Magazine article The Spectator

When Our Servants Become Our Masters

Magazine article The Spectator

When Our Servants Become Our Masters

Article excerpt

THATCHER AND SONS by Simon Jenkins Allen Lane, £20, pp. 384, ISBN 0713995955 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This country is incompetently governed. The cost to the taxpayer is vast and growing. The level of incompetence has increased almost as rapidly as public expenditure.

Indeed, taxation has failed to keep up with Gordon Brown's prodigality. So, in order to feed the Moloch, he has been obliged to raise taxes.

That has proved inadequate to satisfy the public sector's insatiable demand for money, so he has had to turn to ever more ingenious devices to squeeze the tax-payer.

His most expensive device is likely to prove the longest lasting. The Private Finance Initiative failed to take off under the Major government, largely because Kenneth Clarke sensibly refused to soften the transfer of risk criteria as the potential private sector providers wished. Chancellor Brown, however, saw an opportunity, relaxed the criteria and happily mortgaged the next 30 years' tax revenues to pay for another splurge of incompentently managed capital expenditure.

We all know what is happening. Even ministers know, as their increasingly desperate rhetoric demonstrates. Their actions are aimed at tackling the incompetence, if not yet the level of spending.

Unfortunately, what they do only exacerbates the problem. They have concluded that they and they alone can provide the solution. So they have established Whitehall control over public administration and our daily lives. The resulting blizzard of bureaucracy and petty controls has appallingly malign effects. It alienates the public, kills the nation's competitiveness, destroys national institutions and respect for those that survive, vastly increases the power of public employees, who become our masters instead of our servants, and adds to an already colossal public expenditure bill.

Above all, the incompetence gets worse.

Like the rest of us, Simon Jenkins knows what is happening. Unlike a declining number of his fellow subjects, he has not resisted the temptation to become a serial quangocrat and therefore a member of the Brigade of Guards of the Whitehall army. Indeed, among other achievements, he was a member of that elite force, the Millenium Commission, the quango which gave us the Dome, a monument to centralised government mismanagement. The experience has at least provided him with the opportunity to view the disease at close quarters.

His latest book, Thatcher and Sons, is the work of an accomplished and practised journalist. He maintains a Stakhanovite production rate and the constant exercise of his pen no doubt partly explains why he is lucid and easy to read. He has argued long and consistently that, in the United Kingdom, government is too centralised and that it is centralisation that is the cause of our difficulties.

In Thatcher and Sons he sets out how he thinks we came to be in our present pickle and once again deploys his proposals for a remedy. His theory is that it all started with Margaret Thatcher. She saved the country by defeating the trade unions and revitalising the economy. However, in order to do so, she began to destroy ancient institutions like the Civil Service, Parliament and, above all, local government which performed important functions more efficiently than the centre and protected us from untrammelled Whitehall power. Her successors, John Major and Tony Blair, have widened the breach she opened. The Civil Service is no longer an impartial Northcote-Trevelyan guardian of probity and the public interest. …

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