A cabal of its enemies

Hercules diverted a river to clean the Augean Stables, so a Hard Rain is quite a modest response.

Still, it will have to be a very hard rain indeed to change bureaucracy. Standing outside, it is incomprehensible but one feels a slight guilt at doubting the dedicated work presumed to go on behind the walls of Whitehall and of endless agencies and offices the purpose of which is unknown even to those who work there.

Robert Conquest’s Laws of Politics notes cynically that “The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

To prove or disprove Conquest’s observation, the lid is to be ripped off the obscure world of bureaucracy, and what it reveals may be embarrassing or may correct misassumptions.  The senior civil servants reassure us they are misunderstood, but that is itself misunderstanding the complaint: the target is a system, which is the collective network of individuals, who are individually dedicated to their roles, but somehow collectively getting things wrong and spaffing the taxpayers’ money up the wall as they do so. The test is not good intent: it is good achievement.

Governments have tried for decades to get over failures by hiring more brains. It has not worked, so it must be something else going wrong.

One thing observed, by one who is preparing the rain machine, that there seems to be no sanction for the individuals whose failures they are – just move on and up to another position, and watch it fail too. That cosy system will be opened up to the hard rain. On the other hand, you have to ask why someone with a head full of brains and a team working with them will goof so disastrously as we have seen so often. That may come down to the inability to handle novelty, because novelty is outside the expertise of the person entrusted with it.

The obvious response to novelty outside ones expertise, and the criticism that will descend, is to establish systems and practices in place of actual action: and therefore the biggest efforts are in risk-avoidance and back-covering, not achievement of allotted tasks.

This looks not like Conquest’s rule, but very like the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

Invoking the Peter Principle leads me on, for what happens in Whitehall is a mystery to most of us, glimpsed only through satire.  There is Parkinson’s Law too, starting with “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”, but Parkinson went a great deal further in his book about the rise of increasingly bulbous bureaucracies, and is worth dusting off and re-reading.

I hope that these satirical observations are just that, but each example of failure appearing in the press, and each interaction I have with the higher levels of bureaucracy seems to suggest they are accurate.

The obligatory COVID-19 reference comes in here. There is a two-edged sword reaction to the Civil Service’s response in lockdown: firstly they showed that speedy action is possible, but secondly that they can work perfectly well, and arguably better, when they have sent most of their staff home and restricted themselves just to urgent work.  This suggests that the people are not at fault but that the system which the senior officers impose on those people is at fault, as the problems are eliminated when it is lifted. Further, the ability to work better with a skeleton staff suggests a major redundancy in capacity.

Recently this blog carried an analysis of one systemic failure in bureaucracy, which (if I can summarise so briefly) is the tendency, through natural means, to ossify into a homogenous block with no variety in character nor accordingly much breadth of thought.  Many similar observations have been made by commentators: another ‘law’, by Robert Michels, is the Iron Law of Oligarchy, or a version by John O’Sullivan, one of Margaret Thatcher’s advisers), that “Any organization not explicitly rightwing sooner or later becomes leftwing” (presumably because those of a conservative mind are willing to hire anyone who can do the job, but those on the left-wing will hire only other left-wingers). Perhaps the Little Hobb version would be that “Any organisation will coalesce into a small range of character-traits”.

The point of the civil service however is not to make jobs for the sort of people who coalesce there: it is to achieve the ambitions of the elected politicians. If they are unable competently to handle novelty then they must give way to those who can, and that means leaving the service to do the bare minimum clerking work and going outside for actual expertise. That immediately hits a bigger wall: the Civil Service is unable to procure contracts competently, so they cannot go outside.

The result of all these factors suggests that the Civil Service is dedicated indeed and full of highly intelligent men and women but for solid reasons is unable to do what it is there to do. Bureaucracy in indeed controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

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Books

New world-teachers needed

Let us go out into the world and make it a better place. Now is the time, or it will be lost to knaves and fools.

Conservative-minded folk do not like to lecture other countries: that is the sort of thing that radicals and socialists do. However it has become necessary, partly because radicals and socialists are doing that, and because of human nature, or what passes for it among politicians.

Those who are conservative-minded are short of radical utopian visions, so we are less likely to rail at others for disagreeing with our preferred ways of doing things. We are quite happy to let other nations live in their own cultures, though we may grind our teeth at some of the excesses of their rulers.  It is ultimately not for us: as there is no power without responsibility, so there is no responsibility where there is no power.

Others take a very different view. When the Thirteen Colonies won their independence in the name of liberty, they proclaimed to the world that they would support liberty across the world (except for slaves, obviously), but they were deep-down conservatives and three thousand miles away and did no more about it.  The bloodthirsty Jacobins on the other hand proclaimed a policy to foment revolution across Europe and to intervene with force to bring it about, the Bolsheviks likewise, and they outdid the French many, many times over in subversion and blood. Today’s enthusiasts preaching wrongheaded ideas to the world are those with elements of the cultural-Marxist mindset, and it is only a mercy that they do not have their predecessors’ capacity for destruction.

Natural enthusiasm for an idea can be a troublesome thing.  Maybe it is just not wanting to feel you are alone in the world, needing company to validate your beliefs.

If conservatives do not make missionary efforts to force foreigners to conform to British ideas, that leaves the radicals to be the only voices in town. (I would call them liberals as is the usual way, but there is nothing liberal about their doctrines.) The world is changing fast and new nations and newly freed nations look for a model to follow; and there waiting for them are people with ideas, wokeists, social-justice warriors and all who follow with them.

It is in Britain’s interests to see a settled and prosperous world. We might not want to bother other nations with our ways of doing things, but those values we have developed, in our context with our the Anglosphere norms, are the values that can enable prosperity and a form of society that is most fitted to human nature. A foreign nation which adopts a free, open market, firm rights of property, limited government, the rule of law and settled family and social bonds in socially conservative terms, that nation can prosper and enjoy civil peace. Socialist and big-state ideas can only ensure poverty. Breaking social bonds with radical, inhuman ideas will bring strife, and even war. Replacing social interdependence with dependence on the central state will bring both poverty and war.

Britain is a trading nation and needs customers with money and reliability, and also needs the markets of the world to be open. It is not just about internal ideas of sound law and liberty then; nations need to embrace free trade for their own prosperity. That goes against many instincts of nature and even in the more conservative-sounding establishment there will be frequent demands for action to protect home markets (ignoring the point that increased prices will result, saving a few jobs in one sector at the penalty of increased costs and consequent unemployment distributed across others). Free trade is for the benefit of the nation being preached to, even if we preach it for our own nation’s good.

In the 1980s, Roger Scruton travelled extensively in Eastern Europe, then still under the Soviet jackboot. He taught, he provided material, he nurtured an underground intellectual class which was able to rise with the fall of Communism and take over. It is noticeable that the countries in which he was active have been those which rose and mended themselves spectacularly after the Wall fell – Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (or half of it at least) – while those left to the mercy of the Vienna Commission and its ‘progressive’ ideas have been stunted. The Vienna Commission hates Hungary and Poland for their social conservatism, but those two nations are doing very well.

Prosperity in the wider world then needs a new Scruton initiative. There will never be another Roger Scruton, God rest his soul, but his example and his courage are measures for a new effort.

Without it, the international commentariat is dominated by ideas rooted in textbooks but not reality, and the result can only be poverty and strife and closed markets.

The modern radicals appear to have a monopoly on ideas and they would certainly have it that way. Those who dissent will face censure, as we have seen in Hungary and Poland for even minor non-compliance (which can be ignored but puts pressure on surrounding nations to take action). In the longer-term view, if one narrow field of ideas retains the monopoly, those who disagree will doubt their sanity, or be driven to more radical, illiberal ideas in reaction, or to unfortunate companions. Hungarian politicians have started to be warm towards Russia, which is far from the Scrutonian promise they have shown.

The dominant ideas therefore need a respectable opposition, to show there are other ideas that are just as respectable and far more practical.

We owe it the world to whom we introduced Western ideas in the first place, and to our merchants to provide them with the world marketplace they deserve.

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Books

By Sir Roger Scruton:

Quite enjoying the Cancel Culture, actually

An empty diary. Everything is cancelled – cultural, sporting and social events, even those due after the lockdown must have finished: no village revels, no funfair, and also no Tolethorpe, no Edinburgh Festival, no Party Conference: I don’t need to make an excuse to avoid any of them.

No canvassing over the spring was a relief. No meetings for any of the bodies whose committees I seem to have been strong-armed into, no AGMs. Many were not cancelled but just sort of wandered off.

You might have come to this article thinking I was talking about the ‘Cancel Culture’ about which other commentators fume: the cowardice in the great institutions finding any petty excuse or none to cancel appearances by people they dislike politically, and yes, that is the usual meaning of ‘cancel culture’. I am not sure that it is much different, as the months go on. Organising a big event is wearying, sapping at the soul and always with the risk of disaster and the criticism that comes with it. They must welcome an opportunity to cancel the event and get it out of their hair. I would. The Wuhan coronavirus is a wonderful opportunity.

You wondered why there was little resistance from the clergy to the closure of churches? It must be a relief to have the time off, and a videoed sermon does the job.

So we are back home. No church children’s summer club to organise this year, even after the lockdown ends? Oh, such a disappointment! No garden parties to run, no quizzes to set, no lengthy financial reports to deliver to critical members. Wuhan? Woo-hoo! And no bookings to take and organise (so now I find that I have evenings, with the family).

I still work of course, and frequent the plague pits of London – I quite miss the early lockdown when there was nothing to fill the day but gardening, DIY, country walks and terror about the future.

Now the lockdown is ending. There have been enquiries about bookings. Meetings and functions though are still all off for the foreseeable future, until we are all really, really sure. With such an excuse to shun those endless social responsibilities, I am in no hurry.

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4 years ago we voted

Four years, eh?  It seems like another world, and who knew where we would be four years thence?

Four years ago, on 23 June 2016, after the slog of campaigning door to door wound up, the polls opened and closed on a knife-edge and it was decided.  Four years ago I dropped my ballot in the box and wondered what I had just done, and four years ago in the evening I stood in the town hall at the count, with a red ‘Vote Leave” badge in place of my accustomed rosette, chatting amiably to my MP, whom I always liked, as a television in the next room announced the results coming in from Sunderland and the great northern towns, watching the colour drain from his cheeks and stifling the exultation in my own. He is gone now too, occasionally popping up on ConHome, but the dustbin of history is cruel.

With my eyes of four years ago it is hard to believe that the United Kingdom is still bound by apron strings to the European Monster and still funding the Commissioners’ wine cabinet.  We knew that there would be a transition of course – even I railed again the ‘cliff-edge’, and I wrote on the very day after the referendum result was announced about issues that still need to be co-ordinated with them over there (and which are still being argued over, amazingly).

The letter withdrawing should have been served at once, as David Cameron said he would (or since Gina Miller’s first legal action prevented it as such the letter should have been sent the moment royal assent was achieved on the Act to authorise it).  The transition period should have been the two years between the letter reaching Brussels and departure, but it was a two-year procrastination.

There were mistakes made before the referendum too, and the first of them was that the Act of Parliament calling it did not say “and if the result is leave, then the Government must do all that is needed actually to leave”. The field was left open for Gina Miller’s legal action, and on that one the Court was probably right, annoyingly, just because a few words were missed from the Act.  Nevertheless, the referendum was on a simple question and all sides were pledged to respect it, so they said.

What we were not to know as we punched the air in 23 June (or punched the ceiling, I understand) was the tenacity of that entrenched establishment that we railed against to obtain the vote. They were not going to give up, and would put every obstacle in the way. 

It seemed so easy:  vote out, get out and sign a trade deal both sides would be desperate to sign (on all the points I outlined at the time). The vote was meant to be a final resolution to a long question, letting us settle into the new normality.

We did not know, we could not guess, that it would dominate every aspect of politics, to the exclusion of all the important things Parliament was meant to be doing, for three and a half long years, destroying two Prime Ministers, two parliaments and many, many political careers.

We did not guess that those sent to negotiate with the European Union would lack the imagination to do things differently, or that some of those entrusted with ensuring an orderly exit would betray that trust and their country’s interests deliberately to obstruct the process in case the referendum result might be reversed.  We did not know that a general election would intervene before time, we could not know that Members newly returned on a pledge to get Brexit done would renege at once, and come within a whisker of revoking the Brexit letter, forcing in any event repeated delays to Exit Day.

We could not imagine that British Members of Parliament, even some Conservatives,  would openly conspire with a foreign power against the interests of Queen and Country.  We hanged Casement for that (and damned right too).

We got there eventually, three and a half years after the vote and a couple of Prime Ministers later. I deafened the neighbours with fireworks on Brexit Night. By that time though the rockets had been waiting in the shed for a long time.

So hear we are, where we should have been years ago. Brexit is off the front pages, the doomsters have been proven utterly wrong, so I need not have hesitated over the ballot box that day: the wrecked economy has another cause. It is a new Boris age, and, when the plague has passed, it will be a very good one. By the fifth anniversary, I hope we will be wondering what all the fuss was about.

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Books

Oxford Street begins to reawaken

It is a start. Not so long since, the major shopping street of the West End was silent, empty, and even at what should have been peak times there may have been just one or two souls visible on it, not using the vast emporia ranged along it but just taking it as a way for exercise, not even ‘a way between the one tavern and the one shop that leads nowhere and fails at the top’ as there was no tavern open nor shop.

Then this week they appeared: the shoppers, absent before, now in multiples. Shops have opened – not all of them by any means, but some – expressing a piety about social distancing that most of us gave up months ago, and little queues are seen along the pavements (except for those little, practical shops we know where they take these things is a better spirit and let us get on with buying things, but say not a word).

However the shops are still starved of their due.

Commuters are few:  the trains even in the rush hour carry a mere drizzle passengers, and even those lines where I would usually be crushed in the door, my face pressed against the glass, are carrying just a few per carriage. On the journeys into town all are now in masks in a variety of styles from the clinical to the black professional to those that would not seem out of place being fumbled on hurriedly in a trench at Ypres – masks that are whipped off though for long mobile conversations or a good coughing fit, on trains provided in a fitful, lackadaisical manner.

The customers are not coming. Without them, the shops will die. They need the commuters and they need those who just come into the big town for a shopping trip or a gawp, but they will not come when any doubt is a hesitation is a cancellation. The Chinese are absent too, and their credit cards. It will be a lean summer.

Much could be clawed back if the pubs and restaurants were open again. People with open wallets will not come in from the suburbs and the farther towns if they have to go home again for lunch and the loo, but tempt them to stay all day and into the evening and the tills will ring: the closure of pubs, cafés and restaurants does not just beggar their owners but all the shops in the town.

On that sector of the economy the rest hinges. Licensing rules then should be under the spotlight: if the government are still afeared to open everything, then councils can at least allow the most entrepreneurial bar-owners and restaurateurs to open in new ways. They have started to do so in Westminster, apparently to the horror of the council’s jacks-in-office, by opening up on the street and serving eager customers by waiter service or through hatches.  Good for them.

Licences can be flexible. In the old days, you were either allowed to open or not, with a single sheet of paper as a licence and everyone had the same rules and so everyone was banned from novelty.  The reformed system is thanks to Mr Blair’s team (and I rarely say that) and it gives almost infinite flexibility through the imposition of detailed conditions appropriate to the business, premises and location. Councils as licensing authorities early on allowed take-away service where there had been none, and that is a good start, but what else do proprietors want to be able to do? They must listen and react, and grant temporary alterations to licensing conditions, or at least letters of comfort about non-enforcement of the more stringent conditions if that is what it takes.

We need to hear the roar return, from the bars and the restaurants, and as soon as can be, the theatres. Small towns may be working again, but the great cities which are the great workhouses of the national economy, work to a different dynamic and for them, the politicians should come to a realisation that it is no use reopening the shops unless you reopen the stream of customers.

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