Monday, 16 June 2008

What a hopeless shower

Have we ever before been a government so anonymous and devoid of character?

There was a time, not so long ago, when the cabinet comprised people of weight and substance who were known to the public. Every political party comprises various factions with differing views of policy and a convention grew up of including in cabinet senior members of the government party who had actually done something in their lives. It was all based on the quaint notion that debate between able people with significant experiences is likely to produce sound and consistent policy. That does not mean it will result in policies that work, but it was thought to be a better system than having decisions that affect the whole country being taken by just a few chums who all think essentially the same thing on every issue.

James Callaghan’s cabinet always comprised senior figures from the unalloyed Trotskyite wing of the Labour Party as well as those, like him, whose experience had tempered youthful naivety. They all had in common a desire to maintain the United Kingdom as a bastion of Marxist social and economic policy and the cabinet system of policy-making allowed that shared belief to be put into practice. But such people as Denis Healey, Shirley Williams, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn and David Owen were known to all and able to speak out on issues concerning their departmental responsibilities without having to ask for a script from 10 Downing Street.

When the post-War Marxist experiment had run its course and the Conservative Party was returned to power in 1979 policy continued to be made collectively in cabinet. Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet included William Whitelaw, Francis Pym, James Prior and Michael Heseltine, all of whom differed radically from her on many issues of policy, as well as Keith Joseph, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Lord Hailsham and others with records of substantial success in the world outside Westminster. Like her, many had been senior members of Edward Heath’s government and, as such, had been party to the continuation of the central Socialist philosophy of the post-war consensus, but they were figures of substance and experience who were able to hone policy by discussion from a position of genuine knowledge; and whose faces and names were known to the public.

Even as Mrs Thatcher ventured into more esoteric territory in her third government, she continued to include in her cabinet people of great substance with public profiles such as Douglas Hurd, Tom King, Kenneth Clarke, Nigel Lawson and Nicholas Ridley. The same was true of John Major’s governments in which Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd, Tony Newton, William Hague, Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and others were figures people knew and could identify as senior members of government.

Who do we have now? I doubt that most members of the public could name more than three or four cabinet members. That is hardly surprising because none of them seems to have any real departmental responsibility any more and every public appearance is a trial by ordeal – we can almost hear them asking “what was the answer Gordon gave me for that question?” We have a cabinet of anonymous Blair-Brown clones with no experience of business, little experience of the law (other than by passing innumerable new laws which even they do not understand), hardly any of them has ever employed someone (other than friends or relatives through their Parliamentary expenses allowance), none of them has created a real job for anyone and none of them is allowed to speak his or her mind in public (apart from Harriet Harman who speaks what little there is of her mind and comes a cropper every time).

Just look at who we have been given in the three great Offices of State.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is Alastair Darling. He was a solicitor for five years then a barrister for three before entering Parliament. I have no reason to doubt that he was a thoroughly competent practitioner in both branches of the legal profession, but he was not in either field long enough to achieve any distinction. Appointed, at least in part, because he had succeeded in keeping his foot out of his mouth in early ministerial positions he has lurched from crisis to crisis at the Exchequer and appears to be nothing more than Gordon Brown’s glove puppet. His flapping at the Dispatch Box when announcing Gordon’s half-baked non-solution to the 10p tax rate debacle was quite sickening.

As Home Secretary we have Jacqui Smith. Words fail me. She did, I readily concede, enjoy a degree of success in her eleven years as a teacher before entering Parliament, attaining the position of Head of Economics at a comprehensive school (and no, I do not say that disparagingly). No experience of the law, one year in the cabinet as Chief Whip, no experience heading a government department, no public profile and then she becomes Home Secretary. One might expect such promotion for an outstanding theorist with a record of innovative or inspirational thinking, but she is not, she is a party functionary.

The Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, is a different kettle of fish. It cannot be said that he does not have ideas. He was, after all, Tony Blair’s chief policy adviser (or some such title) from 1994 until 2001 and can, therefore, claim partial responsibility for turning the United Kingdom into a bankrupt country in which the state spies on its people more than even the Stasi managed in East Germany. But does he have any real substance? A succession of pitiful media performances was topped by a truly breathtaking display of smug incompetence on Question Time a week or two ago. One must not be too nasty to Mr Milliband because he succeeded the most appalling and inappropriate appointment to the position of Foreign Secretary in history, Margaret Beckett.

Can anything better be said of the rest of the cabinet? Not by me. I can think of only one senior member of the government who has achieved distinction in a field outside politics and that is the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland. She was one of the youngest people (and the first Black woman) to be made a QC and was hugely successful as a barrister.

The anonymity of the rest of them is truly scary.

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