Thursday, 4 October 2012

Tories unmasked - it's a shame it had to be Beardie

About the only success that the Tories have managed to reap from the West Coast Main Line fiasco is that opposition politicians, trade unions and journalists have turned their attention to the system of rail franchising rather than the real culpability of the idiots with their fixation with introducing the market across the range of public service activities, and their moral and personal turpitude with respect to shifting the blame onto others.

The latter is interesting.  Doubtless there are civil servants who are incompetent, poorly trained or under-resourced, and many of these may have applied in this specific case.  However, the baleful influence of Special Political Advisers, recruited to ensure that their master's (or mistress's) political expediency replaces deliberative and systematic analysis within government, is an area on which more light should be shed.  The politicisation of the executive is an ongoing saga.

Since Thatcher, there has been a systematic attempt to demean and demoralise the civil service - and the usual suspects in the slavering hate-bins of the "Mail" and "Torygraph" are swallowing the line that this is a bureaucratic rather than political issue with the alacrity that they usually reserve for misrepresenting Europe and talking up house prices.  The assumption is that anyone who seeks public service can't be as good as a private-sector parasite.

This may provide a defence for those being hung out to dry within the current context.  It is inconceivable that the assessment of franchise bids was not carried out without a full panoply of outsourced advisers, charging eye-watering sums of money to the taxpayer.  Setting up systems that are so complex that even a professional cannot understand and audit them is the refuge of the fraudsters and charlatans whose antics caused the current depression, and it looks as though this was the case here - you don't expect bidders not to exploit the gaming opportunities, because, within the crony capitalist system, they are behaving entirely rationally.

Constantly outsourcing, because you can't or don't want to rely or believe your own team, is a cumulative policy that undermines the public service.  Nationally and locally, this particular canard remains the single biggest obstacle to effective government, and accountability of public services to their users.  Those who remain in the civil service must work in a climate of fear and apathy, given that anything written on private-sector headed paper is given precedence - especially, I suspect, if the letterhead is from a company which funds or covertly supports the Tory party.

This complexity becomes both self-defeating and self-serving.  Failure and inefficiency are not necessarily bad, but their exposure is.  Its purpose is to deter all but the most determined from scrutinising decisions, and then, if this fails, to shift the blame from politicians with respect to any failures of service delivery.  This extends from the NHS, where the whole of Cornwall being served out-of-hours by one Serco-funded GP has been a public tip-of-the-iceberg embarrassment, through local government where social services, parking enforcement and other areas which should have direct democratic accountability are outsourced - allowing the politicians to blame the officials and lawyers who draw up contracts when their cronies fall below standards that even the lick-spittle media consider unacceptable.

So we have a corroded political and government system, which is incomprehensible to all but dogged scrutineers, colliding with a Tory party whose continued venality knows no bounds.  We live in a culture where blame has to be shifted, especially onto those who are unable to answer back.

The theory of representative government (given the electoral system and the endemic apathy it cannot be described as democracy) is that those people who put themselves forward for election take responsibility for their actions.  If they fail, then they either admit to it or are consigned to the deserved ignominy of being kicked out by the electorate.  If you are a "Cabinet Member" in local government - the kind of poujadist self-aggrandisement that has made most local Tories even more ridiculous than hitherto - or a Minister, then you should take the consequences of failure when it happens.  Displacement is morally odious, and politically suspect.

Instead, we have seen the most recent Tory Transport Secretary try hard to shift responsibility onto officials - and now questions being asked about the competency of his immediate predecessor.  In a world where politics was about looking after and promoting the interests of one's fellow citizens, this would not be an option.  The Michael Howard defence, where the spurious distinction between "policy" and "operations" became the excuse behind which Ministers could hide behind their officials, is now the default option for the Tories.

This is an odious pile of ordure, which is, in the long-run, much more important than the details of the current fiasco.

It's also typical of the attempt to cut out scrutiny and the use of public officials to scrutinise and deliver objective assessment of government actions.  Whatever happened in one case does not suggest that the civil service or local government officials should be stripped of their powers - far from it.  What is needed is professional, valued staff supporting the public interest - not greasing up to Special Advisers whose objectives are neither honourable nor accountable - scribblers, dabblers, wannabes and never-weres - and given recognition.  The Tories have been demeaning this role for decades, and reinforced this since they became part of this unwelcome Coalition.

Mister Ed has a golden opportunity to take a root-and-branch review of the state and its functioning forward - costly fiascos and the corrupt, venal culture of the once-and-future Thatcherites should leave a nasty taste in the mouth.  The myth of the market and the superiority of the private sector have landed the Tories (hilariously) in the ordure.  The important thing for the rest of us is to encourage them to do this while not getting our own feet dirty.

The only disappointing thing is that it is the tax-exiled, egomaniac "Sir" Beardie who is the catalyst for the upcoming denouement.  

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