Three deadly sins of macho politicians

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The Independent Online
LAST NIGHT a jumped-up and much-mocked organisation celebrated its birthday. Charter 88, which campaigns for a better kind of British democracy and is the favourite cause of Nice People, is five years old. Politicians first dismissed it; then became narky about its impertinence; and now acknowledge that its message is spreading. Labour is much of the way to becoming, like the Liberal Democrats, a party of constitutional reform. The subject is no longer taboo among Tories, either.

Charter 88 has helped to change the political weather. The days when elected national politicians got taken seriously and the rules of their game were beyond debate have gone, eroded by too much bad government. Charter 88, which launched its 'bad government awards' yesterday, can no longer be dealt with through silent condescension: its humour and simplicity are taking prisoners. (Did you know that the number of ducks in the royal parks is an official secret?) More seriously, it has pointed the finger at the corrupting effect of modern power with real moral force. So as this column's birthday present, I'd like to inaugurate an occasional series about the deadly sins of modern government.

First up is the Sin of Ceaseless Activity. Politicians don't have the answers to everything and the more time they spend legislating, the less they have to reflect on what the answers might be. But governing is in danger of being reduced to the mere processing of legislation. Why? Because making Bills, good or bad, gets ministers on television and makes government look important. Keen ministers make Bills as naturally as royal ducks make eggs.

The Conservatives came into office in 1979 with a decent humility about government. Their manifesto said: 'Attempting to do too much, politicians have failed to do those things that should be done. This has damaged the country and the authority of government.' Since then they have passed 860 public Bills and nearly 33,400 statutory instruments - the latter being laws made directly by ministers, using powers given to them under an existing Act.

Taking full years only, the average rate of legislation-processing under the new 'lite' Conservative regime has been 61 government Acts a year. This is hardly any better than under old big-government Labour, which in 1974-78 averaged 65 a year. When it comes to statutory instruments, the Tory record (an average of 2,335) is actually worse than Labour's (2,046). Are we happier or better governed as a result of this manic activity? Perhaps we would be if most legislation were widely and well considered before it was passed. But it is not. That leads us on to the closely related . . .

Sin of Conceit. Throughout the Thatcher years, any view that the Prime Minister found inconvenient was not taken seriously by the government machine. Nigel Lawson, for instance, had attacked the poll tax as 'completely unworkable and politically catastrophic' in 1985, five years before it was finally introduced in England. His views, and those of a large number of other dissenters, in government and out of it, had not the slightest effect.

That sort of official arrogance was supposed to have been abandoned in the Major administration. But has it, really? The weight of official and expert opinion that thinks imprisoning more naughty boys is a vastly expensive way to produce a more effective criminal class, is huge. It may all be wrong. It may be that the Home Secretary has agonised about these arguments, submerged himself in them and risen above them, before spending our money on this course of action. But I have my doubts.

The story of the Child Support Agency, fine in principle but proving extremely ropey in practice, is another example of what happens when legislation is not properly scrutinised. Frank Field, chairman of the Commons social security select committee, which reported on the CSA yesterday, referred wryly to the problem of 'speaking to an almost empty chamber' on such subjects. And speaking of speaking, what about the . . .

Sin of Euphemism. Trying to redefine problems away instead of solving them particularly affects governments that have been in power for a long time. The unemployment figures spring to mind. Renaming unemployment benefit 'the job seeker's allowance' and cutting its scope from one year to six months puts no one back to work. Similarly, all those who have given up the search for work in desperation have long been redefined away. Were there jobs to be had, they'd mostly be at work. Yet officially, these people are not unemployed. They are merely 'economically inactive'.

This particular euphemism has the pernicious effect of appearing to reduce the crisis in male employment, as a new essay published by the Labour-backed Social Justice Commission points out. Its author, Edward Balls, says that unskilled male unemployment rose by 8 per cent between 1977 and 1991, while 'inactivity' rose by a further 16 per cent. 'So non-employment rose by a staggering 24 per cent for unskilled men - by 1991, a third of them had no job.' Now, this is a fact that is surely significant in the debate about crime and family breakdown - never mind unemployment itself. Yet it has been deliberately hidden by official euphemism.

These first three sins of government help to describe a culture whose deficiencies are glaringly obvious: the mix of relentless, unreflective activity; conceited or macho refusal to listen to inconvenient advice; the misuse of language. The question is, why? Is it because we are governed by wicked people? Or is it, as Charter 88 suggests, that the system itself is failing? Speaking for myself, I have found so few truly disreputable types at the top of politics that I have no doubt which answer is correct.