Why huge plans never work in Britain

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The Independent Online

On Monday, I was listening to a man on the Today programme telling us why David Blunkett's ID card scheme could never have worked, will not work and should not work. He was worried about some of the technical stuff, to be sure, but he had a bigger problem with it. As he said: "The big drawback is that it's too big a scheme - it tries to do too much. The Blunkett plan not only aims at combating terrorism, it tries to control fraud, and cut crime and other things, and experience has taught us that these big masterplans never work."

On Monday, I was listening to a man on the Today programme telling us why David Blunkett's ID card scheme could never have worked, will not work and should not work. He was worried about some of the technical stuff, to be sure, but he had a bigger problem with it. As he said: "The big drawback is that it's too big a scheme - it tries to do too much. The Blunkett plan not only aims at combating terrorism, it tries to control fraud, and cut crime and other things, and experience has taught us that these big masterplans never work."

I am not sure that is quite true. What experience has taught us is that they never seem to work in Britain. In Britain, we do not like the idea of the masterplan, the over-arching intellectual blue-print. What we like is the constant repair job. What we like doing is patching and mending, not thinking about whether it's worth mending in the first place.

I remember, when our hotchpotch of a railway system was last in big trouble, one of the heads of a railway company was asked on air if we shouldn't scrap the unholy mess and get a good new system going, and he groaned and said: "Oh, no! For heaven's sake, don't let's go through all that again! Let's stick with what we've got, keep the best of the old, and improve the rest! It's much better to get the present system running properly than to try a whole new untried set-up ..."

Very British. Very DIY. To put it another way, very Ruth Kellyish ...

Do you remember when Mike Tomlinson was put in charge of a project to overhaul our educational system and combine academic and vocational study in a way A-levels etc never did? And how Charles Clarke gave him his blessing to think big? For two years, Mike and his crew beavered away, and came up with a big plan for a new diploma which was widely greeted in the educational world as a big way forward? And how Ruth Kelly, who had replaced Charles Clarke, said it was far too drastic and turned it down?

I remember hearing Ruth Kelly talk on air about her decision, and saying she thought it was a shame to get rid of the old system entirely, and how it would be better to keep what was good about it and to improve the bits that weren't working, which sounded familiar to me, as it may to you ...

How very British.

As John Mole shrewdly pointed out in his book Mind Your Manners, our policy of patch and mend contrasts with the French style. They do like the big idea. They like to conceive a big plan for, say, an integrated system of nuclear power or for criss-crossing France with high speed trains. They then drive it through against all opposition, putting up power stations and laying down new rails, and hey presto! They suddenly have an integrated system of nuclear power! They also have the TGV network. We, meanwhile, have an antiquated nuclear industry and quite a fast stretch of rail somewhere near Ashford.

Same thing applies, even, to the British and French constitutions. Ours is a perfect example of one that has been patched and mended so often it looks like an old quilt eiderdown. The French constitution, by contrast, looks brand new. That is because it generally is brand new. They have had two new ones since the war (the fourth and fifth Republic) because whenever a constitution looks not to be working, they tear it up and start a new one...

Maybe that's why Charles Clarke tends to be unpopular at present. Not only is he trying to bring in a big ID plan, he is trying to rewrite the constitution. Not just tinkering, but taking out big working bits like habeas corpus. It's all very unBritish, Mr Clarke, all these big plans and constitutional rewritings. I am not sure you would pass a British entry test if you took it right now, and I was asking the questions.

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