Become ungovernable (civil service edition)

Welcome to Britain, the country where nothing gets done

Artillery Row

I’ve been reflecting, as Hizb ut-Tahrir is due to march in our streets yet again, boats continue to land illegally on our shores, and the press cheers as a Home Secretary is fired for criticising the police, that I’m not sure who is running Britain – because it sure as hell isn’t our alleged government.

We are increasingly a country in which things don’t work or don’t happen. HS2, which seems to grow shorter every year, has cost us £92 billion and taken 13 years to plan and build its 140 miles of track. By contrast, in Spain, a 76 mile high speed rail link between Antequera and Granada was recently completed for €1.6 billion. Late, over budget, and less than was promised – is there any aspect of government policy that this doesn’t now describe?

Ambitious plans are promised — like the government’s “Levelling Up” agenda which aimed to tackle regional inequality through large-scale state investment — only to evaporate on contact with Whitehall. Thus far only £4.8 billion has been allocated – by contrast in the manifesto £100 billion was pledged for infrastructure projects alone. The current budget is about what was promised solely for flood defences (£4 billion). Of that budget, less than 10 per cent had actually been spent as of February – £392 million (substantially less than the £500 million pencilled in for youth clubs in 2019).

Covid is a convenient fiction for those seeking to explain national uselessness. But it doesn’t begin to explain why one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in the world keeps falling behind its peers, not least in our handling of the pandemic itself. Our Covid health spending rose by more than any other EU 14 country, rising by 14 per cent compared to the EU 14 average of 6 per cent. Meanwhile our economic recovery has lagged behind Canada, America and the Eurozone.

Britain has become a world leader in sitting at home

It’s not just our government that doesn’t deliver — being ineffectual is now the national pastime. Much anger has been roused in the progressive press over autumn statement plans to encourage those receiving disability benefits to seek remote work, with complaints of cruelty to the disabled, but it’s hard to look at the numbers and conclude nothing is amiss. According to some measures the UK has the highest proportion of disabled people in Europe, with 3 million working age adults on disability benefits — nearly twice as many as receive unemployment benefit. Of the working age population with disabilities, only half are in work.

UK productivity has slowed more than at any other time in its history as an industrialised nation, and more than half of households now receive more in state spending than they pay in tax. Britain has become a world leader in sitting at home, with remote work increasingly normalised. French workers, hardly famed for their poor working conditions and long hours, are nevertheless three times more likely than ours to turn up at their offices in person. Entirely coincidentally, they’re also 17 per cent more productive.

Not getting things done is a mere hobby or part time gig for most British workers. But for a dedicated core of professionals, the people who forge the path of collective listlessness for the rest of us, it’s a vocation. I’m speaking of course of the British civil service. In a classic Yes, Minister vein, British civil servants routinely obstruct the ministers elected to make policy, and ministers have little recourse as they lack hiring or firing powers over those who are notionally under their employ.

Imagine you were asked to be CEO of a failing company. You’re told to manage 70,000 employees, a budget of £9.4 billion, and given 3-5 years to substantially improve things. But you’ll only be paid £150,000, be under constant media scrutiny, and have no power to hire, fire or discipline your staff. Would anyone in the private sector take this deal? That’s exactly the situation that faced Dominic Raab as Justice Secretary, before he was forced to resign over allegations of “bullying” by civil servants. Raab worked from 7:30 in the morning till 10 at night. He worked from the car and on weekends. Within the limits of ministerial authority, he tried to act as a forceful and responsible executive – he called regular meetings with civil servants, expected them to be prepared and informed, and would also summon individuals to reprimand them for missing deadlines. These are normal features of office hierarchy, but it was these details that formed the substance of complaints against him: he never shouted, or swore, he simply set, and sought to enforce, high standards. For doing even this seeming minimum, he was forced out.

What, if anything, can break us out of our collective malaise?

This gives us some sense of the rot that starts from the head of the fish — competence is punished, inertia rewarded; obstructionism is treated as a responsible act, questioning it is bullying. Just as Raab was ejected by civil servants, Suella Braverman was pushed out by the Met, who cried bloody murder at the prospect that their policing of protests might be open to criticism. The Met, like the civil service, is an increasingly self-governing entity, only partially answerable to elected officials. Whilst “operational independence”, in its proper bounds, is an admirable principle, in practice it has been distorted into a cover for politicised policing that actual politicians cannot question or change.

At multiple levels of decision making, there is a widening gulf between intention and action, planning and practice, which is systematically crippling our country. Decline is managed ever more badly, and worsening outcomes force reactive and expensive policy which in turn limits our ability to act still further. At the heart of all of it is a British establishment dominated by deadening proceduralism, the suppression of agency, and the collective evasion of responsibility. The intransigence and “computer says no” approach of our public servants is replicated everywhere from the managerial HR capitalism of big business to the committee-sitting classes who govern education and the arts.

What, if anything, can break us out of our collective malaise? The Tory party has manifestly failed to take on the “blob” after 13 years “in power” (as we charmingly still refer to being in government). The Labour party is on its way in, with a massive range of problems to solve and promises to keep. Unfortunately they’ve shown little appetite to do anything other than cheer on institutional intransigence. Perhaps this is just what oppositions do, but Labour will soon have to shift its thinking if it wants to get anything done. This is a task that goes beyond left and right, and will require long-term and cross-party cooperation if we are to break the grip of inertia and get Britain moving.

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