Institutions

Alan Ryan

  • Ruling Performance: British Governments from Attlee to Thatcher edited by Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon
    Blackwell, 344 pp, £25.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 631 15645 3
  • The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Institutions edited by Vernon Bogdanor
    Blackwell, 667 pp, £45.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 631 13841 2
  • Judges by David Pannick
    Oxford, 255 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 19 215956 9

The history of thinking about political institutions and political behaviour has for two millennia oscillated between two opposed poles. Realists have seen politics in defensive terms: human nature being what it is, the state is a shelter from violence and disorder. In good times, human ingenuity and effort will take advantage of that shelter to lead a prosperous existence, to create high culture, and to enjoy all the multifarious pleasures of private life. But the basis and the essence of politics is the need for protection against violence, either domestic or external. Domestic order is precarious; external relations are the terrain of force, not justice. The wonder is not that governments fall far short of their ambitions, but that they so often succeed in maintaining good order and allowing their citizens to look after themselves in peace. Idealists have retorted that human nature is what it is only because our institutions are corrupt; the state can play much more than a defensive role. In particular, a well-designed state can create a more amenable human nature, can organise prosperity rather than leaving it to the accident of individual initiative, can promote private and public virtue. Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War is one of the permanent achievements of the realist tradition, Plato’s Republic a permanent achievement of its rival. Marx, as so often, united opposed traditions by agreeing with the realists that politics has hitherto been little more than the substitution of class oppression for overt war, while announcing the imminent arrival of the freedom, justice and self-fulfilment preached by the idealists.

What do these ancient arguments have to do with the world of Ruling Performance, with David Pannick’s reflections on the English judiciary, or with Vernon Bogdanor’s Encyclopedia of Political Institutions? For one thing, they cast light on the hopes and fears most of us entertain in the face of government activity of all sorts. Realists who think it a considerable achievement to ‘keep the show on the road’ continue to jostle idealists who wonder why nobody has yet built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. Nowhere is this more obvious than when British commentators contemplate the successes and failures of the post-war British polity. To celebrate the launching of the Institute of Contemporary British History, Peter Hennessy and Anthony Sheldon have edited an engaging collection of essays on post-war British governments, starting with Paul Addison on the wartime background to Attlee’s success, and ending with some surprisingly detached reflections on Mrs Thatcher from the pen of John Vincent. As a final savoury, Tony Benn, Michael Fraser, David Marquand and David Butler sum up the entire era.

The argument starts with the first and by some way the best piece in the collection, Paul Addison’s essay on ‘The Road from 1945’. Addison takes issue with Corelli Barnett’s Audit of War, and its diagnosis of the causes of Britain’s post-war economic decline. Barnett argued, not only that British economic productivity had been languishing behind that of Germany since the late 19th century – which everyone agrees about – but that matters were made a great deal worse after 1945 by upper-middle-class intellectuals looking to build the New Jerusalem of the welfare state. Though this may sound like the traditional realist complaint that things have gone to the dogs because misguided and incompetent idealists have been in charge, it isn’t quite. For Barnett subscribes to an idealism of his own: the view that a thorough purge of the public schools and universities would have created both the technical élite and the skilled foreman stratum on which Germany and Japan have thrived. In fact, the old élite spent the nation’s resources on welfare rather than investment and training.

Paul Addison won’t have this. Throughout Western Europe welfare expenditure quadrupled between 1930 and 1957; Germany spent massively on new housing, France and Italy were much more generous over family allowances than Britain; the Scandinavian countries provided services as comprehensive as Britain’s. The creation of the welfare state cannot be the prime cause of Britain’s industrial lethargy. Nor did the wartime coalition ignore the deficiencies of British industry – quantities of paper were produced on the need to foster productivity: but the war was on, the Government depended on the co-operation of labour and employers, and ‘both the trade unions and the employers’ associations had a vested interest in maintaining restrictive practices.’ Ferocious competition was in any event not the flavour of the epoch: ‘many politicians were also strongly influenced by the pre-war trend in poltical thought against the “anarchy of competition” and in favour of a corporate structure. Industrial politics, therefore, tended to bind the coalition to the status quo.’

Against that background, Peter Hennessy sides with the (until recently) conventional view that the Attlee Government of 1945-50 was by some margin the most successful of post-war governments. It had more going for it than anyone realised at the time. Balance of payments problems, labour shortages, American obtuseness about the true state of Europe – the problems were obvious. What was less obvious was the help the Government derived from the quality of the citizenry: six years of war had created a certain weariness and longing for peace and quiet, but they had created a co-operative mood on which governments could rely until the early Sixties. The result was a low-inflation, low-unemployment economy which was by no means a bad platform for the future. Ministers took their jobs seriously, many understood the demands of effective administration, and the Civil Service’s retrospective admiration for the Attlee Government was fully justified.

The subsequent essays are a mixed bag: Anthony Sheldon on the Churchill Government of 1951-5 and John Barnes on Eden are low-key – though Sheldon makes it clear that Churchill’s relaxed management of his ministers was by no means a disaster, and Barnes shows what a fusspot Eden could be, and what a pain in the neck an interfering prime minister invariably is. Barnes, however, is a classical realist in pointing out that matters under Eden were generally not too bad. The later mania for government-led leaps into a brave new world of hi-tech growth was not delayed rationalism but hubris. Readers in their forties who came to political consciousness when they wondered whether they would be doing their National Service in an army trying to re-occupy the Canal Zone will be intrigued by Barnes’s account of how little disquiet Eden’s policy caused at first – and by the retrospective plausibility of the Cabinet’s fears about Nasser’s destructive potential. He was the Khomeini of his day, hell-bent on upending Arab monarchies ... With official papers still shut away, and biographies thinner on the ground, the chroniclers of Macmillan, Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher have less to go on, and are more vulnerable to the prejudices of their readers.

Dennis Kavanagh is nicer about the Heath Government than I find plausible; the Seventies syndrome of absurdly over-optimistic promises followed by continuous industrial strife was started by Heath’s famous promise to reduce prices at a stroke; and the bloody-minded and self-destructive selfishness of the trade union movement was only encouraged by the injunction to ‘stand on your own two feet’. On the other hand, Heath’s bleak rationality, and his incapacity to understand disagreement when he had no doubt he was right, come over less unsympathetically than they used to. They were at least matched by a wish to make politics more thoughtful and a capacity to change his mind. Though he looked sulky and obstinate, he had the intelligence to turn away from the cliff-edge. Conversely, David Walker and Phillip Whitehead do nothing to rescue the reputation of Lord Wilson, and it’s hard to believe anyone will ever treat the last six months of Jim Callaghan’s Government with anything resembling sympathy. Time and detachment may eventually diminish the urge to say that twenty years of Mrs Thatcher is the minimum that NUPE and COHSE and the TGWU deserve, but the behaviour of the trade-union movement between October 1978 and May 1979 will always make the lemming seem a model of prudence.

The question retrospectives always raise but can’t in the nature of the case answer very exactly is what the constraints on governments were, and what they might have done about them. Tony Benn and David Marquand produce equally reflective and wholly different pictures. With that passion for implausible historical analogy which makes him such an authentically English radical, Benn insists that it is only through the secret machinations of the Establishment that ‘democracy and socialism have been successfully kept off the political agenda, under governments of all persuasions, since 1945’ – which rather understates the powerfully aversive effects of ‘actually existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and the Third World: but, as with the early trade-unionists, the Chartists and the suffragettes, says Benn, there is a radical movement which will secure its objectives when it again presses them onto ‘reluctant parliamentarians and a frightened Establishment’. It is the rhetoric of every back-street radical who inveighed against the Norman Yoke: but one’s pleasure in an old English tradition is rather diminished by the reflection that so long as this decorative but mindless stuff goes down so well with local Labour parties and trade-union activists, we shall continue to be governed by Mrs Thatcher, Nicholas Ridley and John Major.

David Marquand insists on a few truisms, but is decently cautious about what they imply. He fears the effects of selfishness and moral anarchy. As he says, a society which degenerates into a Hobbesian war of all against all is no society at all. Governments which over-extend themselves end up presiding over a Hobbesian competition to get as much as possible out of the public trough. That was the message of 1979. The Thatcher counter-revolution which was supposed to teach us individual responsibility hasn’t actually happened: privatisation has exploited the greed of a gullible public and done nothing for competition, the state has not withdrawn from the economy, and the public sector’s share of GNP, whose diminution was to be the test of Conservative virtue, is higher than in 1979. The New Right can no more preach co-operation than could the Old Left: its morality is based on individual greed rather than the collective greed of the Seventies, and is just as poor a basis for long-term policy. Plaintively, Marquand asks whether a ‘revived “Keynesian social democracy” can provide a philosophy of the public good as well as of public intervention’.

Moralising may not help. People are still willing to co-operate if others will, and if the pay-off isn’t too distant; few people are indefinitely altruistic and fewer still for the sake of people far outside their family and locality. This produces a familiar problem. The ‘virtuous circle’ operates when effective governments deliver the goods, secure more co-operation, and therefore become more effective. The vicious circle operates when ineffective governments fail to deliver, fail to secure co-operation and become less effective. But how are governments to stay on the former circle and off the latter?

The answer must lie partly in institutions, but the contributors to Ruling Performance are oddly unconcerned with institutional arrangements as opposed to the skill with which individual ministers manipulated them. They complain that ministers were not infrequently inept at running their departments, but perhaps inevitably have less to say about the organisational and institutional reforms which might have made them more successful. The miserable story of the Fulton Report is given a few lines; switches between super ministries and less super ministries from 1964 onwards are mentioned only in passing; the invention of the Department of Economic Affairs as the home for a belated attempt at planification is treated almost entirely as an exercise in keeping George Brown harmlessly occupied.

The Encyclopedia of Political Institutions which Vernon Bogdanor has edited tackles many more topics than institutions: innumerable issues in political sociology and political science are at least as prominent. But what anyone skimming the entries on ‘bureaucracy’, ‘civil service’, ‘legislatures’ and the like will immediately see is the overwhelming consensus among students of the subject that it is indeed the civil service which holds modern states together. This is not just a matter of formulating and evaluating policy but also of teaching politicians the limits of political possibility – an educative function which can be abused, but ought not to be written off: it is equally a matter of liaison with private interests – again an area where abuse is possible, but the task indispensable – and the unobtrusive but continuous informing of legislators. It is no doubt important not to succumb to Fultonitis – the uncritical belief that if only the Fulton Report had been swallowed whole the Hobbesian Seventies and workless Eighties could have been avoided. All the same, a Fultonised civil service, hospitable to specialists, more open in recruitment, and more self-conscious about training for management, would have done some good, even if it would have done more if industry, unions and Parliament had also been Fultonised.

Juxtaposing a reference work which takes it for granted that institutions matter and a series of essays which take it for granted that ‘the Eden years’ really were the Eden years enhances the feeling that we still have only a vague idea how to balance what a given set of arrangements will allow a politician and his servants to do and what a given politician and his servants might do with different institutions. That the science of matching chaps to offices and conversely is still pretty much in its infancy is but one of the many messages of Judges. David Pannick’s clever and entertaining look at the legal system and its higher echelons is not entirely serious in tone – the fictional Rumpole is quoted as often as the all too actual Lord Goddard – but it is wholly serious in aim. Its lightness of touch may also reflect a perfectly serious grasp of the political realities: direct attempts to drag the judiciary into the 20th century have been fought off innumerable times already. Perhaps it is time to tease, cajole and flatter. Pannick’s complaint is not that the law has no clothes but that it has too many; literally, he is struck by the absurdity of a system in which judges wrap themselves in antique costumes and crown themselves with horsehair wigs; figuratively, he thinks it all encourages a judicial mystique, allowing judges to hint darkly that any public scrutiny of their decisions, their abilities, their opinions and their background will bring down nameless but terrible ills.

Pannick is an advocate of daylight: open government, open recruitment, scrutiny of senior appointments along the lines of the American Senate’s scrutiny of Supreme Court nominations, canvassing views from academics and professional associations as in America. He wrote before the House of Lords came to their amazing decision in the Spycatcher case, and his instances of judicial folly are drawn from older cases. But he is also eager to put a stop to the sheer stuffiness of the English bench. He instances the furore caused by Lord Devlin’s little book on the trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams – accused of murdering elderly patients and profiting from their wills. Devlin observed that Reggie Manningham-Buller, the Attorney-General and prosecuting counsel, had had a bad case which he made the worst of. Indeed, said Devlin, the future Lord Dilhorne had had no legal ability whatever, and his appointment as Lord Chancellor and eventually as a Law Lord was quite extraordinary. Adding spice to this dismissal, he added that ‘what the ordinary careerist achieves by making himself agreeable, Reggie achieved by making himself disagreeable.’ Unkind no doubt, but hardly news – the Attorney-General was generally known as Bullying-Manner and nobody has ever suggested he had any brains. And yet Devlin’s book was treated as a crime against all the legal proprieties; even Lord Scarman, quick to defend everyone else’s civil liberties, took up his pen to insist that judges should not reveal their private opinion of cases or of participants in them. Free speech might be all right in Brixton: on the bench, it was out.

Neither the example of the judiciary, nor the desperate attempts of post-war governments to modernise themselves, the economy and their own operations, proves that what Britain most needs is the old Benthamite recipe of throwing everything open to inspection by those whom we elect for the purpose. Still, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Britain has been peculiarly slow to follow the USA and Europe in treating law and politics as rational matters which can stand dispassionate public discussion. Why the élite of a country which is generally so peaceful and so biddable should suffer such an aversion to publicity remains mysterious. Of course, many people, probably most people, will find institutional and constitutional issues boring; that they offer little electoral advantage is one more nail in the coffin of the SDP. However, we can hardly go on to the year 2000 pretending that everything hangs for good or evil on the will of Mrs Thatcher alone. If we are to start the 21st century with our civil rights intact and the post-war search for prosperity and social justice back on the rails, we must take institutions seriously.