The tale of the postman, the gas man and two political philosophies

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The Independent Online
WE ALL lost a good man the other day. His name was Ian Barr, and he died on Monday in Scotland at the age of 67. It was a sudden death. The same issue of the Scotsman which carried his obituary also contained a reader's letter from him announcing where, after long consideration, he had decided to put his vote in Thursday's local elections. "I intend to exercise this conviction at next Thursday's local elections and at every opportunity thereafter."

The party cheated of Mr Barr's vote by death was, as it happens, the SNP. But the passing of Ian Barr bereaves not just his family and his chosen party, and not just Scotland. Britain as a whole ought to mourn him, because he was exactly the sort of public servant who once gave the administration of this state such a high reputation. And Britain also owes Ian Barr a moment of painful self-examination. Why did the public service fail to keep somebody like this, who resigned on a matter of principle seven years ago at the height of his career?

Ian Barr worked for the Post Office. He began as a messenger, at the age of 14. Most of his career, as he worked his way up, was outside Scotland. He became an assistant postal controller in Manchester in 1955 and then joined the overseas mail division in London. He helped to design the Giro and to introduce data-processing. As head of planning, he introduced into British practice both mechanised sorting offices and the technique of optical character recognition. Long before, his intellectual calibre had been recognised when he became the first member of the Civil Service Selection Board without a university degree.

Then, in 1984, he was appointed chairman of the Scottish Post Office Board. The gale of Thatcherite ideology was blowing furiously. Everywhere the services and industries in the public sector were under that peculiar double pressure which was typical of Thatcherism: to centralise and at the same time to put commercial needs before public needs, in the shadow of eventual privatisation. Ian Barr tried to fight off both types of change. He argued that the man or woman on the spot usually knew best, and that the chaotic reorganisation which divided responsibility for the Post Office in Scotland between London, Leeds and Manchester was misguided. For him, it was "the start of the breakdown in staff relations".

But the final collision came over his defence of the public interest. In 1988, London (the Scottish Post Office was not even consulted) announced that Datapost charges to the Highlands and Islands would carry a 35 per cent surcharge. The special needs of remote and fragile communities were subordinated to cost cutting, in a service which was still in theory "public". The Scotsman's obituary last week quoted from Barr's reply to London, in which he refused to give public support to the surcharges. "I cannot escape the conclusion that this fresh imposition is discriminative, arbitrary and aimed at enhancing profits without regard to the social responsibility which the Post Office corporately has placed upon it."

He added that he realised that this was a resigning matter, and the chief executive, Sir Bryan Nicholson, let him go. Afterwards, Ian Barr wrote that "the old Post Office that I knew was dedicated to public service. It is dead, and has never been buried. The new Post Office is dedicated to commercial objectives and total centralisation is being introduced ..." The last sentence, identifying so clearly the twin drives of modern Toryism, is the key one. As a Scot, Ian Barr had to hand a special way of understanding and resisting those drives which was not available to most of the rest of Britain. He became a determined "evolutionist", and a leading member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, because he thought that self-government would be a way of safeguarding public services in Scotland from both threats. At the end of his life, as his posthumously published letter shows, he came to think that full independence for Scotland was the surest solution. But there was nothing uniquely Scottish about Barr's views on public service.

He was, in fact, repeating the general British view of what public service should look like and what its values should be. It is a view which has been held for over a century, and which came to be regarded as a tradition which deserved to be both defended and exported. It has at least three articles of faith. One is that there is a duty to provide the same level of service to all parts of the community, even if that means special efforts on behalf of the poor, weak or remote. The second insists that even the most miserly control over public spending is more alert to the citizens' needs than an obligation to show annual profits. The third principle, as brutally disregarded in recent years as the other two, is that all services should where possible be both locally controlled and locally accountable.

Ian Barr was one sort of public servant. On Friday we were reminded of another. Richard Giordano, chairman of British Gas, went on BBC Radio to defend the indefensible: the rewards of British Gas directors and, above all, of Cedric Brown, the chief executive. The annual report was published that day with heart-rending assurances that this really, finally was the truth about salaries, options and emoluments. It clarified previous British Gas claims that in "real" terms Mr Brown's rise was only 28 per cent. It turns out that it was "only" 71 per cent. Mr Giordano allowed that there had been errors of presentation. But the fact - for it is a fact - that the customers of British Gas now regard its leadership as despicable, greedy privateers who are grabbing all the cash they can while cutting the pay of their own employees ... that is a thought which the Giordano brain apparently cannot think.

The contrast here is between Mr Barr and Mr Brown. Both began at the bottom of their industries and, by talent and hard work, made their ways to the top. Neither man reached the summit by brandishing diplomas or having the right accent or being poached from some influential merchant bank. But there the resemblances end.

The two men, who both grew up in public utilities which were also state monopolies, had absolutely different attitudes to accountability. Barr thought that the Post Office answered to the needs of the society as a whole; "accounting", in his sense, took place as a household waited for the postman's step on the stair, or as an old lady with bad legs queued in a Post Office. Brown seems to have thought that the gas industry, although still in effect a monopoly, could withdraw from responsibility to society and answer only to shareholders. Barr was judged to belong to the awkward squad because the prospects and pay of his employees mattered to him as much as the Post Office's balance-sheet. Brown sacrificed the jobs of his staff and interests of customers to impress corporate City investors.

When the moment of choice arrived - loyalty to citizens and staff, or profit for shareholders and directors - Ian Barr put his job on the line and left with pride. Cedric Brown said nothing and was well rewarded.

This is the tale of a postman and a gas man. It is also the story of two political philosophies. One of them sets out to restrain the strong in the interests not merely of the weak but of all. The other wants an unprotected survival war of the institutions, a war which is already leading to chaos, under-investment and a growth of unaccountable power.

Finally, is it the tale of two nations? I think not. One unspoken motive in Scottish nationalism, especially in the last 15 years, is a wish to save "the best of Britain" from the vandals south of the Border. That is a joke which Ian Barr would have enjoyed.