The constitutional crash that hurts: government subordinated to marketing

The man behind the UK's 'Broken Government' website diagnoses how good administration has been sacrificed to the marketing of power
Andreas Whittam Smith
30 March 2010

Here is a further contribution to the colloquium on Richard Gordon ‘s new book, ‘Repairing British Politics’ that took place at the British Academy on 22 March.  

I want to ask why Government works so badly at the point of delivery to citizens.  For if our constitutional arrangements are faulty, this is where it hurts.

  1. Ministers are terrified of losing the next election. Because of the manner in which the British electoral system operates, they believe that when a governing party loses power, it will do so for more than one parliament.
  2. As a result a new government engages in non-stop electioneering from the morning following victory at the polls until the next general election.
  3. At the same time, a second pressure beats upon ministers – the sheer speed of the news cycle. Confronted with this, ministers believe that if they fail to respond instantaneously, they will be seen as incompetent or as hiding something.
  4. The consequence is that ministers, in permanent campaign mode as they are, try to make the entire government machine move at the same lightening speed of the news cycle. The futile attempt to mesh the two, with ministers, special advisors and civil servants falling over their feet in a dreadful rush, is the main reason for incompetence and impotence of government.
  5. For twenty years now, ministers have subjected the entire machinery of government to the requirements of daily political marketing. Its disciplines are unambiguous and allow no exceptions. Peter Mandelson first formulated them for the Labour Party. In 1985 he told Philip Gould that what we have to do is (a) have something relevant to say by way of policy which is attractive and not off-putting and (b) we have to say it loudly and repetitively
  6. Of the first injunction, the requirement not to be off-putting seems to be as important as putting forward attractive policies. No politician has arrived at 10 Downing Street with a brief case bulging with ideas, plans and fully worked out policies since Mrs. Thatcher resigned.
  7. The first injunction also leads politicians to spend an inordinate amount of time devising slogans. Mr Major spent ages trying to choose between three slogans for his 1996 Party Conference - ‘True to Britain’, ‘Opportunity for all’ and ‘It matters more than ever’. To this writer, at least, they all appear equally fatuous.
  8. The second of Mr. Mandleson’s injunctions – say it loudly and repetitively – has had a number of consequences. It drives politicians to think in headlines. Alastair Campbell told Whitehall press officers a few months after the 1997 election:  “Decide your headlines. Sell your story and if you disagree with what is being written, argue your case." Thus the whole Government was brought to think in this way.
  9. Saying it loudly and repetitively also requires exerting leverage on the media, otherwise they might look elsewhere. Here the principal technique is the leak of government initiatives due to be announced a day or two later. The vice of this approach is that Parliament is often put last in the queue to receive the news whereas it should be the first.
  10. It is no use, however, saying ‘it’ loudly if government ministers use different versions or even express contradictory opinions. Once the line to take has been set by the prime minister and his closest colleagues and advisers, nothing and nobody must be allowed to get in the way. Not the Cabinet, whose meetings can be confined to overviews and the business dispatched within the hour. Not Parliament, the bulk of whose work can be timetabled to fit in with the Government priorities. Not local government, whose ability to raise their own revenue and do their own thing has been sharply reduced.

There is much more to say.   I have posted a 9,000 word work-in-progress on my social networking site, brokengovernment

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