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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Things they won’t do with the British Constitution

A stonking majority does not give power to abolish democracy because even the most loyal MPs will not contemplate that.  Margaret Thatcher herself, for all her command, was restrained on many occasions by the thought ‘I could never get this through the House of Commons’. The opposition may tweet madly, but some things are fundamental:  the majority is, after all, not of radicals but of Conservatives.

Forget grand and mendacious declarations attempting to entrench the concerns of the moment: the British constitution just gets on with it: we consider these truths to be self-evident, so there’s no point writing them down.

I must add before I proceed a reminder of a caution given by the greatest of philosophers:

Therefore, where there is already erected a Soveraign Power, there can be no other Representative of the same people, but onely to certain particular ends, by the Soveraign limited. For that were to erect two Soveraigns; and every man to have his person represented by two Actors, that by opposing one another, must needs divide that Power, which (if men will live in Peace) is indivisible, and thereby reduce the Multitude into the condition of Warre, contrary to the end for which all Soveraignty is instituted.

Some countries do very interesting things in their constitutions, which fit the conservative mindset and might work here too, but they will not be done. As an exercise, I looked at some randomly selected.

A special majority for raising taxes

They have this in a number of American states. Whether it actually reduces taxes, I cannot say, but the good motive is there. They went even further in Georgia as part of Mikheil Saakashvili’s reforms.  He may have ended his presidency in the recriminations of the Russian war and flight into political exile, but in his time, Saakashvili achieved wonders where no one thought he could, ending corruption and boosting the land into economic growth, until the Russians came.  One of his reforms was to add to the constitution that any increase in tax rates needs approval in a referendum. That was later repealed, and was impractical. However requiring a special majority of the Commons is tempting.

If they ever thought about it, on the same principle you could argue that there should be a special majority for creating a new criminal offence, but a simple majority for repealing one. That speaks of a concern for freedom. It won’t be done.

An obligatory balanced budget

Another American innovation: that the Government may not spend more than it earns. That is everyday life for a household economy, but considered outlandish in the national economy.

I can imagine the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for all his former pieties on this point when he was a backbencher, having a fit were he required to reduce spending and borrow nothing, or nothing more than is needed to replace existing bonds as they mature. Sir Geoffrey Howe managed it. Has any other since his time? It do not think it would get through, somehow.

The default clause

There has been no default on British government debt since the days of King Charles II, and investors know this, which ensures a high credit rating. It has not had to be put in statute that default is forbidden. If ever default were hinted at, all other payments from the state should stop to give preference to the honour of the state’s finances, starting with the salaries of ministers, Members of Parliament, quangocrats and maybe even the untouchables of the service. This will not be discussed, in case mentioning it would raise the ghost unheard of for three and a half centuries and spook the financial world.

An elected Senate in place of the Lords

Can you imagine it?  John Major remarked that if the answer to a question is ‘more politicians’, it is a damn silly question. 

The current House of Lords was filled with Tony Blair’s placemen in his day, and their clones following them, now entrenched, unremovable until death or reform. There may be a better way to fill the red benches, but it is not yet more elections of yet more political hacks.. Perhaps it would mean appointing lords ex officio from certain learned offices, but then would-be unelected politicians will target those offices for their own ambition and politicize them.  It doesn’t work well in Eire.

One measure surely would be ensure no one has power unless they have proven that they have an office of responsibility and an income not taken out of taxpayers’ pockets.

If I had a hand, I would itch to scythe down the career politicians with a retirement age, bribe others to retire maybe or remove them if they have no honest income.  I might enact that no new peerage can be created until the House is below 500 life peers, and then allow no one to be appointed unless they are a serving magistrate (as they have proven service, responsibility and hands-on understanding of actual deeds of actual people); and they can be picked by lottery.  The House, shorn of paper lords, might be renamed the ‘House of Elders’. Also I could bring back the Earls.

Privatise the Civil Service

This one is impossible, but actually a more sensible idea than it seems when looked at in depth, which I am not going to do. If an article along these lines appears on this blog in forthcoming months, do not be surprised.

The thing I won’t mention

There are a few broken nations in the world where they might have this, but in Britain it would be a disastrous, and utterly stupid idea; so daft and damaging that if it were ever suggested then its introduction would become the uncompromising demand of every loud, fringe, lunatic and special interest group in the land.  I would expect to see it in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto and portrayed by the BBC as “when not if”.  There is that example in – well, let’s not mention it, just in case, eh?

Restoring the Lords’ absolute veto in further cases

The House of Lords lost its absolute veto on legislation in 1911, except in one case: no bill to extend the life of a parliament can pass without the House of Lords. A bill to abolish that reservation might pass without the Lords in theory. Perhaps there are other principles too fundamental to be left at the mercy of the House Of Commons alone? It might first need a reform of the Lords. Even so, I can see dangerous territory ahead there.

Optional two-member constituencies

The old system, before reform, was “two knights from each shire; two burgesses from each borough”, and instead of dividing a county or a borough in two, the whole county elected the top two candidates. It is a thought – and you could ask each double-constituency each election whether the want to vote together or as two parts. Predicting the electoral arithmetic would be a nightmare, but the exercise would be instructive, if possibly also destructive.

An extra vote for net taxpayers

We have all thought it: the House of Commons is filled with politicians eager to rob the taxpayer to pay for votes, so should it not be the victims, those who have a financial interest in the result, taxpayers and their families, who get to choose them, not those who are motivated to encourage this robbery? Then again, there are millions who are technically taxpayers but whose money comes from taxes in the first place and the cash is just recycled: they are not real taxpayers. All right, so this important reform will never be done, but it is out there. An extra vote for taxpaying families would be nice.

Members for the overseas territories

Often discussed, always in the “too difficult” tray, but it is a popular idea in Gibraltar. If anyone wishes to sponsor me, I will stand as member for the British Antarctic Territory.


Ah – another article, I feel.

Any more….

Getting the hang of impossible constitutional ideas is a troublesome balance between thinking of things that are whacky but thought-provoking and those that are too impossible, with the risk of writing ideas that I think are daft only to find someone actually agrees with them. I may add more over the course f this weekend.

The most important thing to remember, is that I do not believe in any of them. Someone will.

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A system failing in the middle

Two types of failing constitutional systems attract overstretched metaphors, for which I should apologise in advance. The first is built as a high, impressive building with soaring arches and glittering pinnacles, but where all is built for show while the unseen foundations are made of cheap rubble: that structure cannot stand in a storm. The other is built on a rock-solid foundation but the superstructure is put together inconsistently and in a slapdash manner, and that will break too, although reparably. The British Constitution is this second type. It is possible to fix this, identifying the inconsistencies and poor choices of material, as long as no one damages the foundation.

The structure of government has been built in a series of reforms inspired by prevailing orthodoxy and though that orthodoxy may have been discarded by the next generation, its legacy remains. We may consider the number of quangos established at many points for narrow purposes which have been left in place ‘just in case’ or repurposed when they should have been abolished. These are a visible application of the principle: what is invisible is the tangle of responsibilities, or avoidances of responsibility, within the Civil Service itself.

Whitehall believes in systems. A system is the only way to deal with millions of complex matters at a time. More importantly, a system is the only way to avoid responsibility for individual decisions: proving compliance with a checklist is a free pass out of criticism. It may be honest to say that the system is to blame, but it must be the responsibility of everyone who works with a system to checking its suitability in all the circumstances that may be thrown at it. That requires stepping outside the system, looking, testing random real and fictional scenarios, and fixing the errors as they are revealed. The Civil Service may not be up to that job. Changing recruitment and promotion can improve it.

Getting the right personnel in the Civil Service is not a question of choosing the Apollonian over the Dionysian character or vice versa nor of finding Gell-Mann’s Odysseans: for a complex system to work well, it must have a mixture of characters. This includes a mixture of political and social attitudes, as Jordan Peterson has explained it. No society can thrive without a mixture of characters: those whose imaginations can create novelty and those whose drive is to create order, because without order, the system cannot stay stable, and is not a system at all, but without chaotic creativity there ossification.

Lack of diversity then is hampering the Civil Service, and I do not mean tick-box categories of race, sex etc, but diverse characters and viewpoints. Without this real diversity, the service cannot operate properly any more than a society could operate. It takes a divergent take on any situation to find the flaws in an accepted method and to challenge orthodoxies.

There is no conspiracy to mediocrity. Senior staff will naturally replicate themselves at all levels. It is natural in all of us to assume that our own attitudes and priorities are right and therefore to discount those held by others as weird or foolish, and therefore in a system which selects its own successors, a single mindset must prevail and become more entrenched as years pass.  If a workforce is made up of staff all with the same turn of mind, this situation must also reinforce each individual’s solipsistic belief in his own rightness and suppress doubts. Where promotion is dependent on peer-approval, it is the most colourless individuals who must rise and re-enforce their type’s monopoly position.

Recruitment to the Civil Service is strained through the same assumptions. The Civil Service aptitude tests assume a single neurological process and certain priorities, but this excludes alternative, equally valid approaches. It has not been framed in this way deliberately but as part of that self-reinforcing principle.

We used to laugh at this sort of thing when it happened abroad: the Chinese civil service in the imperial days used to select its members on national and provincial levels by a set of exams the terms of which were written centuries before, testing candidates on ancient Confucian theory, not on modern practicality. Innovation was squashed and the Empire fell into decrepitude. It ended only in 1905, by which time the empire was about to fall.

To break the uniformity is a major challenge, because it goes against natural processes. The most successful at this have been those with radical left-wing motives, as they too are wedded to systems and push themselves forward though fair means or foul so as to get the power to change those systems. That is not the right sort of diversity though; only another lot of systems-people, and with odd ideas too. The challenge is to bring different mindsets and ways of seeing things.

It has been pointed out by Mr Cummings and Mr Gove that senior civil servants largely come with an arts-subject background. That is no bad thing for an individual and cultivates the mind well, but a monopoly all in that limited field is dangerous. A thousand years ago Ælfric urged the reason we are given two eyes, two ears and two nostrils for our more complete edification. You cannot understand the implications of a statistical analysis from a study of Horace, but you cannot understand people from mathematics. Now, in fact, there is more diversity than that in academic achievement among senior civil servants, if a few too many economists. I would suggest that the main failure in diversity is diversity of character, or neurological diversity perhaps, and that will take longer to break.

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I need not write yet another article on the idiocy behind the felling of statues – enough have been written, and more will come. Collaboration with lawlessness is more serious. Every age has outbreaks of ochlocracy; the rule of the mob, but authorities in league with the rioters? That is a modern disease, and it is deadly to democracy and to society itself.

Riots happen, and mob come together for the release it gives them, whatever the excuse. In past centuries it might be a section of the rootless poor with nothing to lose (hated by most of their fellows, who understand the need for order). Now we have rootless middle-class thugs, with one idea, if that, in the heads, and hatred spewing from every pore. This was the same contingent who burned Paris in ’68, but in 1968 the authorities and the respectable media were on the side of law and order: today as often the rioters have confederates in office.

With a small state, there is control over who is entrusted with power. The modern sprawling bureaucracies are a playground for activists with agendas. There is no conspiracy – there does not have to be – it just needs lots of seemingly innocuous positions to be filled by the sort of people who want the power they bring, to use for their own purposes, and for appointment panels to be staffed by cultural Marxists or those who are frightened to oppose the cultural Marxists. In this way the mindless, nihilist Marxists on the streets can know that there is no will to fight them. They have not won public opinion nor can they ever win an election, but they have power which bypasses democracy.

The Long March Through The Institutions has succeeded, in spite of the public will, in spite of democracy, and it is entrenching itself. The rioters are irrelevant really but provide a focus and an excuse for their collaborators in office to do what they wanted to do anyway. They are the ochlocrats.

(If I sound angry; I am. To hear my mother in law cowering in terror in her quiet country town, which has few policemen if any, because a mob of urban, white students have descended upon the town to take over the streets, scream their hatred and destroy the town’s soul, and nothing is done to oppose them – I am angry.)

For the woke thugs, the idea of personal autonomy must feel liberating, and the belief of utter rightness relieves one of the discomfort of having to think, while providing an internal justification for rebellion. It is not modern though: Hobbes, who had been through the Civil War described exactly that as one of the fatal diseases of a commonwealth:

To which may be added, the Liberty of Disputing against absolute Power, by pretenders to Politicall Prudence; which though bred for the most part in the Lees of the people; yet animated by False Doctrines, are perpetually medling with the Fundamentall Lawes, to the molestation of the Common-wealth; like the little Wormes, which Physicians call Ascarides.

We may further adde, the insatiable appetite, or Bulimia, of enlarging Dominion; with the incurable Wounds thereby many times received from the enemy; And the Wens, of ununited conquests, which are many times a burthen, and with lesse danger lost, than kept; As also the Lethargy of Ease, and Consumption of Riot and Vain Expence.

The disease of the state in having these ochlocrats in power will prove fatal unless drastic action is taken. It need not be what Franco did, however tempting that may be in the restless small hours, but tumbling as many as can be found out of office is needed. Make Joseph McCarthy look timid and slow.

Remember too that many of these dull officials doing the rioters’ bidding act that way not because they are fellow-travellers, but out of fear. Lift that fear then: burst open the Overton window, sack the ranks of driven ‘diversity officers’. Search the lists of daft ‘woke’ decisions, track them to their sources and hurl the guilty parties out. For those who try to get their fellow workers sacked for dissent, discipline and dismiss. (Let them find jobs in the commercial sector like the rest of us, where they might learn something of reality.) Lift the fear and allow honest decision-makers to shine and to do their duty.

One immediate thing can be done though: end the lockdown at once. It has already been ended by the crowds on the street, which has undone months of work. During the lockdown, the world is weird and nothing is normal. The structure of life is gone. It encourages the thought that anything might happen, and it might. Testosterone-filled youth are growing listless, bursting for action. Normality will begin to calm it down, just as routines soothe madness. We desperately need normality.

If the Government, those who are meant to be in charge, do not do this, do not take back control, then they are resigning their own authority to the ochlocrats. They should remember the dire warning Hobbes gave against assuming that the name of government means anything when it ceases to be real:

The Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by Nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no Covenant be relinquished. The Soveraignty is the Soule of the Common-wealth; which once departed from the Body, the members doe no more receive their motion from it. The end of Obedience is Protection; which, wheresoever a man seeth it, either in his own, or in anothers sword, Nature applyeth his obedience to it, and his endeavour to maintaine it. And though Soveraignty, in the intention of them that make it, be immortall; yet is it in its own nature, not only subject to violent death, by forreign war; but also through the ignorance, and passions of men, it hath in it, from the very institution, many seeds of a naturall mortality, by Intestine Discord

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The necessity of normality

Members of Parliament are fleeing into isolation. The House has vital business before it. There must be a temptation to take political advantage to bypass Parliamentary norms. More than ever that must not happen.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is taking a robust, parliamentary view, and thank goodness of that. It is in the time that the system comes under most stress and temptation that it must show its strength.

The chamber of the Commons is a close-packed place (when there is a whip out or a chance to be on the telly), and the members are in frequent physical contact with the wider public, so the risk of infection across the whole political class is real. Some members have contracted the Wuhan pneumonia, and many members are vulnerable to its effects by reason of age, infirmity, diabetes or otherwise. From the outside it is hard to see how the meeting of Parliament can continue. If even village-hall keep-fit classes are being cancelled, the expectation would be that the foetid cockpit of Westminster would disperse too.

However, there has just been a budget, and a Finance Bill has to be pushed through or all taxes will expire. At some point the Armed Forces Bill will have to be passed or the army will be disbanded. Parliament must sit to pass these, as well as its normal business.

There is talk too of emergency powers, which is worrying: Tony Blair gave himself extensive emergency powers, which Act is still in place, and those are frightening in themselves without adding more just to be seen to be doing something. (Imagine how the Civil Service will gold-plate any emergency measure they can get Parliament to grant them.)

With so many away and the arithmetic in the House changing, it would be very tempting to push measures through the House which would not normally pass, and to use the excuse to pressurise the Opposition to stop opposing, in the national interest of course. Because that temptation is there, the man in the street is entitled to worry that the crisis will be abused to strip out democracy. For that reason, there must be all the more emphasis on following proper parliamentary norms, all the more involvement of all sides in the house and all parties.

When asked about the emptying House, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg might have purred and called for the government to obtain an enabling act to operate without this lamed parliament, but he did not. He emphasised the use of the pairing system, whereby a member may agree with a sick member on the other side “You cannot vote so I will not”, so maintaining the balance. That is crucial.

He also addressed emergency powers. Instead of salivating over new power to be jealously guarded, he said without question that any emergency powers must have a sunset clause; that they should have a natural expiry. During the War (and we are nowhere near such an emergency) there were extensive emergency powers granted to the government, and the new Attlee ministry elected in 1945 was very reluctant to give them up. Attlee’s Labour Party believed in planning and control of minutiae, and those old wartime powers could be used for that purpose in peacetime. It was not until Churchill was re-elected in 1951 that wartime rationing was ended.

In times of stress, and in times of blind panic, that is when the voice of opposition is most needed. It is needed not just from the opposition benches but from critical members regardless of party. For most of the year one might sail through with the House of Commons as a mere theatre for pre-decided decisions, but when actual thought and consideration are needed, when many alternatives and nuances will make all the difference, in short when there is a need for actual live debate – that is the very reason for having Parliament as we know it.

It was thought when the election result was in and Boris had his stonking majority that it would be full steam ahead on whatever policies Number 10 had in mind. That is no longer the case, during the epidemic. Those members are needed.

In short, democracy must be done, and democracy must be seen to be done.

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