Register the establishment

There has never been an effective bonfire of the quangos nor is one likely.  The number of these beasts varies – the best estimates are around 2,000 just for central government, but it could be more, depending on definitions.  The powers they exercise vary: they may give advice, or just design forms, or administer an area of law, or may actually make law.  They may meet twice a year and consider a niche field, or they may have a billion-pound budget and more staff than a major company.

The landscape of quangocracy

The existence of any given body may be unknown to any but a small circle – some may not be known even to the ministers nominally responsible, and certainly responsible ministers may have little knowledge of what “their” quangos are doing.  The scope for corruption is high; the scope for forceful members to usurp authority is limitless.

A body which is not watched will step beyond its scope, and individuals will gravitate to it who have their own agenda, which is likely to differ from the instincts of the democratic element of government.

All this is well understood by government, but with little idea of how to control it.  The occasional little bonfire makes a minister feel good, but barely dents the system, and as one head is cut off the hydra, three more arise to fill the space, each time a politician wishes to be seen to be doing something.

Private business contrasted

To open the system, let us apply principles applied to private business.

Limited companies are under a single system contained in a single Act of Parliament (currently the Companies Act 2016) which is intuitive and well understood, and which applies comfortably to all limited companies, from a one-man enterprise to a multinational conglomerate.  Each is registered at Companies House, whereupon it receives legal personality and limited liability in return for a degree of openness: it must have a registered office and publish its accounts and the names of its directors, amongst other details.  This is so that that those doing business with the company can see what they are dealing with when they sign a contract.

A ‘quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation’ may be entrusted with a huge budget and legal powers without the same degree of openness.  Freedom of information requests may prise the lid off, but it is slow and you need to know where to look.  If a quango were a company, all this would be on a database published on-line.

Quangos are not all of a type: one may be established and organised by its own Act of Parliament or statutory instrument, royal charter or ministerial fiat.  Some are essentially just committees, others vast bureaucracies and most in between, and most are run by part-time commissioners who may sit on many boards and flit across the public sector; a professional tax-eating class who have been dubbed the ‘quangocrats’: in the meantime, the real control is in the hands of unaccountable employed staff.  A public body may have legal personality or not, with more official autonomy or less.  A new body may be an old one renamed or two merged, inheriting the debts and duties of the predecessors, or a fresh invention.

For a member of the public faced with a faceless quango which may or may not legally exist and may or may not be the same body they started dealing with, the prospect of redress from an uncertain entity is daunting.

A Minister too cannot be expected to keep track of what is being done and spent in his name. Whenever he wants to trim of bureaucracy, he can have no idea of what that bureaucracy is.  He may also find that the individuals who are set to lose one of their salaries can subvert that change using several other bodies, hiding behind their anonymous notepaper.

In such an unpoliced system, a driven individual can impose their radical ideas, ‘leading beyond authority’, with little chance of being stopped.

Register the establishment

Therefore, let us register the quangos at Companies House (and resist the Whitehall habit of establishing a new, expensive quango-over-the-quangos that has to work things out from scratch with an expensive new system and new commissioners).

Every public body other than main ministries, whether incorporated or not, must register.  As is expected of every private company however small, it must have a name, a registered office at which it can be contacted or sued, and be issued with a unique company number which will follow it through all its changes of name and shape. Its nature must be clear: is it incorporated or not, and with Crown immunities or not.  As a company must register its Articles of Association, we must know the constitution of every quango, and its directors, and the ‘shareholder’ who appoints and dismisses them:  he too must take responsibility.  The public should know too what the quango’s duties and powers are, or state where they can be found.  Finally, the accounts must be published at Companies House, available to all.

None of this is new information nor any burden to provide.  It might even help the staff of the quango to have the information at their fingertips, as sometimes even they may forget what they are and what their job is.

The sanction for failure in a private company is a fine, and eventual dissolution.  For a quango it should be this:  unless their registration is complete and up to date, they may not receive any public funds, they may not levy any fee, and their officers remain unpaid.

It may be embarrassing to find that, say Birmingham City Council has failed to file its accounts on time and so is barred from levying council tax, but there must be discipline.

There will be arguments over what is and is not a registrable public body, which itself tells us something of the undesirable complexity of modern government.  A simple answer may be that if it has an independent budget and is not just a task group of civil servants, it must register.

We may go further too and make the creation and the dissolution of quangos more systematic, which must simplify the process and save waste in repetition.  Further, if a public body is established for a particular task, it must dissolve at the end of it, and that end date be flagged up on the register.

There has never yet been a successful bonfire of the quangos, but until they are all registered in one place, with an understood procedure for dissolution, it is not even contemplatable.

See also

He that is to govern a whole nation must read in himself…

There is a saying much usurped of late, that wisdom is acquired, not by reading of books, but of men. Consequently whereunto, those persons, that for the most part can give no other proof of being wise, take great delight to show what they think they have read in men, by uncharitable censures of one another behind their backs. But there is another saying not of late understood, by which they might learn truly to read one another, if they would take the pains; and that is, Nosce teipsum, Read thyself: which was not meant, as it is now used, to countenance either the barbarous state of men in power towards their inferiors, or to encourage men of low degree to a saucy behaviour towards their betters; but to teach us that for the similitude of the thoughts and passions of one man, to the thoughts and passions of another, whosoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth when he does think, opine, reason, hope, fear, etc., and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know what are the thoughts and passions of all other men upon the like occasions.

I say the similitude of passions, which are the same in all men,—desire, fear, hope, etc.; not the similitude of the objects of the passions, which are the things desired, feared, hoped, etc.: for these the constitution individual, and particular education, do so vary, and they are so easy to be kept from our knowledge, that the characters of man’s heart, blotted and confounded as they are with dissembling, lying, counterfeiting, and erroneous doctrines, are legible only to him that searcheth hearts. And though by men’s actions we do discover their design sometimes; yet to do it without comparing them with our own, and distinguishing all circumstances by which the case may come to be altered, is to decipher without a key, and be for the most part deceived, by too much trust or by too much diffidence, as he that reads is himself a good or evil man.

But let one man read another by his actions never so perfectly, it serves him only with his acquaintance, which are but few. He that is to govern a whole nation must read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but mankind: which though it be hard to do, harder than to learn any language or science; yet, when I shall have set down my own reading orderly and perspicuously, the pains left another will be only to consider if he also find not the same in himself. For this kind of doctrine admitteth no other demonstration.

See also


Leadership or caution

They have first to win the most sophisticated electorate in the world, and the man may be right that this might mean ‘the most devious’. More hats are in the ring, and most will fall swiftly by the wayside. Some are hopeless, some helpless, few friendless.

This site is trying to keep the list of Candidates up to date.

Their foibles and fancies are known more by their colleagues than by the rest of us. It is a question of policies, of appear to the electorate, of ability to command and inspire. Policies are the main battleground at the moment, and who will be most likely to effect a Brexit and one which the electorate will love, and what to do with the fatal document, the Withdrawal Agreement. It cannot be wished away.

Soon though come other considerations: Brexit will come and go (we fervently hope) but then government will continue with other issues, and the policies to prevail after that may cause more crises unless anticipated.

Then comes the point which will decide so much – character. Who has the right character to be permitted to hold such a high office as that of the Prime Minister, for that is what is at stake. No one ever judges character properly though: the ‘right’ character is ‘whoever is most like me or what I would like to be’, but in truth there are many types of character within the population, and none is right or wrong (just more or less annoying perhaps, or more or less trustworthy, but not right or wrong as such). Conservatives, as Jordan Peterson has observed, have a particular mindset requiring order and propriety, and we are suspicious or hostile to the open, disordered, liberal mindset, but sometimes the situation needs a creative, disordered mind: we celebrate still those statesmen who showed it, like Disraeli and Churchill.

It is easy to miss an opportunity to get a leader who will achieve in favour of one who can be relied upon to be reliable and unexciting. That must all go to the judgment faced by the most sophisticated, devious electorate in the world.

Mindless commentary; victorless result; pointless election

Just four things that could have been predicted for the European election and all came to pass:

  • The protest parties would come out on top;
  • The BBC would ignore the rest of Europe;
  • Every political spokesman would claim any result to be a victory for whatever they believe.

The turn-out was derisory, as usual, though higher than you might expect for an election that had no noticeable local campaigning and was considered by most to be pointless. The Brexit party won the biggest vote share everywhere except Ulster and Scotland, which have their own regional electoral eccentricities. The protest parties overall – Brexit, Green, SNooPy, Plaid Cymru, LibDem – did very well.

This is fertile ground for humility and suggestions of compromise, but as the election means nothing in practical terms, commentators can say what they like. We have had the Greens, who are not exactly known for being grounded in any sort of reality, asserting that it is a ringing victory for Remain, if you add the right votes together and ignore the others) and the Brexit Party, and some within the Conservative Party, saying the vote demands a no-deal Brexit. Labour are split down the middle as usual: the Remainac wing have urged that the party move to a “Remain” position notwithstanding that every opinion poll and election to date has shown that Labour does better when promising to leave.

It all makes to difference in reality: British MEPs are only 9.7% of the chamber; the Parliament is practically a toothless talking shop in any case; and Britain is on the way out, whatever the fancies of the pro-Europeans. Therefore all this can only be seen as, at its best, an experiment in psychology. Those of us on the ground watching the politicians clashing in their ivory towers and hoping not to be hit by cross-fire would dearly like to know more of how the various opinions are formed and maintained, but perhaps next time a psychiatrist could be used, not a billion-pound electoral process.

The quiet leadership contest

There is a party leadership contest going on. Few people have noticed. It is for the Liberal Democrats, and the press has gone wildly mute about it.

The LibDems (remember them?) are replacing the much-respected Vince Cable, who has unplugged himself to seek a deserved retirement and need a fresh, young leader to take the party into whatever it does these days.

The criteria require that the leader be an MP, which is a very narrow field, and as Tim Farron found, Bible-believing Christians or Jews need not apply. The membership are all wrapped still in the cult of the youthful leader as showing a break from the past, but if they exclude anyone whose main campaigns have been to recognise an independent Palestinian state even though there isn’t one and to boycott Easter eggs then it’s bye-bye Layla (to be fair to her, that deep hatred of chocolate eggs was over what she thinks is excessive packaging rather than for encouraging Bible-believing Christians like Tim).

It looks like it’s Jo Swinson’s turn then.

A little advice for her in a thankless task: stop the intemperate attacks on the character and intelligence of those who support Brexit: they include a larger proportion of your own membership and of your activists than you realise. Brexit supporting Liberals are just keeping their heads down, as are Christian and Jewish members: take a look at what they have to endure from their fellow members. Good luck Jo.