There is a lesson to be learned from the Francis Report into the NHS in Mid-Staffordshire, and from the police force’s current travails. Nigel Lawson once said that the NHS had virtually become a state religion, and until recently, most of us held the British police in complacent esteem. This is dangerous. Left unchallenged, highly admired by the public, it is easy for any bureaucracy to drift into bad habits (cf. the Irish Catholic church), especially if it is immune to competition and market forces. But waste, inefficiency and corruption are no less acceptable when they are perpetrated by institutions with noble goals. Once their standards slide, these bodies can end up by killing people. Corruptio optimi pessima.
There is an exception. One large organisation, which often kills people, functions without market stimuli and does so superbly well: the army. There is a reason for this. Talk to any general about his trade, and within seconds, he will be stressing the importance of leadership, a quality which no senior officer takes for granted. There are no bad dogs, only bad owners: no bad squaddies, only badly led ones. So from the very fledgling stages of their career, young officers are assessed for their leadership skills. Can they grip the formation which they are commanding? As the officer is promoted and the formations become larger, the scrutiny becomes steadily more ruthless. Leadership is essential, to ensure that when ordered to risk their lives, the men will obey. This is not because they are automata. Modern troops cannot be led just by shouting at them. Their officers and NCOs have to win trust and respect, and a bit of inspiration always helps. There was no inspiration in mid-Staffs, where ‘leadership’ often meant criminal conspiracy. In the police, good leadership is not as universal as it ought to be. Soldiers are frequently rude about the high-ranking cops whom they come across on joint courses. All this has to be rectified. Those at the top of the police and the NHS need to follow the generals’ example. Unless there is proper leadership, no hospital or police station will work properly.
Old age comes on apace. It seems no time at all since Tom Strathclyde was the most junior government whip in the Lords, and only yesterday that he became a very young chief whip. There is an amusing — and instructive — anecdote from his early weeks in that high office. It was a busy day in the Lords, and all the frontbenchers were confined to barracks. I was having a drink with Tom when in dropped Robin Ferrers, then deputy leader of the Lords: an imposing figure. Robin wanted leave to attend a livery dinner. The briefest flicker of unease crossed Tom’s face, but after all, Robin was old enough to be his father and had joined the Macmillan government shortly after he was born. ‘Yes, of course, Robin,’ said the chief whip. Robin Ferrers then made a hideous error. He stayed on to chat. Fatal, because the Viscount Long arrived. Although in a slightly less exalted post, Richard Long is the first man since the Younger Pitt to have held the same office in government for 18 years. Richard was the bar whip in the Lords and did the job superbly. However many cocktails he had consumed — purely in the line of duty, of course — he always knew what was going on, especially when it should not have been going on. In Tom’s office, his fingersptzengefühl did not fail him. ‘What’s this, Robin?’ Brief waffle from Lord Ferrers. ‘Oh no you don’t. You know the position. You can go for an hour, that’s all.’ Robin Ferrers looked seriously miffed. But he knew better than to insist that the chief whip had given permission. That would have been infra dig and it would have embarrassed Tom. So he merely harrumped in resigned disappointment. Lord Strathclyde, meanwhile, realised that he had been taught a lesson which he should not have needed. Even without his bar whip’s help, the chief whip ought to have known that in his job, you sometimes have to say ‘no’ to people old enough to be your father.
David Cameron has announced that he would like to stay in No. 10 until at least 2020. That is excellent news for one Old Etonian candidate for the succession. Although he is at least as good as anyone else in the 2010 intake (an outstanding vintage), this fellow could not promoted in the last reshuffle, because he had played a splendid innings as the captain of the revolt over House of Lords reform. He earned the gratitude of anyone who respects the British constitution, but the whips, although a valuable recent adornment to that constitution, have a narrower perspective. They believe that rebels must be punished, especially when the rebellion is successful. So the chap was back-squadded.
That cannot last long. His abilities are bound to earn a place in government, and rapid advancement thereafter. By 2020, he will have at least as much Cabinet experience as William Hague did in 1997. It is not certain that he will succeed David Cameron, but Jesse Norman is a Member to watch.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 12 January 2013