Sunday, August 16, 2020

The state of Britain

There is a lot that's good but something that's irritating in this article for an American audience about Britain's shocking record on Coronavirus. It puts our record down to the weakness of the British state. At times, it's too kind to Cummings and Johnson, though, at others, it gives them a well-deserved kicking. It's true that there are long-term structural failings in parts of the civil service. The administration has been weakened over the years by austerity and political fashions - from managerialism to small-state ideology. Brexit has thrown the most complex task ever on its shoulders, now to be undertaken in excessively rapid time by the decision not to extend the transition. It isn't a good time to be a civil servant. And you can't fault the article's conclusion:

When the pandemic hit, then, Britain was not the strong, successful, resilient country it imagined, but a poorly governed and fragile one. The truth is, Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus

However, the line that it takes on Coronavirus is that the government should have been more critical of expert advice and have made a political judgement, rather than following uncritically. 

One of the central criticisms of Johnson’s leadership—expressed to me in multiple conversations—is not a refusal to accept the truth ... but a failure to challenge his experts’ strategy. It was the prime minister’s duty to question the scientific advice, to demand more.

As a criticism of leadership, it's a weak one. The ultimate blame lies elsewhere. It's a hard explanation to swallow. All governments have a tendency to hear the advice that they want to hear and those desires can shape the advice that's given. Rather than being not political enough, advice is often heavily politicised. 

But this is also a government that is keen to avoid responsibility and shovel it on to the administration wherever possible. Failure is met with a prompt announcement of a reorganisation/scapegoating (Public Health England is the latest to come in for the treatment). A government that disregards all expert advice on Brexit in favour of upbeat dissembling, doesn't strike me as one to slavishly follow a strategy decided by others unless it wants to. It doesn't seem to have been over keen to get some independent help, either, before launching the latest exam result fiasco on the people.

The Civil Service is being set up as the patsy for political incompetence. And they are not happy.

Alastair Campbell, not a bad spinner in his time, has his ear to the ground

There is a new word doing the rounds in Whitehall. Brovid. It must of course be whispered, not shouted, lest word gets back to the Gove-Cummings axis that it is being uttered at all, for to be heard using the word in polite company would be to signal a certain level of doubt about the efficiency of the Johnson regime.

This combination of Brexit and Covid expresses the contempt of the administration for the politicians.

It unites them in a morale-sapping reality for all in the employ of HMG – that the government is wholly consumed by one problem entirely of its own making – a Brexit secured and sold on promises that, guess what, turned out to be unfulfillable – and a second problem not of its making, the global pandemic, but the handling of which has created a succession of disasters entirely of their making.

...the civil service are seeing the realities of ministerial failings on both of these challenges day in, day out. They have made a total mess of Brexit. They have made a total mess of Covid.

The rhetoric of world-class this-and-that covers a grim reality, as the Institute for Government points out about the Brexit information campaign.

For business, December 31 will bring an unparalleled amount of red tape, extra hassle and administrative costs to add to their already strained cash flow. And life will change for everyone else too.
There are few moments when the veil parts and we see the genuine feeling of administrators trying to deal with the mess made by others. One happened during the Cummings affair. It was a single heroic, anonymous tweet to the official Civil Service account.

Remember this every time you hear any of this lot blame the administration or when Cummings trots out one of his banal schemes.

And remember too the irony of this shambles when you hear the 'global Britain' bullshit, that the rationale of Brexit was to free the dynamic British state from the constraints of a sclerotic European Union. 

It may be unfashionable to praise bureaucracy, but good administration is utterly necessary. Nothing can happen without it. If administrators are browbeaten, poorly resourced scapegoats, don't expect miracles. One of the first jobs of a new government will be to restore the morale of the people who run the British state. And the best way to do that would be for politicians to stop asking them to do stupid things and then to defend the indefensible.

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