Brainboxes, your country needs you

Max Hastings’ view on how to deal with the consequences of a hollowed out state caused by a decade plus of austerity

Max Hastings 

It seems mistaken to heap too much blame on the government for the failures in Britain’s response to Covid-19. Instead, our rulers should be judged by how fast they learn from grim experience, and how imaginatively they address the yawning fissures exposed by this earthquake.

Amid many uncertainties, one thing is assured: the state will play a role in all our affairs for the next few years, greater than we have known for 60 or 70 years. The fumbled response thus far represents consequences of generations in which its institutions and instruments have been eroded and run down, as the dynamic of society shifted to the private sector. The NHS could just cope six months ago, but unsurprisingly lacked spare capacity to meet the coronavirus, hence the enlistment of the army to provide logistics, communications and managerial support through its Operation Rescript.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, after suffering decades of shrinkage and political contempt, struggles to address international issues, including the welfare of tens of thousands of British citizens abroad. Meanwhile, we have the police force we deserve, in the absence of effective supervision as well as adequate funding.

The government should be devolving many decisions and supervisory functions to local authorities, rather than persisting with a surely doomed attempt to run everything, and to distribute stupendous sums of public money, direct from Whitehall. But councils, too, are resource-starved, treated by central government as a burden upon national life rather than as a key component of it.

Above all, the civil service at every level has been abused, bypassed, despised, demoralised. Most of its indifferently rewarded high-flyers quit before reaching the highest posts. Permanent secretaries are obliged to share power, though seldom responsibility, with ministers’ often half-witted and unfailingly arrogant spin doctors.

It would be mistaken to idealise past British governments, including wartime ones. In the 20th century, however, weak and incompetent ministers were protected and buttressed by an impressive Whitehall machine. Sir Humphrey Appleby was a valuable article, much brighter than hapless Jim Hacker.

It is such human instruments to execute policy that are today lacking, and must be rediscovered. Not merely this country, but the world, faces years of unprecedented medical, economic and social stress. The critical agent in preserving our societies will be the state, which thus needs our best brains and most competent administrators.

Whitehall is experiencing an invasion of management consultants. Such people are a dubious resource in good times, a wholly inadequate one in bad. There is talk of bringing in clever former ministers — Jeremy Hunt, William Hague, Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart and suchlike. This might be sensible, even essential. Even more pressing, though, is the demand for high-quality administrators lower down the chain.

In the early months of the Second World War, there was regulatory and administrative confusion and bungling at least as great as now. From 1940 onwards, however, Britain mobilised its people more efficiently than any other nation. The British Army never achieved excellence, but the home front did.

The department store chief Lord Woolton ran food, and gave his name to an economical pie. Patrick Hennessy, wunderkind boss of Ford of Dagenham, joined the Ministry of Aircraft Production, to do the heavy lifting for Lord Beaverbrook. The former Trades Union Congress chief Ernest Bevin directed labour. Lord Leathers became responsible for shipping and transport. The “three profs” — Lord Cherwell, John Maynard Keynes and Lionel Robbins — addressed their brilliant minds to the conduct and funding of government.

Nearer the coalface, many of the finest mathematicians in the country were guided towards Bletchley Park. Such academics as Noel Annan, Edgar Williams and Enoch Powell, thrust into ill-fitting uniforms, dramatically raised the quality of service staff work. It is an insufficiently understood aspect of war that it matters least who does the killing — a task requiring little intellect — and much more who generates ideas and steers them towards implementation.

Today, thank goodness, we are not fighting anybody. We need not thrust millions of young men and women into uniform. Yet after generations in which most of the nation’s brightest and best have devoted their lives to making money or spending it in the private sector, now instead their talents are desperately needed on the front line — a new kind of front line, but just as critical as were the beaches 80 years ago.

No such mobilisation is going to happen in five minutes. We are all undergoing a supremely traumatic process of adjustment. But it seems important that those in charge of government should at least identify a direction of travel, a roadmap towards radical measures such as were unthinkable three months ago. They should be planning, for instance, the recruitment of civilian special constables to reinforce a police force that lacks the numbers to handle the law-and-order challenges that lie ahead. They should be considering how best to re-employ the talents of millions who will forfeit their existing jobs.

Ministers, as much as the rest of us, need to acknowledge that we cannot look forward to some happy date this year when normal service will be resumed. We must prepare, instead, for a new world, wherein we can survive and prosper only if we respond to its challenges with courage and imagination.

Foremost is that we should conscript the best possible people to manage the myriad activities of the state, which will, for many moons ahead, intrude unprecedentedly but also, we should hope, constructively upon all our lives. If the government kids itself that McKinsey can supply the answers, then it is asking the wrong questions.


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