Alan Watkins: They don't do much, but they're not all bad

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The Independent Online

The strange thing about this country today is that objectively, as the Marxists used to say, we are better off than we were at the end of the 1960s.

The strange thing about this country today is that objectively, as the Marxists used to say, we are better off than we were at the end of the 1960s. And yet we are all less confident and more fearful. The moral is that people will always find something to worry about. Those of us who grew up in the war, who – as Mr Neil Kinnock once said in reply to a Tory jibe about his war effort – went without bananas for our country and who spent much of the rest of our lives in apprehension of nuclear incineration are not going to be put off by lunatics in turbans.

Mr David Blunkett claims to be scared out of his wits by these characters or, at any rate, to be scared on our behalf. I do not believe it for an instant. What we are going through is the kind of permanent government-created crisis which George Orwell anticipated in 1984. Nor should we overlook the requirement of what Dwight Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex" to be kept perpetually busy.

The real problem of this government is less alarming but more intractable. It is an inability to get anything done. Harold Wilson's second administration had to deal with Rhodesia; Northern Ireland; prices-and-incomes policy; the trade unions; the Cold War; most of all, the balance of payments and the position of sterling as a reserve currency.

In 1970 that government lost to Edward Heath. And yet there was no lack of confidence among ministers which led them to conclude that there was a fundamental difficulty about producing adequate schools, a satisfactory health service and a transport system that worked. Once the difficulties listed above had been satisfactorily resolved, so the assumption went, these objects could be secured with relative ease. It was a question of deciding what you wanted to do, finding the money and getting it done.

The Cold War is over. Europe may be a problem but sterling is no longer a torment. The money is there, though for how much longer Mr Gordon Brown may shortly enlighten us. Yet his colleagues still find the greatest difficulty in producing results.

The most popular theory about why this should be so is that, while at the highest level of Prime Minister and Chancellor this government compares favourably with any Labour administration of the past, lower down the order the men and women in the ministries are not as capable as their predecessors. As the racing correspondents put it, they have not trained on. It is a view which has a certain superficial attraction. Let us have a look at the Cabinet in January 1968.

Tony Benn was at Technology (a post which has no equivalent today), Barbara Castle at Transport and Anthony Crosland at the Board of Trade. Richard Crossman was Leader of the House. Though Mr Robin Cook is a clever fellow, he is not as clever as Crossman. Admittedly Crossman could be silly too, but then so can Mr Cook. He may still train on. He may also, in the same lingo, flatter to deceive.

Barbara Castle v Stephen Byers is no contest. The referee would have to intervene to stop the fight. But the ministers concerned with health and education do not present such an overwhelming victory for the older generation. Obviously if you could have Aneurin Bevan at Health, and Crosland or that now forgotten figure George Tomlinson at Education, you would write them on to the teamsheet straightaway. But early in 1968 the ministers were, respectively, Kenneth Robinson, who was unknown even when he was in office, and Patrick Gordon Walker, whom Wilson was always shifting around. Judith Hart was at Social Security. Alistair Darling is clearly her superior. Alan Milburn may be unsatisfactory, looking like a football manager on the verge of relegation from the Premier League. And Estelle Morris is perpetually in a minor key. But I am still not convinced they are manifestly inferior to Robinson and Gordon Walker.

Similarly I would argue for a draw between Denis Healey and Geoff Hoon at Defence, though I have sometimes been tempted to refer to the latter as Geoff Who?, restrained only by the recollection that the joke was first used of Geoffrey Howe and was the invention of Norman St John-Stevas. Mr Hoon is clever and conscientious and, in the present troubles, has resisted the temptation to play to the gallery – or the television cameras – which other ministers have found difficult to resist.

I would not accuse Mr Jack Straw of succumbing, if only because the Prime Minister has seen to it that he does not get much of a chance. What he has been accused of is not looking or sounding like a Foreign Secretary. Exactly the same complaint was made about Mr Cook. H T F ("Bertie") Buse, the Somerset bowler of the immediate post-war period, had a toothbrush moustache, was slightly knock-kneed and kept his trousers up with a tie. "He doesn't even look like a cricketer!" people would say. One of Buse's admirers, John Arlott, replied with dignity: "What is a cricketer but a man?" Likewise with Foreign Secretaries.

I certainly sleep more soundly of a night with Mr Straw there than I would have done with George Brown in the same position. James Callaghan, however, purveyed reassurance as Mr Straw, who is a bit of a fidget, does not – just as Jim did when he was Home Secretary. He was a more comforting presence than Mr Blunkett, even if he would never have contemplated relaxing the law on cannabis.

Roy Jenkins was a better Home Secretary than either and has a good claim to be considered the equal of Mr Brown at the Treasury. Lord Irvine is the equal of Lord Gardiner as Lord Chancellor, with both of them the superiors of the few other Labour sitters on the Woolsack. Lord Williams is as competent a Leader of the House of Lords as Labour has ever had. It is a mixed bag. The real difference between then and now is that then Labour had a few interesting and amusing characters around the place.

In 1983 two acquaintances of mine published a paperback on Margaret Thatcher. It was a good book. Nevertheless I was surprised at the large number of copies it had sold. I asked the authors how this had come about. Well, they said, it was published by a firm which was part of the British Printing Corporation, then owned by Robert Maxwell. He had persuaded Tesco's to stock it at the check-out counter. Everything followed from that. Maxwell could make things happen, get things done – as, say, Lord Beaverbrook could. It is not an ability which lawyers, journalists, lecturers and researchers usually possess. I certainly do not have it. Perhaps that is Mr Blair's trouble, too.