Archive Page 2

Class War returns!!

The establishment is under severe pressure.  Politicians and press barons (and senior police officers, come to that) are too familiar with one another.  Tax dodgers are morally repugnant.  Bankers sell dogey products and, now, fiddle their books and manipulate interest rates.  Desparate efforts to divert attention to benefit cheats have had little effect on the main thread of news and debate.  And now we have more or less subtle efforts to suggest that the current banking crisis of legitimacy is a product of ‘spivs and gamblers’.  The suggestion is that, since the 1980s, working class lads have been alowed in to the once august world of the City.  One old timer on the radio told stories of the past where your word was your bond.  Chaps just didn’t cheat.  These working class oiks have got into the banks and just don’t know how to behave.  Nauseous stuff.

And now we have an urgent independent review (if it is urgent, why did it take days to announce?).  We don’t know who will lead this review as yet.  Anyone want to take bets – a member of the establishment, old school, probably with banking experience.  But definitely ‘one of us’, in Thatcher’s words.

Do the Tories have ADHD?

The rate at which the Tories develop new policies, provoke reaction, back peddle and then, later, claim they just wanted to start a debate is frankly comical. The latest, Cameron’s assault on the poor was particularly grotesque, coming after and covering up the tax dodging habits of the well heeled.  Steve Bell in The Guardian has hit the nail on the head in his recent If… cartoons.  Tory policy on welfare is little more than: ‘Fack orff and get your own silver spoon’.

I watched the first episode of The Thick Of It again last night, inspired by Gove and Cameron doing cartwheels.  And it does seem to me they must work in pretty much this manner.  Policy made on the hoof.  No wonder Hilton left to take a year off and get away from the insanity of it all.  (But then he was not much better.  We are told that he has suggested the civil service be reduced to about 4,000.  After all, the Victorians ran an empire covering a third of the globe with that number of civil servants.)

It does appear that the Tories are agitated, twitching and flinching at the slightest noise and always acting in haste.  ADHD, perhaps?  Or more likely this is the behaviour we should expect of good old Bullingdon Club members – just sober and bored.

Who governs?

We have been treated to the unedifying sight of senior politicians admitting to cosy relationships with Murdoch and beginning to talk about the need for reform.  Some of the messages flowing between Rebecca Brooks and David Cameron (and doubtless the same was true with Blair, Brown etc) suggest that News Corporation was an arm of government (and similar comments have been made in recent articles in the New York Review of Books) – ‘we’ must get the welfare reform bill through parliament, for example.

I wonder whether the government’s relationships with senior bankers would stand up to this sort of close scrutiny as well?  Osborne certainly bleats on about the need to ensure that the UK is a good place for international financial institutions to call home.  Perhaps they also talk in terms of ‘we’?  And what of the arms industry and the MoD?

In Greece, at least they know they are being ruled by unelected technocrats at the moment.  Heaven help them if they dare elect a government that acts in their interests at the weekend (and the same might go for the French as well!).  Meanwhile we suffer under a very British technocracy.

A fit and proper select committee?

Watching Newsnight last night and reading some of the discussion in the papers this morning, the select committee report on Murdoch and phone hacking has stirred some people up.  And, on the whole, the line seems to be that the report would be much more powerful if it were a unanimous report, rather than split over the more provocative conclusions.  As well as some of those involved and many media pundits, Tony Wright, the former chair of the Public Administration committee, has suggested this is much the best way to proceed.  Ofcom could read their report and draw their own conclusions.  There is probably something in this.  And debate since has been diverted from the content of the rest of the report.  The only people who will be happy about this include Murdoch and Louise Mensch, one Tory MP who likes the spotlight.

But this all reminds me of a famous quote from an MP called Sir Hugh Rossi who was a chair of the Environment Select Committee in the 1980s.  His committee decided:

“as an act of conscious policy, not to become involved in topics which are the subject of major political controversy or which are likely to be debated on the floor of the House in any event.  Instead we decided to identify and concentrate on areas of public concern where the political parties had not defined their attitudes and in which it appeared that ministers had not much time to investigate in depth for themselves.  In this way we would enhance our prospects of producing unanimous all-party reports which would thereby carry conviction and influence the decision-making process.” (cited in Butler et al (1994), Failure in British Government: the politics of the Poll Tax)

His committee failed to investigate the Poll Tax!  Too contentious!

What is the point of committees and politicians if they avoid contentious issues for the sake of unanimity?

Fox, Hunt and Spads

Do the Tories make up the names of their ministers just to look like a gathering of the landed gentry, I wonder?  And what is it about these ministers and their special advisers that is so problematic?  Liam Fox’s special adviser went and, shortly  after, Fox followed.  What are the odds on Jeremy Hunt following his?

But the Hunt and Murdoch affair is very odd indeed.  If there were a need to keep the Murdochs informed about progress on the case relating to the takeover of BSkyB, and given this was a quasi-judicial role, the special adviser should never have been involved in any way.  Spads are political appointees, giving political advice to ministers etc.  As such, they should not be involved in the exercise of an adjudication which must, as we know, be according to the law, evidence, due process etc.  This should not be a political decsision and so a spad has no business being involved.  Of course, this particular spad overstepped the mark – or so we are to believe.

It is another astonishing aspect of this case that so many senior people with resources, staff etc should be so unaware of so much.  Murdoch Snr. didn’t know of the cover up.  Murdoch Jnr. didn’t know very much at all and seems to have put a good deal of effort into paying no attention to something that was the subject of widespread discussion.  And Hunt knew nothing of the activities of his spad.

Of course, to rail enthusiasts, spad means Signal Passed At Danger – referring to trains that run through red lights.  SPADs tend to result in accidents.

The last Tory PM and Chancellor

Will Hutton rounded off an open lecture last night with a prediction that pleased most of the room.  Some old white men, mainly from the sponsoring organisation, were not so amused or heartened by the prediction.

Following more disappointing lectures by Brendan Barber and John Birt, Will Hutton really lived up to the promise of the ‘Burning Issues’ lecture series.  For a start, it was clear that he actually cared about the subject of his talk – ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ capitalism.  Once warned up, he got into his stride, launching into a sweeping dismissal of recent and current economic policies.  While much of what he had to say was doom and gloom (debt, stagnation, managed inflation as the only way out), he did also point to a future.  He presented the outline of a case for an innovation eco-system (encourage ideas and research, back the best, scale up and socialise elements of the risk) embedded in a European-wide market, looking to the next generation of ‘general purpose technologies’ and supproted by a reformed welfare system (he pointed to Denmark for ideas).  Perhaps this is where his background in economics raises some questions.  He was clearly of the view that zero growth solutions are out of the question.  We will always strive to innovate and develop, he suggested.  So, deep down, while aspects of technology and innovation have got us into this unsustainable mess, they will also get us out, much as ‘good’ capitalism can rescue us too.

Right or wrong, at least it was coherent and he sounded like he believed it.

Pulling teeth

The news this morning included a bizarre item that suggested dentists should be our front line of defence against the dangers of cancers caused by excessive drinking.  We are more inclined to go to the dentist for routine check-ups than to a doctor and, therefore, the dentist might pick up signs that would otherwise not surface for some time.  Apparently, as they peer into your mouth, dentists might notice decay caused by stomach acids, ulcers etc.  Presumably, they might also smell your breath!?  But a spokesperson declared that dentists might then be able to offer advice and he even went so far as to say they could offer ‘cognitive behavioural therapy or talking therapies’.  Wow.  I have this weird image of a doctor peering into your mouth and trying to practice as a psychologist at the same time.

I don’t know about you, but I have never associated dentists with empathy and with therapy.  They tend, in my experience, to be highly judgemental about the lifestyles and habits of their patients.  Having only taken my postcode, one dental surgery once asked me whether I was a drug addict!  Such tact.  Such delicacy.  But then, their patients are rarely able to anser back when there are sharp implements stuck in their mouths.

A cornered man?

Recent events (granny tax, pasty gate etc) have been so comical as to be not worth commenting on.  But now, having given way on so many policies that seem alien to them (NHS reform etc), Nick Clegg is at last showing his fighting spirit.  He seems to have remembered that the Liberal Democrats are in favour of some basic protection of the rights of the individual against surveillance by the state and of the right to a fair trial process with all evidence available to the defence.  Hmm. Could it be the LibDems fear oblivion in the upcoming local elections?

Yes, Prime Minister as Whitehall farce

I saw the theatre production of Yes, Prime Minister earlier this week.  Very disappointing.  They have a very hard act to follow, whether you think of the original scripts or of the actors involved, but this really doesn’t deserve to be connected to the originals.  The plots, many of them vaguely familiar, were less sophisticated and played out with a good deal less subtlety.  So, instead of discrete pressure being put on the BBC, we had little more than crude threats.  The moral dilemma was so stark as to be not worthy of consideration.  And there was one good gag – a map of Europe showing the route of a proposed oil pipeline going through every member state to keep them all happy.

As for the acting, Sir Humphrey wasn’t too bad – but he did come across as a pantomime villain at times.  And the dramatic entry backlit by lightning was so predictable (and a less than subtle reference to Gus O’Donnell?).  Bernard was lost – either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, perhaps?  And Jim Hacker was hamming it up for all he was worth.  When he hid under the desk, most of the audience were cringing.

Would it stand up to critical scrutiny if it didn’t draw on the original series?  Probably not.

Street-level bureaucrats in times of cutbacks

Former students will know the emphasis I place on Lipsky’s work on street-level bureaucracy.  I was recently asked to write something about the book and its value for a journal, Teaching Public Administration.  Re-reading the book was illuminating, partly because it reminded me of why I find it so useful as a framework for thinking about practice.  But I saw more in it as well.  It was written in the midst of the financial crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s and, in this context, the emphasis on rationing and the balancing of the competing demands of clients and management come across more acutely.  But it also connects well to other themes that will be familiar to students studying more contemporary policy developments.  Indeed, perhaps the work is more relevant and useful today than it has ever been?

The article is at:

http://tpa.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/02/20/0144739411435439.full.pdf+html.