Theodore Dalrymple

The lies of the land

Forget Dame Shirley Porter, says Theodore Dalrymple. If it’s real scandal you are after, consider the millions wasted as a result of public service corruption

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Forget Dame Shirley Porter, says Theodore Dalrymple. If it’s real scandal you are after, consider the millions wasted as a result of public service corruption

Dame Shirley Porter is the unacceptable face of corruption, a rich woman taken in gerrymandering (had she started off poor, no one would have minded). But though the sum of money she was initially required to pay Westminster Council in restitution was enormous, and the sum she agreed finally to pay pretty substantial by the standards of 99.99 per cent of humanity, these sums are small beer by comparison with what the thorough-going moral and intellectual corruption of the British public services costs the taxpayer every single day.

There never was a golden age, of course, when every last public employee worked his fingers unselfishly to the bone for the general good. In my vacations as a student, I sometimes worked as a hospital porter and saw at first hand the amiable villainy of a certain type of worker who would go to great and elaborate lengths to avoid work. And Dickens, after all, described the Circumlocution Office a century and a half ago. ‘How not to do it’ would be described nowadays as a mission statement (were it not for its honesty).

Still, there is little doubt that something has changed, and changed profoundly, in the British public services. It isn’t that our public officials are lazier, exactly (I only wish that they were): I would say rather the opposite. If you go into an average government office — the headquarters of an NHS Trust, for example — you will at once be struck by the look of intense worry on everyone’s face. It is as if a furrowed brow were a token of deep public responsibility.

Were earnestness of demeanour a guarantee of efficiency, Britain would have the finest public services in the world. Alas, such earnestness is a guarantee of nothing except lack of sense of humour. And a very high proportion of public servants know perfectly well that they are parasites, that their so-called work would be much better left undone, and that it is nothing but outdoor relief for the unimaginatively ambitious, which is why their earnestness is combined with furtiveness and an inability to look you in the eye. Of course, if asked about their work they would claim to ‘care passionately’ about its ostensible aim, because the verbal expression of passionate concern is now the sine qua non of promotion. The public services are thus rife with institutionalised lying. They have become an instrument of clientelistic politics.

The rot is everywhere, including (I regret to say) in the medical profession. The number of adults in this country without a job has remained more or less constant over the last 20 years, but as unemployment has fallen, so disability has risen; there are now two-and-a-half times as many people who are supposedly too ill to work as there are people who are simply unemployed, and this at a time when the population has been growing steadily healthier. No doubt the large-scale switch from unemployment to sickness suits government propaganda well — and the present government is not the only one guilty in this respect — and is also pleasing to people who would find only the worst-paid menial jobs if they found any jobs at all; but the switch could not have occurred without the connivance of thousands of doctors who wrote and continue to write millions of certificates knowing them to contain falsehoods. No doubt the doctors would claim to be acting from kindness where it is not from self-preservation, but if so, a system that requires mendacity on so institutional a scale in order that kindness should be done by doctors is deeply and irremediably corrupt.

We cannot even organise a public examination system for schoolchildren in this country so that the results mean what they appear to mean. As for our universities, they blatantly steal the money of foreigners by virtually selling degrees that will soon start to devalue like the mark after the first world war. No longer scholarship and learning, but bums on seats and grade inflation to guarantee yet more bums on seats next year, these are the aim of our institutions of higher education.

You have to look no further than the job advertisements in various journals to see that the public services are now as rotten as a timber house eaten by termites. You will find jobs advertised by the score, by the hundred (amounting to scores or even hundreds of thousands over the years, costing billions, and productive of nothing except bureaucratic obstruction) whose titles convey no meaning, let alone entail specific duties: co-ordinators, facilitators, evaluators, strategic planners, directors of organisational development and so forth. These jobs are designed for people who are overtrained for nothing in particular, and whose main aim in life is a pension or — better still — early retirement on medical grounds.

One symptom of the corruption of the public services is the inability of public servants either to speak or to write comprehensible, straightforward English. We are now several mental universes away from Sir Ernest Gowers’s Plain Words. Here, taken at random, is an example from the Clinical Governance Bulletin, sent to all hospital consultants. It is from an article entitled ‘Supporting the development of a strategic approach to effective services: a framework for directorates’. The first paragraph reads: ‘The development of an “effective services agenda” has enabled us to co-ordinate research and development, clinical effectiveness and audit, evidence-based practice, user involvement in evaluating services and ensuring appropriate responses to national guidance papers and reports, such as guidance from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.’

Millions of pages of guff like this are churned out every day in all government departments. The people who do it pretend that they are working, though in their hearts they know that they are not. The requirement that administrators should be willing and able to use such language (whose jargon changes far faster than fashion in clothes) ensures that no people of intelligence and integrity enter the public services, but only those with a limited eye to the main chance. The degradation is complete.

I don’t, of course, mean that there are no valuable public servants left, for there is, as Adam Smith once remarked, a deal of ruin in a nation. For example, not long ago I had occasion to call the council’s rat-catcher. You knew as soon as you met him that he loved his work, that he was highly competent and immensely knowledgeable in his field. He was a model public servant: he knew his stuff and he did it efficiently and willingly, and without asking for anything except his salary in return. It was a relief to meet an honest man like him after all the demireps one meets in administrative circles.

There are thousands of people in the same honourable category as the rat-catcher. It is my experience that, as public servants, prison officers are far above average. But it is my experience also that the uprightness that once was widespread in this country, and that, for example, struck my wife so favourably when she arrived here from France 25 years ago, is fast disappearing. It has been replaced by the deeply sinister art of corruption without illegality, vastly more significant than Dame Shirley Porter’s sins.