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When our servants become our masters

9 November 2006

9:29 AM

9 November 2006

9:29 AM

Thatcher and Sons Simon Jenkins

Allen Lane, pp.384, 20

This country is incompetently governed. The cost to the taxpayer is vast and growing. The level of incompetence has increased almost as rapidly as public expenditure. Indeed, taxation has failed to keep up with Gordon Brown’s prodigality. So, in order to feed the Moloch, he has been obliged to raise taxes.

That has proved inadequate to satisfy the public sector’s insatiable demand for money, so he has had to turn to ever more ingenious devices to squeeze the tax-payer. His most expensive device is likely to prove the longest lasting. The Private Finance Initiative failed to take off under the Major government, largely because Kenneth Clarke sensibly refused to soften the transfer of risk criteria as the potential private sector providers wished. Chancellor Brown, however, saw an opportunity, relaxed the criteria and happily mortgaged the next 30 years’ tax revenues to pay for another splurge of incompentently managed capital expenditure.

We all know what is happening. Even ministers know, as their increasingly desperate rhetoric demonstrates. Their actions are aimed at tackling the incompetence, if not yet the level of spending. Unfortunately, what they do only exacerbates the problem. They have concluded that they and they alone can provide the solution. So they have established Whitehall control over public administration and our daily lives. The resulting blizzard of bureaucracy and petty controls has appallingly malign effects. It alienates the public, kills the nation’s competitiveness, destroys national institutions and respect for those that survive, vastly increases the power of public employees, who become our masters instead of our servants, and adds to an already colossal public expenditure bill. Above all, the incompetence gets worse.

Like the rest of us, Simon Jenkins knows what is happening. Unlike a declining number of his fellow subjects, he has not resisted the temptation to become a serial quangocrat and therefore a member of the Brigade of Guards of the Whitehall army. Indeed, among other achievements, he was a member of that elite force, the Millenium Commission, the quango which gave us the Dome, a monument to centralised government mismanagement. The experience has at least provided him with the opportunity to view the disease at close quarters.

His latest book, Thatcher and Sons, is the work of an accomplished and practised journalist. He maintains a Stakhanovite production rate and the constant exercise of his pen no doubt partly explains why he is lucid and easy to read. He has argued long and consistently that, in the United Kingdom, government is too centralised and that it is centralisation that is the cause of our difficulties.

In Thatcher and Sons he sets out how he thinks we came to be in our present pickle and once again deploys his proposals for a remedy. His theory is that it all started with Margaret Thatcher. She saved the country by defeating the trade unions and revitalising the economy. However, in order to do so, she began to destroy ancient institutions like the Civil Service, Parliament and, above all, local government which performed important functions more efficiently than the centre and protected us from untrammelled Whitehall power. Her successors, John Major and Tony Blair, have widened the breach she opened. The Civil Service is no longer an impartial Northcote-Trevelyan guardian of probity and the public interest. Parliament is the government’s poodle rather than the body of representatives which holds ministers to account, and local government has lost its powers and, because Whitehall finances it, has become Whitehall’s servant and therefore acts as Whitehall’s agent, rather than as the agent of its local electors. The result is that central government, led by the Treasury, has centralised everything and, in an attempt to manage from the centre, has imposed the soft-Stalinist system we now must endure. Under all such regimes, even without torture and the gulag, citizens are asked to surrender their freedoms in exchange for security and competent administration. Invariably, they find they have been diddled. They get high crime rates, incompetence, high taxes and hyper-regulation instead.

Jenkins’s remedy is convincing as far as it goes. Returning power to the counties is necessary and sensible, although in education it would be better to give power to parents rather than to restore powers to LEAs. His analysis of how and why we got into this mess is less so.

It is true that he has a good deal of fun on the way, particularly with his talent for phrase-making. Anyone who has essayed Lord Gidden’s recent lecture ‘Sixty Years On’ will appreciate Jenkins’s description of him as ‘arch-purveyor of clichés to the Blair court, conjuring a locust swarm of abstract nouns, consuming all meaning in their path’. However, there remains a feeling that, Procrustes-like, the author has chopped the facts to fit his theory. The tribute to Margaret Thatcher is a trifle grudging and it is not her fault that Blair did not share her respect for at least some great institution. He is right to blame the Tories for much: the destruction of local government, many of their tinkerings with education, the botched privatisation of British Rail, the nationalisation of private giving through a national lottery. However, a historian rather than a journalist might, with the benefit of another 20 years’ hindsight, rebalance the argument a little. For instance, the incompetent, corrupt and nation-destroying European Union only merits a walk-on part in Jenkins’s unfolding horror. However, perhaps giving it and other villains more weight would destroy the theatrical values of the book.

More important, is Jenkins’s remedy practicable? It would need a Margaret Thatcher to implement it, but who would rebuild the institutions to protect us from the consequences of giving such a person the power they would need? Equally, would the public stand some parts of the country being better administered than others? Margaret Thatcher could not and the Daily Mail still cannot. Giving power back to the counties would have to be matched by compensating cuts in people and budgets in Whitehall and the Treasury would have to be forced to relax its grip. Trust the people is a good principle in theory and practice and Jenkins is right that in government economies of scale are a delusion. The trouble is that it will take an earthquake to induce the control freaks of Great George Street to renounce one ounce of power.

For his next book Jenkins might consider tackling other questions. Without reforming Parliament, the Civil Service, the quangocracy and the European Union, his remedy seems rather what Denis Healey called ‘a one club’ policy. He might also double-check what constitutes a Henry VIII clause.

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