Political Commentary: Two cheers for those who do the state some service

Click to follow
We are becoming a much governed nation, governed by all manner of councils and boards and officers, central and local, high and low, exercising the powers which have been committed to them by modern statutes. - F W Maitland, 1887.

'QUANGOS' stands for 'quasi- autonomous non-governmental organisations'. Nevertheless they clearly do exercise governmental functions, even if those consist only of advising the fiendish Mrs Virginia Bottomley about how to stay out of trouble, or the rest of us about how to run our lives. Indeed, the alternative version of the acronym substitutes 'national' for 'non-', which is contradictory. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, as the quotation from our greatest historian indicates.

The leading hunter of quangos was a former Conservative MP, Sir Philip Holland, who wrote about them between 1978 and 1982. They were seen as typically Labour creatures, interfering busybodies who also provided jobs for the boys. This last, by the way, was a phrase which was current not only in the Tory press of the 1940s but in Labour redoubts such as South West Wales during the same period.

And yet, the public corporations of the post-1945 era (in law rather grander than quangos, in practice amounting to much the same) were based on bodies such as the Port of London Authority, which had been created by the Liberals in 1908. The Arts Council and, later, the Sports Council, neither of which has been enjoying the best of presses recently, were both set up as buffers between government and public or, rather, that section of the public which regarded sport or the arts as its own particular preserve.

Aneurin Bevan was one of the few ministers in either party to oppose the general contracting-out bias of post-war policy. He did not create a public corporation to run the National Health Service, which the fashion of the time might have dictated. He did, however, remove the hospitals from the local authorities, which was perhaps his biggest mistake. But it was left to the Conservatives - to Sir Keith Joseph under Sir Edward Heath, and Mr Kenneth Clarke under Lady Thatcher - to turn the health service into a bureaucratic nightmare.

Democratic socialism would have indicated that a function of government should be carried out either by a minister, who was theoretically responsible to Parliament, or by a local authority, which was with equal reliance on theory accountable to its electors. Even Liberalism might have considered that, if powers were to be exercised on behalf of the state, the wielder ought to be answerable before some public tribunal. It was Joseph Chamberlain, at that stage in his career a Liberal, who inaugurated what was called 'gas and water socialism' in Birmingham.

Quangos were perfectly formed, as if by nature intended, to be an instrument of Thatcherism. There is an extraordinary notion going round that Lady Thatcher tried to abolish them or, at least, to diminish their number. The corollary is supposed to be that the evils exposed last week by the Public Accounts Committee can confidently be attributed to Mr John Major. This is highly convenient. Thatcher Good, Major Bad: that is the simple message of some Conservative comment at the moment.

It is all great nonsense. The chief criticism which can be made of Mr Major is that he has omitted to break with the relicts of Lady Thatcher's regime with sufficient decision - or, it might be added, with enough brutality. Some will attribute this neglect to his natural niceness, others to his pusillanimity, others again, perhaps most plausibly, to a caution natural in a machine politician and a former whip. But then, machine politicians and whips know, or ought to know, how to be disagreeable too.

The debasement of our public life became apparent quite early on in Lady Thatcher's regime. Some of us noticed it at the time, and wrote about it. It did not require much percipience. The reasons for the deterioration were equally plain.

Some of them were personal to her. She was a bad judge of men. Women she did not judge at all. She had a weakness for men who talked quickly, made her laugh, appeared enthusiastic. Lord Howe did none of these things and accordingly became, towards the end, a figure who inspired her hatred but took a terrible and abundantly justified revenge. Though she was not a bad person herself, she preferred the company of bad people, and cultivated the acquaintance of numerous no-good boyos who shall, as they say, remain nameless.

Other reasons for the debasement were political and organisational. In pre-Thatcher days, quangos were assembled in much the same way as a royal commission, a committee of inquiry or the board of a public corporation. There would be a trade unionist, a local councillor, a professor, a lawyer, an accountant, a Welshman, a Scotsman and a housewife. Undoubtedly politics played a part in appointments to these bodies. In periods of Labour government, trade unionists and councillors would be rewarded while, under Conservative governments, councillors and industrialists might find their services to the party modestly acknowledged. But no previous prime minister had asked 'Is he one of us?' with the persistence or the intensity which Lady Thatcher was to demonstrate.

Simultaneously, in accordance with Lady Thatcher's dogmas, the functions of local government and of central departments were being transferred to outside agencies which were run for profit. Businessmen were held to possess superior powers. It is quite extraordinary, when you come to think about it, that any Conservative government should even for a moment have been prepared to contemplate privatising the prisons. If someone is to be punished by the state, the Conservative view is that the state or its servants should remain answerable.

Nor would Liberals dissent, except perhaps those of the extreme United States libertarian variety. In one of his books J S Mill has a section entitled 'Persons Exercising Disciplinary Functions in Society'. He writes that every advanced society has to employ people, notably policemen and prison warders, who may have to be nasty to other people. The individuals concerned, Mill says, must be chosen carefully, so that they do not take pleasure in their disagreeable tasks, and supervised closely, so that they do not abuse their considerable powers. I wonder whether Mill would have seen the funny side of Group 4. He was not noted for his sense of humour.

There are more fundamental errors still. One is that public objects can be measured arithmetically, and their attainment evaluated similarly. The most corrupting error of all is that there is no such thing as public service and that no one ever does anything worthwhile except for money, preferably in large quantities. I now look forward to hearing Mr Michael Portillo's views when he next feels impelled to address the public on these matters.