Education: View from here

Politicians must really detest contemporary historians reminding them of those who have gone before and departed jaded
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The Independent Online
POLITICIANS WHEN they become ministers, I have long suspected, have to feel that because they are there, it's going to different - that the knotty bundle of insoluble problems (which have seen off generation after generation of their predecessors, depositing them on the twilit benches of the House of Lords, and the paper trail of their policy-making efforts on the shelves at the Public Record Office) will yield at last because of the energy, determination and insight they will apply to them.

If they didn't feel like this, ministers would not be able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone twinkle away on the airwaves, or in occasional appearances in the House of Commons, as they try to persuade others to believe in them.

They must really detest contemporary historians like me reminding them of the people who have gone before and departed jaded - human proof of Enoch Powell's law that all political careers end in failure - not to mention the unfulfilled promises and panaceas which, in Victor Rothschild's cruel phrase, "gleamed like false teeth" in past manifestos.

Enough of this. As Labour ministers trudge further down the governing path that leads from the Polyanna-ism of victory to the drab realities of governance ("You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose", as Mario Cuomo put it so beautifully), the scholarly observers of British central government can bring something for their comfort in the shape of a suggestion for yet another inquiry or "task force" that needs to be put on the ministerial agenda right away.

Now is the hour for an examination of "Ministerial Overlord and Effective Government" on which Sir Christopher Foster delivered a paper last month to the Twentieth Century British History Seminar at the University of London's Institute of Historical Research.

Sir Christopher, a professional economist turned management consultant, has been advising governments of all complexions since he was a bright young thing in Barbara Castle's Ministry of Transport more than 30 years ago when (surprise, surprise) a modernised infrastructure and an integrated transport policy was the twin-track policy.

Sir Christopher's analysis at the IHR seminar was historically based but carefully crafted to the needs of turn-of-the-century Britain. His thesis was that the remaking of the constitution - devolution especially, but also the creation of a more focused, streamlined and policy-analytical centre around No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury - creates a singular opportunity for the "overlord" problem to be addressed seriously.

I agree. The Cabinet Office has already acquired a new co-ordinator and problem-solver in the person of Jack Cunningham, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It will soon be recruiting a Director for the new Centre for Management and Policy Studies, on which both the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, are very keen.

Dr Cunningham and the Cabinet Office's new manager/analyst should attempt to make a review of "overlord" their first priority. Ministers who are increasingly feeling the strain will thank them for it, albeit silently and privately, because those most in need of help are invariably the last to admit it.

Peter Hennessy is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. His book `The Blair Centre: A Question of Command and Control?' will be published by the Public Management Foundation in December