The question of why the Government so consistently lacks the competence to implement policy is the one that people want to talk to me about more than any other these days. Some have varying degrees of exasperation, but amongst the older hands there is an increasing resignation. It looks like this is the ‘new normal’.
Whilst critics of the government are generally unsurprised, they are shocked at how this touches almost every aspect of practice. They have moved beyond an ‘always knew it’ self-righteousness to a genuine worry for the future of the country.
So I thought I’d use today’s post to explore the pervasive reasons behind the fact that the Government now seem to find actually implementing its ideas so very hard.
I think there are two.
First is the problem of success, and what they have succeeded at. If you look closely at number 10 and those running the Government, they have run two very important and successful political campaigns. They were major players in the Vote Leave campaign that won the EU referendum. This was – against the odds – a stunningly successful campaign. OK, some will carp that they ‘only’ got 52% of the vote but I would be surprised if they were aiming for any more than 51%. (They knew precisely what it would take to win).
They not only won but completely defeated what they saw as ‘the establishment’. They believe they were brilliant – and the brilliance of that campaign lives on in all they do.
The campaign to win the December 2019 election was similarly well constructed. Of course they were lucky with their opponents, but those people who study insurgent political campaigns will, for a long time, talk about the 2016 and 2019 campaigns and their success.
If you are very good at something, it is very likely that you will apply the skills that have proved successful in one part of your life to different aspects of your work.
What are the lessons from brilliant campaigning that can be used in actually running the country?
There are some.
Worrying all the time about how what you are doing is being received by the public is not a bad skill to have when running a country. (Think for a moment about a government that doesn’t care at all how its actions are being received by the country). This is why they have spent many millions on opinion polls and focus groups nearly every day since March.
There are transferable skills from running a campaign that can be used to run the country, and those who ran brilliant campaigns can use those skills to play a role in running the country. And they have.
As I expect regular readers have realised for some time now the main point of my current set of posts is to highlight the fact that while most of us usually spend most of our time looking at the detail of announcements and the policies they involve, the real point of announcements nowadays is to generate emotions that connect to the public. The last nine months have seen one long campaign by the Government to defeat the virus with a strong British will (plucky common sense) and optimism.
If only the virus gave daily press conferences, like the opposition in a political campaign, the row resulting from the virus’ rejection of the government’s position would echo much more strongly for longer. If the virus operated like a political campaign the government’s brilliance in this arena would surely defeat it.
But it keeps on not doing that. The virus keeps not only being an abstract thing which frightens people, but is also a very real thing which does very real things in the world. It doesn’t just run campaigns. And, as we can see every day, campaigns alone are not beating the virus. Certainly they play a role, but they need the assistance of real activity led by a real government. When that doesn’t happen the virus isn’t beaten.
For me this is where the second pervasive problem of government competence comes in.
The government have a very strong sense of entitlement about their right to govern and – given the successful campaigns they have run – it is also an insurgent entitlement. The thinking goes ‘Not only did we win both a referendum and an election but we did so against the establishment.’ We are, therefore, not only entitled to run everything but we have the right to do so whilst rejecting the establishment.
And – from following the careers of both Trump and Johnson – it is clear that the establishment is defined as anyone who disagrees with us.
These two issues taken together – being entitled and being insurgent – explains why what they are trying to implement just doesn’t work.
Being entitled means that you believe that what say really goes, and you expect it to be carried out. Over the ages lots of ministers have felt this. ‘I’m in charge. I have a mandate. Just do it!’
But combine entitlement with insurgency and you have a heady mix. Not only am I right but when someone says “excuse me minister but there is a bit of a problem here”, this dissent defines you as being part of the establishment, trying to deflect my entitled right to run things.
Given the 2016 election and the Prime Minister’s experience of being blocked in 2019, the establishment is pretty much everyone else at the centre of British government. Anyone in the branches of the executive, legislative and democratic wings. Just consider who has been in the dock this past year for getting in the way of this insurgent entitlement. The judiciary, the civil service, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the BBC and (I’m pretty sure within a few weeks) the science. That’s pretty much everyone who in one short year has said “excuse me minister there is a bit of a problem here”.
This leads to two outcomes. First not trusting anyone who keeps on saying that ‘its all a bit more difficult’ and second only trusting your mates. Both are now happening.
It might of course help if you had mates that had experience of running a few things – but that’s unlikely because – almost by definition – if they had they would be the establishment and you would therefore be against them.
My headline today concerns a lack of competence when running something that is a bit difficult. Most of the big political issues that this Government is trying to implement are indeed a bit difficult.
The pandemic is a bit difficult.
Putting a border around Kent to stop lorries entering is a bit difficult.
Getting Bishop Auckland to be as well off as Surrey is a bit difficult.
Treating these issues as easy makes them very, very difficult.
Treating these issues as if they are simply a campaign that can be beaten by public opinion ignores the real world consequences – and results in failure.
Treating yourself as entitled to run organistions and not listen to people who say things are problematic causes disasters.
Treating your mates as the only people you can work with creates catastrophes.
This may perhaps explain why, over and over again, this government fails to implement policies if they are a bit difficult.