Just a few weeks ago, calling someone a ‘technocrat’ was a soft insult. The word meant, in effect, an efficient dullard. Now, technocrats appear to be inheriting the earth. They represent a new global elite, and they have recently added Greece and Italy to their empire. When Egypt’s military faced riots on the streets this week, it sought to assuage the crowds by replacing the government with a cabinet of technocrats. The Libyan rebels are doing the same. We have seen two very different types of regime change this year. The Arab Spring is driven by popular uprising; Europe has pioneered the reverse: an uprising of an unelected European elite deposing democratically elected governments. In both, technocrats seem to triumph.
The logic is that no one could possibly object to a technocrat. But if that is the case, as Dot Wordswoth points out on page 14, why have elected governments at all? If it’s all about balancing the budget and making the schools and hospitals work, then why bother with the great political circus? When Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy teamed up with the European Central Bank to form a European hit squad, the so-called Frankfurt Group, their target was troublesome elected leaders. People need stability, and a little less bunga bunga would be good for everyone. ‘National interest before politics’ has been the rationale for almost every coup d’etat in history. The problem, as Italy and Greece will find out, is that there is no such thing as politically neutral government.
Take economic recovery: how best to achieve it? Ed Balls would say by borrowing a lot more, like America. Ireland and Estonia would say by keeping taxes flat, low or both. George Osborne prefers a middle ground: creeping change and a leisurely seven-year timetable to balance the books. Each could summon facts, charts, data and quotations to make their argument; but in economics, as in so much, there is no such thing as empirical truth. It is a battle of ideas.
For Europe’s economies to recover, new ideas and leadership are needed. Both are in lamentably short supply. The same is true in America. But exceptions exist. Take Sweden, where a ponytailed economist named Anders Borg was parachuted in as finance minister. Contemptuous of the political orthodoxy, he cut taxes to the low-paid to encourage more people to work. While opponents whined about ‘unfunded tax cuts’, employment took off. Sweden is now celebrating the elimination of its deficit and the FT this week ranked Borg the most effective finance minister in Europe.
In Britain, we have our own name for technocrats: civil servants. There are thousands of them, running the machine. They also represent the biggest threat to reform, due to the sheer power of their inertia. David Cameron’s coalition entered office with a bold, reforming agenda. But look around government and everywhere you see reform in chains — with one exception, in the Department for Education, where Michael Gove has beaten the system. He has loosened the government’s grip on state schools, and the results are tangible. Already 750,000 more pupils are being taught in independent schools. The poor might soon have the same choice of schooling that the rich enjoy now.
This is why Gove was named Minister of the Year in the Threadneedle/Spectator Parliamentarian awards: he fought the technocrats and won. It’s always safer to enter an unofficial coalition with the Sir Humphreys and muddle along. But politics is about making and winning arguments, coming up with ideas and putting them into practice. The West is in crisis because it followed the technocratic path for too long, because its governments and oppositions did not challenge a corrupt consensus.
The ascendancy of technocrats is one of the most alarming developments of the current crisis. It is high time we stopped thinking of them as a solution and realised that they have been the problem all along.
A troupe of celebrities have appeared this week before the Leveson inquiry to express their abhorrence of the press, or what Hugh Grant calls the ‘privacy invasion industry’. We quite agree. It is insupportable, of course, that anyone — least of all an actor or singer — should be subjected week after week to coverage of themselves in the newspapers. Privacy invasion is an issue which deserves to be tackled, not by pussyfooting around, but head-on. It’s time, therefore, to establish a code of practice exercising a complete ban on printing photographs of celebrities in the press and gossip about their lives. While it should be acceptable to list and review films in newspapers, the names of actors should never be mentioned unless they are involved in a genuine news story, such as a criminal trial.
Journalists are not the only culprits. A good number of the trashy stories in the tabloids have been obtained not through phone-hacking but by a PR agent snuggling up to the showbiz reporter and courting him with tales that are distorted or untrue. To ensure accuracy, this practice should cease forthwith. Any story which arises as a result of a press release should, by law, have to be labelled as such.
We hope that Mr Grant and his colleagues will be pleased with the enhanced privacy that they will enjoy as a result of these changes.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 26, 2011