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What a bunch of tossers - The Ex-Communicator

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March 13th, 2011


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09:48 am - What a bunch of tossers
David Mitchell today talks about his experience of being on television: that, not understanding the jobs that all the technical and administrative people are doing as they bustle around him, he starts to feel irritated by them as if 'just point the camera at me and let me do my stuff'. And I think this is a very common - if irrational - feeling. And there's a related feeling - not understanding anything about a job, you tend to understimate how difficult it is, and how hard people are working. Driving past roadworks you see people standing around, looking at bits of paper - what a bunch of tossers - get digging!

And for the ruling classes I think these irrational feelings extend over our whole society. They don't understand that the work we do enables their lives, and they don't understand how challenging it is. They think we are parasites. We are even - and these are the precise words of both Thatcher and Cameron - 'the enemy'. If only the workers would piss off, industry would thrive. If only the public sector would piss off, we'd have a great capitalist economy.

Mitchell:
In seeking to blame the civil service for the rules as well as their enforcement, I think this speech is more sinister than Cameron's usual second-rate demagogy and I'm surprised it didn't attract greater attention. To me, these remarks are just as damaging as the prime minister's disparagement of multiculturalism, which rightly drew criticism, and a truer reflection of his political standpoint. Here he's breaking new ground for his evidence-averse Thatcherite ideological crusade.

Really I want to quote this whole article, which is one of the best he has ever written in my view. It's self-reflective and brainy. Read it all.
Cameron also doesn't realise, or is willfully ignoring, how important our large and basically effective bureaucracy is to our place in the front rank of free nations. Without the civil service, acts of Parliament are only words and elections just millions of little slips of paper, like they are in Afghanistan. Civil servants don't merely oil the wheels, they're the axles that join them. Without them David Cameron and his policies would be no more a government than Ian Hislop sitting in a field being sarcastic would be an episode of Have I Got News For You.

Yes. I would say there is an ongoing and deliberate undermining of the effectiveness of the public sector, and in my opinion that is madness for a government. It is one thing to please crowds by pretending that the public sector does nothing, it's quite another to literally prohibit them from working effectively.

Not understanding the work they do in keeping a bunch of plates spinning on top of precarious sticks the government has impatiently interrupted this work, and shortly all these plates - all these processes which keep our society civilised - are going to start falling over. I don't know if this is what they want (for some reason) or whether they literally haven't got a clue about what they have done.

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:watervole
Date:March 13th, 2011 09:58 am (UTC)
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Of course, one could also turn the argument on its head and say that most people have no idea how complex government is. "If they would only spend money on 'x' everything would be better."


(Not saying that the civil service isn't necessary - just pointing out that a lot of people only apply the logic in one direction)
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From:communicator
Date:March 13th, 2011 10:02 am (UTC)
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I think what you describe is absolutely right: I believe there was an idea that taking over Government would be easy - no idea how complex legislation is - no idea how complex the process of making things happen is. No idea how inter-related and organic the processes of society are. Also a huge over-estimation of their own abilities, which immodesty I personally attribute to a protected up-bringing.
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From:watervole
Date:March 13th, 2011 10:07 am (UTC)
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I agree so much. I hear people all around me who say it is obvious that the solution to the economy/unemployment/etc. is to do 'x'. And (regardless of which party is in power), I tend to cautiously say "I think it's a bit more complex than that."

The more I look at an issue in depth, the more unexpected or unanticipated factors I find. I still recall listening to one really intelligent radio debate which succeeded in changing my opinion on an issue I had considered cut and dried in its simplicity.
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From:steepholm
Date:March 13th, 2011 10:01 am (UTC)
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Excellent article - thanks for the pointer.
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From:communicator
Date:March 13th, 2011 10:08 am (UTC)
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I wanted to quote from this comment which I think presents a factor many people don't acknowledge:

"It is vital to realise that ... Cameron, Osborne, the odious Gove, et al, are NOT RICH. When I was at Oxford, my genuinely toff chums would dismiss the Bullingdon Club, not as the fount of privilege, but as a bunch of tossers and wannabes... when they are in Dubai or somewhere, mingling with the super-rich, they are no more than gofers and potboys. A few million in a tory boy's trust fund is pocket change to the people (they) want to impress."

They present themselves to us as an elite, where in fact they are not that successful - heirs of moderate estates, with jobs in PR, promoted beyond their abilities. It's tragic really.
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From:hfnuala
Date:March 13th, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC)
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Rich goes up a very long way. A few years ago I made a comment to my mother about her and dad being rich and she indignantly denied it.

I can see her point - yeah, they own the house outright and Dad makes good money and will have a good pension and their kids no longer need money from them, but at the time Dad's job meant they were living in America interacting with people who had private jets and owned football teams and had houses big enough to need servants not as a function of their job but because they were just that rich. Compared to those people, Cameron etc are indeed the sharp elbowed middle class of Tory renown.
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From:communicator
Date:March 13th, 2011 08:33 pm (UTC)
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They quite like thinking of themselves as a posh elite, which kind of proves they aren't all that.
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From:matildabj
Date:March 13th, 2011 11:06 am (UTC)
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Having been in meetings where civil servants try to figure out how to put into process a new piece of legislation, and struggling to get past the 'testing it out' phase in a risk-averse, pre-election period, this is spot on.

how important our large and basically effective bureaucracy is to our place in the front rank of free nations

Or Ministers say 'I want this done' and then wait for it to be done. The civil servants have to figure out how to get it done within the bounds of existing legislation. Cameron has jumped to being Prime Minister without ever having been any other sort of minister and discovered how things actually function.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:March 13th, 2011 05:20 pm (UTC)
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Cameron has jumped to being Prime Minister without ever having been any other sort of minister and discovered how things actually function.

Another thing he has in common with Blair. There's some striking stuff in Andrew Rawnsley's recent book "The End of the Party" about senior civil servants explaining to Blair the big difference between leading the party and managing the government. Blair was outstanding at the former, and pisspoor at the latter.
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From:communicator
Date:March 13th, 2011 08:10 pm (UTC)
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I think furthermore, they actually think that the job is insignificant. Yes, they are inexperienced, but they also see no need to learn, to ask for help, to listen to advice.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:March 13th, 2011 05:15 pm (UTC)
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The conflict between politicians trying to get things done, and civil servants trying to ensure politicians do what civil servants think they should, is a perennial feature of British political life. Cameron is facing it, Blair complained about it frequently and with passion, Thatcher was frustrated by it. It's the archetypal plot of Yes, Minister, and not without good reason.

It's interesting to see how different Prime Ministers have dealt with this. Blair, of course, greatly expanded the role of political appointees in trying to drive through change, and avoided giving any kind of substantial role to cabinet government if at all possible. Brown continued this reliance on political appointees, but had fewer of them and relied on pet bullies like McBride and Balls. Cameron initially took a different approach - much more hands-off, giving greater autonomy to ministers. He seems to be rowing back on that now in an attempt to coordinate government better, and has created a new policy unit to basically do the job of Blair's Spads. The difference, though, is that Cameron's people are civil servants, not political appointees. It will be interesting to see how that works - it certainly suggests a somewhat more nuanced view of the civil service than Mitchell acknowledges.

On the issue of civil servants suppressing growth, I think Cameron may have fallen victim to the Fallacy of Small Truths. It is true that the civil service bureaucracy has a habit of placing overly onerous regulatory burdens on business. Vince Cable's initiative to have EU regulations passed directly into UK law without the notorious civil service gold-plating is a part of trying to deal with that problem. (And Mitchell's assertion that bureaucrats "don't make the rules, Parliament does" is startlingly naive.) However, the Fallacy of Small Truths occurs when you assume that, just because something is true (and generally appealing to your ideological prejudices), it is necessarily the crucial or most important issue. There's a lot more to promoting growth than removing onerous bureaucracy, and not just because some bureaucracy is actually very necessary. Easier finance for small businesses would probably be top of the list.

Where Mitchell is quite right is in identifying that public servants of all kinds are the very people whom the Prime Minister needs in order to carry out any of his policies. We could do with a nice, snappy verb that means "to foolishly piss off all the people on whom you rely to carry out your wishes". I think "to Gove" has a nice ring to it.
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From:communicator
Date:March 13th, 2011 08:07 pm (UTC)
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Let me take one example that Cameron mentioned: the implementation of planning regulations within Local Government. Improving this implementation would be a useful and challenging job, probably thankless, which would benefit both 'enterprise' and the public sphere.

However Cameron's approach - 'planning regulation is rubbish' - is to abdicate responsibility. It is precisely the opposite of what is required. Planning regulation is not the enemy of enterprise: good planning regulation is to the great benefit of enterprise. What we have - mediocre-to-fair planning regulation - is something in the right direction. The lazy-libertarian approach - to treat building regulations as a bad thing, and those who implement them as bad people - is madness.

This isn't about Gove: it goes right to the top, and it goes right through. Lack of understanding of how difficult a job they have taken on, massive over-estimation of their own worth, and under-estimation of the worth of other people. Refusal to give people with decades of experience a read-through of materials before they are published. And as I have said before, reckless ignorance is a form of sabotage.
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From:espresso_addict
Date:March 14th, 2011 12:47 am (UTC)
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Thanks for linking this; food for thought.
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From:zornhau
Date:March 14th, 2011 09:15 am (UTC)
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This entry scared me. Please keep them coming.
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From:tehomet
Date:March 16th, 2011 11:49 pm (UTC)
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♥ David Mitchell ♥

Only Victoria Coren and Barbara Ellen fill me with more joy. :D

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