The bad name that has burdened technocrats over the years has suddenly become a great deal worse.
As Italy followed Greece this week in appointing a caretaker government stuffed with unelected administrators, fierce criticism rained down on all sides. It was said that democracy had been usurped; that this was nothing less than "direct rule" from Brussels; that we were all watching – and acquiescing in – a process that amounted to a coup without uniforms. The 20th-century history of the countries concerned gave that last objection a particularly poisonous barb.
And there is, of course, a worrying aspect to what has been happening. But it has less to do with the rise of the technocrats, so-called, than with the failure of elected governments. The sad truth is that the elected executives showed themselves unequal to the task in hand. They were unable to get to grips with the exigencies of life in the eurozone and simultaneously retain the support of their country's voters. Spain's government is likely to be voted out at the weekend for similar reasons. If a new Prime Minister in Madrid cannot carry the people with him, Spain may be contemplating a similar fate.
Yet the arrival in government of technocrats – not necessarily bankers or economists, but professionals of a wider stripe – does not deserve to be condemned out of hand. Neither in Greece nor in Italy has democracy itself been suspended, nor is there any likelihood that it will be. Elected parliaments remain in their place. If the institutions of state work as they should, the MPs will exercise appropriate checks on executive power. Nor, elsewhere in the world, is this uncommon.
Elected heads of state or government routinely name professionals of one sort or another to their cabinets. The United States is an obvious example. France has a college, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, that produces classic technocrats: specialists and generalists both. If anything, Britain is the odd country out, in requiring MPs to combine their representative function with membership of the governing executive. The check on power is supposed to be exerted by an adversarial opposition. As was glaringly apparent from the Iraq war vote in the Commons, however, that check is not always sufficient.
It might also be observed that, in the Coalition, elected last year, Britain has perhaps its most technocratic government since the Second World War. Not only does the alliance of two parties give the Prime Minister more varied expertise to choose from, but also coalition by its very nature pushes government to the political centre and away from ideology – to the dissatisfaction, as we have seen, of a vocal section of the Conservative Party.
The Coalition's watchword, at least at the start, was competence, closely followed by sound husbandry of the public finances and efficiency – the very qualities that the new technocratic governments are intended to bring to Italy and Greece. What is more, the profiles of David Cameron and especially Nick Clegg are in many respects nearer to those of Continental European technocrats than they are to those of old-style British politicians.
Despite such recent developments, Britain's difficulty – in local as well as national government – might well be said to remain a shortage of specialist professional expertise, not just among ministers, who must shuttle between their executive offices and parliamentary benches, but among civil servants who, as Ministry of Defence figures showed yesterday, then buy it in from consultants at enormous cost. In the right place, and under the proper scrutiny of elected parliaments, there is nothing wrong with technocrats. In Britain, we might have better government if we had a few more of them.