This book is a study of blunders made by UK governments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The authors take a very specific view of what constitutes a “blunder”, so certain issues such as the banning of trade unions at GCHQ are not covered, even when such an action has been identified by many commentators, international courts and successive governments as illegal.
Instead, “blunders” are identified as bad decisions, made for the wrong reasons, that ended up costing the taxpayer serious money. In this, the authors claim not to take a partisan view. Indeed, they take an entire chapter early on to talk about the successes of various governments over the same period. Their view of what constitutes a “success”, of course, may in itself seem quite partisan. Later in the book, they talk about various causes of blundering, and identify “group-think” as one such factor. Yet they themselves fall into the same trap, especially when writing about the British political Left and some of its more extreme manifestations, their very language betrays their underlying viewpoint and their acceptance of the consensus “group think”.
They speak of the “cultural disconnect”, a more fundamental form of “group-think”, where a group of people from similar backgrounds all share the same world-view and cannot conceive that other people in quite different situations would not have the same world-view. Yet they display precisely that same behaviour. They are academics specialising in modern history and politics, working in the early years of the 21st Century. They assume, for instance, that the trade unions of the 1970s and 1980s were over-powerful and over-bearing. Yet to the members of those unions, they were merely working to advance the cause of those members over – or at least alongside – the cause of the employer. Even today, I heard a Minister on the news complaining that striking rail workers had a duty to “think of the passengers”. Their cultural disconnect prevented them from thinking as a rank-and-file trade union member who pays their subscriptions and expect the union to support their grievances. To them, the duty of the union is to think of its members, not everyone else.
Be that as it may; after the introductory chapters, the authors then describe a number of political decisions and events that turned out badly. They do not apportion blame in those chapters, but then carry on, in the third section of the book, to look at a number of causes for blunders and apply them to the examples they quoted. This structure does force me to my major stylistic criticism of the book. By looking at specific causal factors, they build into their narrative a fair amount of duplication, especially as the range of blunders they are examining is distinctly limited. To be told for the fourth or fifth time “The failure of the poll tax can be put down to…” does get a little repetitive.
Although the authors are experts in their field, there are instances where I have been able to identify areas where they were not in full possession of the facts, and indeed the odd place where I thought “Ah, if they’d seen what I saw, they’d think slightly differently”. But these were not frequent objections. After all, I was only ever peripherally involved in some of these issues, or heard about them at third hand, admittedly from someone who really was there, not just hearing it at second hand themselves. And the overall impact of these changes wouldn’t have changed the main thrust of the book, though the one instance I can think of does work a little against them. In the section where they speak of the cultural disconnect between the political class – MPs, Lords and senior civil servants – they generalise that these people are now all cut from the same cloth. Certainly, the number of MPs who now can boast serious life experience in commerce or public-facing front-line services is massively decreased from what it once was. But one of the few officials they name, Sir Terry Heiser, Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment at the time of the Poll Tax, is an exception to the rule; he was the last Permanent Secretary to have started his Civil Service career in the lowly role of Messenger. And they also miss the fact that some of the Ministerial portfolios people have been responsible for have meant that often, Ministers have to keep a lot of plates spinning at once. Again, looking at the DoE in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a whole tranche of issues occupying the minds of the department that would have diverted attention away from the Poll Tax. For example, from where I was sat, in the water regulator’s office Ofwat, we were mainly concerned with the industry taking a more outward-looking view towards customer service and customer expectations, whilst at the same time engaging in a massive capital investment programme and looking at the impact of EU legislation in both urban waste water, drinking water standards, and wider environmental impact legislation.
Originally, the book was published in 2013 and ended its narrative in 2010 with the replacement of Gordon Brown’s Labour administration with the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition led by David Cameron. The edition of the book that I was reading was issued a year after its original publication, and included an Epilogue covering the Coalition Government’s record up to July 2014. It is no less appalling than the story up to 2010. University tuition fees, Universal Credit, the performance of the private sector in fulfilling outsourced public sector contracts – especially the performance of G4S over providing security for the 2012 Olympics – are just a few of the blunders that the authors identify, and they finished by listing seven issues or policies that had the potential, in their eyes, to turn into future blunders. Again, they differentiate between a blunder and merely bad decisions, and give credit where it is due, for the overall success of the London Olympics and the introduction of same-sex marriages. The Epilogue was too late for the EU membership referendum of 2016, which I suspect will be put down as a major blunder in future years., irrespective of which side of that particular argument you were on. But it is way too early to reach any firm assessment as to the overall effect of ‘Brexit’. After all, Mao Zedong, leader of Communist China, was once asked what he thought the effects were of the French Revolution; and after some deliberation, he opined that it was “too soon to tell”.
At the end of the day – and the book – though, the conclusions are telling. They identify a whole slew of issues endemic in the British political system. They also graze the surface of one – the politicisation of the Civil Service under Margaret Thatcher. Although they allude to this, they do not examine it in depth. This is a fairly hefty omission. They mainly reserve most of their criticism for the political landscape of the UK, in particular the “winner takes all” view of our entire system, a system that seems intended to cause divisions and conflict. We only have to look at the EU Referendum result. Of the roughly 33 million votes cast, 17 million voted out and 16 million voted in. Yet the attitude of most of the ‘Brexiteers’ is “Ha, ha, we won, so suck it up, Remainder losers!” Our normal political processes are similar: a Government can come to power with a majority of the seats in the House of Commons but, due to their geographical and demographic make-up, that Government may not enjoy the support of the majority of voters in the country based on pure head count.
These recipes for conflict and division drive the attitude of Governments towards decisions, best summed up in the Yes Minister joke: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”. And perhaps this is the one big place where the authors pull their punches. It is difficult to avoid the impression that it is our entire British political system that will result in successive Governments making blunders; and that effective, efficient Government would really demand that our entire political system should be torn up and replaced with something better. The authors give us a number of portraits of instances where other countries’ legislatures and executives would have done differently. But as Churchill is reputed to have said, “Democracy is perhaps the worst possible form of Government – except for all the others.” If that be so, then possibly the sort of blunders Governments make are the price we have to pay for living where we do, with the political settlement we have. How we could ever force any change or improvement, what we would want such a Government to look like and behave, and (perhaps the one thing any radical or revolutionary never thinks about), how we get There from Here, is a whole set of other questions whose answers we might not like.