The Blunders of our Governments would have been a compelling if uncomfortable read at any moment (and for any governing party) during the past half century or so. But Professor Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe’s analysis of the persistent incompetence of our ruling classes is especially pertinent right now. Indeed, in their postscript, they suggest that David Cameron’s administration, far from learning from his predecessors, “may turn out to be the most blunder-prone government of modern times”.
Cameronian cock-ups so far include the omnishambles budget, the botched health reforms, the West Coast mainline franchise fiasco, and the chaotic Universal Credit scheme. But we also have a whole host of blunders-in-waiting, such as HS2 and the Help-to-Buy scheme for housebuyers. In credit-agency rating terms, HMG must surely be on a “negative watch” with the handling of the Parliamentary debate on Syria making a downgrade almost certain. Not that failing will necessarily lose them the next election, however.
The authors point out that blundering is surprisingly rarely punished by either prime ministers (through sacking the Cabinet minister responsible), or the electorate (by voting out the lot of them or threatening to). It is noticeable that this government’s woeful record on governing has done relatively little to boost the Opposition, and the ministers responsible for the blunders listed above are all still in office.
Part of the problem is a dangerously common desire among politicians to be seen as action heroes whose innate good sense and dazzling cleverness preclude the need to pause to consult or bother with boring detail. Where other, perhaps less blundering, nations – such as modern Germany – deliberate and plan first, our ministers speedily announce and then equally hastily retreat when the latest headline-grabbing idea is proved unworkable, ill-thought out, or laced with unintended consequences. Yes, you, Messrs Osborne and Gove.
There is exhaustive analysis of blunders over the past 30 years, by governments of every hue, but the meat of this book is in the dissection of what makes a blunder and how to avoid it. More thought and less haste, more politicians without Oxbridge degrees and comfortable backgrounds, more accountability for mistakes and credit for real successes rather than for grandstanding would be a good start. David Cameron is said to have read about Winston Churchill’s early warmongering during his summer holidays. It would have been much better for all of us if he had read this.