The decline and fall of institutions - seemingly with an open season on publicly funded bureaucracies

Meanwhile private monopolies are left to feather their nests

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The philosopher Robert Rowland Smith could be heard on Radio 4’s Four Thought last week propounding a highly original thesis about the Western world’s changing intellectual climate. “The age of ideas” was coming to a close, he declared, and in its place there could be glimpsed the first stirrings of something called “the age of intuition”.

As it happens, I think Mr Smith is wrong. There are a number of epochs potentially hurtling towards us – the age of post or bastard-capitalism, let us say, or the age of hyper-technology – but my own candidate would be the age of anti-institutionalism.

By chance, the same day’s Radio 4 schedules supplied several pieces of evidence to support this theory. One of them was the opening tranche of a series fronted by the Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts entitled What’s the point of ... ? Here Mr Letts pounded away at the Met Office, which he accused of costing the taxpayer too much money and exceeding its brief by banging on about climate change when its forte was short-term weather forecasts, while failing to disguise a suspicion that only courtesy to his current paymasters prevented him from using the next episode to ask what was the point of the BBC.

Another came in the revelation that an analysis of national crime data carried out for the Ministry of Justice had concluded that witnesses have much lower levels of confidence in the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts than the rest of the population. Bringing up the rear came the embattled figure of Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the children’s charity Kids Company, who in response to reports of the organisation’s imminent bankruptcy, blamed (among other people) “rumour-mongering civil servants” for “putting the nail” in the charity’s chances of survival, and hinted that the real reason for its collapse was bureaucratic ill-will.

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Camila Batmanghelidjh claims her charity was ‘bullied’

No doubt this torrent of criticism is exceptional, but it would be a very odd newspaper these days that didn’t contain at least one story whose focus is a sorry catalogue of institutional failings. Lord Sewel’s recent difficulties were, inevitably, seen as a symbol of what is wrong with the House of Lords. The BBC is fighting a desperate rear-guard action against a government determined to revenge itself for what it imagines to be years of anti-Conservative bias. The civil service has been having to defend itself against charges of stasis and indifference to the interests of the public it serves since the time Dickens came up with Tite Barnacle and the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit.

And all this, of course, omits such essential threads of the national fabric as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – much keener, it is alleged, on harassing the small business man than harrying tax-evading billionaires – the police, the judiciary and even, once the more or less unimpeachable figure of the Queen has been removed from the equation, that insufficiently regulated, under-taxed, over-remunerated and frankly over-populated institution the monarchy. Even the National Health Service, though still warmly regarded at the point of delivery, starts to look green around the gills once enquiries are made of salary levels at its upper bureaucratic tier.

As to why, in the early 21st century, so many of the UK’s institutions should be in crisis, or rather – not quite the same thing, perhaps – the subject of punitive assaults on their amourpropre, one obvious reason lies in their longevity. Most of our administrative framework either came into being in the early part of the 19th century, or, as in the case of the monarchy, spent the period undergoing a sometimes radical acclimatisation to the vastly different world in which it found itself. Much of it, inevitably, is showing its age. Meanwhile, those institutions which were forged in a more modern era – the NHS and the BBC, say – have a habit of being flummoxed by the rate of change forced on them by the environments in which they operate.

What would Mr Letts say about the BBC were he given the freedom to criticise it from the comfort of a Radio 4 studio? Probably that it is politically biased, that it spends far more public money on bureaucracy than on programme-making, that its sheer size and capacity inhibits non-state competition, and what chance has a local newspaper against a publicly funded website? There is, it should straightaway be said, something in each of these complaints. That the BBC’s efforts are “better” than much of what commercial rivals have to offer is perhaps beside the point, but even the corporation’s doughtiest defender would probably concede that public relations is not one of its core strengths.

The same criticism could be made of HMRC, the civil service and the constabulary (see last week’s gaffe about the forces who don’t respond to burglary calls), all of whom seem determined to prove, on a weekly basis, the continuing existence of what the average citizen tends to conceptualise as “them” – “they” being the malign, obstructive anti-democratic forces apparently at work to regulate human life in ways acceptable to the people doing the regulating rather than those being regulated.

Naturally, there is no way – at any rate in the medium-term – in which these anti-institutional voices will be silenced. With a Government bent on scaling down the role of the state, and the money spent on that role, any publicly funded organisation that appears to be exceeding its remit, is over-staffed or fails to give value for money will be suspect. On the other hand, this widespread fury over the activities of what might be called our visible institutions is usually accompanied by a complete silence over the much more stealthy institutionalising process which, over the past 20 years or so, has been at work in other non-public areas of our national life.

Some of this is necessarily small-scale and affects only a limited number of people – take, for example, my own livelihood of writing books, a profession which is increasingly entered by way of university creative writing courses and looks ever more like a branch of the civil service. In the worlds of sport and entertainment, on the other hand, the process has far more serious implications. What, to particularise, is the Premier League other than a giant institution, brought into existence by a media baron and a handful of businessmen, unaccountable, self-regulating, and arguably quite as much of a malign, obstructive anti-democratic force than the most devious cabal ever fomented in a Whitehall back-office?

When a taxpayer enraged by an HMRC phone that is never answered or a small business person stifled by some pettifogging piece of bureaucracy complains about “them”, the underlying assumption is generally that the country is at bottom, once the camouflage of parliaments and elections is stripped away, an oligarchy run, like all oligarchies, for the benefit of the oligarchs. But there are other oligarchs, equally concerned with feathering their nests at the public’s expense, in whom the public for some reason takes much less interest.

What, to borrow Quentin Letts’ formula, is the point of Rupert Murdoch? And what is the point of the Premier League? Well, each are real or frustrated monopolists keen to secure maximum returns from a decently downtrodden public. Both, it might be argued, merit a degree of investigation quite as extensive as that brought to the Met Office or the CPS. But then, as the newly installed Culture Secretary would no doubt remind us, there is nothing like a soft target.

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