Mill against the bureaucracy

The word ‘Bureaucracy’ means ‘Rule by the office’, and the dull office does indeed rule all. The word started as a jibe and a warning of a tyranny of clerks, and is now accepted as the established form of government.

The complaints of politicians against the intransigence of Whitehall mandarins is justifiably met the retort with ‘Well why have you done nothing about it in the last 13 years?’ Is there anything that can be done though?

John Stuart Mill was not as modern liberals are, ‘too heavenly minded to be any earthly use’ but had his own liberal philosophy grounded on practical reality, which in a way made him more Hobbesian than he would have cared to be thought.  He observed sagely of the ways of the bureaucracy:

But where everything is done through the bureaucracy, nothing to which the bureaucracy is really adverse can be done at all.

The constitution of such countries is an organisation of the experience and practical ability of the nation, into a disciplined body for the purpose of governing the rest; and the more perfect that organisation is in itself, the more successful in drawing to itself and educating for itself the persons of greatest capacity from all ranks of the community, the more complete is the bondage of all, the members of the bureaucracy included.

For the governors are as much the slaves of their organisation and discipline, as the governed are of the governors. A Chinese mandarin is as much the tool and creature of a despotism as the humblest cultivator. An individual Jesuit is to the utmost degree of abasement the slave of his order, though the order itself exists for the collective power and importance of its members.

It is not, also, to be forgotten, that the absorption of all the principal ability of the country into the governing body is fatal, sooner or later, to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself. Banded together as they are—working a system which, like all systems, necessarily proceeds in a great measure by fixed rules—the official body are under the constant temptation of sinking into indolent routine, or, if they now and then desert that mill-horse round, of rushing into some half-examined crudity which has struck the fancy of some leading member of the corps.

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Birthing and slaying quangos rationally

A quango founded in response to a newspaper shock headline, tomorrow’s chip-wrapping, needed only to the end of the news-cycle. It may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.

Parliamentary practice to establish public bodies is ludicrously complex and accordingly abolishing or reforming them is complex. The usual practice is for an Act of Parliament to set out at length, over several sections and schedules, every aspect of the new body’s constitution, typically in exactly the same terms as every other quango. Consequently alteration or abolition requires another Act, laboriously pushed thrice through each House over a course of months.

A logical approach would be either to leave it for the relevant minister to constitue a body, or to pass one Act which lays down a general code for all future public bodies, so they can be created, and ended, in a single line. It is obvious logic. The Parliamentary Counsel, learned as they are, are not known for simple logic.

Anything created by any Act or instrument as a ‘public body’ shall have the following characteristics and be constituted as follows…..

Then any new Act in response to the latest news cycle can say “There shall be a public body called X“, and not fell a Norwegian forest describing it.

In the same way, Parliament should enact a general code for abolition or merger of a body, and achieve it each time in one line.

It would help if we knew what and where all these bodies are. I have urged that they all be registered at Companies House, with all members and accounts, and that none should be permitted to receive money unless registered. One could go further: if a private company is late with its filings it gets a warning and is then dissolved. I would not quite advocate that for bodies commanded into existence by Parliament, but such a failure could suggest redundancy and trigger a process towards abolition.

Quangos come and should go but are tenacious in justifying their own continuance, or growth and transformation into a new body; the same but with a new name. Greater Manchester County Council was created in 1974, abolished be an Act passed eleven years later: its residuary body lasted until 1989. The London Residuary Body endured for over eleven years. Someone was paying their salary, so why not make the job last?

The complexity of dissolution or merger discourages it. There is no need for the complexity.

If a private company is dissolved, there are known procedures laid down in the Insolvency Act, the Companies Act or the Friendly Societies Act determining how a company may dissolve itself or be dissolved, or merge, or be transformed, and then what happens to the assets, how creditors are paid and so forth. It is a rational set of procedures. Every high street accountant and lawyer is familiar with it. It is astounding that there is not the same sort of established procedure for quangos. Apply to public bodies the same code or an analogous one, and then a body may be dissolved by Parliament or the Minister with at a word.

Without such a procedure, quangos are left to muddle on redundantly, finding work for themselves, drinking taxpayers’ money and getting in the way, because it is easier to leave them there.

Registration would make it easy to identify quangos and who is responsible for them: having identified them their redundancy is more easily detected.

These are matters which can be achieved with a Powers and Bodies Act: codification, rationalisation and registration.

A new codifying Act would not just by all this sweep unwanted quangos away. It still needs positive ongoing action to identify and eliminate them.

To motivate quango members to finish the job so they can be abolished – that is the challenge. How to you motivate turkeys to vote for Christmas?

The first thing would be to give each a maximum lifespan. It could be a life ending when set tasks are achieved, but will just encourage them to delay finishing the work, which is the last thing you want. A fixed duration would concentrate in the minds of staff that they are out on a certain date, so they will be looking for new jobs as the date approaches, and are encouraged to finish the work properly to get a good reference. The Code could leave a slot to fill in a maximum duration.

For indefinite quangos, with no obvious term as they have a long-term mission, there is no termination date. They nevertheless will often fade into irrelevance: they may be kept on their toes by the threat of sudden abolition. A review process across the whole of quangoland – a proper one, with an assumption of abolition – is needed. It could only be effective though if the Code establishes a simple method of legal abolition. As long as each quango has its own private Act of Parliament and no way to be simply unwound, it can sit back and bask in its own immortality.

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Every story needs a villain

The villain of the piece is the most important narrative to a story, not the hero. The literature on the subject is wrong. Politicians, the great storytellers of all ages, know this well.

If you wonder why Moriarty appears in all Sherlock Holmes adaptations when he is only in one, short Holmes story; it is because the villain is needed to carry the narrative continuity. There are plenty of stories with no explicit villain, but it takes skill to keep it going. It more realistic with no villain – real life stories do not have a villain – but for momentum he drives it along, and can be used to explain the protagonist’s misfortunes. That is where it gets political.

It may be Ogmund Eythjof’s-killer in Odd’s Saga, popping up at various points to give flavour to an episode and make you hang on the skald’s words for his next appearance, or the Green Knight whom Gawain hunts (a warning against assuming anyone to be a villain), or the Sheriff of Nottingham, or Sauron, or von Stalhein, or that inappropriately appropriated Moriarty: with an individual as the focus, all can be explained in human terms.

There may be a collective villain in a faceless mob, like the Morlocks (although I prefer them), or a herd of monsters, but this rarely works in print or on screen and in these stories the real antagonist is the protagonist against himself.

Then come the politicians, and the stories they tell. They do conjure up collective villains: ‘the Rich’, or ‘Single-Mothers’, or ‘the Banks’ or ‘the J-‘: ah – there you what they did? It is falsehood, and malice of the highest order. A work of fiction can have a villain but telling such a story as if real life worked that way is evil and potentially murderous, as we have seen and wept for.

A wise politician knows that his fiction has a better narrative if the villain has a human face. Viktor Orban knew that a campaign against western liberalism was to wishy-washy to inspire and so, on advice from American consultants, he gave it a face; George Soros. Others obsess on Trump.

Battling a supernatural villain makes the ordinary man feel like a hero. It is inspiring, but not in a good sense when it crosses into the real world.

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Floreat Ultonia?

The positive relief from the latest agreement is inescapable.  The Windsor Framework – is it the solution? It is not a miracle, but is pragmatic, at last.

The Ulster Protocol was out of date within months of signature: it was part of the initial Withdrawal Agreement, written at a time when it was not known if Britain and the European Union would sign a zero-tariff agreement, and so the main focus was how to charge customs duties across an invisible border. That became irrelevant: what remained was the imposition of a complex customs code and the banning from Ulster of everyday things brought from Great Britain.

You would think that when the Trade and Co-operation Agreement was signed, the Protocol could have been dropped – however there was still a lot of political anger in the air at the time, and the greyheads of the Commission were fired with a desire to punish Perfidious Albion.

Year have passed now, the greyheads have been inched out. We have all been through COVID and the tide of outrage is withdrawing. I have said before that the concept of common sense is culturally understood only in the English-speaking countries, one of which of course is long-suffering Ireland: maybe Ursula von L has a sense of it too.

Rhetoric rarely makes sensible decisions.  The idea at the time of the Withdrawal Agreement and its Protocols was that Ireland and Ulster should not be hurt by hindering the trade across the invisible border. Indeed, that was a sensible consideration. However trade across the North Channel is many times greater that that between North and South. The words of the latest document suggest that this realisation has been brought to the fore at last.

There is no need to wreck the greater trade route to preserve the lesser, but also no need really to harm either. There are no customs duties, so there is no need for the Protocol, but for the incomprehensible need for Brussels bureaucracy. That bureaucracy was a big reason for our leaving.

A solution seems to have been found, according to the press release, in a “green lane” or free and unhindered passage of goods, while those destined for the South may still be hindered. That is good for the United Kingdom; not so much for the Republic of Ireland.

The restrictions which remain need only be one-way restrictions: there is no reason for Britain to hinder imports from the European Union. If they choose to hinder imports from us, we roll our eyes at their self-harming eccentricities and our government should try to limit the harm through the mechanisms of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement.

What of the Irish Republic? The vast bulk of it trade too is with Great Britain. I have stood watching the thundering lines of lorries crossing Anglesey from Dublin and Dún Laoghaire. The concern should have been to stop the Irish losing that trade, but this deal still leaves Ireland punished.  If the EU’s rules hinder the majority of Ireland’s trade, the obvious solution would have been to give the dual position, in and out of the EU restrictive market, to the Republic, or simply for the South to leave the EU market entirely.

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