What’s a government for?

Intrigued by reports of Tony Blair’s “lessons I have learned from being in g0vernment speech to the Institute of Government the other day.

It’s a strikingly managerial account of  government – as you’d  expect from a philosophy-lite PM who believed that “what matters is what works” .  The ten lessons are:

  1. Governance is a debate about efficiency rather than transparency
  2. We are operating in a post-ideological politics
  3. People want an empowering, not controlling state
  4. The centre needs to drive, but not deliver, systemic change
  5. Departments should be smaller, strategic and oriented around delivery
  6. Systemic change is essential in today’s world – as the private sector demonstrates
  7. The best change and delivery begins with the right conceptual analysis
  8. The best analysis is based on facts and interaction with the front line
  9. The people you appoint matter dramatically – private sector skillsets are needed
  10. Countries can learn from each other

“good politics boils down to good policy – to ‘a serious intellectual business’ of conceptual and technical analysis of the problem, and competent and efficient delivery of the solution.”

And so it does.  The mantra of evidence-based policy will be  familiar to anyone who worked in Whitehall over the past few years and it’s evidently right.  It’s sad that the evidence was so often bent to fit a political timetable, with initiatives piled upon each other to catch a headline and maintain an impression of dynamism, rather than because the evidence dictated them.  If only he’d stuck to his guns (on reflection possibly not the best choice of words…)

Social change  takes a long time.  Even gathering the evidence of where the problems are, to start indicating what to do about them, takes longer than political parties are willing to wait.  It takes even longer to see results.  So Labour didn’t wait, and while they had lots of good instincts and some of the right answers, it was a lack of patience, a shortage of managerial skill and a fatal habit of over-promising and under-delivering that did for them in the end.

I wouldn’t disagree with anything on Blair’s list between numbers 3 and 10.  But Lord what a depressing picture is conjured up by 1 and 2.    Governance is a debate about efficiency rather than transparency.  Really?  I’m  not even sure I know what that means – it’s more important to be efficient than honest?  It’s more important to be efficient than fair?  Whatever happened to the idea of politics as a moral crusade?   What I’d really like to hear from the Labour leadership hopefuls  is an intellectually coherent, passionate argument for what they believe in.   What do they want to do with power when/if they get it back?  Otherwise we might just as well hand the country over to McKinsey (not that we can afford them).


7 responses to “What’s a government for?

  1. This is one of the most interesting articles I have seen lately. Number two seems the most disheartening as it suggests that men (or women) no longer have the ability to think up new ways of governing and that we are doomed to live in an eternally polarized political structure.

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  3. I can understand why some people dislike the first two. But I understand too why Blair “learned” them.

    # Governance is a debate about efficiency rather than transparency
    # We are operating in a post-ideological politics

    I’m presently reading Alastair Campbell’s Diaries. It’s some read. The LACK of party efficiency before the 1997 election exhausted Campbell and Blair. Campbell said that if the Tories had known they were often in ‘headless chickenry’ they’d have seen them off. The reason was lack of effective management, responsible bahaviour, co-operation and self-interest by some as well as clique-building. But mainly because an embittered Brown wouldn’t co-operate / communicate. Mandelson and Brown were often at loggerheads. Robin Cook couldn’t work with Brown or Mandy. Cook and Prescott thought THEY were the authentic voice of the party. Prescott found them all hard going apart from Campbell & Blair, and even them some of the time. Blair valued them all and wanted to keep them all on board, but, frankly, he shouldn’t have, imho, if Campbell’s story is accurate. The first one he should have shown the door was Brown.

    That inefficiency was partly rooted (Brown aside) in basic disagreements about ownership of the ‘soul’ of the party – its ideological raison d’etre. Prescott was in fact more with Blair on leaving behind ideology than you’d expect.

    And as for transparency, I have heard Blair say that the worst thing he did in government was bring in FOI legislation. Not because he didn’t want it – he did – but because it took on a life of its own, whereby vested interests often with agendas spent and still spend their time looking for whatever they can to question anything and everything about government, thus lowering general respect for the decision-making processes.

    Anyway, that is my interpretation as to why he made points 1 and 2. Generally I understand that.

    And if you don’t think ideology is dead – look at Cameron’s protection of the NHS, acceptance and embrace of devolution and all 3 parties middle-of-the-road positions on most major issues.

    Blair was right. He usually is.


    • Ideology in politics is alive and well – I’d argue that the budget and announcements on public services made since it mark this as one of the most ideologically-driven governments in decades. And even if government is inconvenienced by FOI (I’ve been a civil servant answering the requests, I know how time-consuming it can be) openness in government is always preferable to secrecy. Questioning anything and everything about government is my right in a democracy – and it shouldn’t reduce respect for the governing process unless the answers it produces are shameful. Or would you rather not have known about MPs’ expenses? Blair got lots right – but not everything!

  4. Penny, I think it depends on what we mean by “ideology”. It’s not some sort of idealism, which is subject to and guided by personal political choices, oftne discounting all others as irrelevant or simply wrong.

    I can’t see how anyone can suggest that it is an ideology that is guiding this government’s policies right now. Unless you argue that the Cons & Libs share the “ideology” that we need to reduce the debt.

    I don’t see that as an ideology, just a policy position.

    As I understand it Blair was referring to ideology in the old Left Vs Right way in Britain, where political ideology was about state control & big government OR a partly privatised mixed economy. It’s clear to me that the Blair version is the choice of all parties today.

    As for FOI – yes, to be blunt, I thought the politicians’ expenses furore was disgraceful. Disgraceful behaviour by the press and those who want to be down on politicians. In fact our politicians have for years, and long before Blair, failed to take appopriate pay rises, already cowed as they were by the press and by envy.

    We give our politicians elected jobs and we should trust them or deselect them next time round. The press does NOT speak for me on the value of politicians. But the press DOES reduce respect for politics and politicians. That, it often seems to me, is their raison d’etre.

  5. I agree with Penny (to use the popular idiom) that the most pragmatic Government of recent history – unfairly castigated by its opponents as driven by ideology, when it was if anything the reverse – has been replaced by an administration whose decisions are proving ideological rather than practical.

    British political parties have always been broad churches, bringing together a spread of differing interpretations and analyses based on essential principles. What you may see as policy positions emerging from managerial decisions, I still think flow from an ideological approach: Government is by nature oppressive and should be removed from people’s backs; the private sector is inherently superior to the public sector; decision-making should be pushed down to the lowest possible level; taxes should be reduced as far as possible; fiscal control is paramount, even at the cost of reduced economic activity; everyone should be expected to make their own way and stand on their own feet (irrespective of their ability to do so).

    Left and right are inevitably not defined today as they were fifty, thirty or even fifteen years ago. Ideologies evolve, but if they are to be accepted by the current generation of followers, they have to be rooted in timeless founding principles. Look at the Chinese Communist Party, presiding over the main working cog of the global capitalist economy, yet still rationalising them in Marxist and Maoist doctrines.

    If Tony Blair taught the Labour Party anything, it was that the purity of your socialist ideals are as nothing if you cannot get yourself elected into a position of power to put them into practice. Where I think he made a strategic error was in not creating a narrative around his policy changes to reassure the Party that he was creating a new interpretation of their values more appropriate to the time, rather than simply seeking power for its own sake.

    Those who felt uncomfortable kept quiet in order to win in 1997 and then in relief at having a Labour, rather than Tory Government. But there was no undercurrent of loyalty to a leader who appeared increasingly to dismiss the principles and values of most of the members. Hence the disillusionment and loss of membership at the grassroots from 2003 onwards.

    The mainstream of electoral discussion was around variations of the Blair position. But already, in the same way that George Bush’s neo-con administration did not reflect the “compassionate conservatism” of his electoral platform, the Cameron government is and will continue to prove itself instinctively more ideological than anyone expected. What we need to see from the Labour leadership candidates is not an eschewing of ideology, but a reinterpretation of the fundamental ideals of the Labour Party to evolve the ideology into a new and relevant form for the 2010s to offer an coherent alternative.

  6. Thanks both for taking the time to make such thoughtful comments. I’m with LinetoTake (may I call you Line?) No-one argues with the need to cut the deficit, it’s the choices being made about how it is to be done which seem ideological to me. Cuts in public spending are being made at a rate which many economists argue is excessive, seemingly driven by disdain for the public sector, the people who work in it and the people who rely on it.

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