Andreas Whittam Smith: Governance according to Tony Blair

In office he had shortened Cabinet meetings to an hour or so and used them only for briefing members about developments outside thier sphere of activity

Related Topics

Tony Blair, the former prime minister, came to the Institute for Government on Monday to give 10 lessons from his decade in office. He was asked to address "governance" rather than "government", I presume, in order to generalise the subject beyond merely providing an extract from his forthcoming autobiography. In fact, under this heading, Mr Blair made a valuable suggestion: that an incoming government should get in touch with outgoing ministers in order to learn what they were "trying to get to". In its first term, New Labour had regarded Conservative policies as wrong-headed by definition but then gradually began to see that some of them were reflecting inevitable social change and should be accepted.

The other day, for instance, Yvette Cooper, the former work and pensions secretary, launched a formidable attack in the House of Commons on her successor's welfare plans. She told the new Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith, that he wants to "cut the support from the babes in their mothers' arms. At least Margaret Thatcher had the grace to wait till the children had weaned before she snatched their support". Good stuff. But my question arising from Mr Blair's suggestion is whether Mr Duncan Smith consulted the highly intelligent and impressive Ms Cooper as he took over his new responsibilities. What was she "trying to get to"?

The Institute, in listing Mr Blair's achievements, confined itself to mentioning the introduction of a minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information legislation. In the same vein, it could have added the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, the devolution of considerable powers to Scotland and Wales and the granting of independence to the Bank of England to conduct monetary policy as it saw fit.

All these are undoubted successes that have brought substantial benefits. But none of them involves the delivery of services to the public. For the truth is that Mr Blair's 10 years in office were marred by repeated failures to deliver what he had set out to achieve. Thus, in offering us his lessons, Mr Blair puts himself in the same position as would Steven Gerrard, the English football captain, if he had chosen to give us 10 insights he had gained in South Africa. It would not be without interest, but it would be undercut by the team's poor performance. That is the position in which Mr Blair finds himself.

Mr Blair's first lesson was that governance is a debate about efficiency rather than transparency. It concerns the capacity to get things done. I am not sure I buy this distinction. Effectiveness and transparency should march together. If something goes wrong, you need the "audit trail" by which you re-trace the moves that led to the failure so as to find a better way.

I was more persuaded by the former prime minister's next point. "We are operating in a post-ideological politics," he said, "traditional left and right categories apply less and less. Rather the key consideration is 'open' versus 'closed'." This distinction is perfectly illustrated by the current controversy on immigration. The "open" argument is that we need the skills and energy of immigrants from outside Europe. The "closed" argument is that their arrival causes anguish to the resident population. A self-confident country would always prefer the "open" solution.

What was a bit rich, however, was Mr Blair's observation that people don't want command and control. Indeed they don't but that is exactly the system that Mr Blair employed in office. As he remarked in lesson number four – "the centre needs to drive, but not deliver, systemic change. Empowerment needs a strong centre." What spoils the former prime minister's case is that he was all the time engaged in two simultaneous tasks. On one track was public service delivery. And on a parallel path was the employment of sophisticated marketing techniques to maintain the government's popularity, a task that required Downing Street to preserve the purity of the "message" at all costs. This second activity demanded total control and gave Blair's administration its reputation for interference in every detail.

Mr Blair also had something to say about government departments. They should be smaller, strategic and oriented around delivery. However, in answering questions, he showed himself unrepentant about either the regular making and unmaking of government departments or the constant reshuffling of ministers. Anybody who really understood delivery would know at once that such changes always reduce efficiency for a period. They should be undertaken sparingly.

He was asked about the role of the Cabinet. In office he had shortened Cabinet meetings to an hour or so and used them only for briefing members about developments outside their spheres of activity. At the same time the all-important "grid" that plotted future government announcements was studied. Mr Blair defined the Cabinet's role only as the "ultimate decision-maker".

This seems to me contemptuous of Cabinet. I cannot see why it cannot act as boards of directors of commercial companies do. Executives bring policies to the table that have been thoroughly worked out and tested and require only ratification – Mr Blair's ultimate decision-making. But executive directors also regularly reserve certain decisions for the board. They want a full discussion so that from it a "steer" can emerge. That is also how Cabinet should be used.

Also using the analogy with commercial practice, the former prime minister argued that government should "remake" itself on a regular basis. He observed that commercial companies do this frequently. Looking back, it may seem that they do. But because abrupt change leads to a loss in efficiency, they tend to make a series of small alterations that overtime becomes a sort of internal revolution. Nonetheless, there is something in what Mr Blair says. Given the very different tasks that the new government has set itself, it is counter-intuitive to believe that the way government is organised doesn't also have to change.

Asked what was the most crucial aspect of the job of prime minister, Mr Blair replied "scheduling, the importance of managing your time". So I hesitate to add to Mr Cameron's burdens. But the new Prime Minister might find a discussion about governance with Mr Blair very useful.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor