The rise of the quango state

BOOK REVIEW; Accountable To None: The Tory Nationalisation of Britain Simon Jenkins Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99
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It has been a good week to read this book on the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major: Tory MPs versus Lord Nolan, judges versus ministers,arguments about the National Lottery.

All of these stories, and many more, connect to the book's central theme, which explains how Mrs Thatcher, while proclaiming herself an enemy of state power and socialism, actually accelerated Britain's post-war drift towards an ever more centralised state.

Although the thought is not new, the detail and range of the evidence assembled here is impressive. Jenkins takes us through most areas of our national life: industry, local government, health, police, schools, universities, urban development, housing, the judicial system and even, through the lottery, gambling, to show how Thatcher and her successor tried and mostly succeeded in drawing power into Whitehall, there to be supervised "through the tarnished needle's eye of the parliamentary dispatch box".

The figures are compelling. Local government, which in the mid-Eighties raised half its own revenue locally, now raises less than a fifth, and even that is capped by Whitehall. The author argues that in the Sixties public spending was more effectively controlled by municipal treasurers than by the Treasury, but the town halls fell foul of "a belief that local government was the state while central government was not". Such "Orwellian dysfunction" says Jenkins, allowed centralisers to call themselves decentralisers and bureaucratic nationalisers to command the Conservative Party.

The origin of the energy which Mrs Thatcher applied to the construction of her constitutional flame-thrower is detected in Britain's mid-century economic decline, when a faltering economy found it increasingly difficult to meet political expectations. In the Sixties, government spent around 35 per cent of the country's income; by the mid-Seventies, the figure was heading for 50 per cent and a Labour administration found the International Monetary Fund camped inside the Treasury.

Thereafter, says Jenkins, the Treasury and its ministers (of whom the Prime Minister is First Lord) ruled the roost. The outcome was a culture of audit and financial accountability at any political price. Combined with the blazing interventionism of Mrs Thatcher and her senior colleagues, the country was run as if it were manageable as a Lincolnshire household. Where rate-capping and auditing would not do the trick, the centre went for annexation, placing its appointees atop the police, training councils, the universities and much else.

Thus arose the quango state, in which appointment is preferred to election. Jenkins tells us that in the 1890s London was run by boards involving 12,000 of its citizens, all of them elected. Today, the number of supervisors is unchanged, but only 1,914 of them are elected.

Why does this matter and what is to be done? Jenkins is better on the former than the latter. It matters because the functions of a highly centralised state tend to be less open and accountable, fostering delusions of a monopoly of wisdom - a condition even more pernicious than its parallel in business. It does not take long for unaccountable monopolies to become corrupt, enriching the monopolist at the expense of the consumer. At the same time, central political monopoly erodes local political culture, including local media, making the public cynical and finally tending towards anarchy, despotism or both.

The answer, says Jenkins, is "constitutionalism," by which he presumably means a clear set of constitutional principles inviolable by government ministers. He also advocates the return of powers to local government. "In virtually all spheres of government, functions and powers could revert to elected rather than appointed bodies - power to raise revenue, set service standards and monitor them locally. No country in Europe has as little autonomy vested in subordinate local institutions as has Britain."

It is a pity that this section of the argument is so compressed. Jenkins does not explore why it might be better to aim not for a mere re-creation of portmanteau government at local level, but a more function-specific series of locally elected bodies running schools, the police, housing and so on, with improved methods of direct accountability to voters. There is also much that local public services can and should learn from Thatcherism's emphasis on auditing and the division of function between purchaser and provider.

But perhaps the author was wise to rest his case having set out such a formidable charge sheet, knowing as he does that neither of the big political parties is yet willing to plead guilty and seriously begin the process of rehabilitation. That is why rival chancellors will continue to battle over the sterile earth of who can best spend the 40 per cent of national income in the hands of the Treasury, why the relationship between politicians and judges will become ever more fractious and why the public is becoming less and less interested in politics. What we need is a political leader who will come to power genuinely determined to shed some of it.