In its 1983 report, Policy Analysis and Evaluation in British Government
, the Royal Institute of Public Administration (affectionately known as RIPA) – which William Beveridge argued allowed civil servants to 'make a national pool of their ideas, work out techniques of administration… [and] educate themselves and incidentally the public as to what the Service is' – launched a series of seminars with practitioners and academics to survey the workings of Whitehall and Westminster.
From Winston Churchill's 'Overlords' experiment with super-sized departments in the 1950s to the so-called 'sofa government' of Tony Blair's premiership and the Coalition's 'Quad', successive governments have sought to improve the effectiveness of policymaking.
Edited by Andrew Gray and the late Bill Jenkins, Policy Analysis and Evaluation
highlighted the shift in emphasis from Edward Heath's focus on 'maximising outputs and effectiveness' (expressed in the 1970 White Paper, The Reorganisation of Central Government
) to Mrs T's desire to 'minimise costs'. While the constitutional furniture has drastically changed since the 1970s, efforts to renew and reshape the processes that drive policymaking in SW1A remain the subject of intense scrutiny by academic research centres such as the Institute for Government (and my own Mile End Institute) as well as historians, social scientists, and our friends in the Fourth Estate.
In its 2011 Making Policy Better
report, the Institute for Government (IfG) – which was then led by Andrew Adonis, the former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit – reflected growing concerns about the machinery of government in a world of 'decentralised services and complex policy problems'. While the policymaking world converses in corporate-speak – Steven Poole once memorably wrote that New Labour transformed 'stakeholders' from 'wooden-spike-wielding-vampire hunters' to 'people with an interest (usually financial) in some issue' – the 44 days of Liz Truss's premiership reaffirms Making Policy Better's
thesis that good government consists of 'clarity on goals' combined with 'thorough appraisal and the establishment of effective mechanisms for feedback and evaluation'.
While the Grand Old Man, William Gladstone, remarked that our constitution 'presumes more boldly than any other the good sense and good faith of those who work it', the United Kingdom's shortest premiership shows the dangers of the 'chest-thumping hubris' that Robert Saunders argues has emerged from our contemporary aversion to longer and slower political careers.
As another one bites the Truss (all credit to our editor, Islay McLeod, who I have shamelessly stolen that line from), it still seems utterly nonsensical that, two years before a General Election, so many Conservative MPs and party members put their party's last hope of retaining high office in somebody who, as Sam Freedman said, would be out of her depth in a paddling pool and has such a demonstrable lack of significant achievements despite having been in government for an entire decade.
In addition to bringing the semi-presidentialism that has been fostered by what William Waldegrave once called the 'media-political complex' into sharper relief, her 50-odd days in office demonstrate how chaotic and ineffective the 'administrative process' in Number 10 has become. While I agree with Jeremy Paxman (writing in the Sunday Times
) that the sum total of Liz Truss's efforts has been to 'ensure herself a pub quiz notoriety' and make the UK's governance even more comical than it already was, the last three premierships demonstrate that the Tories have a now long-standing penchant for highly dysfunctional political operations in Number 10, with reports this weekend suggesting that Truss's was a 'paranoid and ineffective operation that froze out the communications team'.
With the Conservative Party having been in such a perilous state throughout this calendar year and seemingly being populated entirely by professional politicians who are utterly piss-poor at politics – with Labour rejoicing in 'the Trussterf***' and Clare Foges describing a political honeymoon where it 'rains for 14 days, the norovirus is savage, and the bride runs off with a barman' – the Truss administration also revives the Peter Hennessy's age-old question of why ministers 'fly blind into political hazards in a country with a highly developed blame culture such as ours'.
A recent rereading of the second edition of Anthony King's 1969 classic, The British Prime Minister
, suggests that the third Conservative leader in three months would do well to do the same on becoming King Charles III's second Prime Minister. In a revelatory 'inside' account of A Prime Minister at Work
by the man who was then still the longest-serving PM of the century (written shortly after his retirement in May 1976), Harold Wilson reflected on his premiership, arguing that the function of 'Number 10 – and clearly of the Cabinet Office – is to make cabinet government work'.
For all the merits of Professor George Jones's 'elastic' theory – which suggests that government can 'stretch to accommodate interventionist Prime Ministers and snap back into place for a more passive PM' – Wilson stressed the importance of the sort of regular collective consideration and responsibility which current Prime Ministers recoil from. He noted that Cabinet met on Thursday (and some Tuesday) mornings, beginning at 9.30 or 10am and concluding at 1pm.
In addition to commending his predecessor's efforts to expand Number 10's strategy unit and creating the Central Policy Review Staff, Wilson argued that a Prime Minister must have the political nous and ability as a chairman to 'get business through, with full consideration, and to reach a clear decision, with nothing fluffed or obscure – and, so far as possible, an agreed decision, with the maximum emollient to wounded pride'.
In an especially timeless passage, Wilson stressed that a Prime Minister should concentrate on 'face-saving and binding up wounds… soften[ing] asperities and curb[ing] the invocation of personalities' and be 'ever watchful of the political implications and dangers of a given course of action, particularly when a departmental minister might be tempted to under-emphasise them'. Given the lack of deliberation about most of the measures in the 'Mini Budget' – with reports that Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, the hedge funds' 'useful idiot', presented their colleagues with the finished article and did not consult the Cabinet about lowering the 45p rate for the highest earners – the next Prime Minister would do well to rediscover what Wilson called the 'fine art of cabinet government' where rigorous debate leads to more considered policy.
It would be far-fetched to say that the instruments by which we are governed will fundamentally change the character and ineptness of our leaders, but a concerted effort to follow Wilson's example could persuade the next generation that the health of our public life depends on deliberation at the top of government where powerbrokers collectively make decisions for which they are all responsible.
While it is beginning to feel increasingly unlikely that we will find Alec Douglas-Home's 'glimpse of perfection' where the Prime Minister possesses 'the clarity of a Churchill, combined with the economy of words of an Attlee, and the efficiency of a John Anderson', the sooner we escape what Paula Surridge describes as 'Eastenders
for the Westminster bubble' the better.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh