it.
Therefore, we must hold Conservative politicians to account for the policies they gladly adopted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Our national discourse focuses on proven examples of successful or failed political programmes, be it the broader economy NHS reform. This switch in focus would prevent the government from returning to previously ineffective policies.
These debates on political or economic theory may not be the most exciting; the results could have dangerous real-world implications. If the new Conservative goal is to ‘Build Back Better,’ Chancellor Rishi Sunak faces a fundamental choice coming out of the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic and Brexit. Does he revert to failed tropes of austerity or take the government in a new direction? One that is bolder and focused on fixing the injustices brought about by the past decade. He has hinted at the latter but must be consistently pressured to deliver and not regress to earlier ideologically-driven policy.
As well as ensuring the Conservative Party does not bring back such extreme levels of austerity, we cannot allow those who championed the strategies of the 2010s to escape culpability. To return to Hancock’s proposed reforms, his own criticism of the current NHS features no admission of his own party’s guilt over the past ten years. This is obviously understandable, as no politician would openly criticise his own party, so Labour and other opposition parties must not allow these changes to go unchallenged. They must make sure that they consistently remind the government of its failures on austerity and the NHS whenever it is debated in Parliament again.
However, it is also the media and the public’s duty to emphasise Hancock’s support for the reforms that lead to this supposed bureaucracy and ensure that these changes are not simply abandoned when no longer deemed politically convenient. Hancock must be made to clarify why he feels the reforms are necessary and how mistakes by his government have caused them to be so essential.
Looking at the broader government, when a cabinet minister or the Prime Minister themselves claims the end of austerity to have arrived, they must be confronted with the reality of such an ideology so that future generations are not allowed to make the same mistakes during times of economic hardship.