Top civil servants have never had it so good. Good pay, good perks and, after rather early retirement, good jobs. Gone seems to be the rule that they must wait a year or two before joining big business. They are appointed to directorships not because of their enterprise but because they are supposed to know how to manipulate the bureaucracy. How many ex-public servants are employed by firms dealing in defence contracts? Unlike less privileged pensioners, public servants do not have their pensions docked if they take new jobs. It is a little hypocritical for ministers to complain that local authorities set up "jobs for the boys" when they and their senior civil servants work such a net of lucrative appointments.
Other signs of the bureaucratic culture are the spate of forms, returns and contracts required of every institution, business and individual. The life of senior academics and their registrars has been made almost intolerable by the demands for returns; the contracts research scientists have to complete are of almost unbelievable complexity. In connection with the poll tax I have been asked on what day of the month in what year I first occupied my house.
Once or twice a year I buy or sell a stock or share. I have dealt to my satisfaction with the same firm of stockbrokers off and on for over 50 years as my father before me. They have now, with apologies, sent me a client agreement letter of four closely printed columns. This they tell me I must sign. I must also fill in an application form on which I must state whether I am an owner or tenant of my house; who is my employer; what credit cards I hold; how many years I have banked with my bank; how long I lived at my present address, etc. What have these matters to do with my stockbrokers? But they are required by statute.
Well, you might say - what does it matter, filling in forms is a routine which soon becomes a habit. It matters in several ways. First, the concoction of legislation and the resultant forms is expensive and time-wasting. Second, it breeds bad habits. It is the antithesis of our heritage which used to insist that we should be economical and skilful.
What can be done? We could use the stick and the carrot. Public servants should retire later and be forbidden to take other employment in any firm having business with the Government for five years. They should also forego part of their pension while still employed.
A government which says it believes in personal responsibilities might see that its beliefs are practised. If the chairman and senior partners of firms whose staff offended were fined pounds 500,000 and sent to jail there would be no need to subject the innocent to more regulations. No number of regulations will stop greedy or innocent people getting fleeced. When I find out that my stockbrokers are dishonest or incompetent I shall leave them whatever my address or however many credit cards I hold. I shall not take up the offers that I have received from unknown yuppies over the telephone to invest money in sugar futures.
Another couple of years of Tory big government and it will be seen that the "Thatcherite revolution", though there have been important changes in the last eight years, is not a revolution at all in the fundamental nature of post-war government: bureaucratic, centralising and emphasising the advantages of the top insiders, the monopolists and all those insulated from the chores and troubles of ordinary life.
From 'The Independent', Friday 12 August 1988Reuse content