Ordinary extraordinary men

He was a village character, writing a gentle tale of his coming to live in the village and marry his sweetheart, but he started with the tanks rolling into his Polish village and in time the revenge he wrought through Normandy and the relentless attrition of Caen. There were no ordinary lives in that generation.

A quiet autobiographical note appeared in the village magazine, from the man best known for making eccentric home-made fruit wines and for having a funny name (this being a village not known for trendy diversity).  His memory lane brought him to our village from far away but it absorbed him.  The tale began in Poland, with a fresh, young pilot in 1939, and an emergency call to report to his airfield; but when he approached the field, he found the Germans were there ahead of him.  He did not slink home but withdrew across Poland and across the width of Europe.  There followed over the next editions the account of how he and a small band of fellow airmen crossed German-occupied Europe, and when their path was barred by the swollen and frozen Danube, crossing the ice, three miles wide, to temporary freedom in Yugoslavia.  We read of his making his way to Britain, of the tough training in the Highlands, billeting in Cambridgeshire and then on 6 June 1944, at last taking the fight to the invaders, as he joined the British forces swarming across the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy.

Caen was supposed to fall on the first day.  The first day was a great success, but the Germans held Caen strongly, and the British and American soldiers hammered the city for two months until it broke and the advance could continue.  There were personal memories here too:  he reported encountering a Mongolian unit.  Even further from home than him, they had been recruited as fraternal assistance for the Red Army but defected to the Germans on the Eastern Front and here they were defending a town their ancestors had never heard of half a world away from their pastures, yet all under the same sun in the eternal blue heaven.

What followed Caen is well known from the history books.  It was not fought with maps and statistics, but by men.  One foot before another flesh and blood like us all, all the way to the heart of Germany.  Men stood as bullets ripped through those who stood beside them.  Men stood as a dull steel Panzer charged unstoppably towards them.  Men crossed shot, shell, minefields, barbed wire, and the Rhine, in order, in discipline, unrelenting. Men had to stand to their duty when they saw the gates of Belsen open and they faced the captured guards.

When all was done and time to go home, for some there was no home.  Between Hitler and Stalin, Poland was no more.  It was six years in a young life, with a lifetime ahead of work in the fields and calm gardening.  All this was kept within his heart, done so that his children and all of ours need not see the same again.

Supporters come out, but no Kingmaker

Others have published running lists of the announced supporters of various candidates for the Conservative leadership; interpreting it must be an exercise in political psychology, reaching deep into the various motivations of the ‘most sophisticated (or possibly ‘most devious’) electorate in the world’.

It begins to look like the Wars of the Roses, decided not so much by sword, lance and pike but by the shifting personal chancing of the nobility who supplied the armies, seeking favour and patronage from the winner.  The Conservative leadership contest works the same way (though with less bloodshed).

The government is not one man or woman but a team, whoever wins, but the Prime Minister makes and breaks them, and any MP pausing over where to lend his support will have an eye on the favour of the winner.

The wars of York and Lancaster lasted just through the reign of one unfortunate king, King Henry VI, with odd rebellions later until Stoke Field, but the political aspect shows in every local village history (which I spend too much time reading) – estates were seized for treason and granted to new men who lent arms to the winner, and lost again as the time turned, and might be regained in a successful rebellion.  Some too gained estates, raised armies with them and them sought more by a rebellion.

Firstly, the candidates all broadly stand for the same thing – they are all Conservatives.  Therefore whoever wins, Conservative MPs should be able to work with him, whatever they say now.  It is just a question of expected favours.

There are those backbenchers who can pledge their votes according to their genuine preference because they know they are stuck on the back-benches and so are not waiting on the favour of the victor.  They might have no further realistic ambition – just because they are jobless, that does not leave them without influence as many have other roles that keep them busy.  That is the most honest phalanx.

At the other end are those who consider themselves so irreplaceable that they are secured a place in government whoever steps into Downing Street.  If they appear too partisan in favour of one favoured candidate then they can still fall, but it may be safe to speak kindly of several and vote for a popular no-hoper, like Rory Stewart, and wait for the call to carry on as before.  (They still have to avoid being seen speaking for a poisonous candidate, an unrepentant Remainer, but until last weekend there was none to avoid.)

The more interesting group are in the middle – those whose future careers depend on whoever wins.  There each must tread carefully.  Amongst these are most ministers, which is why they have been largely silent.  A winner will want dependable supporters around him, and look for enthusiastic partisans – Boris has Liz, who may expect a good cabinet position in return – but if the gamble fails then the backbenches await the fallen.  Buckingham won his titles and estates from the House of York in this way;  and lost them when he overreached himself.

Then there are backbenchers will no hope of promotion unless they catch the eye of a Prime-Minister-to-be, and they just have to pick the right one, the likely winner, and be seen to shout loudest in his favour. If they lose, they slink back to their farms, but if they win then titles and offices are his.

(I should be called to order by our late patron here:  Thomas Hobbes abjures us that:

“they use words metaphorically; that is, in other sense than that they are ordained for, and thereby deceive others.

Therefore I must take care in overreliance on the metaphor and hope that it will not deceive me, nor of course the readers of this piece.”

With that warning in mind, I should no prolong the metaphor too long.  It is Shakespearean though in places, is it not?  Shakespeare watched the ridiculous, dangerous court politics of the Elizabethan ages and saw little men lifted up and great men tumbled down and wrote of the Plantagenet court as if of current affairs.

Whoever then stands on the steps of Downing Street, they will make enemies, from those they have not favoured as they believe they deserve. As Clifford says:

“The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.”

Shakespeare had Warwick say:

“Tell him from me that he hath done me wrong, And therefore I’ll uncrown him ere’t be long.”

– but this time there is no kingmaker.

Register the establishment

There has never been an effective bonfire of the quangos nor is one likely.  The number of these beasts varies – the best estimates are around 2,000 just for central government, but it could be more, depending on definitions.  The powers they exercise vary: they may give advice, or just design forms, or administer an area of law, or may actually make law.  They may meet twice a year and consider a niche field, or they may have a billion-pound budget and more staff than a major company.

The landscape of quangocracy

The existence of any given body may be unknown to any but a small circle – some may not be known even to the ministers nominally responsible, and certainly responsible ministers may have little knowledge of what “their” quangos are doing.  The scope for corruption is high; the scope for forceful members to usurp authority is limitless.

A body which is not watched will step beyond its scope, and individuals will gravitate to it who have their own agenda, which is likely to differ from the instincts of the democratic element of government.

All this is well understood by government, but with little idea of how to control it.  The occasional little bonfire makes a minister feel good, but barely dents the system, and as one head is cut off the hydra, three more arise to fill the space, each time a politician wishes to be seen to be doing something.

Private business contrasted

To open the system, let us apply principles applied to private business.

Limited companies are under a single system contained in a single Act of Parliament (currently the Companies Act 2016) which is intuitive and well understood, and which applies comfortably to all limited companies, from a one-man enterprise to a multinational conglomerate.  Each is registered at Companies House, whereupon it receives legal personality and limited liability in return for a degree of openness: it must have a registered office and publish its accounts and the names of its directors, amongst other details.  This is so that that those doing business with the company can see what they are dealing with when they sign a contract.

A ‘quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation’ may be entrusted with a huge budget and legal powers without the same degree of openness.  Freedom of information requests may prise the lid off, but it is slow and you need to know where to look.  If a quango were a company, all this would be on a database published on-line.

Quangos are not all of a type: one may be established and organised by its own Act of Parliament or statutory instrument, royal charter or ministerial fiat.  Some are essentially just committees, others vast bureaucracies and most in between, and most are run by part-time commissioners who may sit on many boards and flit across the public sector; a professional tax-eating class who have been dubbed the ‘quangocrats’: in the meantime, the real control is in the hands of unaccountable employed staff.  A public body may have legal personality or not, with more official autonomy or less.  A new body may be an old one renamed or two merged, inheriting the debts and duties of the predecessors, or a fresh invention.

For a member of the public faced with a faceless quango which may or may not legally exist and may or may not be the same body they started dealing with, the prospect of redress from an uncertain entity is daunting.

A Minister too cannot be expected to keep track of what is being done and spent in his name. Whenever he wants to trim of bureaucracy, he can have no idea of what that bureaucracy is.  He may also find that the individuals who are set to lose one of their salaries can subvert that change using several other bodies, hiding behind their anonymous notepaper.

In such an unpoliced system, a driven individual can impose their radical ideas, ‘leading beyond authority’, with little chance of being stopped.

Register the establishment

Therefore, let us register the quangos at Companies House (and resist the Whitehall habit of establishing a new, expensive quango-over-the-quangos that has to work things out from scratch with an expensive new system and new commissioners).

Every public body other than main ministries, whether incorporated or not, must register.  As is expected of every private company however small, it must have a name, a registered office at which it can be contacted or sued, and be issued with a unique company number which will follow it through all its changes of name and shape. Its nature must be clear: is it incorporated or not, and with Crown immunities or not.  As a company must register its Articles of Association, we must know the constitution of every quango, and its directors, and the ‘shareholder’ who appoints and dismisses them:  he too must take responsibility.  The public should know too what the quango’s duties and powers are, or state where they can be found.  Finally, the accounts must be published at Companies House, available to all.

None of this is new information nor any burden to provide.  It might even help the staff of the quango to have the information at their fingertips, as sometimes even they may forget what they are and what their job is.

The sanction for failure in a private company is a fine, and eventual dissolution.  For a quango it should be this:  unless their registration is complete and up to date, they may not receive any public funds, they may not levy any fee, and their officers remain unpaid.

It may be embarrassing to find that, say Birmingham City Council has failed to file its accounts on time and so is barred from levying council tax, but there must be discipline.

There will be arguments over what is and is not a registrable public body, which itself tells us something of the undesirable complexity of modern government.  A simple answer may be that if it has an independent budget and is not just a task group of civil servants, it must register.

We may go further too and make the creation and the dissolution of quangos more systematic, which must simplify the process and save waste in repetition.  Further, if a public body is established for a particular task, it must dissolve at the end of it, and that end date be flagged up on the register.

There has never yet been a successful bonfire of the quangos, but until they are all registered in one place, with an understood procedure for dissolution, it is not even contemplatable.

See also

Mindless commentary; victorless result; pointless election

Just four things that could have been predicted for the European election and all came to pass:

  • The protest parties would come out on top;
  • The BBC would ignore the rest of Europe;
  • Every political spokesman would claim any result to be a victory for whatever they believe.

The turn-out was derisory, as usual, though higher than you might expect for an election that had no noticeable local campaigning and was considered by most to be pointless. The Brexit party won the biggest vote share everywhere except Ulster and Scotland, which have their own regional electoral eccentricities. The protest parties overall – Brexit, Green, SNooPy, Plaid Cymru, LibDem – did very well.

This is fertile ground for humility and suggestions of compromise, but as the election means nothing in practical terms, commentators can say what they like. We have had the Greens, who are not exactly known for being grounded in any sort of reality, asserting that it is a ringing victory for Remain, if you add the right votes together and ignore the others) and the Brexit Party, and some within the Conservative Party, saying the vote demands a no-deal Brexit. Labour are split down the middle as usual: the Remainac wing have urged that the party move to a “Remain” position notwithstanding that every opinion poll and election to date has shown that Labour does better when promising to leave.

It all makes to difference in reality: British MEPs are only 9.7% of the chamber; the Parliament is practically a toothless talking shop in any case; and Britain is on the way out, whatever the fancies of the pro-Europeans. Therefore all this can only be seen as, at its best, an experiment in psychology. Those of us on the ground watching the politicians clashing in their ivory towers and hoping not to be hit by cross-fire would dearly like to know more of how the various opinions are formed and maintained, but perhaps next time a psychiatrist could be used, not a billion-pound electoral process.

The quiet leadership contest

There is a party leadership contest going on. Few people have noticed. It is for the Liberal Democrats, and the press has gone wildly mute about it.

The LibDems (remember them?) are replacing the much-respected Vince Cable, who has unplugged himself to seek a deserved retirement and need a fresh, young leader to take the party into whatever it does these days.

The criteria require that the leader be an MP, which is a very narrow field, and as Tim Farron found, Bible-believing Christians or Jews need not apply. The membership are all wrapped still in the cult of the youthful leader as showing a break from the past, but if they exclude anyone whose main campaigns have been to recognise an independent Palestinian state even though there isn’t one and to boycott Easter eggs then it’s bye-bye Layla (to be fair to her, that deep hatred of chocolate eggs was over what she thinks is excessive packaging rather than for encouraging Bible-believing Christians like Tim).

It looks like it’s Jo Swinson’s turn then.

A little advice for her in a thankless task: stop the intemperate attacks on the character and intelligence of those who support Brexit: they include a larger proportion of your own membership and of your activists than you realise. Brexit supporting Liberals are just keeping their heads down, as are Christian and Jewish members: take a look at what they have to endure from their fellow members. Good luck Jo.