One-party Britain: Quangos and patronage are replacing democratic politics. Nick Cohen reports

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The Independent Online
LAST Friday, All Fools' Day, two new quangos - one local, one national - began work. Neither will do anything to dispel the belief that Britain, like Italy and Sweden before it, is becoming a 'democratic' one- party state where access to power depends on connections to the ruling party.

The composition of the board of the local quango, the Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust, would in the normal scheme of things be of no interest to anyone outside Kent. But Virginia Bottomley's choice of directors provoked angry exchanges in the Commons and amazed even the most cynical opponents of the Government.

The board will have responsibility for pounds 53m of public money. It has five professional directors responsible for nursing, medicine and finance, and five non-executive directors who are supposed to represent the public. It is the latter who have aroused interest. They are:

Janet Dunn, wife of Bob Dunn, the Conservative MP for Dartford.

Kenneth Maw, a retired banker, and Conservative member of Sevenoaks district council.

Malcolm Nothard, a retired insurance company manager, and former Conservative leader of Dartford district council.

Eileen Tuff, chairwoman of the local Conservative Association.

Professor Michael Kelly, who seems not to have worked for the Conservative Party, possibly because he has devoted his time to the study of heart disease.

'It's just unbelievable - they've completely packed it,' says David Blunkett, the shadow health spokesman. 'But the real point is that although this is an extreme case, it is not untypical. The same thing is happening across the country.'

Indeed it is. The wives of the Conservative MPs and peers Sir Teddy Taylor, John Biffen, Cranley Onslow, Lord Jenkin, Lord Hayhoe and Lord Butterworth are all on hospital trust boards. Just to show that the system is not sexist, Thomas Shephard, husband of Gillian, the Agriculture Secretary, has been given a job on the King's Lynn hospital trust.

All of the above may be able and industrious men and women whose names have been seized on merely because their spouses are politicians. More telling, to those who fear that quango-packing is rampant, is the business background of the hundreds of trust board members no one outside their immediate circle of friends and acquaintances has heard of.

A Labour Party survey of 372 trusts in England and Wales found that 54 per cent of board members came from business and finance. Just 5.7 per cent of board members had worked in the health service.

The national quango that started work last week is the Funding Agency for Schools, which will control the funds and monitor the performance of all schools that have opted out of local authority control. As the long-term aim of government policy is to end local authority involvement in education, the agency could one day have power over the budget of every school in the country.

This quango may be bigger, but the principles behind appointments to its board remain the same. The chairman of the agency is Sir Christopher Benson. He is also chairman of the Sun Alliance Group (which has given pounds 280,000 to the Conservative Party in the past six years), a director of the MEPC property group ( pounds 25,000 to the Tories in 1992) and chairman of the Costain property group (another contributor to party funds). Joining him is Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixons ( pounds 25,000 to the Tories in 1992); Edward Lister, the Conservative leader of Wandsworth council; and Sir Robert Balchin, chairman of the South-east Conservative Party.

'I don't see any reason to be embarrassed,' said Sir Robert, who for years has been giving information to schools that want to opt out. 'John Patten told me that the first criterion for membership of the board was that you must be supportive of the concept of grant maintained schools. I see myself as performing a public service by ensuring that schools have as much freedom to act as possible.'

A PARADOX lies at the heart of Conservative rule. For 18 months, the Major government has been denounced daily as weak and incompetent, unable to cope with crime, Europe, the economy and the other great issues of state. But away from Westminster, the Conservatives appear anything but wimps. Their unelected quangos and boards allow them to ignore local wishes. Soon quangos will control pounds 54bn - about one- fifth of all public expenditure.

A full list of quangos would go on for pages. But in summary, health, education, training, public housing, employment, urban regeneration - all the key areas of civic life - are under the control, or falling under the control, of government appointees. Whatever the result of the May local elections, however unpopular the Conservatives become, the members of the quangos will be unaffected. In interview after interview they display no qualms about their lack of accountability but show instead a deep, unquestioning self-confidence.

Take the members of the Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust. The Government's opponents see it stuffed full of party political placemen and women whose desire to provide 'business development' ideas, as a trust press release puts it, conflicts with the NHS ideal of giving free care to the sick regardless of ability to pay.

To the members of the quango these attacks are almost incomprehensible. This is the way the world is now, they say in effect, the way it has been since 1979, will be, ought to be.

Janet Dunn, the Tory MP's wife, takes questions about her appointment as a slight. 'They are made a) because I'm a Conservative b) because I'm a woman and c) because I'm married to an MP,' she said. 'It's as if they think I don't have any ability of my own. That point of view makes me very angry about people I wouldn't otherwise give a toss about.'

Ms Dunn and all the other Tories on the board emphasised that they had been through a rigorous series of interviews before they got the job. But when it was put to them that it could be seen as dangerous that the examiners were the agents of a central government implementing a controversial health policy rather than, say, the local electors or an independent body representing a broad range of interest, the response was exasperation.

'There's no reason why you cannot have legitimacy if you are not elected,' said Malcolm Nothard, the former Conservative leader of Dartford council. 'If you walk into your local store, you'll find that the management are only accountable to their customers, not to the people who live in the area. The public can't elect people to do everything. Are we going to go down the American route of electing everyone but the local dog catcher? That's not the British way.'

ONE-PARTY rule is something we associate with Africa or the old Eastern Europe. In its classic form it is a system in which debate, if it exists, has become a secret, internal party matter, and in which the party's influence extends far beyond politics. Party membership becomes a lever of control for those on top and of advancement for those below. Elections are a sham.

This is not the British way, as Mr Nothard would put it. We still have free elections and vigorous parliamentary debate, and this is not a police state. But there is another sort of one- party state, a democracy in which one party, of left or right, wins election after election until it comes to assume the continuity of power. Gradually, these democracies take on some of the characteristics of the classic one-party states. Britain is beginning to look like one of these.

One such country is Italy, where the right-of-centre Christian Democrats and their allies were in power from the end of the Second World War until much of the corrupt political elite ended up in jail last year. If you wanted a job as a postman, teacher or even an usher in a public building, you needed the favour of your local party boss - little different in practice from the manner in which the Communist Party controlled job appointments in the Soviet Union.

British quangos are obviously not so decadent. Scandals in the West Midlands and Wessex Health Authorities have not involved naked cash bribes but stupidity, secrecy, high living at public expense and managers awarding each other large pay- offs.

Nevertheless, Denis Mack Smith, Britain's leading historian of Italy, sees similarities between the two countries. 'There has obviously been patronage and clientism on a huge scale,' he said. 'English people are too critical about Italy - we're almost as bad.'

There is certainly the potential in Britain today for patronage on an Italian scale. We have seen that members of quangos often think it perfectly right that their political views should count as qualification for office, that it should be necessary to subscribe to a policy to be involved in a quango implementing it. Does that view extend to those they appoint? Quangos dispose of vast sums of money, and money means jobs. Are they likely to make money available to people whose political views are opposed to their own, or who actively oppose their policies?

The quango system is also extremely resistant to reform. In Sweden, the left-wing Social Democrats ruled without interruption from 1932 to 1976 and have been in and out of power ever since. The country experienced the pattern of one-party values seeping into every civic institution long before the phenomenon arrived in Britain.

John Madeley, lecturer in Scandinavian politics at the London School of Economics, points out that even when right- wing parties have got into power in Sweden, in 1976 and again in 1990, the institutions created by decades of Social Democrat rule carried on as if nothing had changed.

He cited the case of the Swedish Labour Market Board, a quango that has been partially responsible for Sweden's exceptionally high levels of training and employment, but is also known as a comfortable, state- sponsored home for trade union officials looking for a well-paid job. It has easily weathered temporary changes in the prevailing political climate. 'By and large the board has carried on whoever is in power,' Mr Madeley said. 'The Swedish system has proved to be very hard to change. It's a bit like trying to turn an oil tanker round.'

Many British quangocrats believe the same will be true here, and this explains their self-confidence at a time when the Conservative government is in crisis. 'Look,' explained one Tory member of the Funding Agency for Schools, who did not want to be named, 'we aim to see 50 per cent of secondary pupils in opted-out schools by 1997. If the Conservatives lose the next election, I may be out of a job, but it will be virtually impossible to go back.'

Academics and journalists trying to pin down just how extensive the power is that the Government exercises through quangos face enormous difficulties. The 1,400 or so quangos in Britain meet in secret. There is no public access to information; no central record of who the quango members are. Even when you find out who sits on a particular board or trust, you are often confronted with a largely meaningless list of names, begging the questions: who on earth are all these people and why are they spending our money?

For the past few months, this newspaper, in a little column called Quangowatch, has been trying to find out. Not all quangocrats are robots programmed by Conservative Central Office. Many are honourable people who believe they are serving the public. Even the Conservative members of the Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust assured us that they were more than capable of standing up to Whitehall.

Last Sunday we featured the Further Education Funding Council, which has taken over elected local authorities' responsibility for financing sixth- form and further education colleges. One member is Les Lawrence, a Conservative councillor and education spokesman in Birmingham. Neither he nor his party has been in power in Birmingham since 1984, but there he is, on the funding council in control of a pounds 2.62bn budget - almost twice as much as the budget of the council in Britain's second biggest city.

The Institute of Local Government Studies at Birmingham University systematically examined the powers, membership and activities of quangos in the West Midlands. Predictably, the same names kept coming up. Michael Worley, managing director of a Black Country metal-bashing firm, is on the board of Sandwell College, chairman of Sandwell Training and Enterprise Council, vice-chairman of the West Midlands Regional Health Authority and a member of the Black Country Urban Development Corporation. Roy Clifford, a former banker, nearly matches him. He is a member of the West Midlands Ambulance Trust, Warwickshire Training and Enterprise Council and Warwickshire Rural Development Commission. When we asked him why he was on so many quangos, he said: 'I like to be involved. I suppose I know a lot of people in Birmingham.'

The institute concluded that the problem with quangos was: 'Boards can follow policies to which local people object, they can fail to provide adequate services, they can abuse their position and there is no way that local people can replace them.'

Labour's David Blunkett sees enormous problems in dislodging a quangocracy which by the time of the next election will have 18 years of one-party rule behind it. A new government would not just have to change managers but change the whole raison d'etre of institutions.

'The great achievement of Margaret Thatcher was inculcating her own particular view of the world into the civil institutions,' he said. 'The people who control our lives now all speak the same language and regard government as a commercial business rather than a service. They're like the priests in the medieval church - all toeing the same line and making sure everyone else obeys it.'

(Photograph omitted)