Ambition has replaced the public good
The strange career
Douglas Wass has never been – and I imagine never wanted to be – a household name. I happened to meet up with him almost exactly 50 years ago. Among Princeton's postgraduate students in the late 1950s, there was always a group of visiting Brits arriving at the American university for shorter or longer periods as Commonwealth Fund fellows, English-Speaking Union fellows, Churchill scholars, Fulbright scholars, or whatever. They were inevitably a pretty lively and talented bunch and most, unsurprisingly, went on to distinguished careers in Britain's academic, literary, or business worlds.
Douglas Wass, already with a post in the civil service, was one of them. On his return to London his career in Whitehall was characteristically meteoric.
By 1974 he was permanent secretary at the Treasury, and in 1981 Sir Douglas Wass became joint head of the civil service. His successor today is Sir Gus O'Donnell – the Sir Gus who recently fronted a TV documentary aiming to show us just how important the work of the civil service is today both at home and abroad. I find it hard to imagine Sir Douglas competing with Sir Gus talking to us from Kabul. In fact I strongly believe that Douglas Wass would see even the idea of such a film as indicative of the major changes within our democratic system of government which have occurred in recent years.
I am able to say this because in March this year, Sir Douglas took part in a British Academy forum on the current state of British politics called 'The Strange Career of British Democracy'. A range of establishment figures took part in the discussion including David Marquand, Professor Tony King, Richard Reeves of Demos, and Tony Wright MP. However, according to the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle, the most incisive and thought-provoking contribution came from Douglas Wass.
Looking back over his long career in Whitehall, Wass concluded that the major change he recognised in our democracy involved the nature of our politicians and their relations with the media. In the past, he suggested, members of parliament stood for their own sense of the public-good in terms of which they approached the policy options open to them. This is no longer the case.
Today's more professional politicians are career-driven; office, the higher the better, not a policy end, is what they seek; a strong sense of a policy base is less evident. As a result today's politicians take the media and public opinion far more seriously than their predecessors did. And this in turn gives the media in particular much greater power in terms of setting what the policy agenda actually is. No politician of the 1950s, that is, could have imagined how far the media in the 21st century would become the major force in reshaping British politics and democracy.
It's worth recalling here that Douglas Wass was speaking not as an academic political theorist, nor as a lobby correspondent, but as a man, close to ministers, at the heart of our democratic system. And, as Martin Kettle points out, how extraordinarily prescient his remarks proved to be. Only a month or two later, the Daily Telegraph would begin its drip, drip, drip of revelations about MPs' expenses. In week after week of panic and confusion, political careers would be ended, a speaker would be removed, parties and party leaders would struggle to appease a shocked and angry public.
Not even Sir Douglas himself could have anticipated such stunning confirmation of his analysis of how it is the media that is now shaping 'The Strange Career of British Democracy'.