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Book review: The Blunders of Government, By Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

From the familiar to forgotten, this book of governmental blunders is unforgiving fun

In our anti-politics culture it may be thought that governments never do anything else but blunder. That is not actually true: a serious academic work could be written examining the things governments got right and lessons to be learnt therefrom – but who would buy a book entitled The Successes of our Governments. Change the title to The Blunders of our Governments and the readers are there.

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Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, a pair of serious academics, at least open with a fair-minded summary of some notable things government got right – creating the National Health Service, persuading Nissan to open a car plant in Sunderland, the measles, mumps and rubella jab, and, more controversially, the sale of council houses and Gordon Brown's and Alistair Darling's handling of the 2008 banking crisis.

Having paid their brief homage to occasions when government action has achieved its stated aims, the authors turn to the more entertaining and painful topic of blunders, some familiar, some forgotten. We have all heard of the poll tax, which was supposed to bring down the cost of local government but instead helped to bring down Margaret Thatcher, caused riots and culminated in the biggest transfer of tax receipts from central to local government in living memory.

Most of us also recall the opening night of the Millennium Dome, when VIP guests were stranded on a station platform in dinner jackets and evening dresses on a cold New Year's Eve for as much as four hours. That was just the start of the problems besetting a project of which, in the authors' words "no one was in charge because everyone was".

But the cost of that fiasco – around £828m – was pocket-money compared with the much under-reported disaster of Gordon Brown's scheme to bring in private companies to modernise the London Underground. That deal, "one of the most idiotic decisions made by a British government in modern times", was an attempt at the kind of compromise beloved by New Labour, neither privatisation nor state control. Had it worked, private investors would have reaped shed loads of money: but when Metronet, the consortium set up to run the scheme, went bust, the cost was borne, of course, by the taxpayer. It was "not less than about £2.5bn and probably far, far more, possibly in the region of £20bn to £30bn."

King and Crewe make a reasonable stab at analysing why such blunders occur. It is not because no one could foresee them: in almost every case, there were specialists in the field who could, or did, warn of trouble ahead, but it is an axiom of the British system that "advisers advise, ministers decide", and that the important ministerial posts must be occupied by people whose only qualification is that they have stood for election. In other countries, ministers do not have to be parliamentarians.

There is also the adversarial nature of the British political system, which discourages ministers from canvassing outside opinions before coming to a decision. It is a system in which it is safer to look "decisive", by making a botched decision on thin advice, than to be called a "ditherer".

And there is the British ritual of the annual ministerial reshuffle, which practically guarantees that any minister who makes a bad decision will be in a different job before the consequences are felt. During the five-year gestation of the poll tax, the policy passed through four secretaries of state and seven ministers of state with special responsibility for local government.

All these circumstances that made disasters possible are still in place, and no doubt the next mega-expensive super-blunder is already lying in wait on a desk somewhere in Westminster.