Measures, four Measures

The chaos of unruled juvenility in the heart of government has been known about for many years, and it took this lockdown car-crash to expose what should have been a scandal long before.

Whether events took place during the lockdown or not is irrelevant – that is just a hook to hang confected moral outrage on – what matters is that the behaviour described should be scandalous whenever it happened, and that it went by with impunity. That culture of impunity must be dealt with, with zealous severity.

Boris is not the one to do it. He has allowed himself to become the root of the problem, because he is the smiling, hands-off boss who avoids confrontation and can never be cross with anyone for long.  He is though aware of a literary precedent for sending in a strict regent to do the job which must be done.

The appearance, from Sue Grey’s frank, excoriating report, is of staff out of control.  The private sector could not work like that – if I were to get drunk in the office or assault a co-worker and swear at support staff, I would be out on my ear with little prospect of a replacement job on the horizon – in Number 10 it appears that SPADs and junior civil servants have been enjoying the liberty of impunity, which confusion of responsibility brings.

It would be bad enough in a normal office where it all happens only on a personal level. In an office which wields the powers of peace and war, which reshapes vital structures of government and controls 40% of the nation’s GDP, this behaviour goes beyond internal discipline and becomes a vital public interest.

How it happens we can guess. The Downing Street machine contains ministers, civil servants and special advisers, and who controls whom is where the issues begin. Each group has its own chains of command, and if those chains are not pulled tight, they will run out of control. The staff whoever they may be are people, after all. The civil servants cannot command the SPADs and the SPADs cannot command the civil servants outside their specific responsibilities – they have separate priorities, separate duties and codes of conduct, and no way for misconduct to be pulled up tight if the relevant chief is out of the room.  This should have been foreseen when Tony Blair introduced the concept of political special advisers.

For the special advisers, if criticised by senior staff they can always thumb their noses and say their boss is the Prime Minister, and this particular the Prime Minister is a hands-off boss whose very manner encourages the taking of liberties.

Boris Johnson is reluctant and now unable to control the staff. Now let him turn to a play.  The Bard places Duke Vincentio of Vienna in the same position.  He saw himself as the problem, as under his liberal rule the laws had become laxly observed:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

Vincentio therefore left the city in the hands of Lord Angelo, “A man of stricture and firm abstinence”, with the command to restore respect for the laws of morality, which Angelo did with zeal until his own bodily temptations drew him. Boris is Vincentio who has let his people get away with excessive liberties. He needs an Angelo, preferably one less corruptible, to take command and apply excessive zeal to restoring the government machine. Like Angelo, he must receive absolute authority, and like Vincentio, Boris must withdraw to a distance so that his staff will not queue up to appeal to his mercy over the heads of grim Angelo.

The task then for Angelo is to take command and fundamentally, not to be Boris.  Measures he or she can take to bring order should start:

  • A command across all of government: no alcohol may be consumed nor provided for consumption in any government office even after hours in any context, even high-level receptions (those at the top must set an example);
  • Senior civil servants in each ministry and in Number 10 to be given specific authority to rebuke and discipline special advisers in their ministry for breaches of the advisers’ code or for illegal conduct, and vice versa.
  • Whistleblower protection, along the lines of that introduced by Stephen Harper in Canada – no civil servant or special adviser should be afraid to report wrongdoing to his or her supervisor and if necessary to a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. This must apply just as much to devolved administrations and local authorities as to Whitehall and its quangos.
  • Omerta: Blabbing is damaging to the smooth working of government.  Misconduct should be stamped on but privately: both civil servants and SPADs work in a confidential atmosphere and must not leak. The current crop of chatty rats sap our confidence in the integrity of the process and make it look as if Whitehall cannot be trusted with the privacy of our  personal information, if they are blabbers. Anyone can be self-righteous about openness, but private discipline is the most effective, and effectiveness is what is needed. A minister can give a good kicking to a wayward underling in private that he would not do in public. Working with a good, statutory whistle-blower protection, it will clear out the system like nothing else.

The Thick of It is not meant to be a training film. That culture must be ended, without mercy.

See also

Books

The case for declaring war

No, not the current one: that is not our war; but in general an honest declaration solves all sorts of problems and ambiguities.

I cannot think of any occasion since VE Day that the United Kingdom, or the United States come to that, has issued a declaration of war. If this were an indication that peace has reigned, that would be a fine thing, but it has not, and British forces have been engaged in many wars, not just against insurgencies but against states – against China (in Korea), Egypt, Indonesia, Argentina, Iraq twice over, Serbia, Syria and more I am sure, without a single admission that this was war indeed in spite of its being obvious.

This is not peace but mendacity, and it leaves uncertainty about the consequences.

We have forgotten why the Crown declares war (and how to: in August 1914 it was said that the Foreign Office were in a panic because they had not issued a formal declaration of war for so long they had forgotten how). Two points:

  • A declaration of war is not an act of aggression but a recognition of an existing reality;
  • It is a declaration to one own nation more than to the enemy.

When a state of war exists, British subjects are on notice that they may not trade with the enemy; citizen of the enemy state are subject to legal disabilities and their property is frozen; having business with the enemy is a form of treachery, perhaps even treason. How would one know when these apply without an actual statement from the government that a state of war exists?

On the other side of the coin where there is no state of war, Britons are free to do business as we please, and defy all the tutting disapproval of politicians as we do so. There must be a sharp distinction.

It is not obvious when there is a war, when all trafficking with the other side must stop. As Hobbes observes:

For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

In the old days there was no need for parchments and seals and florid language: a Royal Navy frigate would haul over to Normandy and seize a couple of French fishing boats, and that was a declaration that a state of war existed.

Even a paper war is war if unambiguous.  If we read the account by Hobbes of how the Civil War began, it was when “the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known“:

After the sending of these propositions to the King, and his Majesty’s refusal to grant them, they began, on both sides, to prepare for war. The King raised a guard for his person in Yorkshire, and the Parliament, thereupon having voted that the King intended to make war upon his Parliament, gave order for the mustering and exercising the people in arms, and published propositions to invite and encourage them to bring in either ready money or plate, or to promise under their hands to furnish and maintain certain numbers of horse, horsemen, and arms, for the defence of the King and Parliament, (meaning by King, as they had formerly declared, not his person, but his laws); promising to repay their money with interest of 8l. in the 100l. and the value of their plate with twelve-pence the ounce for the fashion. On the other side, the King came to Nottingham, and there did set up his standard royal, and sent out commissions of array to call those to him, which by the ancient laws of England were bound to serve him in the wars. Upon this occasion there passed divers declarations between the King and Parliament concerning the legality of this array, which are too long to tell you at this time.

In the meantime the Parliament raised an army, and made the Earl of Essex general thereof; by which act they declared what they meant formerly, when they petitioned the King for a guard to be commanded by the said Earl of Essex. And now the King sends out his proclamations, forbidding obedience to the orders of the Parliament concerning the militia; and the Parliament send out orders against the execution of the commissions of array. Hitherto, though it were a war before, yet there was no blood shed; they shot at one another nothing but paper.

It soon became more than paper, and what a bloody war it was to torture the guts of the realm. The reality was shown before the first musket ball flew.

If all wars could cease by the stroke of a pen, let that pen be brought forth at once. A generation which has only seen peace at home may not know how there are no words to describe the horror of it but those cowering under the rubble of Kiev, weeping for their sons and husbands or living in uncertain terror from moment to moment may show you. If the obsolescence of formal Declarations meant this could not happen then would be well rid of those poisonous documents. However perhaps doing away with them has made it worse: if no government could begin its war without taking the awesome step of an open, formal declaration, they would not set to war as lightsomely as has been done over these last eighty decades, and there would be far fewer widows in dark rooms cursing to the end of their days. War is no light step, and pretending you have not taken it just because you did not signed a formal document, is dishonesty.

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Books

Election done – now what?

Well thank goodness for that: I was not elected, so I have no civic responsibilities. I like to think I was respected for ensuring that the democratic process worked, to make my opponent work for his seat and not seize it as a right. I prefer not to think of it as being massively publicly rejected by my neighbours.

I would quite have liked the (minimal) councillor allowance though.

Now my challenge is what to do now as some public service. I do have some civic charitable things I am working on elsewhere, and I am still cornered to help with a local campaign on a doorstep issue, which I will do.  There was that idea of a “keep fit this summer after you vegged for two years of lock-down” promotion, although there are better men to do that than I.

It is unlikely that I will be invited to negotiate a settlement to end to the Ukrainian War, which I could do if surmounting the credibility gap, so some things less earth-shattering is needed for my time and talent.

National government being such a mess, in spite of best intentions at the top, I will write policy papers.  They have usually been short interventions, as no one has shown a willingness to pay me for these.  A few full-length, bluntly worded papers are needed on certain topic, along with the usual fare.

In the dawns after the election I feel rested, but this should not  be a resting year.

See also

Books

Hammering long, long streets

I have not been involved in this local election campaign, except for being a candidate and hand-delivering more leaflets than is conceivable this side of sanity. It gets me out and about, which we all need after these weird years. It is cold on the streets this year: blazing sun and high temperatures, but a colder reception at the door.

Not from all though:  this is a friendly village. At the locals, it sends in a rash of salad-munchers, though come the general elections it is reliably blue, but reliability is now in short supply. Boris the rockstar PM is no more – he is a hunted figure, who has taken on a mantle of seriousness in place of fun and it does not play well. Anger over those after-work drinks is utterly illogical, without sense or coherence of reason, but it is real. Once the sheen has come off, we all suffer, and notice that the cost of living is rising and the taxes re rising too when we were promised, when they swore blind, that they would come down. How can a candidate in a little election fight against that?

I will do what I can, what I usually do – trudge the streets, hammering worn feet on hardened tarmac pavements, wondering how late I can post leaflets before householders get angry at the disturbance (the emails that came in last year about that were not friendly), spending lunchtimes and long evenings folding and stacking.

If nothing else, it shows me the variety of streets and made environments that I otherwise just skim over. The streets of identikit houses are not identikit at all, as householders remake them in their own image; the ex-council house with a new, smart porch and refurbished to look like a mini-mansion, and a Beemer parked at the front, or the house with a car collection (that must annoy the neighbours) or an ornate garden spread out at the front.  Scaffolding is in every street and that shows enterprise; even the new-built houses having extensions and personalisations. Whatever commentators have said over a hundred years about dull suburbs and mass-production houses, they are not any more, because every householder is an individual making their  house into a unique home.

Even so, I must turn back: I am still many hundreds of  leaflets away from being able to rest on the ‘bank holiday’ weekend.

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Books

Twit twit To-where?

A company takeover rarely hits the front page, but for Twitter, the biggest celebrity social media site and Elon Musk, the biggest celebrity tech entrepreneur, it fills volumes. (Wondering why does little good in the fervent political atmosphere, but that stifling atmosphere has something to do with it.)

Tesla and SpaceX are utterly brilliant: we have to ask then whether Twitter can become as brilliant too.

The gossip has concentrated on how freely one may speak on the platform. It is a private company and can make its own rules.  I know that if I ran a social media platform I would be worried about what people were saying on my site, effectively (to my mind) in my name. I would want it to be respectable, and to ban way-out material like Holocaust-denial, race-hatred, loony conspiracy theories and socialism.

My forum, I think, would not last long, turning away so much custom

The value of Twitter, financially, is in the volume and variety of commentary and bile spewed out on it, which produces data which can be sold. In the old days, a company with a product to sell might hire a marketing consultant to go round knocking on a hundred doors: now fora like Twitter have the unfiltered brainspills of millions of customers available to analyse. In a decade or so, marketing departments might learn how to read the data properly. Bans and threats of bans will skew the data. Liberating speech is a most noble motive: it should also be a profitable one.

The new owner might just leave Twitter ticking along with a few adjustments to its policies, and commentaries have made that assumption, with perhaps too a few tweaks like adding an an ‘edit’ button. It works as a business model at the moment. That is thinking very small though, and Twitter is shrinking so business-as-usual means decline.

At the moment it works on the surface with simplicity. You might think that no revenue stream goes untapped, but it looks flat, suggesting that there is more that could be done to expand the Twitworld in more dimensions and bring in more facets than ever before. I would not know where to start, but I am not Elon. It is only a petty sideshow for him, but if he shows that vision for which he is famed, his new sideshow may become something so good that even I might be interested in it.

See also

Books