‘To err is human, to forgive, divine,’ wrote Alexander Pope. But we mortals often forget rather than forgive. Even if you lived through all the calamities described in The Blunders of our Governments, you’ll probably still find yourself asking, ‘How the hell did they get away with that?’
Veteran political observers Tony King and Ivor Crewe kick off this analysis of the biggest political cock-ups of the last 30 years with the textbook case. The poll tax was cooked up in splendid isolation by two ambitious junior ministers (William Waldergrave and Kenneth Baker, since you ask). The team never seriously considered alternative policies, ignored implementation problems and seemed deaf to even constructive criticism.
No one has ever successfully introduced a ‘head tax’ in Britain (the last attempt was in Pope’s time, in 1698). This one became a ‘runaway train’ which led to riots on the streets and cost taxpayers billions of pounds.
But at least Mrs Thatcher paid the price, and hopefully it will be another 300 years before anyone tries it again. With most blunders, say the authors, the chances of ministers ever being held accountable ‘approach zero’. Worse still, the same mistakes are repeated over and over again.
Often policymakers seem to develop a defensive ‘group-think’ mentality which sees ‘all objections as obstruction’, a tendency made worse by the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation – ‘a dangerous instrument of persuasion’ which encourages group-think, warn the authors.
Then there is ‘cultural and operational disconnect’ – the authors’ polite term for ignorance. The Child Support Agency failed mainly because policymakers just didn’t realise that many absent fathers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay maintenance. Years later, ministers presiding over the individual learning accounts fiasco simply didn’t understand that some people in the training ‘marketplace’ could be dishonest. Fraudsters siphoned off a third of the £290m spent on the project.
These are Pope’s ‘human failings’, and they can affect any large organisation with ambitious plans, private as well as public. In fact, private contractors were at the heart of some our costliest blunders, including the public-private partnership to modernise the London tube, which collapsed in 2007, leaving taxpayers with a bill of at least £20bn (John Prescott and Gordon Brown, since you ask).
But, without completely exonerating officials, King and Crewe largely blame the specific behaviour of British politicians for making blunders much more likely and costly. We pay a high price for our adversarial politics and ‘decisive’ system of government, they say. ‘British politicians in general have a curious habit of functioning in crisis mode…even when no crisis exists. They seem to enjoy it.’
Far from being presidential, they argue that British government suffers from a ‘weak, under-organised and understaffed’ centre, a rapidly revolving door of ministers and officials and a chronic lack of accountability. As for parliament, their verdict is brutal: ‘As a legislative assembly…parliament is either peripheral or totally irrelevant. It might as well not exist.’
Although the authors reserve judgement on the Cameron government, the early signs are not good. ‘Omnishambles…is scarcely too strong a word to describe its performance so far,’ they warn. In fact, Cameron’s ‘may turn out to be the most blunder-prone government of modern times’.
Reform is possible, say the authors, but their tone is not optimistic. We’ll have more forgetting – and perhaps forgiving – to do in the years ahead.