Editorial: pure propaganda for a phoney election war

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Posturing is a characteristic of phoney war. Despite the imminence of the general election the Government has announced in great detail its programme for introducing nursery vouchers nationwide. Still under wraps but promised on a broad canvas is an education White Paper. Everyone knows that if Labour wins the general election, nursery vouchers will be scrapped. The White Paper will have been born to blush unseen. Other initiatives may also be suspended. So there is an air of unreality about policy-making at present.

Civil servants are more aware of the election than others in public service. For several weeks they will go into purdah while the voters have their once-in-five years say in matters. Officials study the stated priorities of the principal opposition party and begin to prepare for a change of government. But at this stage, with the election up to 18 weeks away, on the surface, it is business as usual.

If the election is to be on May 1, there are then only three months until parents start using nursery vouchers. The presumption has to be enactment of present Government policy, for two reasons: first, the governing party may be re-elected, and second, Labour has indicated that places allocated by vouchers will be honoured in August.

That takes care of programmes like nursery vouchers. If a new Government calls a halt, officials no doubt will have ready a speedy and painless way of aborting them. But what of the White Paper? It is intended to record progress over the past 17 years and set out the way ahead. In other words, it signals the Government's conviction that more remains to be done and that an ever active administration has not run out of ideas.

If that sounds like the role of a party manifesto, the problem with the White Paper becomes clear. Normally such policy statements precede legislation. They are intended to set out the Government's thinking and to invite a response before a Bill is framed. But the concept of a White Paper has become almost as dated as the Blue Books of the 19th century. Consultation papers have taken their place.

So the forthcoming education White Paper fulfils a different role. Legislation must await the re-election of the Government. It is not for the moment a priority, whereas setting out the stall to attract voters certainly is. Therefore the White Paper will take its place, if not in the demonology of the poster campaign unveiled this week, at least as part of the phoney war. It will be about propaganda more than policy.

Civil servants are embarrassed at having been put to work on a party agenda. They will try to dress up the "manifesto" in non-partisan terms. But their efforts will meet with a sceptical response because for once the voters will be able to deliver a speedy verdict. As servants of government and not party, civil servants true to their calling will welcome that.

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