Monday, March 09, 2020

Government by delusion

This is good from Tom McTague in the Atlantic. He shows that the confrontation between the government and the civil service is structural and ideological.
The row also reveals the deeper philosophy of Brexit, which drives this Johnson administration and has yet to be fully grasped by those who routinely show exasperation at its apparent refusal to listen to expert advice. Johnson, they say, is pursuing a future that makes no sense, one in which sovereignty is prioritized over economic alignment with the EU, meaning that Britain will be poorer than it needs to be. 
But this misunderstands the core of the Johnson-Cummings project. It is not that they disagree with experts’ forecasts, or that they are attempting to be populist. They actively reject this model of government, believing it to be systemically and empirically flawed. They argue that Britain needs to free itself from centralized bureaucratic control, rather than rely on it, to be able to react both to domestic crises and the ever-changing international environment. This is a project to remake Britain into a country agile enough to adapt quickly to the dramatic change that is inevitable and unpredictable, not to perfect an existing system that avoids unwanted shocks.
This is the central assumption. Whereas the government is about delivering "the kind of change voters want," bureaucracy is about frustrating it to protect the status quo. The trouble is, it's bollocks. But it's seductive enough bollocks to base a long-running comedy series on it. This is not about what voters want, it's about what rulers want. They are projecting their ideology on to voters in order to justify it. At best, the statement should read 'what many voters want, but many others oppose.' That's why the Cummings theory of government is anti-democratic. Democracy accepts dissent as legitimate, feels it should be listened to and accommodated. Sometimes the protection of minorities should overrule the will of majorities. Democracy is slow, can be cautious, but democracies can also act decisively in response to a crisis and, because of their very nature, can effectively mobilise consent for emergency actions. 

The Cummings approach to government is ludicrous. Reality conflicts with it daily. Look at the tardy response to recent shock events - flooding and the coronavirus pandemic. This is a political failure, not an administrative one. An inadequate political class is throwing blame around to avoid responsibility for its own failings.

The likes of Cummings are in thrall to any fashionable nonsense that panders to their narcissism and inflated egos. Only 'weirdos,' 'blue sky thinkers,' 'people who work outside the box,' and the like, have any value. Those who are still in touch with reality are the enemies of these visionaries. And so, they must be sidelined and disposed of to promote the "agility" of this new elite. Of course, the biggest enemies of all are the institutions of representative democracy. There's nothing new about this. It's the currency of authoritarianism throughout history.

What we are seeing is a crisis of the Conservative party. It has abandoned conservatism. It has embraced the cranks and loons, a disparate collection of right-wingers who had been hanging about on the fringes for years. Brexit has been their vehicle for power. Sceptics, the real conservatives, have been expelled or consigned to the margins. The ascendent faction is a destructive force, not just wrecking our place in Europe, but dismantling liberal democratic institutions. It claims the old mantle of the 'man of action,' sees bullying as a virtue, opposition as a sign of the unworthiness of opponents, and is convinced of its own doubt-free rectitude. Nothing must constrain its freedom of action.

All the institutions of the post-war settlement are under attack. All are seen as opponents of this right-wing ascendancy, the ones who would restrict its power to do something stupid. They must go - the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC, Parliament, and, of course, the European Union. This rightist ideology would dismantle all the collectivist institutions that have underpinned an enduring consensus, including the NHS. These bodies might be stuffy and unglamorous, but they can save us from the serial stupidities of ideologues who think they know best. They need to be defended from the attack by these rebels against reality.

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