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Mad As Hell

Transcript of part two of Simon Jenkins' series of essays for The Westminster Hour

Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins

So are you still mad as hell? Last week I remarked on Britain's endemic fury at what seemed ever more idiotic government.

It was near impossible these days to have a conversation with a doctor, a farmer, a policeman, a teacher, even a politician and not meet that staring look, that thrust into your hand of some missive from health and safety, human resources, risk assessment or 360-degree feed-back review. "Can you believe it!" they all cry. And they're not just grumpy old men with one foot in the grave.

I also remarked how strange it was that this follows two decades of government, known as Thatcherism, supposedly committed to rolling BACK the frontier of the state, not rolling it forward. What had gone wrong?

What went wrong is simply expressed. To roll back the frontier of the state, Margaret Thatcher had to take more POWER and in doing so she sort of accidentally rolled it forward. Though many nationalised industries were privatised, transfer of ownership rarely led to a transfer of control. In privatised gas, electricity and telecoms, regulators and inspectors took the place of civil servants. Meanwhile public services still run by government became ever more bureaucratic. Targets and audits covered schools, hospitals, councils, charities in ever congealing volcanic larva. What was meant to be a liberating movement became an enslaving one.

This is the paradox of what I call Thatcher's two revolutions. The first, privatisation. The other, centralisation. The first was a revolt against the British state, the second a revolt against the British constitution. Both revolutions were extended by Thatcher's loyal followers, John Major and Tony Blair. They took privatisation into areas Thatcher dared not touch, such as railways, coal mines, prisons, even hospitals. Imagine what the old Labour party would have said had a Tory government proposed contracting a third of NHS operations to private firms. but this evening I want to analyse the second revolution in more detail. Let me take three examples of people who thought themselves liberated by the first, but found themselves enslaved by the second.

The first is my family doctor. Under the 1988 Health Act she was meant to be free as a fund-holder to buy the best hospital care she could find for her patients. She could shop around. Money would follow the patient. Hospitals, for their part, were independent, not-for-profit trusts in the business of selling operations. They would raise money in the market and plan their own development.

Now ask any doctor whether that splendid Thatcherite ideal ever worked. It was killed stone dead by the Treasury and the NHS hierarchy. Ask your doctor if he or she spends less or more time filling in NHS forms, making calls, doing paperwork, responding to audit. You may have noticed that two years ago the Blair government actually revived the idea. It wanted to make hospitals independent as Foundations. Local fund-holders would be purchasers. It was Thatcherism reborn. It was Thatcherism stillborn. Again the Treasury fought back and won. The health minister, Alan Milburn, even resigned. The foundations are mere cyphers.

My second example is a university academic. Before Thatcher, this was a profession with a certain status and lifetime tenure. Universities were autonomous. They received research grants from the University Grants Committee. Student fees were paid no questions asked. Staff and students might be indolent and work-shy, they might be useless. But British universities overall were the best in Europe and, by international standards, efficient. Anyway, they were independent.

In 1987 Thatcher's education minister, Kenneth Baker, told universities they would in future answer to him for everything. He paid the piper and would call the tune. They'd be expected to meet, I quote, "the demands for highly qualified manpower implied by the government's economic and social policies". The phrase was no different from that of socialist planning. Soon overseers were appointed with Orwellian names. There was a Higher Education Quality Council, a Research Assessment Exercise. People called quality auditors arrived to count the pages of each scholar's research, even the number of mentions in footnotes. Scholarship had to be measurable. Lecturers were assessed by exam results. Academic tenure was abolished. Grading, classification and university league tables became obsessional. The vice-chancellor of Salford University remarked that Thatcherism might have privatised everyone else, but it nationalised him. How many professions said the same!

My third example is the railway. British Rail was supposedly nationalised by Attlee in 1948, in the form of a holding executive for the old regional companies. Not until the 1980s, 40 years later, were they truly nationalised under a British Rail central directorate. Five years later the Major government privatised them again, but not into the regions. Privatisation was into 25 separate companies. Managerial leadership was broken up. A complex web of internal contracts were created, supposedly to squeeze down costs and improve efficiency. Out would go fuddy-duddy BR and its Whitehall sponsors. In would come the market, faster trains and declining subsidy.

What actually came in was chaos. The contracts were shambolic. I am told that the contract to a train operator for using Paddington Station ran to 600 pages. Trains duly ran slower than under BR and rail subsidy soared. It was below 500m in the late-1980s and approaching 2 billion ten years later. Some 400 rail planners in 1990 were some 4,000 by 2001.

The fact is that trains were not accountable to a market because trains rarely compete with each other. They answered to a Rail Regulator and his staff, who fixed internal contracts and prices, a Franchise Director and his staff who fixed fares and subsidies and a minister and his officials who tried to fix everything. He set up a Strategic Rail Authority to replace British Rail. He set up Network Rail to replace Railtrack. He is now replacing the Strategic Rail Authority with his own department and the Treasury. Today's railways are more truly nationalised even than India's or Russia's. As for quality of service, ask the passengers.

Health, education and transport are core public services. Thatcherism never quite had the courage to subject them to privatise them properly. Instead it went across to the other end of the spectrum and nationalised them properly. Look at local government. The rates were first replaced by a poll tax. It lasted just two years and was so unpopular that it was replaced in turn by council tax. But each change was so controversial that it had to be subsidised by the Treasury. By the end, local taxes in Britain were lower than anywhere in Europe. We may moan about them but today they comprise just 4 per cent of total government revenue, again 50 per cent in Sweden, 20 per cent in France and 13 per cent in Germany.

The result of this centralisation was inevitable. It led to centralising of policy of administration. Ministers want schools run their way. They want to dictate the curriculum, exams, teacher pay, discipline. Ministers behave likewise towards local planning, local housing, local roads, local parking fines. Add all this to central government's 500 or so quangos, its hospitals, prisons and farm regimes, and you have by far the largest and most comprehensive bureaucratic machine in the free world - one which in range and depth is not unlike that of the old soviet union.

Go to any country and ask how many of these functions are centrally determined. You will find very few. Public services such as health, education, roads and planning are regarded as the proper job of local or provincial democracy, from units of some 4m people in Germany to half a million in Scandinavia. In England the effective unit of public service delivery is now Whitehall, covering 50m people. At the recent election the Tory leader, Michael Howard, pledged priority to cleaner hospitals, school discipline, more police on the beat and lower local taxes. A German friend of mine was amazed. What've they got to do with him, he asked. Small wonder that Swedish local election turnout is 80 per cent; Britain's is 35 per cent.

Running what are essentially neighbourhood institutions is elsewhere left to local mayors or municipalities. Even hospitals, roads and colleges are provincial matters. Running them all from Whitehall imposes huge strains on a bureaucracy and its leadership. Sheer distance from the point of delivery requires measurable inputs and outputs. Building them has been the obsession of central government for the past ten years. It is the obsession of control.

The exercise is dominated by what is known as the cult of audit, whose most familiar tools are the target and the league table. How many cancer patients have you cured, it asks? Not how much suffering have you relieved. How many A-levels have you won? Not how well-prepared are your pupils for life. How many planning applications have you processed, not how lovely is your environment. How many crimes have you solved, not how secure do local people feel. Never mind the quality feel the statistic. Only what is measurable matters.

We know the result of such targetry. It distorts medical priorities. It encourages academic verbosity. It has police cars crashing by measuring only 999 response times. Why should any public servant do otherwise than what government wants, when that is what government pays for?

The target culture is bureaucratic corporal punishment. It's a deterrent, a goad and a humiliation. Today's Whitehall targets run to some 650, all registered on some Whitehall computer. They are bound into what are known as policy silos. You pour money in at the top and out of the bottom comes something called "delivery". Also out comes stupefying amounts of red tape. One primary school head loaded her Whitehall circulars into a barrow and found she could not wheel it by the end of term. The chief executive of the City of York once told me there were so many government inspectors in his building at any one time that they filled his entire appointments diary.

There is something puzzling in all this. The cry, we must cut red tape is made by all modern politicians. Thatcher herself appointed David Rayner, Robin Ibbs and David Young to fight bureaucracy. John Major invented Citizens Charters and "better regulation" task forces. Tony Blair appointed Lord Haskins, Adair Turner and others. They were completely ineffective. Targets proliferated. Jargon multiplied. Consultants and control freaks took on a life of their own. They were immune to cure.

So even was the Treasury. I well remember Terry Burns, head of the Treasury, promising in 1994 that he would no longer control staff or pay throughout the public sector. This was simply not true. He went on as before. But I have a record of his predecessor saying exactly the same ten years earlier. And ten years later, the Treasury recently said it again, along with abolishing, so it claimed, some 200 targets. The Treasury is truly the home of undead.

Targets are the reduction to absurdity of the centralist state. They the tool of Lenin's Gosplan. The norm was all. Stakhanov, the legendary worker who exceeded his norm, was the national hero. Targets make the bureaucrat king because they leave no room either for inspirational leadership or for local choice. They are one-size fits all government. Parliament does not oversee them. They simply emerge from someone's head. I once asked who fixed targets, such as that cannabis use be halved in five years or truancy reduced by 20 per cent. The answer was that "someone" unknown just made them up. Throughout history central power has meant arbitrary power. The target is government by whimsy. Yet such is the stuff of the second Thatcher revolution, the revolution of control. All the checks and balances in the constitution: local democracy, professional autonomy, parliamentary oversight, civil service independence, all are outflanked by the new control.

I don't regard politicians as essentially mendacious or even corrupt. It the second revolution is so potent there must be a reason. If the state refuses to wither away, their must be a cause.

One reason is vividly illustrated each morning by the BBC's Today programme, unofficial tribune of the political scrutiny. It is often accused of left-wing bias. I have never agreed with that. But then its bias is far more powerful, towards interventionism as opposed to devolution. It may anti-the government but it is fiercely pro-government. And in this it is no different from most of the media, indeed most of Britain's political community. Day after day its interviewers intone the same mantra. What are you doing, secretary of state, about the crime rate, hospital waiting list, traffic jams, trains, schools, litter, hooligans? Something must be done. Come on minister, what are you doing? Why aren't you spending more?

In response I have never heard a minister dare to say that anything is none of his business. He dare not say it's the business of the private sector or local government or some quango chairman. The major premise of political debate is that more must always be spent and be done. When a dog bites a child, the Home Office must look into dog licences. When salmonella is found in an egg, all eggs are suspect. If a man falls into a pond, all ponds must be fenced.

Worse, nothing must be different anywhere. Told that cancer cures are higher in Shropshire than in Surrey the media erupts. Told that speeding fines are lower in Dorset than in Durham we need to know why. Why is literacy lower in Liverpool than Ludlow or rivers cleaner in Cornwall than Cumbria? Why is the minister doing nothing about it? The target culture duly elides into the post-code lottery. We can't bear anything to be variable. It is unfair. Even in Thatcherite Britain it must a case of to each according to his needs. This is the government satirised by Pope: a cement "ever sure to bind: we bring to one dead level every mind."

We started with one paradox, between Thatcher's first and second revolutions. But we now find it rooted in another. The electorate wants the state to wither in general yet, please not in particular. We want less government, yet more of what government brings. We want crime controlled, roads safer, food cleaner, risk removed. We want our lives less controlled, yet somehow more controlled.

Resolving this paradox will be the subject of next week's talk. Somehow we need to recapture the revolutionary spirit of the 1980s, without slipping into the counter-revolutionary statism of the 1990s. We need to re-establish constitutional checks and balances over governmental power. We need to know what is being with our money, but not everything that is being done. I am not defeatist about achieving this. Both British history and foreign experience offer a way forward. But that will need Britain to embrace a new, more extrovert politics. To that elusive challenge I next turn.

Sunday Supplements in 2005
15 Jun 05 |  The Westminster Hour


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