6 January 2020

Fixing our broken state is crucial to making a success of Brexit


When Britain reasserts her right of self-government at the end of this month, she will be doing so at an extraordinarily auspicious moment in history. The world around us is undergoing rapid growth.  Remarkable advances in technology are underway, particularly in digital and biotech.

The general condition of human kind has been elevated almost everywhere.  Each year, tens of millions more people around the world are not only being lifted out of poverty and joining the global middle class, from India and China, to South America and Africa.

We are living through a period of improvement, in everything from air travel and architecture to public health and private enterprise. In other words, if Britain now goes and makes a mess of the independence we are on the verge of reclaiming, we are going to have only ourselves to blame.

Yet if we are to flourish, we are going to have to change.  Outside the European Union’s protectionist comfort blanket, we might find new markets and opportunities, but we will also need to be more competitive.

I started to advocate leaving the EU once I recognised that Brussels hampers growth and innovation.  But leaving the EU’s clumsy structures is only the first step towards making ourselves more agile.

When we ponder how to make ourselves more competitive and agile, we would do well to ponder for a moment the fate of every reformist administration that has governed Britain over the past quarter century or so.

Back in 1997, Tony Blair won the first of three large Commons majorities.  He brought with him all sorts of ideas about how to improve public services.  With his massive parliamentary majority, there was a sense that his government might at last start to tackle some of the complex public policy problems ignored after a decade and a half of Tory rule.

What happened?  After just two years, Blair started to complain about the ‘scars on his back’.  His reformist agenda, he lamented, was being thwarted by “the forces of conservatism”.

In other words, Blair was not able to translate his massive Commons majority into meaningful change. He felt constantly thwarted.

He resorted to first appointing a Cabinet ‘enforcer’, followed by a Delivery Unit – a sign, some might say, of his penchant for government by gimmick.  And for all the billions of pounds that he hosed at the public sector, there was a strong sense – even before the Iraq war – that Blair had not lived up to his big promises of change.

What about David Cameron’s government, which seemed so fresh and new in 2010?

In coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron had a clear majority for much of his domestic reform agenda.  Yet again his lofty ideas about the ’Big Society’ seldom translated into actual change.

Flagship reform programmes, like the Troubled Families Programme, were hopelessly ineffective, wasting billions.  Some policy announcements, such as Nick Clegg’s Pupil Premium, had simply not been properly thought through.

Under Cameron, the small clique sitting on the sofa in Downing Street might have been different, but its inability to effect meaningful change remained the same.

This is not something that those at the heart of Boris Johnson’s new government intend to see happen again.  There is a determination to ensure that the large Commons majority they won last month is translated into meaningful change.  If Blair and Cameron focused primarily on improving public services, Boris’ reform agenda for post-Brexit Britain is going to have to be even more wide-ranging.  It not just public services we need to improve, but the economy, infrastructure, defence and security.

To avoid the frustrated fate of Blair and Cameron, the new government is going to need to begin by overhauling the broken machinery of the state.  For too long ministers in office have sat in Whitehall departments that they cannot control.  If they launch an initiative, they find themselves tugging at levers that have long since been disconnected.  As they try to drive the machinery of government, they find themselves jabbing at buttons that are no longer wired up to anything.

Blair and Cameron discovered this after several years in office.  If Britain is going to make a success of Brexit, the Government needs to recognise that much of Whitehall is dysfunctional – and address it at the outset.

At the moment, the centre of government is split between three different outfits: Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.  If there is to be meaningful change, there needs to be strategic coherence at the centre.

Existing ideas about accountability are not enough to lead to real reform.  The idea that ministers are accountable for the actions of all their civil servants, yet in a department of tens of thousands employees can only hire and fire half a dozen is nonsense.  Ministers need to be able to bring in a wider array of people.

Many of the most complex public policy challenges that we face will only be solved if we are able to assemble highly competent teams of people with real expertise in a given area.  Yet the way the civil service is currently structured means that dealing with complex policy problems is often left to people who happened to be good at passing civil service fast stream exams twenty years ago.  That, too, needs to change.

Over the past 20 years, those of us who advocated leaving the EU were relentlessly attacked for being backward looking.  We wanted, they said, to return to the past.  Eurosceptics, they suggested, were uncomfortable with change.

How wrong our critics were.  Leaving the EU means not only changing our relations with the EU.  Self-government means a radical overhaul of the way that we govern ourselves.  We are about to discover quite how big a change that will be.

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Douglas Carswell is a former MP and co-founded Vote Leave. He runs the Centre for Economic Education