28 September 2020

The row over Charles Moore and Paul Dacre exposes the entitlement of the institutional left

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A charge that can be fairly levelled at the political right is that whilst it can be very effective at winning political power, it is usually woeful at achieving ‘hegemony’. This is what you get when the political, institutional, and cultural power centres of a nation are pushing in the same direction.

Thus, under New Labour, Tony Blair’s nigh-impregnable Commons majorities were further buttressed by the rapid growth of a network of invariably friendly quangos and other arms-length bodies, all captained by friends of the regime and baking the Labour agenda into the ‘apolitical’ state.

When the Coalition came to office in 2010, it was not long before some on the right noted that it was making pitiful progress, not only at lighting the oft-promised ‘bonfire of the quangos’, but also on bringing supporters of the new Government and its agenda into leadership positions of those same organisations.

In the eight years since, the situation has improved somewhat. The question of public appointments has received only sporadic attention, but there have been some high-profile successes – although the furores over the appointments of Toby Young and Sir Roger Scruton show that there is yet much to be learned both about selecting and, if necessary, defending candidates.

None of those, however, caused a row on the scale of this week’s announcement that the Government intends to try and install Paul Dacre and Charles Moore into leadership positions at Ofcom and the BBC. The Prime Minister’s opponents accuse him of trying to pack important institutions with his mates at the expense of those best qualified for the roles.

To those of us on the other side, this smacks a little of the sort of entitlement Anne Applebaum exhibits in her latest book, wherein the Venn diagram of ‘people with merit’ and ‘people like her’ seems conveniently to form a near-perfect circle. There is little doubt that much of the institutional left considers the realm of public appointments to be their fiefdom, and it isn’t surprising that they will defend it ferociously.

Yet others raised a more nuanced objection. Yes, they concede, it may be true that the partisan balance of those elevated to such positions skews to the left (it is). But is there not a line to be drawn between a push for greater diversity of thought on the one hand, and outright patronage on the other?

On the face of it, this is a beguiling argument. It has the innate appeal of an apparent ‘middle way’. But it is also, whether intentionally or not, a trap. It would not be difficult, after all, for the gatekeepers of the current system to make a great show of being open to qualified conservatives whilst overseeing a set of criteria which relatively few conservatives would meet. It is not difficult to convince oneself of the fairness of a very self-serving definition of ‘merit’.

But there is also a deeper, democratic case for a larger role for political patronage in public appointments. As I set out a few years ago, the continual growth of the administrative state makes it increasingly difficult to bring under effective democratic control. More and more, state functions are being farmed out to quangos and regulators, whose leadership is selected ‘apolitically’ by people who are themselves not accountable to the electorate either. And as we have seen, these figures are then often not shy about using their platform to wade into the public debate.

The fact is that any system of public appointments overseen by human beings is going to be biased in one direction or the other. It therefore seems better that the bias should track with the elected government, especially for positions such as Chairman of Ofcom or the BBC, which are about providing oversight, whilst the day-to-day operations are overseen by a professional chief executive.

A system where the heads of major quangos were officially appointed by the Government – and had to be confirmed by each incoming administration – would make sure that these figures, who often wield considerable authority, are rowing with the programme the voters have picked, not to mention that they received much more active scrutiny by the Opposition.

It may also help to arrest the growing rift between many public institutions and a large section of the country. Take the BBC. Contra some of the wilder ‘Defund the BBC’ types, it really is a trusted and popular national institution in the main. But it has a real problem with partisan perceptions of its news coverage, which is increasingly mistrusted by conservative viewers – doubtless one of the findings which has spurred the decision to launch GB News, which has just poached Andrew Neil.

Critics of this venture have claimed that the launch of explicitly centre-right broadcast networks leads to ‘democratic backsliding’. But if you believe this, your top priority should be making sure that the BBC continues to serve the vital function of providing a shared news environment for voters on both sides – and recognise that a Conservative-leaning Chairman may well be the best way to achieve this. Otherwise you’re just falling into the ‘Neutral vs Conservative’ pattern which has so disfigured broadcasting in the United States.

Attacking both the appointment of right-wingers to the BBC and the launch of GB News looks like petulance – the thwarted expectation of hegemony. Conservatives in the media need to go somewhere. Their opponents have to choose: do they want them inside the tent, or out?

The Government will have to be careful too. The perennial problem of not having enough friendly applicants for important posts risks embarrassment if low quality recruits slip through the net. For as long as all these bodies continue to discharge their functions – and perhaps the Tories will lose what enthusiasm they have for scrapping quangos once they’re getting more of the spoils – then they should discharge them well.

But the Prime Minister is right to have picked up this baton, which contrary to some of the hysterics about ‘Johnson the autocrat’ has been passed to him by both of his predecessors. The public realm is skewed against the right, and it’s past time that was fixed.

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Henry Hill is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

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