25 November 2021

How to beat The Blob

By

‘It creeps. And leaps and glides and slides across the floor. Right through the door. And all around the wall.’ The Blob was a 1958 American science fiction horror film but the warning in the lyrics could equally apply to British politics – and how interests of the public are continually thwarted by officialdom. 

The process takes place in a relentless, insidious and arrogant manner. Sir Humphrey Appleby was bad enough – defending vested interests, resisting reform, indignantly opposing any plan to save money or reduce the number of staff. Now Sir Humphrey has gone woke. 

In recent days two figures have highlighted their frustrations at the way the system operates. Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail, announced he was withdrawing his application to be Chairman of Ofcom. While an independently minded figure he has a broadly Conservative outlook – this rendered him ‘unappointable’ by those managing the process who had a predictable set of left wing, metropolitan prejudices. 

In a letter to The Times, Dacre said: 

To anyone from the private sector, who, God forbid, has convictions, and is thinking of applying for a public appointment, I say the following: the civil service will control (and leak) everything; the process could take a year in which your life will be put on hold; and if you are possessed of an independent mind and are unassociated with the liberal-left, you will have more chance of winning the lottery than getting the job.’ 

After his ‘infelicitous dalliance with the Blob’ he concludes that the politically correct officials are allowed to continue ‘safe in the knowledge that it is they, not elected politicians, who really run this country’. 

Then we have had the testimony of Dame Kate Bingham. She is, of course, a national heroine. As head of the Vaccine Taskforce, she overcame bureaucratic inertia and saved countless lives by enabling us to be world leaders in producing a vaccine for Covid. So does this success story prove that all is well? She does not think so declaring:

The machinery of government is dominated by process, rather than outcome, causing delay and inertia. There is an obsessive fear of personal error and criticism, a culture of groupthink and risk aversion that stifles initiative and encourages foot-dragging….

Currently, there is too much emphasis on ‘How will this play with the media or the select committee?’ rather than ‘What are we trying to achieve and how will we do it?’ The life sciences industry, including the pharmaceutical sector, turns over £80 billion every year. It is vital for our safety and prosperity that it can flourish. Yet the government treats it with hostility and suspicion, causing companies to move to countries with more science-friendly environments such as Belgium and Ireland.’ 

Conservatives have started to notice, despite gaining a large majority at the last General Election and having heroically ‘taken back control’ from the European Union, Conservative policies are not being applied. Ministers often sound as though they are protesting about what is happening – rather than shaping events. To use Norman Lamont’s phrase from 1993 to ‘give the impression of being in office but not in power’. 

But this should be a concern not just to Conservatives but to all democrats. Also, all those with a healthy scepticism towards those ruling over us – that good government requires rigour and scrutiny, not mindless acceptance. 

So how to fix it? Let’s start with the Quangocracy. Spending on these unaccountable bodies is now a staggering £272 billion. I propose that the Prime Minister orders Government Departments to cut this spending by at least 20%. Sometimes Quangos could be abolished if their role is no longer deemed necessary. It might be duplicating the work or another body. Or administering regulations that are not needed. But even if it does serve a valid purpose, the Quango could still be abolished but its function brought in house and made the responsibility of a government department. That would mean Ministers would no longer have the excuse that decisions were nothing to do with them.

That still leaves us with the problem of civil service obstruction. What if they declare it is ‘impossible’ to abolish such a large number of Quangos. Then let us call in John Redwood, or Lord Lilley or some similarly robust and experienced figure to undertake a review and provide a list of those for chop. 

That approach could be applied more widely to the public sector. Ministerial time is limited. But they can give civil servants the message that if they are not willing to implement Government policy, the outsiders will be brought in to do the job for them. That would then prompt some reflection as to what the mandarins of Whitehall were for. Do we really need quite so many? Or for them to be quite so well paid?

Samuel Johnson famously remarked: ‘Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ Even the prospect of the civil servants facing redundancy might prompt them to discover a sudden burst of energy for applying the wishes of their political masters.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX