The basic flaw in British Government
No.10 is pathetically weak compared to other Western executives
There are many things wrong with the way we’re governed, but the core contradiction is identified today in a new report from the Institute for Government.
Despite being one of the most centralised countries in the western world, the innermost part of the UK’s central government is pathetically weak.
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That’s not a comment on any particular Prime Minister, but rather on the structures that support Prime Ministers in their role as head of government. The report’s author, Alex Thomas, argues that the bit of the civil service that is meant to do this — the Cabinet Office — is woefully underpowered.
While the Treasury gives the Chancellor the ability to impose financial control across Whitehall and beyond, the Cabinet Office does not give Prime Ministers a similar degree of grip on the matters that they ought to control.
This is the product of a long and very British history.
Robert Walpole is generally reckoned to be the first Prime Minister (from 1721 to 1742), but it wasn’t until the 19th century that Prime Ministers were comfortable with using that title — and not until 20th century that the role was properly defined in law.
It’s only in very recent decades that Premiers have presented themselves as being fully in charge. For instance, issues raised in Prime Minister’s Questions were once regularly referred to other Cabinet ministers instead of being answered directly as they are today. It was Margaret Thatcher who changed that — and ever since it’s been expected that the Prime Minister of the day should look as though they’re in direct control of everything. However, like the Wizard of Oz, that’s more illusion than reality.
It’s not that one person should even try to micromanage an entire government. Yet, Prime Ministers should be able to set and maintain an overall direction. Unfortunately, as things stand, the Downing Street machinery is only properly connected to the smoke-and-mirrors of the media operation. This helps to explain why control of government communications is so bitterly fought over. Just look at the way that Dominic Cummings gambled and lost everything over a glorified press office.
It’s time we saw Downing Street for what it really ought to be — not a campaign HQ, but the command centre of the British state. If nothing else, we need a fully-fledged Prime Minister’s Department to make that happen.
This could be a beefed-up Cabinet Office, along the lines set out by Alex Thomas in his report. Alternatively, there’s the approach that Chris Cook advocates — which is to rebuild from scratch:
Alex's solution is to build up the Cabinet Office. I'd suggest you need to shut down the Cabinet Office and plough salt into the earth and fire everyone who's ever even seen the building. And then make a new institution.
— Chris Cook (@xtophercook) January 21, 2021
Either way, the Prime Minister and his inner circle need proper access to the levers of power. Perhaps then they’ll stop obsessing over the smoke-and-mirrors.
These and all the other prescriptions for putting things right in government always miss the central need: leadership which is virtuous, brave (Courage is the name of all the virtues when things come to the pinch), knows where it is going because it has a positive vision for the country, and is willing to make tough choices to bring that about.
Every other nostrum is just an attempt at re-arranging the deckchairs….
There’s a lot of virtuous, brave people who end up dead. The first thing required is to reduce the size of government. Cut it by half. Then there’d be plenty of capacity for proper governance.
“…we need a fully-fledged Prime Minister’s department” do we?
In the 1990s many journaiists, pining for the abolished GLC, were telling us that London needed a fully-fledged city Mayor ““ just like the Americans have.
Now we have a city Mayor with his very own GLA to play with ““ expensive and unnecessary. Yet another layer of administrative control. Yet another place for fully (or partially) fledged apparatchiks to gather and further their ambitions.
Moral: beware of journalists with big plans to change the political landscape.
Perfectly put. The abolition of the GLC was yet another Battle Honour for glorious Lady/Mrs T.
The resuscitation of its putrid corpse in the form of the Mayor and GLA an utter disgrace, saddling Londoners with an expensive, parasitical kindergarten of worthless, wannabe political pygmies, as time has amply shown.
It should be abolished forthwith, as a matter of urgency, and London freed from its pestilential stench for ever.
Indeed, and the same applies to regional devolution. New layers of government attract talentless but venal apparatchiks like flies.
The British system is supposed to work like that. It’s a feature, not a bug. The cabinet sets policy under the control of the Prime Minister. And we muddle through. There’s no equivalent of a presidential executive order. Implementation details are worked out within departments, not commanded from Downing Street.
Where Prime Ministers have tried to run a more presidential office with their own advisors, things can fall apart with spectacular political fall out as PM appointees interfere in roles coveted by elected politicians (think Tony Blair vs Gordon Brown) .
In a presidential system, this doesn’t happen. Everyone is an appointee serving at the president’s pleasure. Rival and allied politicians are kept at arms length, to criticize from afar. By contrast, the prime minister system has more of an all-it-together feel with more focus on teamwork and personal interplay. Historically, both have been show to work in times of crisis. Mixing them up can end up with a lot of sore toes.
This is a good summary and I almost agree. But …..the electorate is changing and they can be in direct touch with people who tweet on a minute to minute basis. They seem to vote more for people than for policies OR they vote for one policy which particularly concerns them. In the historical summary things weren’t like that.
I live in Wales and in the last election thousands of people voted Tory in the old mining communities where nobody voted Tory before. We know why that happened but I think the politicians need to use things like specific issues to woo voters in the future. Trump’s wall is another good example.
It’s as more of a question of implementation than policy choice. A policy is set but then how is the minutiae of actually doing it done? Petty things, like what goes on the form that has to be filled in, what are the selection criteria in edge cases, who arranges front-line delivery and reports back. Stuff you don’t want passing across the PM’s desk.
Does the executive branch run this – as would be the case in a presidential approach? Or do you just let the department run it and delegate oversight to the minister as per the prime-ministerial system? The worst would be having advisors hovering over departmental decisions, usurping ministerial control while not actually being responsible for delivery, just nit-picking – the Blair vs Brown model.
Decades of talk by experts and now the MSM rules everything by sneering and demeaning virtually all issues that might have a faint chance of working. And spineless, odious parasitic politicians bend their knee to avoid the wrong press.
Reminds me of –
Everybody knew there was a job to be done.
Anybody could have done it.
Somebody should have done it.
In the end NOBODY did it.
One solution that seems reasonable. Cut the number of MP’s to 100.
Sack the House of Lords and create an Upper House made up of 100 elected cross section of Science, Education and Business people who served for 5 years. Pay well and give them authority to stop MP’s vanity projects and such like waste of tax payers money.
Cancel 95% of Qango’s and the useless think tanks.
Create a government section that can hire and fire civil servants. This last item is critical to stop the paid unsackable lackeys controlling by mismanagement all issues they disagree with.
Dare I say bring back Cummings?
The question is, how do you do all this from within the system? There are literally thousands (probably not millions because a lot of people don’t have views) of views and you could not listen all of them if you tried.
Your idea could be a good one but how will you get others to talk about it? The media is criticised either because it is too left wing or too right wing. Quite a lot of people get their news from the BBC (everyone says a pit of woke views) or The Daily Mail (a fascist rag?). A lot of items in your post sound good to me but so what?
I agree with all you say Chris. My point is that people know the problems and for me a problem is there to be solved.
I concede by far better people than me, maybe some day?
It’s not the governments job to do things. It’s the government’s job to enable free enterprise to get things done. If everything was privatised there’d be plenty of people in government to make sure things were regulated properly. Then No10 could focus on making sure the departments were regulating their sectors properly.
Doubtless there is a lot of truth in this, especially the media obsession, although that is a two-way street. Whatever, we all know that nothing will ever work, and we have known that for some decades.
We have been living through the weirdest Prime Ministership, and probably it’s failings have been personal. The idea that the cabinet office is not powerful enough is risible.
It has become the expectation that the top man knows everything and is responsible for everything. Just like the celeb culture in fact. At the last election various young people around me said, “I could not vote for Corbyn, he’s weird.” Or, “I would vote for the Lib Dems if the leader was stronger.” Or, “Boris is kinda cuddly.”
An alternative is to become a republic and have a president. Tony Blair would volunteer. Perhaps we could tempt Donald Trump to come over and help out.
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