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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Books

Minutiae – the big failing

There are many wise heads in senior positions in Whitehall (and many who think themselves wise, but they are easily run around). The upper levels of the Civil Service are staffed by the best of those who are allowed through the flawed selection process.

In that case, why is everything that comes out of government a bit rubbish?

The chain of action

I have observed the top brains making high-level decisions to mould policy from policy, which decisions are then passed down to the lesser levels to flesh out the practicalities; then these decisions (through however many levels are required) eventually come down to the junior level to put into effect.

At that junior level there may be bright sparks, but mainly those who just want to do a day’s work according to their best understanding of instructions, and go home. They have not sat in the top-level meetings where the strategy is grown and the purposes are defined, and get the idea only through Chinese whispers.

A jobbing clerk has little incentive nor ability to “own” a project. Work to the end of the day, play safe, do not be shouted at – do not use initiative. You can see everyday carelessness in detail such as documents written on computers still set up with Microsoft defaults, US-English and font styles never used n the text, or forms which look nice but which cannot be completed on-screen without reformatting. You can see it in forms which cannot cope with variants in personal circumstances or understanding.

Form design could be a whole volume of jeremiad. Perhaps the junior officers tasked with it are told not to spend too much time, but it is a false economy as every shortcut can cause an exponential effect of wasted time when members of the public try to grapple with it.

In the detail of regulations too, the same effect is seen.  I lose track of the number of times I have had to intervene in a consultation on new regulations to point out the obvious that has been misunderstood or just passed over as tedious detail.

In 2007 I even saw a draft Statutory Instrument referring to such countries as ‘Portuguese Timor’, ‘Kampuchea’, ‘Zaire’ and (amazingly) ‘Cyrenaica’. I was able to point this out before they were published. The enacted SI still has Portuguese Timor and Zaire, amongst other anachronisms.

Details are off-putting to those with better things to do with their limited time, but detail matters because it is the level at which members of the public interact with the state.

Furthermore, every failure at the interface requires more work, more calls to helplines, more repetition, more frustration and more justification for the individual circumventing the system my misreporting. Failure in detail costs money and frustrates the purpose of the government activity concerned.

Political style

It makes no sense for the government at the political level to say that they are in favour of, say, equal treatment of every part of the realm if documents produced at the junior level forget the existence of Scotland and Ulster, or mention them only as an add-on. When the government is committed to preserving British interests, it makes no sense if online forms refer to the Falkland Islands as the ‘Malvinas’ (which is the case in some drop-downs I have found).

Where there is a fixed political policy which should be reflected across the board in government communications and actions, there should be consistency.

Away from policy, there are also fixed standards which may mean nothing to middle- and junior-level officials but which are important in the wider scheme of things: for example in any publication referring the armed forces, one always say “naval and military” not “military and naval”, because the Royal Navy is the senior service. How many would be aware of that one? Grammatical standards, presentational style and good practice – all are should be kept up to ensure the government machine not only works but is respected.

One cannot expect every individual in the civil service to be aware of every political or stylistic policy possibly affecting what he or she is doing by drudge -work though, so consideration is needed as to how to bring consistency to the sprawling machinery of government. Some better communication of policy priorities is a possibility but it can only have a limited effect given how mealy-mouthed government communications are and given the limited hours there are in a day for a junior official to do his or her work. Therefor another approach is needed.

μ-intervention

The complexity of the chain of command suggests a high risk of failure.  Experience shows this happens very frequently. There are systems in place to minimise the failures, but systems create their own inflexibilities, and there will be no committee tasked with correcting errors, no cross-departmental thinking and no method of intervention.

In that case, Whitehall needs a mechanism for direct intervention could be deployed when a system has gone awry. This is micro-intervention.

A μ-intervention unit would be cross-departmental, operating out of the Cabinet Office or Privy Council Office (or even the Lord Chancellor’s department, since the Lord Chancellor in days of old was responsible for standards in official documents).

It is little use if it just writes standards that might not be followed: that is useless on its own. In any case there are committees writing standards, as for example in the digital realm the Government Digital Service and the ‘Design Community’ do – and yet forms are still written badly.

No – a micro-intervention unit would need authority to dig into systems at every level, accessing computers directly to fix mistakes and make improvements.

It is petty detail that they would strike at, but with the intent to save more time, more money, and improve the practical interface between the citizen and the state.

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Books

Proud man, Drest in a little brief authority

There is nothing I can ever say on any subject of import concerning mankind which Shakespeare has not said better. All the clashing claims of authority, from state or PC establishment are shamed before his observations, so I can hardly do better than to read to them a passage which has illustrated its own wisdom this last week.

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.

. . .

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Measure for Measure, Act II Scene II

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Mend the Kingdom – roll up that map

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided In three our kingdom

King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1

If Whitehall is to be tasked with mending the tattered relationships across the United Kingdom, it must first reverse its two-hundred year practice of driving it apart.  It may start by shredding all the maps in every Government office. They are three hundred years out of date.

When Great Britain was united three hundred years ago and more, it was the consummation of a process of unity that had been moving on since the Reformation, and the actual incorporating union of the mediæval kingdoms into one was intended to began a process of integration to the benefit of all. Something went wrong.  That may be the subject of another article on this site shortly. Now though the priority is fixing it.

Firstly, there is no shortage of Scots in the civil service: the service takes the best and brightest, or most complaisant, and none is disadvantaged through having been born far from the din of London. The issue is found in a deeper structure.

Many Whitehall departments have become, since devolution and often before it, mainly England-only, with some responsibilities across the nation. I once asked a high-level mandarin in one such department whether his was a England-and-Wales department with some UK functions, or a UK department with some England-and-Wales-only functions: the result was an embarrassed silence. This equivocal quality in such departments will ensure that the mindset in those departments ends at the Tweed and just has add-ons for Scotland and Northern Ireland (when they remember Ulster at all). That is not serving the residents of Scotland or Ulster with equal consideration.

Furthermore, where functions do legally extend only to England, that paper boundary can become too real, forgetting that there are people beyond it who are affected by the decisions made. Their needs are just as much a part of the responsibilities of a British government department.

Responsibility is the key, not power, for the one does not come without the other, and even if a particular power is for some reason legally limited to one regions there is responsibility for every Briton who is affected by it even those not usually resident in the region in question.

I recall some government guidance which gave (and I believe still does give) details of how to get particular documents signed in England and Wales and how to get them done in foreign countries, but with no hint on having them signed in Scotland or Northern Ireland. My enquiry about this to the office in question was brushed off with the assertion that they are restricted to England and Wales and cannot look at Scotland or Northern Ireland; and this to the extent of pretending they do not exist, even though the rest of the world was considered.

Maps are deadly. There are maps in Whitehall that end at the River Tweed, and others where the mediaeval border is so heavy it looks like an impassable frontier. Others omit Northern Ireland, though it is barely 12 miles of water apart from Great Britain. Such maps discourage those who look at them from thinking beyond. Maps mould the mind.

Shred the maps – all of them. Make a big heap in the courtyard and consign them to the flames. Let no more like that pass the portal.

Wipe the data maps. These are more frequent and pernicious: those with statistics, which show England as an island on its own. Wipe them from every database. No map in government, unless it is of a narrow region, should show anything less than the whole of the United Kingdom (or of the British Isles as that is the spatial reality, and all things must be based on reality). Where a map is used as a graph of statistics, those statistics may well relate only to England or England and Wales, but there will be equivalent statistics for Scotland and Ulster, so include them: the welfare and status of Britons of those parts are equally the department’s responsibility. If they can shy off that responsibility, nevertheless without a full picture of statistics for the whole of Britain, you have a partial and misleading picture. There may be lessons too to be learnt from the wider picture.

As to those hermaphrodite departments; split your teams. There are those whose concerns day-to-day are with a limited area, and they should not then be trusted to do Scotland as an afterthought. Where the responsibility is national, there are no internal borders. There should be maps with no borders to illustrate to those concerned that there is no border, nor has been one for over three hundred years. Borders on maps make borders in the mind, so have none.

Recently Holyrood adopted a law that the Scottish devolved government may not buy any map of Scotland that shows Orkney and Shetland in a separate box. Whitehall should adopt a rule like it: no government office may acquire nor produce any ‘national’ map that does not include the whole of the United Kingdom, nor any map that includes ‘the border’ as anything beyond normal administrative boundaries. That way our governors may lift up their eyes to the full extent of their responsibilities.

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Books

Army of clerks

It is not true that the Ministry of Defence has more civil servants than there are soldiers – there are only half as many. That is still shocking though:  one clerk for every two regular soldiers. What do they do all day that is not already done by the General Staff or the regimental staff?

The navy, army and air force are already top-heavy in senior officers. The structure is basically that which served an army of millions and has not come to terms with shrinking to the mini-army we have today, which does not need such a multiplicity of generals let alone field marshals.  They are all fine gentlemen, no doubt, but you begin to suspect that they were promoted out of politeness. Balls at Mansfield Park may have glittered with admirals, rears and vices, but their great fleets of ships to command are no longer there, and mass retirement is something to be discussed in quiet corners.

The excess of generals is one thing, but being overbalanced by civilian clerks is a humiliation.

Maybe a cure could be to stick each one in uniform with a rifle and bayonet in their hand, and they might be an effective rearguard force – the Civil Service Rifles were a well-regarded volunteer unit from the Victorian period and formed a regular regiment which fought with distinction in the Great War.  I can see no sign of the desk-wallahs of today following their forebears though.

We come back to why we need a civil servant for every two soldiers.  It is not as if the clerk ever meets his two Tommies. It is a waste of breath: I do not know either.  Only those who have spent time in the depths of Whitehall will have any idea of what is actually done, and where the redundancies are, and those who have been there will soon go native. Maybe now we have a new army, of defenestrated ex-ministers, there is someone who can suggest what to do, from the outside and with knowledge of the inside.

The Ministry of Defence is a model of inefficiency, as were its predecessors it must be said.  Basic items that can be picked up for a few bob in civvy street are billed to the MoD at a 1000% mark-up and more, and soldiers still buy their own boots rather than rely on the dodgy stock issued to them, or did in my day.  The equipment is every more sophisticated and expensive, and sits in storage its whole life because a soldier’s work in the field still comes down to pushing a piece of steel through the enemy just as it was at Thermopylae.

(Imagination and innovation are the best weapons for an officer, which is seen in every great general and admiral from Caesar to Montgomery. Imagination and innovation are a horror to the civil service mentality. How the two can work together is a mystery.)

The men are not coming forward to serve these days. We no longer have starving men ready to join the ranks to fill their bellies, and no constant colonial adventure to draw the adventurer. Neither are there six-foot bewhiskered sergeants causing women to swoon at the sight and young men to join up in envy and emulation. What we do have is an inhuman, limp-wristed, computerised, out-sourced recruitment system that every soldier hates and which has presided over the greatest fall in numbers since the first day of the Somme. No minister may criticise their own contractor. Perhaps those who have escaped may do so.

Perhaps the Ministry of Defence is kept at in such numbers to administer a shell of the armed forces, which are ready to fill up to full strength when there is a major war, and the army is swollen to six million men as once it was. Still, it has been seventy-four years since the end of the War, and thirty years since the end of the Cold War, and even the Blair Wars did not appreciably increase the army (or even the Royal Marines, who get handed the brunt of special operations). Are they dreaming of greatness never to come again, like a country house once teaming with glitering parties and a battalion of staff, now left an echoing shell in case the days come again?

Another thought comes to mind: increasing defence spending is a vote-winner, but having got the funds, what can it be spent on, where there are no men to fill the uniforms? Petty clerks is the answer. There – we can have increased spending on “defence” but not a penny more going to war-fighting capacity.

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