Michelle Clement

How crises shape government

Postwar Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Crises often exhaust the capacity of governments to renew themselves. All consuming problems do not allow prime ministers to have what Walter Bagehot called ‘mind in reserve’ — and yet future success at the polls depends on it.

The vast achievements of the postwar Labour government were largely built on the work of a Liberal in the form of the 1942 Beveridge Report, which most notably recommended a National Health Service. But Attlee was unable to create a new vision of his own during an era of crippling rationing and economic strife. Labour went from winning their first overall majority in 1945 to a very slim majority in 1950. Churchill’s Conservatives were returned to power within a year.

The monetarist reforms of the Thatcher era were first tried under Jim Callaghan yet the economic crisis of the late 1970s consumed his government, allowing the renewing vision of the Conservatives to shape the following decades. Michael Gove’s speech on reforming government drew on lessons from historical crises. Like the Attlee government before it, the current government recognises their ‘obligation… to build back better’ after the ‘shared sacrifice’ endured by the country.

The Johnson government is keen to learn from earlier crises

For all that they undermine governments, crises also have the capacity to modernise the state. One of the lessons from the Covid pandemic is the usefulness of bringing people from outside Whitehall. Kate Bingham, for example, temporarily left her job as a venture capitalist to join the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce.

The Johnson government is keen to learn from earlier crises. The ‘Declaration on Government Reform’, co-signed by cabinet ministers and permanent secretaries, reveals that all senior appointments will be open to public competition by default and there will be ‘flexibility to suit those who want to build a career in government and those who want a shorter tour of duty.’

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