Were they, I mused, now hoping a spirit of grim, 'post Dunkirk-like determination in adversity' to take over the country and we all pull together through these straightened times till the sunny uplands of a private sector led recovery are reached? That we collectively roll up our sleeves and build the Big Society out of whatever happens to be at hand?
Andrew Rawnsley says not: they want to unleash revolutionary cultural change on the country, and especially its public sector. He makes a rather far fetched analogue with Mao,
"I have heard one important figure in the government talk of unleashing a "cultural revolution" in the public services and another hailing devolution of power away from the centre using Mao's old slogan: "Let a thousand flowers bloom."Rawnsley manages to weave into his case the blurted out remarks of one Nick Boles MP , who claimed that chaos in local government is not only coming but is to be welcomed, as it is an alternative to intrinsically impossible planning. (In other news: Tim Worstell manages to work this up into a moment of Hayekian purity, somehow implying an obscure linkage between butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon and the socialist calculation debate. Or something like that.)
.... I have actually heard more than one member of the cabinet explicitly refer to the government as "Maoist".
Just about anywhere you look in Whitehall, there is a secretary of state unleashing upheaval. Ken Clarke challenges two decades of orthodoxy about the criminal justice system. Michael Gove battles the educational establishment to create his "free schools". Iain Duncan Smith has ambitions to be the man who definitively reformed welfare. Chris Huhne is dramatically recasting energy pricing. Nick Clegg wants to rewrite large parts of the constitution. Over at health, Andrew Lansley proposes the greatest upheaval in the NHS since its foundation. They are urged on from within Number 10 by the prime minister's principal strategist, Steve Hilton, who is probably the most Maoist person in the government. He has been heard to tell colleagues: "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything."
Rawnsley's wrong. He's looking in the wrong bit of Marxist history for his analogies. I think I'm coming round to the view that what this lot are doing is much more akin to Stalin's scorched earth policy in WW2. They're not engaged in a 'regressive modernisation' as Stuart Hall so famously called Thatcherism. They're simply trying to lay waste to territory they don't expect to occupy for very long, to make it unusable by their opponents.
I suspect, deep down, they know their moment is passing, that the political and economic conditions which allowed neoliberal economics to become the default consensus of governments throughout the Anglo-American world have come to an end. The Great Moderation is over, it went down the pan in the Credit Crunch. The systemic default modes of managerial and political thought based on neoliberalism continue for want of a positive alternative, but the old certainty is gone. This may be their last chance to shrink the state for a long, long time. They're going to take it, come hell or high water.