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Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Review: Anthony King and Ivor Crewe The Blunders of Our Governments



Any reader of the London-based satirical magazine Private Eye will be familiar with the substance of this book, despite the contrary claim of its authors (page ix). The book is a chronicle of British government incompetence over three decades - 1980 - 2010 - a period in which both Conservative and Labour parties were alternately in power. Both parties have major cock-ups to their debit accounts: the Poll Tax and the Child Support Agency (Conservative); the Private Finance Initiative for the London Underground and the National Health Service IT scheme (Labour). There are many others. All of them were chronicled, sometimes in depth, by Private Eye as they were on-going.

King and Crewe are less than generous towards Private Eye; they mention it once in the 415 page body of the book (page 199). But then the British Establishment is ambivalent about Private Eye and King and Crewe are paid-up (more accurately, paid for) members of the Establishment: they are senior academics, salaried from public funds and researching with support from public funds. Private Eye is a must-read for the Establishment but, like a pornographic magazine, it must not be seen to be read.

Despite the handicap of their Establishment status, King and Crewe do a very readable job chronicling failures of government policy, all of which cost the taxpayer money and many of which directly harmed vulnerable individuals (including people the policies were supposed to benefit). The chronicle occupies the first couple of hundred pages of the book. They do not even touch upon defence procurement or military operations, both disaster zones, confining themselves to civilian policy areas.

They preface the Chronicle with a disclaimer - something which is in their own terminology surely counts as a Prejudice. They say they are not trying to establish a "British outpost of the American Tea Party movement" (page xi). But why not? If governments repeatedly squander vasts sums of taxpayers' money, as King and Crewe claim that they do, fail to learn from their mistakes and blindly go on expensively proving themselves incapable of delivering the policies they promise to deliver, then it is surely a reasonable position to suggest that one solution is to give them less money to play with. Why encourage fecklessness?

King and Crewe consider such questions closed. It is not part of the way their group thinks. Instead, they devote a full dozen chapters to classifying and analysing why, where and how British governments go wrong and end up with expensive policy failures. These chapters are insightful, but King and Crewe are unable to identify any drivers of change which might push voters or politicians into changing a not-fit-for-purpose system. In contrast, it is quite clear that there are numerous stakeholders in a dysfunctional, sub-optimal system - for example, private companies who can rip off the state and politicians who know that they will be rewarded regardless of how may failures they achieve. John Prescott (to take an individual who they criticise by name) now sits in the House of Lords, despite having no identifiable achievement to his credit, and he is not alone: many of the individuals they have interviewed in the course of their research now have their knighthoods and peerages (page 450) regardless of whether or not in their careers they made a hash of things.

Some of their suggested changes could no doubt be acted upon by a reforming administration, but it is hard to imagine that increased accountability would be one of those changes. The only form of accountability which seems to work is the very, very crude electoral one. King and Crewe name and shame Gordon Brown repeatedly, and they characterise him in ways which ensure that you think he would have made a terrific 1950s American politician in the paranoid mode of that period. But it took the voters to get rid of him - and even then, and apparently without embarassment, the Labour Party invited him as the keynote speaker at the subsequent Party conference and gave him a standing ovation. Small wonder that some of us no longer vote.

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