30 November 2010

Statism in the UK - demoralised and demoralising

The first in the BBC2 series "Age of the Do-Gooders" presented by Ian Hislop, Private Eye's gnome-in-chief, was the polar opposite to the "Berlin" shite fronted by Matt Frei. 

Hislop does not try to make himself the story in the brow-beating US presenter style caricatured by Frei, so he was able to cover a lot of ground and also make a few important points in what used to be the traditional English manner - understated and assuming his viewers are bright enough to draw their own conclusions.

There was, however, a point of what I am sure was unconscious irony, which was the praise heaped on Charles Trevelyan for instituting civil service exams, after which - according to Gus O'Donnell, the current head of the Civil Service, bureaucrats became brighter and politically non-partisan, their job prospects no longer dependent on nepotism and cronyism.

Yeah, just like you, Gus, and all the other senior bureaucrats who trimmed their sails to the NuLabour wind, most of whom - following in their hero Blair's footsteps - have moved on to lucrative jobs with the corporations they favoured when in office.

Not mentioned was that Trevelyan got the idea from the very high standard of administrators selected by the very demanding examinations run by the - nasty, exploitative and (gasp) private - East India Company. And that the highly qualified EIC "do-gooders" kicked off the Indian Mutiny, the biggest crisis of Victoria's reign.

But still, the point Hislop was trying to make was good. Only a highly moral civil service could have won the prestige and power that ultimately led to it being entrusted with the administration of the Welfare State. Unfortunately, as the great Victorian intellectual Lord Acton wrote, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Less often quoted was his elaboration of that theme:
There is no worse heresy than [to argue] that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
The greatest tectonic shift that has taken place in British society in my life-time has been the corruption of the public service ethic. When I was a (highly qualified) young man, public service was still seen as an honourable career choice, which you took knowing you could have earned more in the private sector, because it offered the prospect of making a direct and positive contribution.

That is quite clearly no longer the case at either end: the civil service is now hugely privileged over the private sector, and it is rightly held in contempt by the subject population for its inability to do anything well - other than to feather its own nest. I doubt if many spirited individuals still join the civil service, and those who do must sacrifice their intellectual and moral integrity, or else their self-respect must lead them to resign.

I believe the tipping point came when Thatcher had to bribe the civil service so heavily to keep it "on side" for her confrontation with the trades unions. But the demoralisation began long before that. By the late 1970s the corruption of the judicial system had become a scandal too great to cover up any longer, while international comparisons cruelly highlighted the contumacious ineptitude of British statist management.

At some point the idea that Britain was a worthwhile enterprise drained away, and the public service ethic went with it. And without that ethic, public administration degenerated into parasitism. It really does not matter whether an excessive investment of power corrupted the civil service, or whether corruption within the civil service made it horrifyingly apparent that it wielded far too much power. The result was the same.

There was, is and ever more shall be only one way out of the declining spiral of a civil service becoming more and more corrupted and demoralised by its inability to deliver what politicians and people demand of it, which is to greatly reduce its functions.

Hislop's do-gooders created institutions that reflected their own high and self-confident moral purpose; absent that self-confident high moral purpose, those institutions have exerted a deeply demoralising influence on the whole of society. What is required is a frank acknowledgment that institutions have a finite life-span, and that without the spirit that animated them, the achievements of the great Victorian reformers are a harmful incubus.

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