Praying for Boris

I have been praying for Boris Johnson to be retuned to health. The disease does not follow a narrative or a news cycle. It reflects frail humanity. It brings the reality of it home to see that the virus can strike seriously in anyone, even those who keep fit and strong, as Boris Johnson does.

I comforted myself that some have mild symptoms or none at all: the Prince of Wales blessedly sailed though at a senior age, but those in the flush of youth have succumbed. I keep fit and well and my children and young and strong and we thought that, if the disease were to come to our household then we will be all right, but then something like this happens and the doubts come. I am fit, surely, if you ignore the – ah, but you cannot ignore any gap in the armour, and there may be hidden vulnerabilities.

Boris Johnson keeps himself fit – but he has not escaped the heavy blow. I pray that he will recover swiftly his strength and energy, but I know it is not inevitable. This is a disease which strikes at the highest in the land just as the lowest.

There is genuine goodwill in the messages which have been pouring in for Boris, beyond those issued pro forma. It is not just sympathy, of which there has been much, but fellow-feeling and the knowledge in every writer of a letter that he or she or their mother or child could be next.

The patient himself if far more though than an archetype for the man on the street. He is himself. We need Boris Johnson, even from personally selfish reasons – the political world was convulsed to get us to the point when he could take back control, and sailing past Brexit, he keeps the show on the road. In a Parliamentary system, there should not be such dependence on one man, but that is what we have. Look at the fears for if the worst were to happen and you can see how indispensable he has become. We need Boris.

We will all get through this, or rather most of us will get through, and those who do will still have beloved family members they mourn for. We will come out stronger but not untouched. If all eyes are fixed on one man, it is both because he is indispensable and as a reflection of the perilous state in which each of us and our families exists.

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Competitive panicking

There is no other explanation for the cycle of shutdowns. It has grown into a peaceful form of mass-hysteria: typical mass-hysteria involves uncontrolled weeping and wailing, maybe breaking into violence, but today we have mass resignation or perhaps a mass flop. It is but the result of those giving advice and warnings.

It is competitive panicking. Each overreaction creates its own bubble of new normality on which the next feeds and steps up to exceed it in an endless cycle. It seems like a form of virtue-signalling: panic signalling perhaps. It has made the nation fall silent and stifled all other thought. A pall lies over the land.

It would be tedious to recite all the ideas and scares thrown into the air about the current epidemic. It is a regrettable characteristic of our media-led public culture that many commentators, whether they understand the topic or not, have a need to make themselves heard, and they will say whatever is needed to achieve publicity. It is not for the public benefit but for their own. It is a form of what Hobbes called a “generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death.”

You may contrast the meek, almost reluctant mien of the Chief Medical Officer as he stepped unwontedly before the cameras.

Into this then step the politicians, rather unwillingly at first as no one wants to be closely associated with a deadly disease. (It is a curse of the National Health Service that as the government has taken responsibility for the health of every citizen, they can be blamed for every cough and sneeze, or in this case for an epidemic. That is a little harsh – most of the nation are not as daft as all that – but when the system strains and buckles, the blame is not far behind.)

These last weeks we have seen society transformed in the twinkling of an eye. The streets and workplaces are emptied and events big and small are cancelled, whether there is risk or reason or none. In addition, the whole breadth of the commentariat is so concentrated on this one circumstance, the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, a feeling like a fog is over the nation. It is hard to equal. When Brexit dominated every political discussion, the streets were not emptied and the nation did not stay away from work and talk of nothing outside that context. The very dominance of this apparent threat has placed a stop on normal life.

Panic feeds more panic. The schools were not meant to be closed, but commentators craving publicity demanded it for so long that it seemed inevitable and I started hearing “when”, not “if”. Ultimately it was not that which closed the schools but mass staff absence – but why would half the teachers in a school disappear when the known numbers infected nationwide is about 300 in total out of 60 million? That is mass, irrational panic.

London started emptying before the government suggested working at home. Now thankfully office workers have the tools to be able to work from home, but others cannot, and gig-economy workers, the ones who make modern life possible, cannot feed their children, and all for an infection which has barely brushed this land yet.

Events and meetings are cancelled across the board – I am surprised when I find them still on. An email came today that all Parkruns are cancelled – but of all things, this is an event in the open air attended only by fit people with no lung problems – can there be an event with less of a risk? Cancelling runs harms health.

The hope I have heard expressed from organisers of all sorts of events is that this will not last, and that into the spring we will be back to normal. No, the epidemic will not have gone then and might just be starting to roar. Perhaps though by then we will all have got fed up with it and be going back to normal life, taking it on the chin and dispelling the panic because it cannot be allowed to let us starve.

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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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The Very Hungry Caterpillar Budget

I cannot remember a budget which has cheered me. All that promise that tax cuts are on the way, so that we can keep more of what we earn to feed and clothe our families, and each year it is a promise of next year.

We had such hopes of Rishi Sunak as a sound money man, but money still flows from the Treasury, from our pockets, like water. A wise young MP once observed that however high taxes rise, the actual income does not, and so the better course is to reduce spending to 35% of GDP (which is still too much in my opinion) so the economy is not stifled. That was Rishi Sunak.

At the moment the trillions of incontinent spending and the promises of fiscal responsibility are very hard to reconcile. There is a hole through this budget.

Hang on though: the promise of fiscal responsibility is still there somewhere, and borrowing is promised to increase one year only to fall back in futures years, if we can trust to that. The biggest largesse looks to be linked to the current Wuhan virus epidemic, and if that subsides, as it must at some point, will that mean less spent? Or will it mean more temptation to spend the money somewhere else?

It is easy to see a saving and spend the money twice. If there is a windfall, it is best to spend it redeeming capital debt.

After the disease, the next project is “infrastructure”. That makes more sense than spaffing it up the wall on things that come and go, because connections by road, rail or wire can save money for business and enable a nudge upward in profits, and hence tax receipts. However it pushes the expectation of spending up for future years – if it is done, there must be a way to ensure it is not repeated. The ratchet must be broken.

Very well then: roads and rail. A plea here: spend it in the North. The South-East is so packed with roads and railways that travel is hindered only by its very popularity. The overpopularity of the Home Counties, which leads to the swallowing up of precious Green Belt, is encouraged by the excellent transport infrastructure. Put it in the North then, and let those cities thrive too. Then when it is done, stop spending.

It could work, if the splurge is balanced by a withdrawal of spending elsewhere.

Maybe Dominic Cummings is right that there are streets with trillion pound notes lying all over the pavement. (If he can say where they are, I will gladly go and clear the litter up for him.) Certainly it would be hard for government to be done any less efficiently than it is at present, but can the waste be tackled, the pointless bureaucrats hurled out on their ears and money saved? No one has achieved it so far though every PM says he will. If it could be done, how do we stop Whitehall taking the savings and spending all the money again?

Tax is at a crippling level: no wonder the economy is not predicted to do as well as it should. (In Africa there is double-digit growth.) Fiscally damaging taxes like inheritance tax should be removed at once: it only steals capital that should be moving in the economy and generating profit which will bring more tax revenue in than the dead tax does, but Whitehall fears the short-term hit.

Big spending budgets are ultimately a dead-end. Keeping taxes high retards the economy and reduces the actual tax-take, and the Opposition will never accept that it is enough. If these new roads were paved in silver, Labour would demand that they be paved in gold. There is no way to win a spending competition, but the taxpayer always loses.

Maybe the Autumn will see a change as new figures are published and China’s latest gift the to the world subsides. For now though the budget is met with weary resignation. Maybe next year.

Sir Humphrey’s logic

We used to swear by the Civil Service, and now we swear at it. Ministers must still work with their civil servants, but can they understand them? Just as importantly, can civil servants understand ministers?

It seems a unique relationship, but not quite. There are analogies. at least to how the relationship between minister and mandarin show work.

We have all seen Yes Minister, and those who have been in Whitehall testify that it is more of a documentary than we would hope. (The writers had a group of inside informants and much of what happened on screen was a reflection of what was actually happening, incredibly.) The world it portrays has senior civil servants confident that they are the actual government, the permanent class who go on, while politicians come and go and are at best an annoyance. That seems to be genuine too.

Be fair to them: the civil servants are professionals who, and are faced with amateurs. What is a professional to do? He is the one who knows how things work, who sits where and how they will react, and what happened last time, but in come the amateurs insisting they are in charge and wanting to change things without knowing how they are set up in the first place. Any action is taken in the knowledge that in a year or a week that bumbling amateur will be out and a new man will be in with different ideas, ready to unwind all the changes.

Reshuffles are bad enough, but when there is an election it may force a thorough-going change in direction and the put-upon mandarin will be called upon to reverse all the hard work done before. In that case, there is every motivation to hold back and ensure that anything done can be reversed. That does not sit well with the political thrust to radical change. Clashes are inevitable.

John Redwood wrote recently of how he helped Margaret Thatcher to get her reforms through a reluctant Civil Service and, if I read it correctly, the biggest factor of retardation was reluctance to release any powers of the state, and consequent loss of wonted control, which is why the 1980s privatisations were so painful to do.

In the recent years of political chaos and serial general elections, the impermanence of political direction was a reality and the Civil Service had to carry the ship of state on an even keel with little help.

In a democracy, the Civil Service cannot be autonomous and the two sides cannot work without each other. The relationship is like that of client and accountant or client and solicitor: the professional may be tempted to think that he can work without his client, but his whole purpose is to fulfil the client’s requirements.

If an entrepreneur goes to his solicitor and asks for something impossible or illegal, the solicitor is under a threefold duty; which firstly is to advise that the proposed course as described cannot be done. Some will stop at that point thinking their duty done, but it has not been. The second limb is to analyse the client’s actual requirement, the position he or she wants to reach, and find a way to achieve it which is possible and legal. The third is to get on and do it.

The accountant or the lawyer may know the intimate detail of his own field better than the client, but the purpose of his field is to serve his client, who knows his or her own needs better that the accountant will. Just as some accountants or lawyers think they have done their bit as gatekeepers by saying ‘no’ when it comes to a limit of the possible, so may some senior civil servants, but in both cases that is wrong: the mandarin’s duty is to understand the minister’s requirement and carry it out, maybe not in the way that is requested as that might be impractical or illegal, but to fulfil the actual requirement and motivation.

The Civil Service though is a monopoly and has all the bumbling inefficiencies of a monopoly. An entrepreneur can fall out with his accountant and go to another. Therefore each practice keeps itself efficient and provides tight service to keep its clients happy. Each firm too will watch what others do and imitate best practice, so that all are steadily improved. That does not happen in Whitehall: a minister cannot just ring a rival firm of mandarins to give a better quote or which has a more specialist practice. It would be better if they could.

In the meantime, we have a dynamic relationship of political and administrative spheres, which is not working well in all ministries, through misunderstandings, timidity and reluctance.

It does take a skilled professional to read his client’s mind and interpret what is the actual end to be reached, but that is the job. It is not meant to be easy, but if you can only handle easy, Sir Humphrey, you should not be there.

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