We don't like to think so—but the case of grammar schools proves that there's always a riskby Gavin Kelly / March 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Straight line or zig-zag? Different views exist as to the typical trajectory of social progress. Is it a process of incremental gains which consolidate and steadily accumulate over time or does it resemble a jagged and erratic journey—strides forward followed by sharp reversals?
Societies, like people, generally like to think of themselves as steadily advancing. Buried somewhere in our collective unconscious is a Whiggish mind-set: old problems are steadily addressed even as new ones emerge, lessons are learnt and prospects raised. This faith in inevitable progress is currently deeply unfashionable given our current public discourse is dominated by dark populist threats, productivity stagnation and the fallout of perma-austerity. Yet even now a respectable case can still be made that on many issues, over the longer term, public policy evolves in a broadly benign way.
A familiar rhythm accompanies this forward march. From time to time a governing party resolves to smash through a failing status quo on an issue. Their opponents will eventually have to choose whether to validate the choice: indeed, often it will fall to them, when next in power, to see a reform through.
Contemporary examples aren’t hard to come by. The last Labour government set out an entirely new strategy for pensions policy which David Cameron’s Conservative-led government did much of the hard graft of actually delivering. Tony Blair introduced civil partnerships and Cameron then took it further with same-sex marriage. Sometimes a contentious but beneficial change gets completed by one administration leaving its successor to either make peace with it or rip it up in what, to many, would resemble an act of policy vandalism. They generally opt for the former. The Thatcher government privatised a range of state owned utilities just as Labour established the minimum wage. Both moves were railed against by the opposition. Both then survived unscathed when their authors lost power. Both were sensible—and have become deeply uncontroversial.