John Redwood, MP for Wokingham, has been prominent in the field of centre right politics since his days as Margaret Thatcher's Chief Policy Officer, championing privatisation around the world. Since then he has been a cabinet minister, shadow minister and author - and is also one of Britain's leading blogging MPs. He is currently Chairman of the Conservative Party's Economic Competitiveness Policy Group.
John kindly agreed to be interviewed about TPA's Better Government campaign, and the way in which we can improve how public services are delivered.
If you were in charge of any ministry which one would it be and why?
This is a matter for a future Prime Minister to decide.
What are the three most successful policies you can think of in the post war era?
Council house sales – giving many more people the opportunity to own a home of their own. It gave people pride in ownership, granted them freedoms to change their properties or to sell them and move somewhere else, and allowed them to acquire an asset which could be used to help finance businesses or family purposes.
Introducing competition into former public monopolies. In each case prices came down, innovation increased and quality went up. The transformation of telecoms thanks to competition made possible the growth of the City as the world’s leading financial centre. It is unlikely the City could have grown as well and as fast as it did if we had kept on with the inadequate and rationed phone system we experienced under a nationalised monopoly. The changes in electricity not only cut prices, but led to the UK hitting its Kyoto greenhouse gas targets thanks to the dash for gas replacing dirtier coal fired stations which the nationalised monopoly insisted on building.
Floating the pound. The UK economy suffered devaluation crises under Labour in the 1940s and 1960s, and suffered from the ERM crisis in 1992. In each case the requirements of the managed exchange rate led to stop-go policies, wealth destruction and slower growth. Floating the pound removed that artificial constraint on economic growth and ushered in a more successful era for UK prosperity.
What are the 3 worst policy mistakes you can think of in the post-war era?
1. Nationalisation. The nationalisation of post, coal, electricity, phones, trains and other leading sectors held the UK economy back. The nationalised industries charged people more, provided a less good quality of service, and ended up sacking all too many of their staff. They did untold damage to labour relations, pillaged the taxpayer for subsidies to pay the losses, and did harm to customers.
2. Damaging the Bank of England in the 1997-8 reforms whilst wrongly claiming the government was making the Bank of England more independent. Gordon Brown took away the power of the Bank to manage public debt and to supervise the day to day activities of the clearing banks. This left the Bank without the minute by minute market information it needs to manage money markets well, and left the regulatory system much weakened to deal with a crisis when it struck. Unfortunately a crisis struck in the form of Northern Rock, the first time for well over a century that there has been a run on a UK bank.
3. Transferring too much power to the EU. The substantial transfers of power under Nice, Amsterdam and the proposed Constitutional reform Treaty represent a big change in how we are governed, shifting too many things from democratic control here in the UK to bureaucratic control in the EU.
Who do you think has been Britain’s most successful post war minister and why?
Margaret Thatcher, for reforming the trade unions, cutting the rate of strikes and improving labour relations, transforming the nationalised industries and selling Council houses. Her reform made the UK more a nation of owners, creating more families and individuals with a stake in the nation. It took much of the bitterness out of industrial relations, and moved the UK on from strife to society where training, participation and ownership all had a stronger role to play in creating a unity of purpose between mangers and employees.
Who do you think has been Britain’s least successful post war minister and why?
James Callaghan, for presiding over the trip to the IMF to bail out the UK economy in 1976 and the winter of discontent in 1978-9.
What do you think of moves by Gordon Brown and David Cameron to bring in outsiders to government?
Only Gordon Brown is able to bring outsiders into government. His moves have shown he needs to be much more careful if whom he chooses. Admiral West has made mistakes and had to execute a humiliating U turn about detention without trial, whilst the former DG of the CBI has peppered the record with all sorts of unhelpful comments about the government prior to taking office which makes it difficult for him to be effective within the framework of collective responsibility.
If you were Prime Minister who would you bring in from outside Parliament to help you and why.
I would use the talent available in Parliament.
Do you think it is important that ministers have experience in the subject area they are appointed to?
An experienced Minister can go to any department and succeed. Ministerial skills include understanding and handling Parliament, chairing meetings successfully, assimilating large amounts of complex information and reaching a decision, thinking sceptically about professional advice advanced and checking official advice against commonsense and the testimony of people outside government. The essence of being a good Minister lies in using the professional advice well, and keeping in touch with public opinion and Parliamentary pressures. It does make the job easier if you also happen to have professional expertise in the area of the department, but it is important not to cloud your general Ministerial judgement with your own professional judgement, as you are paying others to offer that.
What lessons do you think Britain can learn from other countries about the structure of government?
That those countries with the lowest tax rates and the best controlled patterns of government administrative expenditure perform better. We should learn from the experience of the richest countries of Western Europe, Switzerland and Norway, that keeping EU costs and demands down helps create a prosperous country. We need to negotiate a better deal for the UK within the EU to get closer to that enjoyed by Norway and Switzerland outside the EU.
What lessons do you think Britain could learn from other countries about how to deliver public services?
Where more choice, local determination and local management is allowed public services are better. The important thing is to ensure access to care or education using state cash to ensure fair access. It is not important to run or control everything in the state sector needed to provide the service.
If you were setting up a system of government from scratch would you choose the British model or that of another country?
I would choose to keep single member constituencies and a powerful Parliament elected by first past the post from the UK system. PR systems break the link between an MP and a particular group of constituents in a particular place, making MPs less accountable. It also encourages people to form more extreme parties, as PR allows them to get people elected to influence the policy of the resulting coalition government.
I would not want the EU to have such power over fishing and agriculture as granted by the Treaty of Rome nor such power over social and employment policy, foreign affairs, criminal justice and the other important areas that this government has transferred. Too many layers of government creates over-regulation, and blurs democratic accountability, against the interests of taxpayers and voters.
I would not allow regional government in England, as England does not break up into natural regions and there is no need for this unnecessary layer of government.
Do you think Britain can realistically move towards such a system?