Bureaucracy sharpens the wits of its subjects

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The Independent Online
SOME bright parents, I hear, are coaching their bright children to appear less bright than they are. The problem is this. Schools with high entry requirements are overcrowded and they cannot take all qualified children. Yet other good schools apparently insist on a 'broad mixed entry'. Therefore they won't take too many bright children either. So bright children either have to pretend to be a bit daft, to be average or below it, or find themselves flushed away down the sink.

Very ingenious, these parents, but I do detect a snag. Mixed entry means mixed exit. Average in means average out. Can any school really be mixed and good? Can we rely on bright parents to find the answer here, too?

One thing about silly rules, vexatious over-regulation and Euro-style bureaucracy: they can sharpen the wits and resourcefulness of those subjected to them. In the Euro-field, this process could perhaps be hastened here by a massive international cross-posting of officials, quite in keeping with the supposedly emergent Europe without frontiers.

An irreverent friend suggested that all EC, Min of Ag and environmental health directives, etc, should here be enforced by Greek or other Mediterranean inspectors, who are accustomed to take a rather more relaxed and lenient, less fastidious view. That same friend's charming wife, in the ladies' loo of a restaurant in Greece, was confronted by joints of raw pork lying all over the floor. An edifying spectacle, fully worthy of Greece, the mother of liberty.

British inspectors meanwhile could be seconded to do their stuff in the Mediterranean. The results could not but be salutary. Either our inspectors would ruin not us but the natives, who would suddenly lose their zeal to regulate everyone else; if not themselves. Or our own inspectors would go blissfully native. Sir John Kaye, the splendid historian of the Indian Mutiny, urged that all aspiring British administrators in India should go first for an educational year or so to Italy. This would remind them, classically educated as most of them were, that people can look to us dirty, corrupt, superstitious and so on and yet still be supremely civilised.

A typical example of bureaucratic fuss-pottery, ominous here, more so in America, is positive discrimination in favour of women, the disabled, blacks, gays and so on in employment. I said 'in favour', though it may damage those it ostensibly favours by suggesting that none of them could make it on their own merits, which is patently false and insulting. Politically correct quotas are everywhere being imposed on employers. Ingenuity will be required to frustrate them.

A cynical businessman of my acquaintance suggests that quotas might be filled, with Potemkin-like guile, from existing manpower resources. (You remember, Potemkin built fake villages along the path of Catherine the Great, whom he strove to delude and impress - or so it is said, I think wrongly.)

An ingenious tycoon might call together his valued and experienced senior staff. He would then make it clear that future promotion and salary prospects might depend on their ability to transform themselves into members of quota-favoured categories - unless, of course, they already belonged by nature to them.

The managing director might, for instance, 'come out' as a gay. The personnel officer, where transvestism was not sufficient, might undergo with advantage a 'sex-change operation'. Senior technicians might disable themselves by shooting themselves in the foot or some other limb they could spare. Thus, by mirrors and illusions, might the baffling problem of quotas be expeditiously solved without unwarranted promotions, demotions and all the attendant upheavals and resented injustices.

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton has the reputation of being a windy, draft-dodging sort of fellow, with cold feet and knocking knees, certainly not good commander-in-chief material. He has now apparently started burbling apprehensively about the tremendous difficulties the Germans had in the Second World War in holding down the Serbs. Thus he hopes to justify his reluctance to send any US ground troops into Bosnia. There may be hundreds of good reasons for sending no troops, but the alleged German difficulties are not among them. As Professor Norman Stone revealed in the December Salisbury Review, they are largely a myth.

Meanwhile, Mr Clinton looks rather like a superstitious peasant who, invited to visit Chernobyl, refuses not because of dangerous radioactivity there, but for fear of ghouls, ghosts and goblins.

A deft way out of Mr Clinton's difficulties was suggested to the historian Niall Ferguson, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, by a mordant Washington cab driver. 'The queers want military service,' observed that shrewd strategist; very well, Clinton drafts them into the army, sends all million of them to Bosnia. 'The Serbs surrender before they even arrive.'

LORD St John of Fawsley has effusively welcomed the Queen's decision to open Buckingham Palace. 'Brilliant, imaginative and socially concerned,' he lyrically warbles. Others who have opened their houses to the masses have not struck me as notably brilliant, imaginative or socially concerned: just broke, poor souls, short of the ready.

I wonder what wild dithyrambs this assiduous courtier would have found had the Queen handed over Buck House as, say, one of the new four-star luxury super-prisons? Even more brilliant, imaginative and so on?

He should be careful. Perhaps the Queen, in her studies ('annus horribilis'), has come across the old warning: timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (beware of Greeks bearing gifts). Amid the resulting hoo-ha, Sir Aston Webb's imposing facade has been ritually excoriated. 'Tedious,' Simon Jenkins calls it. 'Was a worse building ever more photographed?' Heavy, dull, lifeless, others groan.

In justice to Sir Aston, a respectable architect, the story goes that his original design was resplendent with classical urns on the roof and all sorts of playful decorative details. It was George V who, preferring something absolutely plain, ordered him to cut out all the fancy stuff. If the result is a bit too like a dreadnought or the infamous Admiralty bunker, that wasn't Sir Aston's fault. Why not restore his original design, if it can be found? Anything rather than a new facade by Richard Rogers, with all its private parts hanging out on display and the Queen ascending like a sack of potatoes in an external lift to greet her loyal subjects.