Ritual plays an important role in our public life. The political year is measured out by the pomp of the state opening, the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph, and chancellors waving their red boxes on budget day. In recent years a modern ritual has joined the ancient. We saw it yesterday: the Annual Humiliation of Ministers at the hands of the police, doctors or nurses.
Before the advent of the modern criminal justice system, offenders were placed in stocks on the village green and pelted with manure. The modern police don’t do that any more. The only vestige of such public humiliation is the annual trip by the home secretary to the police federation conference to be ritually booed and barracked. Theresa May was made to stand in front of a large sign saying ‘20% cuts are criminal’ and pelted with hostile questions about her stupid policies. A day before that, Andrew Lansley received the same treatment at the hands of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). They didn’t just catcall and hoot with derision. They did something much worse; they laughed.
It’s easy to merely enjoy the spectacle of the ritual. Who doesn’t enjoy watching high-and-mighty ministers brought low by teachers, prison officers, nurses or police officers? But it would be a mistake to confuse the barracking of ministers at the RCN or Police Federation conferences with some kind of popular uprising against the Coalition government. It would be an even bigger mistake to confuse the warm applause for Ed Miliband with a switch in political support. They warmly applauded Lansley and Cameron just three years ago.
The job of these staff associations is to protect their members’ jobs and conditions. Nothing wrong with that. And that almost always means defending the status quo against any changes or reforms.
Ministers want to make changes. All of them are obsessed with a legacy of some kind. Some tiny part of British life bearing their hallmark is all they ask. Chris Mullin wanted to introduce a height limit on leylandii hedges. Most ministers leave office with nothing to show for it. Some, like John Prescott and his regional development agencies, or Harriet Harman and her equality legislation have to watch their legacy swept away by the next government, leaving no trace. So every incoming health, education or home secretary wants to mess about with the system, and the staff unions want to stop them.
It wasn’t that long since the ministers being booed and barracked were Labour. In April 2006 Patricia Hewitt, then health secretary, had to abandon her speech to the RCN in Bournemouth after orchestrated chanting and booing. RCN delegates had been handed tee-shirts and placards by the RCN’s spin doctors, and their ambush ensured full media coverage. Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley commented ‘will no level of humiliation make her understand?’ and the Lib Dem spokesperson Steve Webb added ‘the government’s permanent revolution and constant meddling has demoralised the bedrock of the NHS.’
As early as April 1999, the education secretary David Blunkett was heckled by teachers at the NUT conference in Brighton. The Guardian reported ‘cries of ‘bring back the Tories’’ as Blunkett had his speech, outlining massive investment in schools, constantly interrupted. Every Labour minister since suffered the same fate. In 1999, the leader of the British Medical Association (BMA) told his annual conference ‘’Congratulations, Mr Blair, morale has never been so low’ a quote leapt upon by the leader of the opposition William Hague. A few weeks later, Tony Blair told a conference that he bore ‘the scars on his back’ from trying to reform public services.
Ironies abound. One is that in 1999, just two years into Labour’s first term, the reform programme hadn’t really begun. In the NHS nothing much had happened at all. Only once the three-year spending freeze had thawed, and Tony Blair had worked out how to reform public services, did the big changes start. In 1999, foundation trusts, academy schools and PCSOs were glints in the modernisers’ eyes.
Another is that for most of the public sector, they were about to experience boom times: extra recruitment, more pay, and extra investment in new buildings. The RCN was hijacking health ministers at the same time as celebrating record numbers of new members. Thousands of new nurses, recruited by those horrid Labour ministers, swelled the RCN war chest.
As a special adviser to the ministers undergoing this ritual humiliation, I offered an alternative. It ran something like this: if you aggregate the amount of time it takes a secretary of state to turn up in Bournemouth and make a speech, including the planning meetings, research, speech-writing, train journey and time spent at the conference, it probably totals between 45 and 50 hours of effort by the minister, their advisers, and their senior officials. And all they get in return is a bucket-full of grief. Imagine instead the RCN or whoever was offered 50 hours of departmental time - high-level meetings with minsters, policy seminars with civil servants, behind-the-scenes briefings at Number 10. Surely it would serve their members’ interests far better. Needless to say, my helpful suggestion was not acted upon.
That’s the problem with rituals. They don’t make sense. They lack logic. They happen because they’ve always happened. But they’re near-impossible to scrap.