Saturday, 9 August 2008

I think I know why they meddle

These days government seems to meddle in everything and 10 Downing Street seems to meddle in all aspects government, but it was not always so. When James Callaghan held the top job, Prime Minister Questions in the House of Commons was a very different beast from what we see today. "Will the Prime Minister explain why his prices and incomes policy is falling to pieces?" was not met with a list of statistics or accusations that the questioner does not know what he is talking about, instead the answer would have been "That is a departmental matter for the Secretary of State, you will have to ask her next Monday." There could be no comeback because the answer was absolutely correct, heads of Department were responsible for the implementation of policy and had to answer for themselves. The Prime Minister has direct ministerial responsibility for the civil service and, arguably, the treasury, but nothing further; at least that is the constitutional position.

Things changed when Mrs Thatcher came to power. Instead of deflecting questions about other ministries she addressed them herself. Perhaps this was just her way of doing things, it certainly accords with what one has heard and read about her dictating details of policy to some departments and being a general bossy-boots. But I think there was more to it than that because she was not known to dictate to every department in the same way, it seemed to depend on who the senior minister was and what she thought of him. Those held in high regard were not bossed-around as much as those she viewed as being either lightweight or not fully committed to her plans for change. At heart, it seems to me to have been about trust. She viewed the task she faced in dragging Britain from the gutter to be a supremely important job and one that could not be approached half-heartedly or with less that full energy. Those whom she perceived to be less than fully committed in attitude or industry were letting the side down and she had to intervene. She could not trust them to perform to the standard she required and if they did not perform nor would their departments, that was unacceptable to her.

This type of lack of trust is nothing to do with fears of plots and insurrections or suspicions that someone has his fingers in the till, it is all about performance. It does not mean that she did not trust them to do the right thing in the end, but she felt a need to do the right thing now not next year and could not rely on some ministers to deliver.

It is hardly surprising that a Prime Minister who takes on more and more departmental decision making herself will need a lot of persuading that a new minister can be trusted (left alone, if you prefer) to do the right thing. Especially when she has been in government for a few years and they are new to the top level. She feels she should keep her hands on the reins to see how the new minister shapes up. Over time the new order becomes the established way of doing things and calls for a return to generally autonomous departments sound like the first rumblings of a coup. There were many factors which combined to cause Mrs Thatcher to resign in 1990, her accumulation of power to the centre was only one, but it was one.

When the Labour Party came to power in 1997 it did so against a background of decades of fighting within the party. As recently as 1983 they had fought a general election on an explicitly Marxist platform, advocating that the State should be in control of the creation of wealth and should then distribute that wealth among the people. This meant State control of industry in partnership with the trades unions (many of whose leaders at the time were dedicated revolutionary socialists), high tax rates at all levels of income, high capital taxes and a massive bureaucracy to administer the redistribution. They received a pummelling at the ballot box and Neil Kinnock took over as leader. Many of the more extreme elements within the party were expelled but there was still a substantial body, both within and outside parliament, who were unapologetically in favour of the 1983 approach. Party policy started to recognise that the State is not an effective vehicle for creating wealth and the rhetoric was toned-down over redistribution. The change was not enough to gain power in the elections of 1987 and 1992 but by 1997 it was and Tony Blair entered 10 Downing Street.

His policy platform was substantially different from the 1983 manifesto and he knew it had to remain so or he would be out at the next election. In order to keep to policy it was necessary to take power to the centre of government for fear that the, still active, radical socialists in his party would have influence. He knew that the greatest potential danger to his own position was a re-emergence of calls for the State to have control of the production of wealth. His party as a whole could not be trusted to keep that idea away from government policy so he had to do it himself, using a small band of close colleagues and advisers to help him. Those people could be trusted, the rest of the party could not. As under Mrs Thatcher, power was moved from government departments to 10 Downing Street and, as under Mrs Thatcher, it was because others could not be trusted. Of course that does not mean that the lack of trust was the same under both Prime Ministers; Mrs Thatcher could not trust some colleagues to perform without her intervention whereas Mr Blair could not trust his party to stick to the policies on which he had gained office.

Things were rather different when it came to the redistribution agenda. Gordon Brown, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was in charge of redistribution. He could certainly trust his party to back all moves to increase taxation and all moves to have a massive government bureaucracy dedicated to handing-out the cash. What he could not do is trust the recipients of the cash to use it as he wanted them to. Vast quantities of money were pumped into the National Health Service but doctors, nurses and managers could not be trusted to use their judgment about how it was best spent in their area or hospital, targets had to be set from the centre. Head teachers and school governors could not be trusted to decide how additional money for state schools would be spent, targets had to be set from the centre. Everyone's performance had to be measured by ever more complex means so that the government could announce (as they always did and probably always will) that money taken from taxpayers was achieving beneficial results.

But it did not stop there, it was not only those paid from taxes who were subjected to a lack of trust, many in private businesses were subjected to the same abuse. Newspaper headlines about individual accountants or lawyers giving a poor service were treated as signals that the government had to step in. One might think every barrel to contain a rotten apple or two and one might think those in the professions would have the greatest motive to find the rotten apples and cast them out, but that is not the way the current government thinks. One rotten apple, they surmise, is evidence of a widespread malaise which only the all-wise government can cure. You cannot trust professional people to enforce professional standards because, they surmise, it is an old-boys' club which will fight tooth-and-nail to keep one of their chums in business. It is complete nonsense, of course. Your local solicitor's business is dependent on him being trusted by local people, he has to maintain as high a standard as he can in order to be able to pay his mortgage, he wants the incompetent and fraudulent excluded from his profession because their presence in it can diminish his reputation. But that is the real world, not the world of government. So they send out the message that the professions must insist on their members taking refresher courses each year to keep their knowledge up to date, with the background threat that it will be forced on them by legislation if it is not done voluntarily. The result is that all practitioners are deemed incapable of doing the very thing they have to do day-in and day-out in order to earn their living, namely research matters before they give advice. Many deeply resent having to attend courses so they can tick a form and get their practising certificate for the next twelve months, they resent not being trusted to do their work properly.

Lack of trust is now built into the system for accountants and lawyers, it might also be for architects, surveyors and others for all I know. I know that it certainly is for dry cleaners who have to spend a substantial sum from their modest earning to gain official approval, without which they cannot open their shops in the morning.

This lack of trust had a very different effect from the lack of trust Margaret Thatcher showed in some ministers and Tony Blair showed in his party because it affected ordinary people in their everyday lives. None of us is likely to care very much whether the Prime Minister trusts the Secretary of State for Overseas Development because that is just an internal squabble far removed from us and what we do. It is rather different when we are told the government does not trust us.

We now find ourselves in the ludicrous position that the government appears not to trust anyone. They do not trust themselves, they do not trust their party, they do not trust the people they pay to manage schools and hospitals, they do not trust the professions, they do not even trust dry cleaners. They meddle everywhere, despite their own inability to organise anything efficiently and to spend our money without vast waste, because they do not trust us. It is hardly surprising that we do not trust them.

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