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The Blunders Of Our Governments

Ivor Crewe and Anthony King

(London Times)

By documenting just how catastrophically incompetent governments have tended to be, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe have done politicians a very peculiar service. When I worked in government, plenty of my old colleagues thought news desks were engaged in a well-organised conspiracy to make them look stupid. Now I work for a newspaper, many of my new colleagues think that politics is a well-organised conspiracy to carry out some malfeasance or other. The truth is that it’s chaos in both places.

The guiding idea behind this wise and sober book, whose title is taken from James Madison’s Federalist Papers, is this: incompetence is a more important force in public life than malice and conspiracy. King and Crewe’s meticulous scholarship of the hopeless and the hapless condemns the British political class at every turn. Their tour of British administrative incompetence since 1979 is a damning story which takes in the poll tax, pensions misselling, the Child Support Agency, the Dome, the exit from the ERM, the Asset Recovery Agency, payments to farmers and the London Underground Public-Private Partnership (PPP).

This last example is sadly typical of the sort of mess that can ensue. The Labour Government wanted to upgrade the Underground but managed to waste, in King and Crewe’s judgment, at least £2.5 billion and possibly as much as £20 billion. The scheme was the joint baby of Gordon Brown and John Prescott who refused to let anyone else see the plans (Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, was shut out of all important meetings) and who settled on a PPP only because they ruled out for political reasons both privatisation and public sector commissioning. King and Crewe quote someone who was closely involved reflecting on the mess they made with the unfortunately untrue observation that “You couldn’t make it up. You simply couldn’t make it up.”

Yet ,at the same time, the litany of human failure rescues the politicians from the more toxic charge that they are adeptly turning power to their own ends. Let us hope that every Assange-worshipper tempted to think that some vast web of deceit is hidden in the WikiLeaks will read this book. King and Crewe have written the opposite of a conspiracy theory; they have written the definitive cock-up theory.

They define a blunder as “an episode in which a government adopts a specific course of action in order to achieve one or more objectives and, as a result largely or wholly of its own mistakes . . . fails completely to achieve those objectives”. This is admirably clear and an ingenious subject for a study, but it is not clear that all their examples meet so definitive a standard. For example, the chapter on computer failings is such a horror show that it prompts the thought that computer disasters may be greater than mere blunders. To call an episode a blunder implies that things might have been done differently and worked well. Perhaps the blunder is not in the administration of a specific project but in the vain hope that the geeks can do computer whiz-whatnot that is, in truth, beyond their geeky capacities. This is probably the verdict that, in their next volume, King and Crewe will enter on Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit scheme, which is shaping up to be the next great computer disaster.

The best compliment I can pay the authors is that their parade of idiocy never degenerates into a parade of idiots. King and Crewe are looking for patterns and lessons rather than villains. They are convinced that blunders occur under governments of all political persuasions. Indeed, much the same type of blunder seems to recur and no single term of government since 1979 has been any worse than any other. It is quite possible that, as government has taken on more responsibility and the pace of politics has quickened, that errors have become more common. King and Crewe say they cannot answer that but their main contention is that error is systemic. Individuals make mistakes, sometimes for reasons of personal vanity but there is more to it than that. King and Crewe think there is something wrong with Whitehall and Westminster that makes it prone to error — legislation is too rushed, Parliament is too weak, ministers are too transient and, with almost no support, prime ministers are too ignorant.

This clever and absorbing book assembles the evidence to display the incontrovertible truth that British politicians often don’t know what they are doing. It is an indictment but it is better than the opposite charge, levelled by the cynics, that politicians know exactly what they are doing and, as the people slumber, are busily organising a conspiracy for their own benefit. As King and Crewe offer in their introduction: “our political leaders . . . seldom seek special advantages for themselves, their families, their friends or their lovers. They seldom exploit public property for private purposes. Blatant corruption is virtually unknown in central government and rare in local government”. They’re just not very good at what they do.

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