Customers of the State

Ross McKibbin on the Citizen’s Charters

The two major parties approach their annual conferences and the new political season in anything but confident mood. For the Government – as for any British government – there is the usual ‘problem of the economy’, which will never go away and so is of no immediate importance: situation desperate but not serious. More unusually there is a sense, which the Maastricht debates heightened, if only by their impenetrability, that the country’s constitutional arrangements no longer work. Over the last couple of months there has been an ebullition of often bizarre constitutional argument, with most of the actors seeming to take the wrong parts. The Speaker warns the judiciary not to intrude on Parliamentary privilege and quotes the Bill of Rights; Tony Benn warns the judges likewise and also quotes the Bill of Rights. The Evening Standard eulogises the same Tony Benn as the ‘last of the radicals’, while Lord Rees-Mogg takes the Government to court for abusing the royal prerogative. The judges, for their part, dismiss a particularly brazen attempt by the Government to assert that its ministers cannot be sued in law on the ground that to admit this would be to admit that the Civil War never occurred. The Conservative Party’s Euro-haters, who would die in the last ditch to defend the rights of Parliament, turn into pussy-cats the moment the word ‘confidence’ is mentioned.

Neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party has risen to the moment. Both were clearly surprised by the extent to which the Monarchy’s standing has fallen; both have seen that in some way our relationship to the EC has modified the Constitution, without knowing exactly how. The Labour Party has remained officially silent, apart from the odd hint that something of importance will soon be disclosed. The Conservative Party, however, and the Prime Minister in particular, is increasingly promoting the citizen’s charters as constitutional reforms in themselves.

The charters must be seen as the successors to Next Steps, the 1988 report of the Government’s Efficiency Unit which launched the privatisation of much of the Civil Service. The justification for the creation of nominally autonomous agencies – the Employment Service, for example – was to increase efficiency by giving ‘management’ greater freedom of movement and by exposing civil servants to something like market pressures. This was not in itself a despicable ambition and it may lead to greater flexibility and efficiency. But the most important result of the reform will be (already has been) to distance the agencies even further from those they are supposed to serve. Severing their already exiguous connection to Parliament makes them even less accountable than they were before. Since, however, the agencies’ autonomy is only administrative, they act as a powerful shield to protect the Cabinet from the political consequences of its own actions. The agencies, or more particularly the clerical staff who have to deal with irate ‘customers’, will bear the odium when government policies go wrong – though not, I suspect, receive the credit when they go right.

There is a strong temptation for any government to create barriers between itself and potentially unpopular decisions, and this is not the first time a Conservative government has done so. In 1934 the Government tried to ‘depoliticise’ unemployment benefit, the most sensitive of all inter-war issues, by establishing an Unemployment Assistance Board of six ‘non-political’ members who were given responsibility for overseeing all benefit payments. The Board’s first act – the so-called Standstill Crisis – nearly brought the system to its knees and compelled the Government to intervene. The crisis arose because the Board’s autonomy was largely cosmetic; that this was exposed so quickly was not, of course, the Government’s intention but it meant that both it and succeeding Conservative governments were less willing to undertake similar ventures elsewhere. The present Conservative government is thus the only one to have attempted to devolve so many of its functions in this way. If it succeeds it will be because it has shielded itself against almost all unhappy consequences. If it fails we will have ‘standstill crises’ every month of the year.

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