Saturday, 15 October 2011
Taking The Wheel
On the garage forecourt yesterday to top up the petrol tank at vast expense I saw next to my car a 1973 Morris Marina. Once in a fit of unwise patriotic fervour I decided to buy British and chose one of those. The outward design may have been decent for the period but the build quality and performance were shockers.
The revelations that major meetings between the Prime Minister and key staff of the Civil Service who taking crucial decisions during the period of the last Labour government were neither minuted nor recorded are being cited as a prime example of the breakdown of UK government and the collapse of the Civil Service as a reliable and effective body of administration.
In the debate on this and how government should be conducted we are being given the old tale about how the Civil Service was once a “Rolls Royce” service in comparison. This notion is a polite fiction.
During the 1970’s sharing a teapot and plate of biscuits with Roy Mason and others when he was under the cosh as Defence Secretary someone remarked about our Civil Service being a “Rolls Royce” to which Mason muttered “More like a Morris Marina”. He had good cause at the time having realised that the UK was by now unable to defend itself without American support.
At this I was grinning and nodding having had my own run-ins with high level civil servants. Their documents, the prose, the command of language, the structure and the sense of authority may have first class but the essential thinking behind it was often total rubbish.
One issue was a medical matter and the related support that might be given. It was a condition that was thought to be rare and few cases had been identified. We were being told exactly how many cases we should have on the basis of calculations made by a handful of civil servants and medical men.
The difficulty was that none of them knew anything about statistics and especially the problems when dealing with small numbers in a field that was clearly complex and little known or understood at the time.
But they had come up with some figures and they were “the experts” and could not accept the many questions that arose, let along the impossibility of calculating what the exact figure was likely to be anywhere.
The idea peddled in the mid 20th Century that “Whitehall knows best” is one of the major reasons for the disastrous course of policy in this period from economic to foreign policy to financial management to social reform.
The Civil Service was running a machine that existed as a beautiful concept of self but largely out of touch with either reality or the changes that were in train.
It is a commonplace of the history books that the central administration of state in the early 19th Century was antique weak and unreliable. The reforms that were put in place took decades not years to take effect.
For the first part of the 20th Century the Civil Service struggled to make sense of anything in a world in turmoil. During World War 2 it was forced to become more effective but its wartime role made it unready for peacetime.
What it did do within the Service was to make the procedures and structure reliable and to maintain records and keep itself organised properly with a role in relation to politicians that was fairly clear.
When all that was dumped at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries at the very same time that “big” central government was being inflicted on us by both Whitehall and Brussels then chaos and uncertainty were bound to follow.
One of the central functions of government should be to retain the integrity of the currency. When I recall what my Morris Marina cost in the 1970’s and the price of a gallon of petrol then and look at the prices now for equivalent motoring it is clear that there has been a conspicuous failure of government in the last forty years.
And it is getting worse by the year.