what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, February 3, 2014

The slow, relentless corruption of the British political class

Just how much Government has changed since 1945 comes through very vividly from reading (again) Denis Healey’s Memoirs which I wrote about yesterday. It has changed dramatically in what it does and how it does it. And it has changed also in the nature of its political governance.
Healey reminds us of the phrase used by the Labour party in the run-up to the 1964 General Election when they talked of “the thirteen wasted years” – meaning those under Conservative rule from 1951. “But”, Healey notes wryly, “eleven of these years were wasted by the Labour Party” as it engaged in mammoth ideological struggles relating to nuclear weapons and public ownership. 

The 6 subsequent years of Labour rule from 1964-1970 were disappointing – with British membership of Europe becoming an increasingly contentious issue. Although that was finally resolved in 1975, just after Labour regained power in 1974, difficult economic issues dominated the late 1970s and paved the way for 18 years of highly ideological Conservative rule from 1979.   
During that period, a new generation of Labour politicians vowed to bring a new discipline to the party – thereby creating “New labour” which totally altered the way politics was done. The party leader became imperious; labour politicians passive; image everything; and corporate power the name of the game. The rest of Europe’s social democrats sat up and took notice – Tony Bliar became the man to copy. Any pretence at democracy disappeared (see Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void– the hollowing of western democracy; or this article on corporate power for some British examples) 

Perhaps the best critique of what has happened is a short satirical essay by Anthony Jay (the man who brought us Yes Minister) – Democracy, Bernard, it must be stopped which I've taken the liberty of reproducing on my website. It takes the form of the advice given by Sir Humphrey (the retiring Head of the Civil Service) to his replacement. It beautifully captures the mechanisms which have been used over the past 50 years to corrupt the political class. Here is the first section (the final section will follow)
The first two rules for neutralising democracy are:
1. Centralise revenue. The governing class cannot fulfil its responsibilities without money. We, therefore, have to collect as much money as we can in the centre. In fact, we have done this with increasing effect over the years, with three happy results.The first is that we can ensure that money is not spent irresponsibly by local communities. By taking 80 or 90 per cent of the money they need in central taxes, we can then return it to them for purposes of which we approve. If they kept it for themselves, heaven knows what they might spend it on.
The second happy result is that the larger the sum, the harder it is to scrutinise. The ₤6,000 or so spent by a rural parish council is transparent and intelligible, and subjected to analysis in distressing detail. By contrast, the three or four hundred billion of central government revenue is pleasantly incomprehensible, and leaves agreeably large sums for purposes which the common people would not approve if it were left to them. It also means that a saving of ₤1 million can be dismissed as 0•0000003 of annual expenditure and not worth bothering with, whereas it can make a lot of difference to the budget of Fidelio at Covent Garden.
The third result is that the more the government spends, the more people and organisations are dependent on its bounty, and the less likely they are to make trouble. 
2. Centralise authority. It goes without saying that if Britain is to remain a country of civilised values, the masses cannot be trusted with many decisions of importance. Local government must be allowed to take decisions, but we have to ensure that they are trivial.Meanwhile, we must increase the volume of laws made centrally. We have an enviable record of legislation growth, with hardly any laws being repealed, which it is now your duty to extend. If you are under pressure to provide statistics showing your zeal in deregulation, you will find many laws concerning jute processing and similar extinct industries which can be repealed without too much harm. We also ensure that, where local government has authority to act independently, there is an appropriate structure of scrutiny, review and appeal to control its excesses. I am sure you will want to protect this.You will also want to ensure that every Bill contains wide enabling powers, so that unpopular provisions can be brought in later as statutory instruments which MPs rarely read and virtually never debate. You should be able to achieve three or four thousand of these in a good year. 
The rest of the rules flow from the first two
·         capture the Prime Minister
·         Insulate the Cabinet
·         Enlarge constituencies
·         Overpay MPs
·         Appoint rather than elect
·         Permanent officials – rotating Ministers
·         Appoint more staff
·         secrecy
 3. Harness the Prime Minister. this is the most important of them. Happily, it presents no problem. Governments today are even more hostile to democracy than we are, though for a different reason. They come to power on a tide of promises and expectations which are never capable of realisation, but which have secured for them the exquisite luxuries of office, fame and power which they are desperate to retain.It is not hard to convince the Prime Minister that, to fulfil the expectations, he needs to acquire more revenues and more powers.
 4. Insulate the Cabinet. This involves more than just our standard technique of keeping ministers too busy to make a nuisance of themselves. They must be kept, as far as possible, well away from any contact with the sweaty multitude.This means avoiding public transport by use of private cars, avoiding the National Health Service by private health care, avoiding sink schools by living in affluent suburbs or by private education, travelling business class or in private planes, staying in first class hotels, and always having security staff to usher them through crowded concourses.Of course, they will affect to resist this at first, but when we point out the security risk, the tragic loss that their departure would entail, the enormous value of the time of people so important, and the possible political embarrassment of being caught on camera in confrontation with protesters, they acquiesce with gratifying rapidity.
Appropriately, the painting is a Gerog grosz again!

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