Last night I headed over to Enfield to hear Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, Nick Harvey, talk to a packed restaurant of Liberal Democrats about his experiences of being a minister.
It was an impressive turnout from one of our smaller local parties in London and an impressive speech from Nick, who cut his political teeth in the borough.
One part was about how coalition government made for better government. Nick Harvey gave the example of how troops were deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
As a defence minister learning about one of the most important issues facing him and colleagues, he had wanted to get his head around the reasoning behind initially deploying only 3,000 international troops to an area which now has around 44,000 troops.
However, when he asked to see the British papers relating to that original decision – the strategy behind it, the assumptions made, the predicted impact and so on – he found there were almost none. No records had been destroyed or were withheld from him for being from a previous government. It was simply that the extremely informal sofa government style under Labour meant that major decisions such as how many troops to deploy to Helmand, on what mission and working to what strategy, were made through informal face-to-face chats.
As Nick Harvey pointed out, the nature of coalition – with two parties having to agree to decisions – means that there is enforced on the civil service and on ministers a more formal and careful decision-making process. Important decisions have to be agreed by ministers from both parties, who have formal, minuted meetings with proper preparation from their civil servants.
That switch from informal, off-the-cuff chats to more formal, considered policy-making in one a Liberal Democrat special advisor also recently mentioned to me, saying what a welcome change it was for civil servants – especially those previously used to the Brown/Blair dysfunctional relationship where it often was as much a matter of hiding information from other ministers as of providing them with information on which to make good decisions.
It’s a good change.