How to get things done

There is a way to organise, to remove the ineffectiveness that plagues Whitehall. The current system is fine-tuned to fail: deadlock to inaction is built in by design, as the last thirteen years have shown. Now that Whitehall is faced with an impossible labour, replacing all Brussels laws, a new way to do things is vital.

There is a known solution, described by John Stuart Mill, one of the few non-Hobbesians who is quoted on this site with honour.

A committee, which takes minutes and wastes hours, is an efficient way to do nothing. There is no need to repeat all the faults of committees, as we all know them.  Beyond the commonplace remarks, a committee is a way to bring together a range of thoughts and insights into likely consequences, but it is drawn from a narrow range of experience, and the system is devised to avoid personal responsibility, and to prevent coherent decision. One strident voice on a committee can cast doubt in the collective wisdom and prevent the overwhelming majority from making a decision there and then – it is something I have done often enough myself.

What remarkable system of work was it then that Mills described? –

This mode of conducting the highest class of administrative business is one of the most successful instances of the adaptation of means to ends which political history, not hitherto very prolific in works of skill and contrivance, has yet to show.

He refers to the system by which India was ruled in the latter days of the Company. It took the strengths of the committee system but eliminated its basic flaws. He wrote:

The relation which ought to exist between a chief and this description of advisers is very accurately hit by the constitution of the Council of the Governor General and those of the different Presidencies in India. These councils are composed of persons who have professional knowledge of Indian affairs, which the governor general and governors usually lack, and which it would not be desirable to require of them. As a rule, every member of council is expected to give an opinion, which is of course very often a simple acquiescence; but if there is a difference of sentiment, it is at the option of every member, and is the invariable practice, to record the reasons of his opinion, the governor general, or governor, doing the same. In ordinary cases the decision is according to the sense of the majority; the council, therefore, has a substantial part in the government; but if the governor general, or governor, thinks fit, he may set aside even their unanimous opinion, recording his reasons. The result is, that the chief is individually and effectively responsible for every act of the government. The members of council have only the responsibility of advisers; but it is always known, from documents capable of being produced, and which, if called for by Parliament or public opinion always are produced, what each has advised, and what reasons he gave for his advice; while, from their dignified position, and ostensible participation in all acts of government, they have nearly as strong motives to apply themselves to the public business, and to form and express a well−considered opinion on every part of it, as if the whole responsibility rested with themselves.

This simple description (in his work “Considerations on a Representative Government“) sets out an effective governing structure in which all councillors may contribute, and so the Governor has the benefit of their wisdom, and in which collaborative decision-making can be effective: but it has the crucial distinction that the Governor and councillors all take personal responsibility, and where, if the committee is deadlocked, the Governor will decide and act.

One might think that councillors would be cynical about their role, knowing they are constitutionally powerless, as the Governor will decide on his own. In practice the councillors are incentivised to work hard and be part of a collective decision.

Width of experience in important in a council or a committee. In considering which Brussels rules of farming should be kept and which swept away or liberalised, there is little point having a committees manned with London-cloistered civil servants who cannot tell a cow from a bullock: that sort of impractical ignorance is why Brussels made it illegal to bury a dead sheep. Proper consideration needs farmers to lead, and those who know the specific regulations sitting beside them.

Generally, civil servants are open to outside advice. I have been involved with many consultations: the clerks in office know that they are ignorant of the realities in the fields they govern and so they ask for public comment from those in the relevant trade. It is a slow process though; a simple statutory instrument can take two years to settle. There is no time for that now: the Jacob Rees Mogg deadline at which all Brussels laws will expire is eleven months away. The committee system and the consultation system are incapable of doing the job with any degree of competence.

The path of least resistance, which the mandarins or Whitehall will press, is that every directive, regulation and decision the EU imposed shall be transcribed by copy-and-paste into a British statutory instrument, merely changing the ring of stars to the royal arms and removing the Slovenian translation. That is missing the point entirely: each imposition must be weighed in the balance and found wanting, or wanted. It may be kept only if objectively justified, and not out of mere caution.  For that we need Mill’s governors and their councils (if not by those names).

Therefore we come back to Mill. Each field of burden and regulation must be examined by a council constituted for the purpose, appointed by the minister in charge, and at its head not a chairman but a decisionmaker, guided but not bound by the council, whose sole decision will decide life or death to a regulation. On his or her voice alone, rules are repealed or repeated (or placed before the House to be). “This … is one of the most successful instances of the adaptation of means to ends … which political history… has yet to show”.

I would hope that they also have to hand and heart a copy of On Liberty.

Is it possible, even by this method, to achieve all this within the time allotted?

Depend upon it , sir; when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

The impossible sunset deadline is to be held for two reasons: it is the only way to stop the bureaucracy from prevaricating; and it will distract them into a practical endeavour, to keep their hands out other petty interference.

Mill of course was not writing of Brexit but of India with a view that his observations be of wider application.  The lesson which can be learnt from applying this governor-council system can be applied to many fields of administration.  One might not name the decisionmakers as ‘governors’ – perhaps ‘executives’ or ‘commissioners’ or just ‘decisionmakers’. Those involved need not be drawn from the civil service: there is a good case for contracting functions out to private firms, more attuned t their client’s needs, as I have written before.

In this way the Whitehall deadlock can be lifted, as long as councillors with the right experience are drawn in, and sound decisionmakers are chosen.

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Anti-Conversion laws

Laws to forbid conversion have become disturbingly common. They may nominally be directed at conversion by force or fraud, but the reality is a desire to ban any activity. The practicalities for the individual are concerning.

Several states in Asia have laws to punish conversions, aimed at stopping people from becoming Christian. The rhetoric is that conversions are driven by bribes or dishonesty or other methods which are unknown to Christian missionaries: cruel therapy, blackmail; or seduction by beautiful girls is one lurid example. Having made the anger of the legislators rise with such stories, anything can be forbidden. Even private prayer may draw a prison sentence or an angry mob.

I have known plenty of people who, in a midlife crisis, have turned away from a lifetime of Christian devotion to find new spirituality in exotic gods. Will the activists demand that in this case he must have been a pagan from birth?  Once captured by one side, he can never be invited to a church fete again for fear of forceful reconversion.

I have known others who embraced the Asian aesthetic in their excitable youth and declared themselves to be Buddhist and then when more matured have found that actually this was a youthful folly and their heart lies with the Gospel of Christ. For young women who self-identify in this way this way in teenage, 70% change back later. Would I be clapped in irons for inviting them to church, or for praying for them?

Just a few years ago there was a lifelong Church of England vicar, who  suddenly became a Hindu: he was shocked and offended when the bishop suspended his licence to preach. These days I wonder if a bishop would dare; he might celebrate diversity in the priesthood.

The idea that one is born as a particular religion and by an iron law will remain of that persuasion ones whole life is a nonsense; a demonstrable falsehood, of which we all have examples from our own experience.  The Roman Catholic teaching that allegiance to Rome is branded indelibly on the soul by the water of baptism is just a way to frighten those who may stray. For proponents it is (as Gibbon might have said) a “necessary fiction”, without which their whole rationale falls.

What then of the man who shuffles embarrassedly to his vicar or a counsellor and says that he has always been a Christian, as plenty of girls could testify, but lately he has been having thoughts about cycles of rebirth, and could the counsellor help him to rid himself of these unwanted feelings? Can a Tibetan lama then leap upon him and claim that these feelings are proof that the man is a Buddhist and has always been from birth, and no one shall be permitted to convert him?

The truth of religious preference is that it is not in the strict categories its advocates pretend: it is a swirling, ever-changing sea of senses and  responses which , taken together, may be characterised as generally one name of another. Even for those of us who have always been exclusively Christian, I may waver year to year over Arminian ideas, or annihilationism, or degrees of acceptance of figurative art; which is normal, healthy development. Others go further in their wandering deep reactions, which should be accepted too and not punished by law.

In India such laws against conversion practices started in the princely states to impede Christian missionaries. Allegiance declared in the impetuosity of youth had to be caught and frozen when otherwise at mature reflection might embrace the promises of the Gospel. Personal development had to be impeded by the policeman’s boot.

Once one state has adopted such a law, the pressure comes on others not to be left behind. It is an outrageous law, but once normalised in one place, there is no outrage heard. An activist will portray a failure to enact a conversion ban to be the outrage.

Could we see such a thing in Britain?

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Differences Between Command And Counsell

COMMAND is, where a man saith, “Doe this,” or “Doe this not,” without expecting other reason than the Will of him that sayes it. From this it followeth manifestly, that he that Commandeth, pretendeth thereby his own Benefit: For the reason of his Command is his own Will onely, and the proper object of every mans Will, is some Good to himselfe.

COUNSELL, is where a man saith, “Doe” or “Doe not this,” and deduceth his own reasons from the benefit that arriveth by it to him to whom he saith it. And from this it is evident, that he that giveth Counsell, pretendeth onely (whatsoever he intendeth) the good of him, to whom he giveth it.

Therefore between Counsell and Command, one great difference is, that Command is directed to a mans own benefit; and Counsell to the benefit of another man. And from this ariseth another difference, that a man may be obliged to do what he is Commanded; as when he hath covenanted to obey: But he cannot be obliged to do as he is Counselled, because the hurt of not following it, is his own; or if he should covenant to follow it, then is the Counsell turned into the nature of a Command. A third difference between them is, that no man can pretend a right to be of another mans Counsell; because he is not to pretend benefit by it to himselfe; but to demand right to Counsell another, argues a will to know his designes, or to gain some other Good to himselfe; which (as I said before) is of every mans will the proper object.

This also is incident to the nature of Counsell; that whatsoever it be, he that asketh it, cannot in equity accuse, or punish it: For to ask Counsell of another, is to permit him to give such Counsell as he shall think best; And consequently, he that giveth counsell to his Soveraign, (whether a Monarch, or an Assembly) when he asketh it, cannot in equity be punished for it, whether the same be conformable to the opinion of the most, or not, so it be to the Proposition in debate.

For if the sense of the Assembly can be taken notice of, before the Debate be ended, they should neither ask, nor take any further Counsell; For the Sense of the Assembly, is the Resolution of the Debate, and End of all Deliberation. And generally he that demandeth Counsell, is Author of it; and therefore cannot punish it; and what the Soveraign cannot, no man else can.

But if one Subject giveth Counsell to another, to do any thing contrary to the Lawes, whether that Counsell proceed from evill intention, or from ignorance onely, it is punishable by the Common-wealth; because ignorance of the Law, is no good excuse, where every man is bound to take notice of the Lawes to which he is subject.

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Teapotohedral policy

Governing is not about clean lines and simple patterns. The journalists’ trope of one-dimensional left-right politics would come under a Hobbesian definition of Madnesse; no cube nor a tesseract suffices to map idea, and the actual art of governing is a teapotohedon even simplified to its bones.

A graphic designer explained the teapot to me: if you have a cube or a sphere, for example, you can map where light will shine on it or a shadow will fall with simple mathematics, but a teapot has changing curves, concave and convex, a lid and a spout disrupting the surface, a functional interior – all of which must be mapped and worked into each algorithm for determining how it will appear at each angle and how light cast at any angle will reflect or be shadowed. So important is the teapot to designers that one has included it amongst the Platonic solids; the tetrahedron, the cube, the dodecahedron etc, and the teapotohedron.

I was thinking about this as I looked at an area of government policy that is (as are they all) mired in unhelpful politics.

Look at any policy, anyone looking form outside will see only part of it, and not the consequences; where the sun will illuminate or shadows will form, nor know if the path followed will curve up or down or round and in how many dimensions. How can voters be expected to understand why policy should be shaped as it is, and what has cast the shadow – that element on the pot, or a flowerpot standing behind it, or a flaw in the windowpane? We only see a bit at a time, blaming the politicians or the bureaucrats for giving us a clumsy handle, missing the capacious belly, or seeing only the lid. Left to write our own policies, we would all design simple pots we can measure and feel we understand; entirely spherical so that there is no hole to put the tea leaves and water in, no spout to pour from, and which roll off the table and smash in the floor.

It all makes commentary, even voting, akin to playing hoopla in a blindfold.

However the voter is still in a better position than those who make policy: inside the teapot, the view is even worse.

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Cakes and ale

Twelfth Night; the end of Christmas by ancient tradition was marked by feasting and revelry. In unreformed nations they give gifts today rather than at Christmas.

The revelry of Twelfth Night was winked at by the unreformed Church – their monkish clergy were shocked by any sort of pleasure, out of jealousy, but realised there can be no life without joy and approved it by making it an exception. It was eventually suppressed under Puritan influence, and yet the warring tendencies never got it right, because trying to fix a rule makes balance impossible, and rules are vital if you are to avoid the burden of thinking, or praying.

Whether revelry was part of the religious devotion or in defiance of it historians will never agree.  Then in stepped Shakespeare:

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

The scene in the play is not set on any particular night, and scholars will argue until the end of time about why the Bard chose the name for his play, it is easy to imagine it as taking place at least in the spirit of the eponymous 6th day of January. On that night the two knights, Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, ate, drank and caroused with the clown so loudly as to wake the household – or at least those of the household who were not with them, or at least Malvolio. The scene is pictured beautifully, the broken, tipsy  conversation perfectly framed, so that the imagination can do the rest. For all the nonsense and the hasty threats and more nonsense again, they are clearly having a riotous good time, committing no sin either at that point, and in storms Malvolio the steward, angered at the disturbance, or at his own jealously at others’ happiness. He has the moral high ground in his eyes and commands them to quieten down.

He is though only a steward; ultimately a servant:

Out o’ tune, sir: ye lie. Art any more than a steward?

(Those who command others to silence in our own censorious age should be send away the same way: “Our of tune – Art any more than a keyboard tapper?” Regrettably they will not shut their mouths, any more than Malvolio did.)

There is more to this that a spat between a kinsman and a servant in far off Illyria. Shakespeare built his theatre in Southwark because the Corporation of London was governed by Puritans who would have no bawdy playhouses within their city. “The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass” says Maria after the Steward has left the stage.

Ultimately, coming back to the calendar and the twelfth day of Christmas, what is the Church to do? Christianity is not about solemnity and the banishing of all joy, or separation from the world: the Gospel is all about God in the World, and about Joy – a spiritual joy greater than anything that even cakes and ale and produce. Drinking and carousing though can slip soon into bawdy songs and immorality so the Church should have nothing to do with it. Then again, was not the Last Supper a chaste Passover meal celebrated with wine and good company?

The Romans in their old religion talked of virtue but practiced shamelessness, so that when the Gospel came among them its first job was to impose a new morality, and it was imposed by the first class to accept the gospel, namely virtuous, modest-living, middle-class shopkeepers and merchants (the very same who made up the Corporation of London in the Bard’s day). That is still needed, but in every generation it leads to the assumption that any enjoyment is too carnal to be permitted, and every generation needs a correction to remind the Gospellers that joy is woven into the Gospel. Real joy is found in filling the senses with the wonder of God’s creation and love: ale-joy is a dulling of the senses against it.  The Romans in their old religion did have ideas of religious restraint connected with their idols, but they also found a need for a release of this on occasions.  The unreformed Church followed suit irreligiously.  Hobbes observed the comparison:

They had their Bacchanalia; and we have our Wakes, answering to them: They their Saturnalia, and we our Carnevalls

I can understand the Puritans in that context. Like Hobbes, they saw the heathenness coming out of old practices and determined to stamp out all  from church practice that was not strictly Biblical – and the revels of Twelfth Night after Christmas are nowhere in the Gospels – nor actually is Christmas as a festival, so they stopped that too. They went on to build a hedge around the law, to prevent immorality before it could get its boots on (or off).

Where does that leave the pursuit of enjoyment? Gathered round a family table, giving blessings for the bounty the Lord has allowed to us and the bond of family; no one can condemn this, surely. Gathered round with friends in the same manner must be a blessing too?  But drunkenness, roistering and debauchery – that is unholy. Now, how does one find a line?

There are some thinks fundamental to British life lived with any degree of enjoyment, and cakes, most of all are the universal comfort in all circumstances essential to life amongst our nation. It is all innocent, in moderation, so if the puritan instinct is about to grip me, I ask:

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

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