Leading Article: Naming names in Tory economic failures

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The Independent Online
THE POLITICAL lynching of Norman Lamont has failed to satisfy the mob. Now it is baying for the blood of mandarins, the anonymous officials who advised Conservative chancellors through boom, bust, entry into the exchange rate mechanism and Black Wednesday. If this deficit-ridden Government is to improve its performance, the critics argue, fresh faces at the Treasury should replace those who presided over disastrous policies.

Underlying calls for a clean sweep is the notion that Kenneth Clarke is surrounded by has-beens, architects of failed policies who lacked the spine or insight to save Mr Lamont and his predecessors from themselves. Poor old Mr Clarke has not even studied economics: what hope for him?

Additionally, with Tory economic policy now in the hands of the party's left wing, some would like Margaret Thatcher's advisers to walk the plank. First over the side would be Sir Terence Burns, permanent secretary to the Treasury, a political appointee in 1980 and chief economic adviser during the tax cuts of 1987 and 1988 and the inflationary 'Lawson boom'. Sir Terence also had the Chancellor's ear when Britain joined the ERM at a rate that proved unsustainable.

The trouble with all this finger-pointing is that even now, years after errors of economic policy, the question of who offered what advice remains a secret to all but senior officials in the Treasury. Did civil servants warn against mistaken policies, only to be overruled, or was Norman Lamont, in fact, dancing to the mandarins' tune?

So although the public knows who left open the bow doors of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the identity of the key figures who led the country into the Black Wednesday crisis remains a mystery. Government secrecy means that the guilty parties continue to enjoy anonymity. Whitehall rules, for example, mean that when party control of government changes, new ministers are not entitled to examine advice given to their predecessors.

This lack of accountability means important lessons may not be learnt. When Mr Lamont asked for a Treasury paper into the mistakes of 1987 and 1988, he found the answers limited and unrevealing.

In the past, governments have published 'blue books', accounts of important policy developments such as diplomatic exchanges leading up to the Second World War. Parliamentary select committees are entrusted with the task of shadowing departments, but they are poor at forensic examination and do not follow up questions. Far better, before there is any bloodletting at the Treasury, would be an inquiry - modelled perhaps on Lord Justice Bingham's investigation last year into the collapse of BCCI - that could focus on crucial economic mistakes of the past five years.

Such openness would bolster Mr Clarke's iconoclastic reputation. Having never previously held a Treasury post, he would be spared embarrassment. The public would be wiser, and one small blow would have been struck against secrecy in government.