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20/04/2016

Politicians need activity as a substitute for achievement

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Are our elected members so determined to prove they're doing something, anything, that they're suffocating democracy? Chris Shepley thinks they might be...

Chris ShepleySir Jeremy Cumulo-Nimbus was a top official in the old Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Though now nearly ninety, he still has most of his marbles, and recently spoke about his experience to a conference in London. (Of course it was in London. They always are). Here is a beef extract.

Thank you, Mr Chairperson, Madam. Where am I? Thank you.

Now. I’ve been following, with the aid of my carer, the way in which the governance of this great country of ours has been proceeding in my long absence, which is caused by the fact that I was forced to retire against my will some time ago. And, Madam Chair, Sir, I don’t like what I see.

Of course, I am dimly aware that things have changed since my day. Some of you may dismiss the ramblings of a rather old man as the ramblings of a rather old man. But I venture to suggest that some of the principles by which we operated the levers of power back in my day may not be so irrelevant to the modern world as might widely be thought, and that there may peradventure be things we can learn from the lessons of the past, even though they are in the past. I’m getting going now, Mrs Chair.  

I notice, now, that it is required of ministers that they are constantly active. Action at the expense of strategy! Every hour a new announcement, every day a new policy, every month a new bill. As the old advertisement had it, a wheeze a day helps you work, rest and play (pause for laughter). This is in my view neither necessary nor helpful nor indeed necessary. The frenetic can so easily topple into the frantic, leaving ministers looking ridiculous and the public feeling bemused.

It was the practice, in the olden days, to deliberate. Acts of Parliament, on planning for example, were rare and were carefully composed, not thrown together in the modern scattergun fashion. Ideas would be test-driven. People who know what they were talking about, even those outside government, would be consulted and, though it might seem alien today, listened to. I personally would obviously never have made any mistakes anyway, but some of my colleagues did find it helped them to get things right.

One of the other quaint things we did was to employ a lot of people who knew about things. Now, I have been told by someone at my club that this does not happen any more. Advice is given, I understand, either by fanatical free market economists in the Treasury, for whom “blinkered” would be a generous compliment; or by political advisers who have come straight from school. I was, and remain, puzzled by this. It makes sense only if the ideology or the politics of policies are more important than their effects. Which surely can hardly be the case.

"One of the other things we did was to employ a lot of people who knew about things"

I believe Parliament still exists, though it seems to have little relevance these days, various means of circumventing the Honourable Members and their Honourable Friends having been invented. It was admittedly a bit of a chore to have to sit and listen to them, but we had this democracy thing going and it was quite useful.

Finally in this great sweeping view of current evens, Chair, my carer recently read to me a fine book called The Blunders Of Our Governments1, none of which had anything to do with me. It referred to “pre-judgements, beliefs to which the person who holds them is so wedded that he or she is not likely to be prepared to re-appraise them in the light of new experience or evidence”. In my experience, good ministers learn to suspend their pre-judgements for long enough to recognise that they are in fact pre-judgements.

And now, Mr Chairperson Sir or Madam, it’s time for bed.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector


1 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, Oneworld, 2014


Image | Illustration | Olivind Hovland

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