Are they still fit to govern? Exhausted and incapable

Cabinet ministers try to do too much says Peter Hennessy - and end up achieving little
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The Independent Online
RECALL those faces on the platform at the Conservative Party conference last week, and then consider: are they the faces of people fit to govern, or are they the faces of people putting their mental and physical health at risk under the stress of doing an impossible job under impossible pressures?

The wife of a very senior 1980s cabinet minister once said of the constant decision-making under pressure, "Oh, they love it", and Peter Shore explained why. Being a cabinet minister, he said, is "endlessly stimulating ... there is a kind of flow of energy that all cabinet ministers have to have in order to deal with the workload, which is truly enormous". Some, as Roy Jenkins once opined of Barbara Castle, make "exhaustion into a political virility symbol".

I am sure this contributes to a twofold delusion among ministers - first about their competence and fitness to take decisions, and second about the power of the British Cabinet to influence events even within these shores.

On the first point, I recall that every minister he asked refused to take the test dreamed up by Victor Rothschild in the early 1970s when head of the Central Policy Review Staff, which he called "Are You Fit To Make Decisions After A Long Air Flight And Two Extra Gins?". On the second, I remember David Howell, himself relatively fresh from the Cabinet, admitting: "The history of post-war British cabinets has been a continuous story of people trying to do too much, believing that they had power over events which in fact they lacked, treating national circumstances as entirely within their own control and twirling the wheel on the bridge as though every move would produce an instant response in some well-oiled engine room below."

I believe that this institutional "overload" of work and responsibility at the top is becoming ever more serious as a problem (not least because successive efforts to roll back the state since 1979 seem to have had little or no effect upon it).

Just through the famous green baize door that separates No 10 from the Cabinet Office, John Major will find a gem of an item prepared by one of his officials, David Laughrin, for businessmen who are members of the Whitehall and Industry Group.

Entitled "Finding Your Way Round Whitehall and Beyond", it contains a very precise summation of the modern burden on ministers. The most senior ministers must:

head a department ... and set the main policy agenda

make key decisions on the operation and organisation of their departments

defend their policy and their departments

advocate legislation in Parliament

take a leading role in public relations in front of an often hostile media

take a leading role in international negotiations

deal with pressure groups, companies and members of the public lobbying for or against change

play a part for their party in making speeches and staying up late at night to vote on government legislation

play their full role as constituency MPs

play a role as husband/wife/father/mother in what remains of their private lives

That, without doubt, is a physically and mentally health-sapping regime. If nothing is done, it is not only the efficiency of government that will continue to suffer; so too, as Norman Brook, Harold Macmillan's cabinet secretary, warned nearly 40 years ago, will the health of its leading practitioners, to the detriment of both them and us.

"Like other people, political leaders may experience an infinite variety of disorders, mental or physical, which could harm their capacity for decision-making," Dr Hugh Freeman, a psychiatrist, has said. "The much more complex nature of modern societies, and particularly their hugely increased flow of information, results in the cognitive and executive abilities of these individuals being subject to unprecedented long-term stress."

The case for greater transparency about the health of our leaders is a strong one. An attack on institutional overload, and its twin, personal overstretch, is a priority.

The process of persuasion could start now, precisely where ministers are sitting. In front of each of them is a small white card slotted into a wooden holder. It lists every appointment facing them during the 24 hours in which their lives are now engaged - meetings, cabinet committees, questions in the House, official functions, constituency engagements. These cards represent "overload" writ small.

Every secretary of state, as well as the Prime Minister, should gaze upon his or her card sceptically and ask: "Do I really have to do that, go there, see him? Can I use the time to greater effect? Where is the space in this schedule for thought about tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, next millennium?" The first enemy to be slain lies there. They should put an end to the tyranny of the White Card. It is not in their interest - or ours - that ministers should "burn themselves out for Britain", as Viscount Tonypandy claimed Harold Wilson had done.

Overload curtails the ability to think beyond the short term. A senior figure engaged in a review of future policy at Chequers this year said: "It was the first time for ages that there had been a gathering of this kind - you can never get ministers to think in London. There are always meetings to go to, people to see. And a great deal of their time is spent reacting to breaking stories in the news. The degree to which the media now drives policy is extraordinary and regrettable."

This very seasoned official went on to compare unfavourably that Chequers meeting with developments on an identical theme commissioned by Macmillan in 1959; the depressing message was that ministers and senior civil servants had over 35 years seen a decline in the capacity of British central government to think in depth about the long term: "Day-to-day matters are so much easier. They are frightened of the really difficult subjects."

Mr Major should ponder seriously this loss of capacity at the heart of his machine. Better still, he could consider commissioning a modern version of the inquiry into "The Burden On Ministers" chaired by Lord Attlee and instituted by Macmillan in 1957.

The Attlee Committee concentrated on a better use of cabinet committees, ie a streamlined status quo. Precious little happened as a result. A special cabinet committee on the "burden of ministers", GEN 616, met but once, in October 1957, to consider the Attlee report. Ministers, it decided, might with benefit attend fewer public functions, unless they were to speak, and "attendance to welcome foreign visitors at airports should be reduced to the unavoidable minimum".

But I am convinced that the analysis of the lone dissenter on Attlee's committee must be absorbed if the problem is to be addressed seriously. That dissenter was Clement Davies, former leader of the Liberal Party. He argued that the recommendation of his colleagues, especially the proposal to make better use of junior ministers, "will, to some extent, relieve the burden upon ministers ... nevertheless the changes so made will not really affect the present position to the extent that is required".

The lot of Parliament and Whitehall would be eased, Davies continued, only when they were "relieved of duties which could be undertaken and better performed by regional sub-parliaments or councils". He proposed "a complete review of our forms of local government". "I believe," he concluded, "that with the creation of regional bodies working effectively, the Parliament of Westminster could complete its work in a three-day week. If that be so, one result would be to attract to the House of Commons men and women, who, today, find themselves by reason of the importance of their calling, their work, or position, incapable of devoting any time to Parliament".

GEN 616 did not consider any of Davies's points. But I believe that unless the workload of Westminster and Whitehall is dispersed by some means - by, for example, devolution for Scotland and Wales and possibly for the English regions - the problem will return again and again to haunt future premiers as it has the last 10. The single absurdity in the recent White Paper The Civil Service: Taking Forward Continuity and Change, is its blank refusal to contemplate any examination of "the effectiveness and efficiency of the work of ministers and support for ministers". Mr Major would do well to send for those old "Burden on Ministers" files and think again.

Adapted from Peter Hennessy's 'The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution', published last week by Gollancz, pounds 17.99.