An Explosion of Puffery

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), November 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

An Explosion of Puffery


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


Even civil servants, once studiously neutral, have become propagandists. So it's right to be cynical.

A spectre is sneering at Downing Street - the spectre of cynicism. The shoulder-shrugging ghoul provokes Alastair Campbell to rage against journalists who spread "cynicism about politics". The sight of its curled lip so infuriates Tony Blair that he denounced "the forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment" to the congregation that gathered at Bournemouth.

The Prime Minister has cause to fret. Pollsters for the Consumers' Association report that there is hardly a soul left in the land who believes what the government says. The 1997 general election, acclaimed as the most important since the arrival of Thatcherism, marked the lowest turnout in the history of British democracy. Subsequent ballots have proved that the more "scientific" the probes and massages of public opinion by the Mandelsons, Platells and Goulds become, the lower the public's opinion of politicians falls.

Yet distinguished professors and eminent lobby journalists tell us that politics has always been like this. Harold Wilson was haunted by his public image. Bernard Ingham hustled a willing Fleet Street into worshipping Margaret Thatcher. The powerful have always wanted to control; to be flattered, respected and obeyed. There's no reason to be more cynical now than we were in the past.

Readers who are tempted to embrace this knowing passivity should consider the following vignette from the Commons. On 26 October, Hilary Benn, the white sheep of his family, asked David Blunkett if he could cost a proposal in the Conservatives' latest attempt at policy, the "Common Sense Revolution". The

Tories wanted to undermine the black economy by forcing the unemployed to sign on every day. Responsibility for answering the inquiry was passed to Richard Foster, chief executive of the Employment Service, and a civil servant engaged at public expense to maintain his trade's standards of impartiality. He estimated that implementing this petty piece of viciousness-think of the effect on a jobless man living miles from the nearest dole office - would require 25,000 staff to be hired at a cost of [pounds]400 million a year.

Jeff Rooker, Labour's social security minister, had described daily reporting to minor bureaucrats as "right-wing madness". The conjecture that Benn fils was obeying orders to find figures that might back him was reinforced two days later when Blunkett revealed that the price of Tory extremism was rising by the minute. "It would cost [pounds]540 million a year," he replied to what looked like another planted question. The money could be far better used to give the workless the "skills necessary to hold down jobs".

On 9 November, Gordon Brown made his pre-Budget statement. Certifiable lunacy metamorphosed into Third Way prudence. The Chancellor said he had appointed a learned QC to investigate welfare fraud and instructed him to pay particular attention to claimants suspected of - but not lawfully convicted of - working illegally. He wanted to know if it was practicable to force them to sign on every day.

Admittedly, the above tale is hard to beat. What would ministers do if the Tories were to disappear and they had to fill their little heads with brutish ideas of their very own? But although the speed of the U-turn broke every traffic regulation, it is scarcely original to suggest that the Conservative Party is the most influential of the new Labour think-tanks.

The episode might be dismissed as another dismal chapter in an old story, if Liberal Democrats had not noticed a novel twist. Civil servants who vet parliamentary questions in the Commons Tabling Office once refused to allow queries about the expense of opposition plans to go forward. The job of Whitehall was to evaluate the consequences of government policies, so that informed decisions might be made on whether to proceed.

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