On 18 July 2017, Lord Horam gave a speech in the House of Lords during a debate on the EUC report Brexit: Trade in Goods
. At one point (col. 1563), the noble Lord mentioned what sounded like a good read:
“If you look at that admirable book by King and Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments, you will find endless episodes of Governments, for internal reasons, simply taking too long to make decisions. Of course, the private sector must pick up the pieces.”
Having (finally) read it, it strikes me that Lord Horam conceivably missed something of the point. One chapter is devoted to the importance of deliberation and not rushing ahead. In another chapter – returned to repeatedly afterwards – King and Crewe explain how at least £2.5 billion and perhaps as much as £20 billion to £30 billion was wasted on the public-private partnership meant to upgrade the London underground network. They refer to the “some would say prejudices” of those behind the scheme, not least the belief that the private sector “was almost always more efficient and effective than the public” (p. 202). After a lot of time and money had been given over to this assumption, the public sector stepped in to take over the mess – and the underground has been in pretty good shape ever since. I raise this not as a pop at Lord Horam, but to show how easily instinctive bias can creep in to decisions of policy, more of which below.
PPP is just one of the many examples of blunders made by Governments between 1979 and 2010, among them the poll tax, the mis-selling of pensions, child support payments, exiting the ERM (rather abruptly), the Millennium Dome, tax credits, IT projects… The authors lay out what counts on page 4:
“We define a blunder as an episode in which a government adopts a specific course of action in order to achieve one or more achievements and, as a result largely or wholly of its own mistakes, either fails completely to achieve those objectives, or does achieve some or all of them but at a totally disproportionate cost, or else does achieve some or all of them but contrives at the same time to cause a significant amount of ‘collateral damage’ in the form of unintended and undesired consequences.”
Then, having spent half the book detailing many, many blunders, they attempt to identify linked causes and to suggest solutions. The result is an extraordinary history of recent times, perhaps even a psychology of the nation, by turns boggling, depressing and insightful.
Along the way, they puncture common myths:
“Many Scots were subsequently to claim that English ministers had wilfully chosen to inflict the poll tax on the downtrodden people of Scotland, that the Scottish people were being used as guinea-pigs in some nefarious English experiment. But that was not so. The Conservative party’s Scottish ministers had, of their own volition, inflicted the poll tax on their fellow countrymen and women.” (p. 51)
There are plenty of fun details:
“Macmillan, whose grandchildren often played at Number 10, also caused a notice to be posted reading ‘No roller-skating on Cabinet days’.” (p. 340)
And there are pithy, witty insights from the authors and the people they spoke to:
“Someone who watched [the consultants on PPP] working on the scheme described them as ‘very bright people who know nothing’.” (p. 209)
In all, it’s a brilliant, rich and revealing book, achingly timely in our current fudge over Brexit. I hope I don’t detract from that achievement by setting out some reservations.
First, on p. xiv of the introduction, the authors say that, “As feminists, albeit male ones, we would like to have used gender-neutral language consistently throughout” – and then sadly don’t leave it there. For all the reasons given for favouring “he” throughout, I’d argue it’s more than prejudice, it’s an example of the “cultural disconnect” the book later devotes a whole chapter to, where the male authors can only imagine other people – those pursuing or affected by policy, perhaps even those reading the book – as being just like themselves. It’s most jarring when they speak of non-specific Prime Ministers as “he”, given who is now in that seat.
I also suspect some prejudice in the way the book describes heroes and villains. They say witheringly, on p. 264, that “If a man as clever as (Nigel) Lawson thought the poll tax was a batty idea, it just possibly was”, and on p. 327 refer to William Waldegrave’s “formidable intellect”. I might have overlooked similar praise for the wisdom of those from other political parties. (In fact, I don’t know the politics of the authors; these compliments could perhaps be more of that withering wit.)
They certainly don’t argue that one party is more prone to blunders than others. The book is critical of Nicholas Ridley, from the same party as Lawson and Waldegrave, for pushing ahead with full implementation of the poll tax rather than running pilots or trials. It strikes me that Ridley is not named in the acknowledgements as one of the people the authors spoke to. Neither are Gordon Brown or Shriti Vadera, who also get a hard time. (We’re twice told, on p. 260 and p. 343, that Brown would, if he could, make those who said no to him suffer in their careers, and that this prompted a culture around him with “a certain lack of incentive to tell the truth”. Even the quote is repeated.)
But the late Patrick Jenkin did speak to the authors, and his involvement in the formation of the poll tax is much more gently picked over. It’s not overt, just a feeling, a suspicion of bias in favour of those the authors spoke to in person. But given all the authors warn about bias and prejudice in coming to conclusions, I found myself wondering what methods they used to guard against it themselves.
In the second half of the book, the authors quote Irving Janis on groupthink and the ways to prevent or mitigate against it. Among the solutions is a “second-chance meeting” in which critiques are invited once a policy has been agreed. They say that Irving’s “last and (probably) unserious suggestion is that any second-chance meeting should be lubricated by alcohol” (pp. 265-6). This isn’t a new idea – they cite precedents in Herodotus and Tacitus – but again there’s a prejudice showing. What happens when your team of policy-makers includes those who find boozy debriefings awkward or impossible? They might have religious beliefs, or alcoholism, or commitments as parent or carer, or whatever else… As a manager, you wouldn’t necessarily know which team members might find it difficult, and they wouldn’t necessarily tell you. You could – I’ve seen it – end up in splitting your team into two, and favouring the lively, gossipy boozing over the “quiet” ones. It’s worse if you don’t have (or realise you have) such people in your team: your group is too homogenous anyway, and more prone to the “cultural disconnect” that also gets its own chapter.
The point is that it’s all too easy to exhibit bias, and bias can badly skew your analysis and policy – at considerable cost in both money and effectiveness. A lot of the lessons learned are transferable to other walks of life, but the authors address the closing chapters of the book to Parliament in particular.
Chapter 24, “Accountability, lack of”, explodes the myth that Ministers no longer resign on principle after blunders made on their watch; with plenty of examples, King and Crewe show that they didn’t in the past, either. “Lord Carrington’s resignation as foreign secretary for his part in failing to forestall Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 is remembered only because it was so unusual, all but unique” (pp. 347-8).
Their point is that this lack of consequence, personally, for Ministers guilty of a blunder means there’s no incentive to consider options more carefully at an early stage. Instead, the incentives resulting from regular Cabinet reshuffling, the attentions of the media, and a host of other things listed, is for Ministers to be ambitious, hasty, ruthless, overly confident when facing questions.
They propose two linked solutions to this, a stick and a carrot. First, they suggest a review of legislation after five or ten years, assessing long-term effectiveness and value for money, naming names where blunders were made. A Minister might therefore think, when first working on a new policy, “How will this look in ten years?” They then suggest rewards and even cash prizes for those found to have down well.
It all sounds very sensible, until (on p. 359), they therefore suggest awarding £500,000 to Norman Tebbit for the changes made in the 1980s to the legislation relating to trades unions. It is just possible that such an award might meet with some negative response. Likewise, the authors nominate Margaret Beckett for her work in bringing in the minimum wage. Yet just six pages earlier, they name Beckett as one of very few examples where responsibility for a blunder can be put down to a sole individual, “in the case of the muddled payments and non-payments to English farmers”. Would the award and censure then cancel out? The authors admit they’re not being entirely serious about the proposal, but it would require a little more deliberation before being rolled out.
For all the personal failings, prejudice, and lack of accountability, and the authors’ real beef is with the structures of governance, the methods by which legislation is made. A system led on party political lines, with policy forced through by whoever has the majority of seats, with few amendments actually being made to a Bill as it passes through both Houses, “almost guarantees the passage of bad legislation” (p. 369). They encourage less partisan work, more sharing and discussion. (My feeling, after years of working in the House of Lords, is that it generally worked best when it worked on non-partisan lines, based on experience, compromise, consent.)
In the epilogue, dated July 2014, the authors address the then-current coalition Government and list what the future might look back on as blunders. What policies might have been founded on prejudice, hurried through into law, with little deliberation or critique allowed? The reforms to the probation service, the new Personal Independence Payment, the cuts to the Armed Forces, Help to Buy, the bedroom tax, HS2, and Universal Credit have all been contentious, but it seems like a glittering golden age when that was all we had to worry about...