An interview with Ruth Lea

Ruth_lea_3Answering our questions this time is Ruth Lea. Ruth is the Director of Global Vision, the campaign for an outward-looking UK in an outward-looking Europe, working for a fundamentally renegotiated relationship with the EU.  She is also a Governor of the London School of Economics, and formerly Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.


If you were in charge of any ministry which one would it be and why?


I am torn between the Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Treasury appeals because it is simply the most important domestic department from which power can be exerted over all domestic policy – as Gordon Brown demonstrated when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. From the Treasury I would, amongst other ambitions, plan a revolution in the delivery of education and health care services. They would remain taxpayer funded but the state would wither away as provider. The NHS would become, for example, the funder and the regulator of state-supported healthcare – but not the provider. I would attempt to implement the policies I have been advocating for several years and on which I have written a good deal – especially when I was in the IoD.


The FCO, on the other hand, deals with our policy towards the EU. And no more important policy is there for the future of this country. Global Vision, of which I am Director, advocates a new, modern look at our relationship with the EU – one that is more suited to the rapidly changing circumstances of the 21st century. Of course, we must remain on good and close terms with the EU, but we need flexibility and a freedom to manoeuvre which is increasingly being blocked by our full membership of the EU. We should renegotiate a new relationship based on trade and cooperation, whilst opting out of economic and political union. We find from our polling that this type of relationship is the people’s option of choice.


So the department of my choice has to be the FCO.


What are the three most successful policies you can think of in the post-war era?


Firstly, there is little doubt that the supply-side policies of the Thatcher Government – trade union reform, tax reform and privatization – were the most successful economically. These micro reforms did indeed revolutionise the British economy. All too sadly, much of the good work undertaken in the 1980s has been reversed since 1997. Secondly, transferring interest rate setting to the Bank of England was a bold move and one that was long overdue. Let us hope that the Bank can maintain its independence.


Finally, the divesting of Empire, though painful for many British people at the time, was done with dignity and honour on the whole. The Commonwealth, as the Empire’s legacy, is potentially a tremendous resource for Britain and our Commonwealth partners – if only we chose to develop the relationship. This would be another job for me if I were in charge of the FCO!

What are the three worst policy mistakes you can think of in the post-war era?


There is, arguably, a great deal more competition for this one. Indeed where does one start?


But they would surely include the development of the welfare state, including the nationalisation of healthcare, and associated welfare dependency since the late 1940s. Though idealized at the time and indeed barely questioned until the 1980s, these developments did much to undermine the self-reliance which is at the core of dynamic countries and dynamic economies. Of course, there must be safety nets for people who need them, but the state’s blanket coverage stifles non-state provision and, ironically, all too frequently fails the really needy.    


The next policy failure relates to the initial terms of our membership of the EEC. Such was Edward Heath’s enthusiasm for membership that he negotiated a poor deal for Britain. His dishonesty concerning the EEC’s true objectives was hardly the act of a true statesman. 


Thirdly, it’s neck and neck between the dumbing down of education and the botched 1974 local government reforms which undermined local allegiances and sense of belonging (this should never be underestimated). And I’m sure there are a hundred others. The current obsession with “Global Warming” will surely throw up many horrors in years to come.      


Who do you think has been Britain’s most successful post-war minister and why?


Without doubt it has to be Margaret Thatcher for her stewardship of the economic revolution (see question 2).


Who do you think has been Britain’s least successful post-war minister and why?


More competition here…indeed I find it difficult to decide between Edward Heath and Tony Blair.


I’ve already referred to Edward Heath’s handling of the EEC membership negotiations and, of course, the 1974 local government reforms were during his premiership. But there was a general sense of downward drift, including the Three Day Week, during his premiership. To be fair the drift continued, indeed intensified, under Wilson and Callaghan in the late 1970s. 


Tony Blair is more difficult to assess because his premiership is so much more recent. But, at this stage, I would sum his 10 years in two phrases: “wasted opportunities”, and what golden opportunities there were, and “spin intended to bemuse and, allegedly, deceive”. In other words, failure, dishonestly done.       


What do you think of moves by Gordon Brown and David Cameron to bring more outsiders into government?


I have no objections to Gordon Brown or David Cameron bringing in outsiders – though Gordon Brown surely rues some of Lord Jones’s, wholly predictable, outbursts. It all depends on who the outsiders are and how the “insiders” react to them.   


If you were Prime Minister who would you bring in from outside parliament to help you and why?


It would depend on what I considered to be (a) the big issues of the day and (b) what other talent was available to me - either through the political process or in the Civil Service. 


Do you think it is important that ministers have experience in the subject area they are appointed to?


It is useful but not absolutely essential – provided they are well-advised and are sufficiently experienced in high-level decision making (in whatever their chosen field) so they can use the advice well.


What lessons do you think Britain can learn from other countries about the structure of government?


There are many ways of approaching this question and I shall interpret it very widely – perhaps going beyond the strict remit of the question.


But firstly could I say that Britain’s system of Parliamentary Democracy, allied with a first-past-the-post electoral system, can work well and far better, in my view, than German-style coalitions (for example). Whilst, too, there are many criticisms of overly-powerful Executives in Britain, I prefer this to a situation where the Executive is not powerful enough to push through necessary changes.


But I do believe that British political power is too centralized and distant from the regions (botched Devolution apart) and the people. The increasing indifference to and falling participation in party political activities is worrying – I suspect the indifference is exacerbated by the increasing powers transferred to Brussels.


The Federal systems of the US and Germany would bear study and, in particular, the Swiss approach to direct democracy should certainly be analysed. The Swiss system is especially appealing. 
What lessons do you think Britain can learn from other countries about how to deliver public services?


There is a wealth of evidence available from overseas for voucher-style “choice driven per capita funded” educational systems (the Netherlands, the US etc), which I have advocated for several years. As I suggested in my answer to question 1, I would support a similar system for healthcare. My 2 major papers on education and health discussing these issues are, I understand, still available on the IoD website!   


If you were setting up a system of government from scratch would you choose the British model or that of another country?


The British model (see question 9).

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