What can be done
- Government and the Governed by Douglas Wass
Routledge, 120 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0312 8
The 1983-84 series of Reith Lectures was given by Sir Douglas Wass, who retired from the Civil Service in March 1983. He had served in the Treasury since 1946, and had been Permanent Secretary to the Treasury since 1974. The task which he set himself in the lectures was to examine the efficiency and responsiveness of central government in Britain. Knowing that it can be quite hard to find anything weighty enough to put into a single memorial lecture, my first reaction was to wonder whether there are enough subjects of general interest, and a sufficient supply of people with something new and important to say about them, to warrant a whole series of broadcast lectures every year. BBC Television has, each year, a single Dimbleby Lecture. It was one of these which Roy Jenkins used to put forward the ideas which led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party and the SDP-Liberal Alliance. One cannot imagine his lecture being spread over six broadcasts. The effect of doing so would have been to reduce, not enhance, the impact. However, the Reith Lectures have certainly acquired a following, and in a fair number of cases the book of the broadcasts has had a substantial sale. Douglas Wass sustained an audience estimated at 250,000 for each broadcast on Radio 4 and 150,000 for each repeat on Radio 3, with an unknown number of further listeners on the Overseas Service. His reasoned approach and fluent, non-academic prose went down well.
Although modest by comparison with the number of viewers who watch a popular television programme, by any other standards the size of audience achieved by the Reith Lectures is remarkable. It is of course commonplace to remark on the enormous impact and influence of broadcasting, especially television, which has changed social habits – keeping the grown-ups at home in the evenings in front of their sets and driving the young out to the cinema and the pubs – and has revolutionised electioneering and other forms of marketing. It is equally a matter of common observation that sound radio retains a role, even if it is only to provide something – anything – to listen to for car drivers, night workers, insomniacs, and teenagers with headphones permanently in place over their ears, shutting out the real world. One might not have thought that there would be such a large audience for a serious treatment of a serious subject.
This is the more remarkable when you consider the limitations which the lecturer imposed on the scope of his chosen subject. In large part the exclusions were inevitable, given that he had so recently held a position of confidence in the government service. He does not, and could not in the circumstances, discuss the content of government policy. He excludes also the relationship between central and local government – necessarily, since that, too, has become a contentious issue of current government policy. The electoral system is another excluded topic, and this seems to me a more serious limitation on the treatment of the themes with which the lectures are concerned. For it is made clear that the lectures are an exploration of possible checks and balances (presumably on the power of the Executive) such as are built into the American Constitution. (We can only speculate how far this view of the need for checks and balances is a reaction to the style of government which we have had for the last five years; I do not recall it as one of the author’s earlier preoccupations, but then civil servants do not talk politics much among themselves.) And any discussion of this issue is incomplete if you leave out the role of the parties and the electoral system.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.