When the great and good are hard to find

Historically the British have been tolerant of patronage. But the re-creation of private monopolies, and the demise of the concept of public service, have led to a crisis of confidence which Parliament must address, says Anthony Sampson
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The British people now appear to be more worried about public standards and accountability than at any time since the Second World War. What has finally jolted them out of their long apathy?

Historically, after all, Britain has been very tolerant, even deferential, towards patronage. Up until the mid-19th century the aristocracy, politicians and the church controlled huge numbers of profitable appointments which could be dispensed to loyal friends and families, without much concern about merit.

Directors of the East India Company, a chartered monopoly, doled out sinecures for life. Dukes dispensed scores of livings to clergymen, often several to one man. Placemen and pluralists were notorious but still tolerated.

The worst abuses were abolished in the great Victorian reforms, but the expanding public service and the empire provided huge new scope for appointments decided from above, rather than by election. Politicians, aristocrats and academics, provided they were recognised as "sound", would be asked to serve on countless commissions or boards: the imperial rule was "never ask for a job, never refuse one". If they visibly failed, they could usually find an honorific job or governorship, like Hilaire Belloc's Lord Lundy: "Go out and govern New South Wales".

After the Second World War, the dissolution of the empire and the rise of Labour diminished the scope for the old ruling class; but nationalised boards and the welfare state provided opportunities for ex-politicians and trade unionists. As aristocrats retreated from the boards their places were taken by retired civil servants, diplomats or ministers.

Academics were still picked for successive royal commissions, and the army of "the great and the good" assumed some political neutrality. "Wise men" such as Lord Crowther, Lord Radcliffe, Lord Franks or Lord Plowden were appointed by either party; while Harold Wilson appointed many Conservatives to run key nationalised industries. Winding down from these peaks were the thousands of appointments - whether for water boards, electricity boards or health authorities - that were too boring to attract much attention.

But by the late Seventies the consensus was cracking and the Conservatives were attacking Labour for proliferating bureaucracies and "quangos". Mrs Thatcher's purges after 1979, and the privatising of nationalised industries in the Eighties, did reduce many areas of patronage, while the great and good retreated into the shadows as their universities lost influence and autonomy.

But the re-organising of the health service, education and regulation created rich new opportunities to reward political friends, while Thatcher was far more ruthless than her predecessors in appointing "one of us" to key positions - all the way to museum chairmanships and archbishoprics. The long British tradition of patronage was taking new shapes, but it still remained at the heart of political power - more than ever concentrated at Number Ten, while still conveniently disguised by the pretence of coming from the Palace.

Placemen and pluralists kept re-emerging, still accumulating quite different jobs. There was a whiff of the 18th century about many of the new pluralists, particularly in the Arts: such as Lord Rees-Mogg, the High Sheriff of Somerset, moving effortlessly from his antiquarian bookselling to the Arts Council to the Times to the BBC; or Lord St John of Fawsley, from Minister for the Arts to the Royal Fine Arts Committee to a Cambridge college.

Patronage became still more desirable in an age that sets much greater value both on money and on jobs. The old tradition of voluntary or unpaid appointments has rapidly dwindled - with the honourable exception of the magistracy - to be replaced by increasing salaries and fees. No doubt the old concept of "public service" concealed much humbug and self-interest; but service is now much harder to distinguish from personal ambition, and the status of a job is much more linked with its salary.

And the attraction of the job is itself greater, now that leisure is associated not with privilege but with unemployment, and the idea of a leisure class has evaporated in the prevailing preoccupation with being busy, even in retirement. The cult of the busybody strengthens the hand of any politician or chairman who can offer a friend - or his wife - both a job and a salary.

Looking at the huge changes in the British political climate since 1945 it might seem extraordinary that public appointments and patronage were extended with so little serious complaint about the lack of accountability and democratic control. It was not just the idea of popular democracy that was flouted. It was the growing desire of the consumer to have more say in the services - whether private or public - for which he or she pays.

By the late Fifties, the importance of the consumer was being recognised by consumer associations, magazines, councils or committees, which had some impact on governments and corporations. But consumers remained very weak in their political organisation and representation. For the politicians, the consumer could be anyone, including their friends, in need of a job. The advertising man David Ogilvy once explained: "The consumer isn't a moron: she's your wife." But it was too easy to turn this truism into convenient patronage, so that representing the consumer became a large new field for amateurs whose qualifications were slight.

"Consumer affairs" became a growth industry for unelected bodies. The privatising of utilities such as gas, water and telecommunications led to new bureaucracies to regulate them - Ofgas, Ofwat, Oftel - which were technically accountable directly to Parliament. But in practice they have been much influenced by companies and shareholders, and remote from the public. (Oftel, for instance, has just explained that it is planning to make yet more changes to London telephone numbers after the new prefixes next month, without any apparent public debate about the huge costs and muddles incurred.)

The new public appointments, like the old ones, were all the more remote because they were centralised. Accountability to the public was generally diminished by the growing concentration of decisions within Westminster and Whitehall, accelerated over the Eighties by the weakening of local government and regional powers.

The extension of central government reached a new climax with the collapse of the Greater London Council, which, whatever its past failings, was an elected body. Its demise left a huge gap in democratic control. There was no one left to complain if all the bridges and main roads were being repaired at once, or if Oftel devised a plan which required 10 digits to dial a number across the street.

But it is the re-creation of private monopolies which more than anything has brought the issue of accountability to a head, with good historical reasons. In the past state monopoliesthroughout Europe were a favourite way for kings to enrich favourites, and a prime source of corruption. And it was worries about their abuse that encouraged governments to nationalise them. Yet the problems of limiting privatised monopolies were never properly anticipated in the Eighties. And now their opportunities for making money at the expense of the consumer have rightly become a burning political issue.

Here the problem of accountability to consumers cuts across accountability to shareholders, who, since the emergence of joint-stock companies in the mid-19th century, have been almost as unsuccessful as mass voters in controlling their masters. The explosion of directors' incomes in the Nineties, which has further widened the gap between top and bottom, is the most visible sign of shareholders' weakness. But the heads of private monopolies, without the discipline of true competition, are faced neither with organised shareholders nor with organised consumers.

In the meantime, all the temptations to abuse power have been increased by a prolonged period of one-party government, as in other countries of Europe. And this period has been marked by a resurgence of private ambition and money-values unprecedented since the mid-19th century, which has submerged alternative value-systems, including the concept of public service.

A wave of corruption across Europe has been encouraged by the far greater mobility of international funds - whether from mafias or shady corporations which can outbid and overshadow the resources of legislatures and regulators; everywhere in Europe judges and magistrates are under heavy strain as they try to restore some legality.

The scale of corruption in Spain or Italy may make British worries seem trivial. But the British tradition of probity and public standards has been the most admired in the past; and it is closely linked with the integrity of the democratic process at the centre.

The whole British system of accountability, including the judicial system, depends heavily on the idea of parliamentary control; so that if MPs themselves are seen to be corrupt, their faults extend through the many institutions that are responsible to them. The British public has traditionally been tolerant of the human failings of its representatives. But in a climate of wider corruption and temptations those failings become more dangerous and distrusted.

It is no accident that in Britain, as elsewhere, the judges have been brought closer to the forefront of politics, to help restore honesty and public trust. But the judges are rightly reluctant to bear too much of this burden; for they, too, must accept the sovereignty of Parliament.

Several trends have combined to create the current crisis of British public standards, and to jolt the British public voters out of their normal apathy. But they all converge on Parliament, which remains ultimately responsible. Only the political process can reverse the trend.

This is an edited version of the keynote speech being given at today's Charter 88 event `Public Standards, Business Values', supported by the Independent.