Is the coalition really 'Maoist'?

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Chairman Mao and David Cameron

It might seem faintly ridiculous to compare Britain's coalition government to the brutal regime of former Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. But that is precisely what one of its leading members, Vince Cable, has done. When questioned about Mr Cable's comments, David Cameron confessed he was not an expert on Maoism but unlike the former Chinese leader was not "going to insist on being called The Great Helmsman". So what could the business secretary possibly mean?

1. LOCALISM? - Mao wanted to smash the elites that ran pre-communist China, believing they had become corrupted by power. He wanted the peasants to rise up and effectively take charge of services in their own communities. Sound familiar? With its plans for elected police chiefs and local council tax referendums - not to mention its war on the highly-paid elites who run Town Halls and its call for an army of "armchair auditors" to hold civil servants to account for the money they spend - the coalition has, arguably, attempted to unleash its own cultural revolution in Britain's public services.

2. INFORMERS? - You had to be very careful what you said - and who you said it to - in Mao's China. Informers were everywhere - and citizens were forever being exposed for expressing "counter revolutionary" views. Vince Cable must know how they feel. He was having a private conversation with constituents when he described the coalition as "Maoist", and revealed dark thoughts about overthrowing the regime, only to find his words splashed across the pages of a national newspaper. For the analogy to work, of course, The Daily Telegraph would have to be seen as a party newspaper which, despite being affectionately known as The Torygraph, would be stretching it.

3. CHAOS? - Mao's cultural revolution unleashed chaos in Chinese society. Nothing was sacred. At the weekend, Tory MP Nick Boles, one of the coalition's leading thinkers, described the "chaos" that will follow the ripping up of central government planning as a "good thing". Political pundits have marvelled at the speed and ruthlessness of coalition ministers as they set about reforming monolithic institutions such as the NHS and the benefit system. One senior minister, commenting on the devolution of power from Whitehall, has reportedly used one of Mao's favourite slogans: "Let a thousand flowers bloom."

4. PERMANENT REVOLUTION? - Mao was a firm believer in the theory of permanent revolution, which he believed should be in the hearts of all Chinese Communists. The coalition is also partial to ideological purity (Before they adopted Mao as their role model, Tory high command urged activists to take a leaf out of Gandhi's book and "be the change"). Like Mao, the coalition is working to a strict Stalin-esque five year timetable. David Cameron's chief strategy adviser, Steve Hilton, described by Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley as "the most Maoist person in the government", has reportedly been heard to tell colleagues: "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything."

5. GANG OF FOUR? - The later stages of the cultural revolution were guided by an inner circle of powerful Communist party officials known as the Gang of Four. The coalition is, similarly, guided by what insiders call the "quad" - David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, Nothing important happens without their say so apparently. They will be hoping to avoid the fate of their Chinese counterparts, who included Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, who were eventually tried for treason.

6. BRUTALITY? - The violence unleashed by Mao's cultural revolution, with students in the forefront, was responsible for many deaths. There may have been injuries and criminal damage caused in London during the recent student protests but even the most ardent opponents of the coalition would not claim it was going down a similar route to China in 1966.

7. DEFENCE AND FOREIGN POLICY? - Chairman Mao's China built up an impressive military might with a legacy of having the largest army in the world. The People's Republic also sought to avoid dependence on, and economic ties with, Western Europe and the capitalist world. By contrast Cameron's coalition has been slashing spending on defence and despite Eurosceptics urging the government to cut ties with the European Union, there are few signs of it happening.

8. IDEOLOGY? - Mao was driven by a belief in violent class struggle. As a devout Marxist, he would have had little time for the wealthy, public school educated plutocrats at the top of the coalition government. Everyone would be equal in theory in the communist state. He set the rules for all political, cultural, economic and intellectual activity. In other words, it was the exact opposite of the "small state" philosophy espoused by coalition ministers. Most Conservatives in the coalition government grew up in the Thatcher years, sharing a belief that there should be equality of opportunity for all, whatever the circumstances of their birth. As they put it in their 2010 slogan: "We're all in this together".

9. PROPAGANDA? - Their parties may have been keen on pasting giant posters or paintings of them in prominent city centre locations, but Mr Cameron has yet to come up with his own version of Mao's Little Red Book - a handy pocket book collection of quotations from his speeches Chinese citizens were encouraged to carry with them. The Conservative Party manifesto - a hardback entitled "an invitation to join the government of Great Britain" - in deepest Tory blue - may have become its nearest equivalent, if it had not been rendered obsolete by the coalition agreement.

10. RE-EDUCATION? - If Vince Cable had lived in Mao's China he would probably be packing his suitcase for a trip to a re-education camp by now. This was where "troublemakers" were sent to be persuaded of the error of their ways and to experience and reconnect with the life of the humble peasant. In London in 2010 Mr Cable may well be facing some tricky meetings with colleagues and strategists, but it's unlikely he's going to be sent off for a spot of farming.

Here is a selection of your comments:

What a load of populist tosh. One Minister says somethign in private and it happens to be his private opinion, and all hell breaks loose. This is a coialition for gods sake! There are bound to be differences (some of them big) between the coalition partys, and making an elephant out of a mouse is not really doing the country any good at this point in time. I believe the coalition as it is is making a really good job out of a very bad situation, and the more we let them get on with their job rather than mudsling both parties and their coalition, the better. I dread to think how labour would have spent us into oblivion over the next few years. NIk C, knebworth

One thing the Maoists and the current UK administration have in common: no sense of obligation to the people that they serve. Megan, Cheshire UK

Perhaps the thing that most strikes me about the coalition government and Mao's China is the way they are both driven by idealistic philosophical world views. For Mao it was his form of marxism, for the coalition it is an extreme form of neo-liberalism. Mao's ideas were a dismal failure - the neo-liberal ideology of the 80s was likewise a failure. It led to a massive gap between the rich and poor. Pity this government can't learn from the mistakes of the past. Jennifer, Barnoldswick

Spot on - this is something I saw early on in Thatcher's reign, whom I described then to colleagues as a Right-wing Maoist. One of the crucial indices of Maoism was its hostility to elites (ironic, in view of the elitist nature Communism in practice) the chief elite being that of experts. For Mao pure communism would replace the experts, whereas for Thatcher market forces would perform that function. Remember the attack on consultants and their power in John Moore's "reforms (= deforms) of the NHS, and Kenneth Bakers attack on teachers in GerBIll which became the 1988 Education Act? Cameron is only playing the same tune, under the guise of devolving power to the localities = smashing the power of the highly trained & qualified Civil Service, which might act as a fetter on the Con-Dems aim of deconstructing the Welfare State, Destructive chaos is what they are after, and by golly, they are in danger of finding that they will get just that. The sttudents are only the harbingers of more to come. Andrew, Norwich

I find the premise you suggest has some merit. Points 1 to 5 have fair correlations with MAOISM in its purest form. This may have become inevitable with such a forced coalition attempting to merge two opposing political philosophies. However, as recent events demonstrate, idealism yields to necessary contingency driven behaviour and reactive policy follows. Malcolm, Devon

Mao started the "Cultural Revolution" in the 1960s, which was an anti-intellectual, grassroots purge of authority at all levels. It was based on the ancient Chinese concept of "hegemony" - the complete domination of society's political and social agenda by a single model of how the world is - and the role of the state - in this case, as defined in Mao's little "Red Book". Maoism therefore had a strong anarchic vision based on direct local action by indoctrinated cadres of activists, who would infiltrate local organisations and structures, then act in concert to pull down the "corrupt" system from within, backed up by central control of the mass media. Sound familiar? If you trace Libertarian entryism into the Tory Party in the late 70s, their rise to power under Mrs Thatcher and the way that certain local authorities like Wandsworth, Westminster and Bradford become test beds for privatisation, service cuts and workfare experiments, there are striking parallels to the way the Libertarians and Maosits operate politically - and they even have Hayek's little book too: "the Road to Serfdom", in which he argued that warned of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning, and in which he argues that the abandonment of individualism, liberalism, and freedom inevitably leads to socialist or fascist oppression and tyranny and the serfdom of the individual. Interestingly, Goeorge Orwell, that great whistleblower on the risks of tyranny comments:"A return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because it is even more irresponsible, than that of the state." I find the ideology of the Cameron government is pure Hayek - and their policies for local government and the "Big Society" display an ideological fundamentalism that Mao would immediately recognise as a deliberate attempt to gain control of the way we see ourselves and our communities - the rhetoric of "setting people free" is straight out of Hayek and the combination of deregulation and massive spending cuts are ideologocal choices, not pragmatic or practical decisions about what will deliver the best services at the local level. To say that the Tories are ideologically motivated and that they use the levers of power to implement their ideology is merely a statement of fact. To question the validity of such an ideology as a statement of FAITH - not a reflection of social and economic REALITY - is to begin to address the reason why we find the criticism of "Maoist" worrying, because if this faith is just a dangerous delusion based on the obessive ravings of another old man, it takes us to precisely the same place as every other dogma has done down the ages - up a blind alley - and as with every other zealot-inspired witchhunt, a hell of a lot of innocent and vulnerable people will get hurt in the process. Richard, Devon