Culling the Civil Service is no replacement for a genuine plan for Whitehall reform or economic recovery

15 May

A spectre is haunting Whitehall – the spectre of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Unlike most ghosts, the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency is hard to miss as he stalks the corridors of government departments, aiming to give civil servants the fright of their life. He doesn’t need any chains to rattle or day-glo paint to strike fear into the hearts of the average bureaucrat, like SW1’s take on a Scooby Doo baddy. No, the all Rees-Mogg needs is a little note saying he hopes to see any official working from home back in the office soon to give them the heebie-jeebies

And yet now Somerset’s most notable export (outside of middling cider and half-decent spinners) has added a new tool to his armoury in his fight to make our Rolls-Royce Civil Service a bit less Austin Allegro. The Government has a new pledge to cut 91,000 officials, bringing staff levels back to the heady pre-Brexit and Covid days of 2016. The measure has been sold as tackling the cost-of-living crisis; what ever back-of-a-fag-packet calculations that have been done suggest £3.5 billion could be saved and ploughed into funding tax cuts.

Regular readers of my economic missives will know that I am no fan of an unfunded tax cut. Unlike Ronald Reagan, I do not think the deficit is big enough to look after itself – especially as borrowing costs soar and growth stagnates. As such, I must congratulate the Government on waking up to the need to balance intake with outgoings, especially as the tax burden hits a 71-year high. I am also no fan of sclerotic civil servants and have greatly enjoyed Rees-Mogg’s ongoing efforts to get officials off their Pelotons and back to their desks.

But that won’t stop me criticising this new scheme. Leave aside what it says about the idea-generating capacity of our current Cabinet that this was the best they came up with when they were all shipped to Stoke solely to produce vote-winning ideas. Instead, we should go after the sheer impracticality of a proposal that appears both unworkable and unable to deliver the tax cuts promised. Most importantly, we should worry about a government that gestures towards fiscal prudence, with no actual desire or plan to deliver it.

The Civil Service has grown by a fifth in the last six years. Partly, this was a product of the pandemic, with a squadron of administrators required to man projects such as the NHS test-and-trace system. But it is also a consequence of Brexit. New departments, such as the Department for International Trade and the (now defunct) Department for Exiting the European Union, were required alongside a huge scaling up of some existing departments to cover duties repatriated from Brussels. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has reportedly trebled in size.

Consequently, some of the new roles Rees-Mogg might want to cut simply can’t be removed if he wants to honour his title as Minister for Brexit Opportunities. Moreover, as indolent, intransigent, and impossible as many aspects of Whitehall may be, and as obvious as the failings of the working-from-home culture are, the Civil Service is already under a huge amount of pressure. Incompetence at the DVLA rubs shoulders with a Border Force burdened with new duties post-Brexit, and a criminal justice system creaking under a two-year-long pandemic backlog.

Of course, if this proposal came as part of an ongoing and genuine commitment to fundamentally reforming the Civil Service, making it more responsive and data-driven, then these cuts could be understood as the necessary losses required in digitising and updating Whitehall. But the Prime Minister fell out with the man who has thought and written more on this subject than anyone else, and any reform agenda has lost all impetus ever since Dominic Cummings left Number 10. Instead, this effort appears to be a kneejerk threat from a Minister and Government fed up with officials.

That is made especially apparent by the ‘cost-of-living’ veneer with which this cull of the Civil Service has been coated. It is not clear whether the £3.5 billion figure accounts for the Government apparently hoping to make most of these cuts via voluntary redundancies. Either way, £3.5 billion is a laughably small amount in the overall context of Government spending, or in funding a tax cut that will genuinely help those currently struggling. The new National Insurance rise is set to cost tax-payers at least £6 billion alone.

So this policy doesn’t even reverse the biggest hit that this government itself has made to the pockets of the average voter. Although the Chancellor has already aimed to effectively cancel out the rise for a majority of those affected, that the Government is already reverse-ferreting on a policy it introduced only a few short months ago highlights how it both failed to prepare for the stagflation hurtling towards it, and how the Johnson Ministry is living day-by-day, headline-by-headline, focus group-by-focus group. That is not a recipe for good government – or a coherent economic strategy.

Rees-Mogg was therefore right to say that cutting 91,000 civil servants does not represent a return to Osborne-esque austerity. Not only is this a drop in the ocean compared to the real cuts required to impact inflation or fund tax cuts, but it also does not come part of any sort of long-term economic plan. That phrase may have been mocked, and Osborne may have missed many of his self-imposed targets. But at least the Cameron government had an aim – to reduce the deficit through spending cuts. Since then, both May and Johnson have hiked spending whilst hoping they won’t have to pay for it.

Whilst I am naturally sympathetic to commentators’ calls to sack every civil servant who insists on still working-from-home, and as much as I believe Whitehall is bloated and inefficient, this headline-friendly war on officialdom is not the right approach. We are a 21st century country governed by a Victorian system that needs desperate reform, and we face a perilous economic climate that will demand some tough choices. This proposal meets neither of those challenges – and it is almost embarrassing that ministers would pretend that it does.

 

Howard Flight: The Government is right to push civil servants into returning to the office.

2 May

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The Covid pandemic accelerated the trend of Civil Servants working from home. Tens of thousands are still doing so. The EU has recently told its citizens to work from home three days per week to reduce EU reliance on Russian energy resources.

Meanwhile, the UK has Jacob Rees- Mogg, the Minister for Government Efficiency, Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Nadhim Zahawi , the Education Secretary, seeking to reduce working from home “by firm persuasion”. When Jacob Rees-Mogg’s survey was undertaken at the beginning of April, it showed the Department of Education as having the largest proportion – 80 percent- of Civil Servants working from home. It was clear Zahawi had to get his senior Civil Servants back to their offices.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has made the important point that where Civil Servants work predominately from home, they lose out on the by-products of working in an office atmosphere. This covers monitoring, evaluation, supervision of staff, transmission of skills, development of younger colleagues and innovative thinking.

Minsters must back up their officials and be prepared to face down the trade unions. Part of the reason for Civil Servants continuing to wish to work from home is the financial benefits – train fares that are saved can be as much as £500 per month. Female Civil Servants especially can save on childcare, which constitutes a large incentive to remaining out of the office.

The Department of Education was followed by the Department of Work and Pensions at 27 percent and the Foreign Office at 31 percent. Compare that with with International Trade at 73 percent and the Department of Health and Social Care at percent. An average of only 44 percent of Civil Servants were working from their Departmental office.

Prior to Covid, average staff occupancy was around 80 percent but with the silent majority of officials “not pulling their weight”. The Civil Service is still out of step with the rest of the county getting back to ‘normal’. The attempt has been to make the pandemic phase of working from home a new norm.

Civil Service Departments have also each issued how much time staff are expected to work in government buildings. This is two days per week. By far the most strident attack on the Civil Service regime has come from Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee. “It is time for the managers of the Civil Service to get a grip and do their job by forcing staff to return to their offices in greater numbers,” he has said. “It is simply unacceptable for so many of our public servants to continue sitting at home”.

The problem with the Foreign Office’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan was proof of the damage working from home can do. Hybrid working has also been to blame for the problems with lorry licences backlog at the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency, which had a Covid outbreak in 2020.

Not all jobs need to be done in the office, but it is undeniable that those people working in the office and interacting with different contacts are the more efficient. Working from a shed or spare room is harder and reduces productivity.

Being a Civil Servant means taking on a commitment to the public good. The very term Civil Service denotes a body of officials whose job is to serve the state and general public. By long tradition in Britain, Civil Servants work anonymously, with the reward coming at the end of a career with a generous pension and sometimes an honour. During Covid, by necessity, much of the Civil Service work has been done by people working from home. But now the restrictions have been lifted, office-workers should be returning to their offices.

Working from home has a significant additional productivity cost. New young recruits need to experience the office atmosphere, interacting directly with their managers and not marooned at home with only a Zoom contact. Some Departments haven’t even got their canteen facilities operating and some still insist on masks. Staff wanting to come into the office are discouraged from doing so by others who fear this will make it harder for them to stay at home!

It is time for the managers of the Civil Service to get to grips and to do their jobs. Steve Barclay has apparently given an unambiguous instruction to this effect, but it is not being properly followed. We need regime change. Wherever possible Civil Servants must be required to be in the office at least a majority of days per week and to be told they will be in breach of their contracts if they are not. If people are paid a London weighting but never actually go to London then they must lose and repay this.

There is also no longer a pay differential in favour of Private Sector employment. And at an average pay of £28,600 p.a. this will produce a Public Sector Pension of £17,563 but a Private Sector Pension of only £6,412. The number of Civil Servants earning £100,000 and more has increased considerably more than the increases for support staff. Criticism is made of one rule for the professional class and another, less generous one for workers and teachers.

Up to three quarters of staff are still working from home. Jacob Rees Mogg has written to all Secretaries of State advising that they must send a clear message to civil servants about ending the work from home culture. To do so is necessary for the British state to function as it should.

David Willetts: The civil service must innovate to become more efficient. And working at the office isn’t always best, Jacob.

26 Apr

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

The cost and size of the state is rising. The Government is rightly trying to get a grip on it. Some of the issues are strategic – it is turning into a state for old people, with an increasing proportion of day to day spending going on benefits and health care for the elderly. We have an obligation to them, but many themselves worry about the costs they impose on younger taxpayers.

The Government wants to get back to a public sector of the size and shape that existed pre-Covid and perhaps even pre-Brexit, which is a challenge when there are such powerful interests involved. The inimitable Jacob Rees-Mogg is playing a key role on this task.

There is certainly the endless battle to be fought with cumbersome bureaucracy and red tape. It does look to me as if the process of decision taking in government has become more complex and slow. As the power of the centre grows so it is harder for departments to make progress on an issue which is not a priority for Number 10. Every significant announcement– and many more besides – needs a slot on the grid, and getting this seems harder and more time-consuming than ever.

Brexit may help us to escape some of the absurd rules and regulations imposed by the EU. But most of our regulations from planning to the labour market are home-grown. Indeed, we hid behind Brussels when the real pressures were domestic and political.

However, I saw for myself in science and innovation that Brussels was responsible for a crippling interpretation of the precautionary principle. It held back GM foods – in alliance with the Daily Mail campaign on Frankenstein foods. It was wary of cell and gene therapies. A taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform last year in which George Freeman participated came up with some excellent proposals to promote innovative technologies: I hope Jacob is dusting that down to see what can be done.

But as well as this there are the perennial challenges of holding down the running costs of government. When I was working as a junior official in the Treasury many years ago, a formidable older official spotted that I was taking the notes of a meeting on clean fresh notepaper. She took me aside and explained that drafts should be written on the back of used papers to save money. Early in her career she had been private secretary to Stafford Cripps and those values lived on.

Now the heir of Stafford Cripps is Rees Mogg who has apparently been attacked by Nadine Dorries for his “Dickensian” approach to getting officials back into the office.

He may be missing the opportunity provided by the way in which we responded to Covid. Suddenly, old clunky ways of doing things had to be abandoned. There is real danger that a retro agenda of trying to get us back to the world as it was pre-Covid will jeopardise those gains.

Face to face delivery of public services is the prime example. There are political pressures to get back to things as they were. But sometimes online – which can itself be direct and personal – is the most efficient way to do things. We don’t always need to see the doctor in person, for example.

It can be efficient if students follow lectures on line – playing them back again if there is a difficult point they need to grasp, and speeding up when it is familiar territory. One professor told me recently that when students finally met her physically, they said her voice was lower than they expected. She realised they had been playing her lectures at faster speed. I’m not sure about that – perhaps it might count as a gain in productivity. As with health care, the best model is probably blended perhaps with lectures on line and then more interactive discussion of them in person.

Jacob also wishes to see workers back in their offices. Businesses are wrestling with this too. Sometimes we do need personal meetings. New recruits in particular gain if they can meet people and absorb the culture of the work-place. But equally some official work can now be done from home. And there is evidence that working some time at home is bringing more mothers of young children into the labour market – a real help with skills shortages.

Seizing Covid opportunities is not just turning the clock back. I hope Jacob will look at all the ways in which things have been done differently because of Covid, and keep them when there are clear efficiency gains.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon dodges police action for mask breach and faces calls to suspend MPs

21 Apr

Last week, this column looked at allegations that Nicola Sturgeon was acting in a ‘Trumpian’ manner after she banned awkward print journalists from the launch of the SNP’s local election campaign.

We also highlighted an excellent recent piece in the Spectator which explored the ways in which the Nationalists have used their long grip on Holyrood to increasingly suborn the civil service and civil society north of the border.

This week saw yet another example of the close relationship between the SNP and the institutions they rule over after the First Minister was caught in breach of her own rules on masks.

Yet despite the high-profile investigation into Downing Street, which has already seen the Prime Minister issued a Fixed Penalty Notice with the prospect of more to follow, there were no consequences for Sturgeon: Police Scotland decided not to take action.

That at least can be justified as an independent operational decision. Perhaps more serious are the claims, reported in the Herald, that the National Clinical Director has been “blurring the lines between ministers and government officials” in his defence of the First Minister.

After Professor Jason Leitch explained on the radio that her face had been uncovered for “a matter of seconds”, the Scottish Conservatives pointed out that it wasn’t his place, as a civil servant, to be offering defences of Sturgeon’s conduct.

Kenny Farquharson, no dyed-in-the-wool unionist, has written that the First Minister ought to resign after being caught breaking her own rules – perhaps especially since she insisted on maintaining mask mandates long after they had been abandoned in England.

But as Guido points out, neither the Scottish or (in the case of Mark Drakeford’s breach) the Welsh police have decided to take action.

In other bad news for the SNP, there are big questions after it emerged that the outgoing CEO of Scotland’s £2bn publicly-owned investment bank was paid off to the tune of £117,500 – six months’ salary – rather than working out her notice. Ministers have come under fire for a lack of explanation after Eilidh Mactaggart resigned at the end of January, apparently for personal reasons.

The Nationalists have also been caught in their own sleaze scandal after Westminster authorities upheld complaints against two SNP MPs.  According to the Daily Telegraph, the party is facing calls to suspend Patrick Grady, the party’s former chief whip, and Patricia Gibson, a frontbencher, over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Even if the SNP decide not to act, there could still be consequences. The Times reports:

“The result of the investigation by Westminster authorities has been referred to an independent expert panel, which can recommend suspension or expulsion from the House. The SNP will also have to decide whether to take any other disciplinary action of its own against the pair.”

Back to the Protocol

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities, has made headlines by reiterating to a committee of MPs that the Government has the right to unilaterally overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol in the event that the European Union don’t agree to reform it.

According to the FT, he said that “The United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement we have with any foreign power. That must be the case”.

However, he refused to be drawn on the specifics of the Government’s plans, which will do nothing to allay the concerns of cynics that it is once again having one of its intermittent bouts of tough talk, few of which have resulted in serious action.

It is worth noting though that unilateral action does not necessarily mean a ‘big bang’ approach such as triggering Article 16 or ‘tearing up’ the agreement entirely.

The Government’s tactic of indefinitely extending so-called ‘grace periods’ – originally intended to allow Northern Irish businesses to find EU alternatives to their British suppliers – has been very effective; despite lots of initial bluster, it has not blown up the talks.

Ministers can also now point to the long operation of the grace periods and fairly ask the EU for evidence of the feared market distortions which are supposed to justify them.

There is no doubt that the United Kingdom could, in principle as the sovereign power, resile from the Protocol. Whether the political will exists to do so is a completely different question.

Rees-Mogg vs Sir Humphrey. The Minister for Efficiency is right to tackle Whitehall’s working from home habit.

20 Apr

Jacob Rees-Mogg is not a name one naturally associates with efficiency. The image of him languishing on the green benches as Leader of the House of Commons must live rent-free in the imaginations of most of his critics.

Nevertheless, his appointment as Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency means that ‘maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense’ (thanks, Google) is now his daily business. For those of a small-state bent, it seems a manna from Heaven matching of man to role.

After all, in a Government so often condemned from its right-flank for being high-taxing and high-spending, it is surely helpful to have the Government’s trained backbencher ensuring that waste doesn’t get out of hand and that every penny extorted from the taxpayer is deployed wisely.

Unfortunately, as our Editor has previously pointed out, Rees-Mogg is unable to translate his new job title into action unless given the full support of the Prime Minister and the understanding of the Treasury – and neither appears to be forthcoming.

But a ministerial position does not only bring with it red briefcases, rides in Jaguars, and the opportunity to posture at the Dispatch Box. It also provides what Teddy Roosevelt called a ‘bully pulpit’ – a conspicuous position that supplies opportunities to speak out from and be listened to.

In Roosevelt’s case, it was the Presidential office he held. For Rees-Mogg, it is the terrific platform he has been given from which to condemn poor practices within Whitehall. And there is no more obvious example of that now than the civil service’s conspicuous failure to stop working from home.

During the lockdown, working via Microsoft Teams and Zoom was necessary. But since all remaining restrictions have gone, most have become used to living with large numbers of infections of a not-particularly-lethal virus and have returned to work. Alas, the Tube is once again heaving.

Yet this message doesn’t appear to have filtered through to those in Whitehall. A league table published yesterday revealing the percentage of civil servants working from the office during the week beginning April 4th makes for comically absurd reading.

About 80 per cent of government departments were found to be operating with less than half of all desks in use and 36 per cent were operating at two thirds of normal levels. Before the pandemic, average staff occupancy across Whitehall had been about 80 per cent.

The least occupied is the Department for Education, operating at 25 per cent capacity. The Foreign Office, despite the war in Ukraine, is only at 31 per cent capacity. The Home Office, where we were told to expect mass walkouts last week over the Rwanda Plan, is only at 42 per cent. Some walkout.

From a friend of mine inside the civil service, the impression is given of a fantasy land at odds with the working practices of most other organisations. He has been earmarked for promotion after only a few months, due to his willingness, unlike most colleagues, to turn up to the office around two days a week.

Of course, after a couple of our evenings in The Marquis of Granby, I think he was rather glad he didn’t have to be back at an office desk the next day. But it is no cause for celebration if our government is not working at full capacity because civil servants are being bone-idle or buying me a pint.

Clearly, the absence of staff in the office makes it harder for elements of the bureaucratic state to function properly. Delays in housing Ukrainian refugees or delivering driving licences suggest that a population back to working as normal is being failed by a civil service pretending it is still April 2020.

As such, Rees-Mogg is wholly right to call them out on their behaviour, and demand departments return to their pre-pandemic ways of working. Private businesses can experiment with new ways of working in the long-term. But wars and cost-of-living crises cannot be handled from your sofa.

Obviously, he will face stern resistance. Since Whitehall has shelled out at least £33 million in taxpayers’ cash over the last two years buying HDMI cables, footrests, and other ‘essential’ tools for homeworking, civil servants will want to get their money’s worth.

That is not the sort of value for money that I imagine Rees-Mogg is looking for. Nor is he just “counting civil servants in and out of buildings”, as David Penman, the head of the union representing senior Whitehall officials, has suggested.

As he did with getting MPs back to the Commons as Leader of the House, what Rees-Mogg is attempting do is to set an example, to show that those in charge of governing our country are as committed to returning to normal as the rest of us should be. But that has to contend with civil service arrogance.

If you want to see the smug face of an elite who believe they are born to rule, you will not find it with our Old Etonian Minister for Efficiency, or the Prime Minister with which he shares a former school. Instead, it lies with those smug Sir Humphries, who know they will still be ruling long after this government is gone. No wonder they are so hard to shift – both into the office, and onto the dole queue.

Allan Mallinson: What if Putin opts to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

22 Mar

Allan Mallinson is a former soldier, and a novelist and writer. His The Making of the British Army is published by Penguin Random House.

Ben Wallace wrote on this site last week that Vladiir Putin should be in no doubt that escalation will meet a robust response. A day earlier, Garvan Walshe described the need for “escalation dominance”.

They’re right, of course. And unthinkable though it may seem, we need therefore to talk about tactical nuclear weapons. We’ve almost forgotten what they were.

The only thing that ever bothered me in the 1980s, when the Cold War was at a dangerous fork in the road and I was commanding a squadron in Germany, was the periodic guard duty at the nuclear ammunition storage site near Paderborn.

It wasn’t the thought of a nuclear accident – where else to be in that event but at ground zero? – or attack by Spetsnaz or terrorist gangs, for we could have dealt with that. Rather was it the military police battalion of the 59th (US) Ordnance Brigade (Special Ammunition Support).

The MPs’ job was security, and they took it hyper-seriously. (If not, why not?). A Lance Corporal that stumbled when interrogated about his precise orders could bring a career-stopping rebuke from the Commander-in-Chief for the officer in command.

The ammunition was nothing to do with the strategic nuclear deterrent (Polaris), technically. These were low-yield shells for the Royal Artillery’s eight-inch calibre howitzer (range about 12 miles), and warheads for the Lance ballistic missile (range, 50 miles or so): they were tactical – “battlefield” – nuclear weapons (TNW).

Each national contingent on NATO’s Central Front — the US, British, Canadian, German, Dutch and Belgian — fielded the same delivery systems, but the warheads were American, to be out-loaded during a crisis, and fiercely guarded for the rest of the time.

The Royal Air Force (Germany), along with the other national air contingents, had sub-strategic nuclear bombs and missiles of their own. The targets of RAF(G)’s TNWs were troop concentrations to the east of the River Weser, in the event of Soviet spearheads breaching the so-called Weser Line on the western side of the Upper Weser valley. The Lances and howitzers of the Royal Artillery’s 39th Heavy and 50th Missile regiments would have joined in the interdiction.

That, however, was the purely military view of TNW, and there were indeed some who regarded nuclear artillery as “just a bigger bang.”

The other view was that of the policy staff in Whitehall. I remember during my first week in the directorate of military operations being told by a senior mandarin that the General Staff did not understand deterrence.

In essence, the policy staff’s view was that of Sir Humphrey Appleby when he explained Deterrence to the Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister.  Hacker thought he probably wouldn’t use Trident in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain, and that they, the Soviets, probably knew it – so buying Trident was pointless.

Sir Humphrey agreed, up to a point: “Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn’t. But they can’t certainly know.”

Hacker doubted this. “They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn’t.”

Sir Humphrey was then at pains to explain the essential element of uncertainty in deterrence theory: “Yes, but though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t, they don’t certainly know that, although you probably wouldn’t, there is no probability that you certainly would.”

Which is why when in 2015 Jeremy Corbyn, pressed by Sarah Montague, the Today presenter, on whether there were any circumstances in which he would use the nuclear option, said “No”, he effectively cancelled deterrence and made himself unelectable as Prime Minister.

Sir Humphrey didn’t explain to Jim Hacker the role of TNW in deterrence theory. It was comedy, after all, and the joke was better delivered quickly. But the purpose of TNW, said the real Sir Humphreys in the 1980s, was to provide a plausible ladder of escalation: graduated response, rather than the erstwhile and rather less plausible doctrine of massive retaliation, with its notion of mutually assured destruction.

What those eight-inch nuclear shells did was provide multiple threads in the seamless cloak of escalatory deterrence logic – from the first rifle shots as Soviet troops set foot across the Inner German Border, to the release of multiple warheads over Russian cities.

TNWs weren’t meant to be used; they were meant to demonstrate that the cloak of deterrence was indeed seamless, and that there was therefore real peril for the Soviets in any offensive. Strategic and tactical nuclear weapons were inseparable in deterring both conventional and nuclear attack, which was why NATO could never sign up to “no first use.”

The Soviets had to be convinced of the real peril, of course – and so the soldiers and airmen had to plan for the actual use of TNW, practise their firing, and store the warheads and missiles well forward. And indeed the policy staff tended to view calls for any substantial strengthening of conventional defence, as the soldiers were always urging, as potentially diminishing deterrence, since it might increase the threshold of tactical nuclear release and therefore tempt a Soviet conventional attack with limited objectives.

Some soldiers thought this was all nonsense. Several chiefs of the general staff in the 1980s, notably two of the most cerebral – Dwin Bramall and Nigel Bagnall – would happily have scrapped all nuclear weapons, strategic and tactical.

They supposed the Soviets acted with the same rationality as they themselves, and were probably right to, although we’ll never know because the Soviet leadership was never put to the ultimate test. The arguments ceased with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when TNW were withdrawn from Europe and, in effect, scrapped. The Russians, on the other hand, did not scrap theirs.

Putin quite evidently acts with a different rationality, his logic based on different premises. What if, therefore, in contemplating using TNW, he becomes sufficiently certain that NATO, unable to respond with other than strategic nuclear weapons, will never gain the authority of its members to escalate?

In the public imagination, his crude but tellingly vague nuclear threats over Ukraine suggest intercontinental strikes. But what if he were contemplating a TNW strike against a “legitimate military target”? And how, in any future confrontation with NATO, would the alliance deter that same threat — or if deterrence fails, would restore deterrence?

To win Cold War Two, we must get real again about deterrence. NATO rearmament must address the seam that has been inserted in the previously seamless cloak.

Sarah Ingham: The BBC licence fee makes no sense in our digital age

18 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Our small screens have had a good pandemic.

Ratings surged as house-bound Britain turned to box sets. Hovering around $330 at the start of 2020, Netflix shares went through the $700 barrier last autumn. Who didn’t want to escape the reality of being stuck at home with Chris Whitty for the scripted reality of luxury real estate, perfect teeth and power heels in Selling Sunset? Squid Game (Korea), Fauda (Israel) and Call My Agent (France) were glimpses of a world beyond a tepid staycation in Devon.

And for those who haven’t had enough of big pharma over the past two years, there is now Dopesick on Disney+. Over on Amazon Prime, Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age swaps Downton for New York’s Upper East Side and Burke’s Peerage for the Social Register.

We are undoubtedly living in a golden age of television. Or rather of content that would once have been watched on a television set, where we originally watched The Sopranos episode-by-weekly-episode, just as earlier generations thrilled to that other family drama with a high corpse count, I, Claudius.

The acclaimed togas’n’tunics series, made by the BBC in 1976, features in Time magazine’s 100 Best TV Shows of All Time. It can now be streamed via Apple TV. Those holding Apple stock in the past two years would have seen the price go from around $73 to almost $173.

Approaching its centenary, the British Broadcasting Corporation does not have to concern itself with matters like shareholder value. Like the old money oligarchs of The Gilded Age, the BBC is cushioned by vast unearned income. It can afford to look down on upstart start-ups, whether comparative minnows such as GB News and Times Radio, or mighty YouTube – from which about a quarter of US adults get their news, according to a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center.

Auntie Beeb and her cheerleaders will point to 2021 ratings as proof of her popularity. Aside from the 2020 Euros and the PM’s announcement of lockdown on January 4 – surely an unexpected winner – it had Top 10 hits with Strictly Come Dancing, Vigil and Line of Duty, whose final episode drew 15.2 million viewers.

It is perhaps the Strictly factor that makes the Government hesitate to kill off the licence fee, despite its almost 80-seat majority. Smashing the glitterball and unpicking the sequins would be a dismaying prospect to millions of viewers, who are also voters.

Last month, following the announcement that the licence fee would be frozen for two years, BBC boss Tim Davie implied the future of BBC2, BBC4 and Radio 5 Live could be in doubt. If he had wanted to engage Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and the Indignants of other leafy constituencies, this was a far shrewder pick of stations-in-jeopardy than, say, Radio 1 or the soon-to-be revived BBC3.

Does the end of the current BBC funding model really mean the end of broadcasting Glasto/EastEnders/David Attenborough/Radios 3 and 6? Or of Wimbledon fortnight uninterrupted by ad breaks? Given the chasms which could apparently open in Britain’s cultural landscape, no wonder a minister even as doughty as Nadine Dorries backs off from any absolute commitment to abolish the licence fee.

The TV licence is, however, an analog anachronism in our digital age. It is time it was axed and the Corporation funded by subscription.

In 2020-21, the licence fee raised £3.75 billion, accounting for 74 per cent of the BBC’s £5.06 billion income. A recent You Gov/Times poll found that only one in 20 of those aged 18-30 watched any BBC channels live every day, compared with almost half of people aged 65 or above.

A television-set tax makes no sense in an era when millions of us are choosing to subscribe to streaming services and are watching what we like, when we like, on our mobile phones and tablets.

A public service broadcaster is the more creative branch of the Civil Service. Like most in Britain’s bloated public sector, it is great at splurging other people’s money. With no need to earn its keep, is it surprising that the £££s the Corporation fritters away on taxis and diversity officers are a tabloid staple?

Supporters claim the BBC represents brilliant value – 44p a day. They overlook the mutual dislike between the BBC and its paymasters, that is, the listening and viewing public. Many resent being legally coerced into funding a service whose worldview is completely at odds with their own.

The national broadcaster should aim to be a neutral in Britain’s cultural skirmishing. As Oliver Dowden stated in his recent speech to the Heritage Foundation, “There has always been a tendency among cultural and educational elite to serve their own interests rather than serve the public at large.”

If the BBC is really serving Middle Britain, it seems odd it lost Bake Off and turned down the revived All Creatures Great and Small, now a hit for Channel 5. Clarkson’s Farm has done more to entertain, educate and inform us about rural life than the clunkingly woke Countryfile or The Archers.

In 2013, the updated House of Cards became the gateway to Netflix for many. Three years later, The Crown pulled in even more new subscribers. Starting in 1997 as a DVD rental company, Netflix is now making Academy Award-winning films and is streaming in 190 countries. In 2020, it generated almost $25 billion in revenue and had an operating profit of $4.5 billion.

Meanwhile, over to the cultural blob that is our aged national broadcaster… In 2020, 55,061 of the nation’s citizens were prosecuted for TV licence evasion. Of the 52,477 convicted, 76 per cent were women, who were unlikely to have been among the most affluent members of the public.

And how absolutely fabulous is that, sweetie darling?

John Redwood: The Government is not getting the best out of the Civil Service. Ministers are key to changing that.

7 Feb

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

I do not think the present government is getting the best out of the Civil Service. The Prime Minister has a new opportunity to construct a Downing Street structure and appoint staff he trusts to help him deliver his vision.

The Levelling Up Secretary has just unveiled a wide ranging set of proposals to spread prosperity, better jobs and ownership more widely around the UK. He will need the help of the Prime Minister to mobilise the various Whitehall departments that have crucial roles to play. He needs many actions from Education and Transport, from Treasury and Health, from Trade and from Business and from several others.

Inspired by the good response to my article on how Downing Street worked under Margaret Thatcher, I think it might be helpful to set out how the Thatcher team worked with Whitehall to put through bold new policies that were designed to improve the prosperity and freedoms of citizens. We were able to make substantial and timely changes without major constitutional upheavals or Civil Service reform.

I was struck by a recent article by Daniel Hannan which was critical of the Civil Service. He pointed out that officials make many errors and design bad policies which Ministers get blamed for. He felt Ministers now cower before Civil Service political correctness, and are told much of what they want to do is impossible owing to the views of independent quangos, the body of law and the results of arranged polls and one-sided consultations. He argued that the Civil Service has specialised in improving its diversity of recruits, whilst ensuring there is no diversity of outlook or view.

He contrasted the successful pursuit of working vaccines by an individual brought in from outside to lead a specialist small unit to solve the problem, and the difficulties with the rest of the pandemic response that mainly relied on more traditional Civil Service people and procedures. He sees the Civil Service as internationalist, pining for Remain and in favour of a larger but not necessarily a more effective state. Ministers he concluded are there to take the blame and to be in the wrong, but often have insufficient engagement or leverage over the large staffs that work in their departments and quangos.

I know what he means, but I think many of the answers lie in the hands of good Ministers. Ministers with a large majority have the crucial power to change the law if the old laws get in their way. They can command huge resources of people, money and message. They can abolish quangos, appoint new Heads, issue clear new public instructions to them which Parliament may debate. They can ask their departments to do more of this and less of that. They have the power of the purse and of the pulpit.

When I helped Thatcher there was of course a Civil Service culture and a controlling set of ideas within the Civil Service machine that was not the same as the collective views of the government. The official Civil Service government was not proposing Union reform or privatisation or lower taxes. It would have preferred to live with a larger public sector and older comfortable ways. It seemed to find the wind of change we wanted as abrasive. Some probably wanted it to fail to be able to say quietly it had warned us of its imperfections. Aware of this I decided on a careful course of action to implement the big idea of wider ownership, of everyone an owner. It was a popular idea that embraced many of the actions and policies that the Civil Service and Unions found challenging.

I did not suggest to the PM that she held a Cabinet, flagged up the big policy aim and challenged the Civil Service to create and use the conventional architecture to deliver it. The last thing I wanted was an overarching Cabinet Committee for wider ownership. That would doubtless have slowed and diluted what we wanted to do. It would have given critics of the whole idea a forum to debate the philosophy and sow doubts. Cabinet Ministers would have been less willing to accept individual responsibility. Instead the PM and Cabinet colleagues introduced the main ideas split by department, with the PM discussing with each of the relevant colleagues how they could pursue the key parts as stand alone ideas within their areas.

The Treasury was to lead on privatisation with John Moore, a Minister, to work bilaterally with the other sponsor departments on the relevant industries. The Treasury would mastermind the timetable and offer central resource on the preparation and sale process. The Social Security department was to lead on pensions reform, introducing personal portable pensions for the first time so people could control their own retirement savings more directly. They did so via a general welfare review to gauge demand, to seek outside views, and to reform other features of what they were doing. Norman Fowler did a great job, with no leaks as he prepared the ground for radical changes.

The Business department led on making it easier for people to set up and grow their own businesses and worked with the Treasury on tax incentives. The energy department worked on radical proposals to get more cheaper energy to fuel our businesses, introducing pro competitive policies, as well as preparing gas and electricity for privatisation. The Housing department was to hone and improve the Right to buy policies to give more people a chance to own, and to develop homesteading, shared ownership and sales of redundant public sector land to boost wider home ownership at affordable prices. The Transport department offered National Freight for sale to its employees in an exciting experiment with employee ownership as well as selling BA and bringing in more private capital to buses.

It was only when I was confident that each Cabinet member had found policies they liked and were willing to see through, and was sure the Departments would assist them, that I proposed to the PM she set out the overarching vision and tied it all together. As there was already buy in by the main departments the vision then helped. The Civil Service ensured each major privatisation we did needed individual legislation, resisting enabling powers. I decided not to fight this as we needed a measured pace of privatisations and Parliamentary process allowed a public debate and consideration of all the detail in each major case.

Today there needs to be similar commitment to levelling up department by department. Education will doubtless take responsibility for challenging targets for literacy, numeracy and qualifications. Health will need to think through how it achieves the bold aims on eradicating health inequalities by region. Transport has a major task to clear the jams and improve the trains in many places. Business and the Treasury need to give more thought to improving the UK’s competitiveness so more businesses start up and more investment is attracted.

The Government’s enthusiasm for more devolved power to Mayors and Councils will cut across some of the national targets and programmes and will provide a complication more than an impetus, save in the minority of places that find and back a Mayor or Council that does know how to do it and how to work with central government.

Peter Franklin: Downing Street is no place for a government

31 Jan

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

In this life, nothing lasts forever. Not even the nightmare that is Partygate. At some point, hopefully this decade, it will be over. Sue Gray’s report will have seen the light of day; the police will have done what they need to do; and it will be time for British politics to move on.

A line must be drawn under the whole affair — the sort of line that leaves heads rolling. But as much as we need a change of personnel, this won’t on its own be enough. This Government also needs a change of scene. Specifically, it needs to get out of Downing Street.

No matter how many of its inhabitants get the chop, the building will remain. And that’s a problem, because just about every part of it is a reminder of the last two years. The upstairs flat, the downstairs offices, the press briefing room, the garden and even the basement: the entire property is blighted.

Even before Partygate, there was something off about the place. The fundamental problem is the architecture. Downing Street was built as row of terraced town houses — and from the outside that’s how it still appears. But once you’re through the famous front door at Number 10, you realise it’s a trick. The terraces have long been knocked-through into a sprawling complex of oddly proportioned spaces and impossible dimensions. It’s an exercise in Georgian psychedelia and it messes with your head.

You don’t have to believe in feng shui or genii locorum to see the psychological danger of turning a building into something it was never intended to be. Downing Street was meant to be a home, indeed several homes. Yet over the years it’s also become the heart of government. The place has a split personality — it is both formal and informal, institutional and domestic, professional and amateur. It’s no surprise that a “frat house culture” took hold of it.

I don’t believe there’s any excuse for the events of Partygate. But for an explanation as to why so many lapses of judgement could have been made by so many people, the physical environment is a useful place to start. As Winston Churchill once said, “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Moving on from Partygate isn’t the only reason why government should leave Downing Street. It was a sick building long before Covid. As a workplace, it’s overcrowded. A lot of it is surprisingly shabby too. Even the nice bits generate a den-like atmosphere, which isn’t conducive to good governance. Time after time, we see Prime Ministers become isolated from their Cabinet colleagues, locked behind living walls of scheming flunkies. And, needless to say, the dark corners and labyrinthine corridors provide ideal conditions for in-fighting too.

Boris Johnson has implored the British workforce to stop working from home. He — or his successor — should lead by example. The promised reboot of government should begin with the creation of a proper Prime Minister’s Department working out of a proper HQ. But where exactly?

I know just the place. It’s officially known as “Government Offices Great George Street” or “GOGGS” for short. It’s better known as the Treasury building. It’s not as fancy as the neighbouring Foreign Office, but it underwent a major refit a few years ago — and so wouldn’t need much work done. It would make a fine and functional home for the Prime Minister’s Department, co-located with Her Majesty’s Treasury under one roof.

When Dominic Cummings was in Downing Street, one of his best ideas was to integrate the teams surrounding the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The aim was to mend the most damaging fault-line in Whitehall. Needless to say, this reform went out the window after Cummings was shown the door. The relationship between Johnson and Rishi Sunak has come under growing strain ever since.

And that’s just one of many dysfunctional relationships. The departmental structure of Whitehall  creates distance between ministers, both literally and organisationally. Communication between democratically elected decision-makers is mediated through siloed civil service hierarchies with agendas of their own. In order to compensate for the bureaucratic disconnect, Downing Street — as the only bit of Whitehall where political appointees rule the roost — brings as much power as it can in-house, thus further marginalising the rest of the Cabinet.

However, there is an alternative. It’s called the “Beehive” model — named after the round-shaped building where the ministers of the New Zealand government work together in the same location, not in separate departments. When David Cameron was Leader of the Opposition there was talk of creating a British Beehive. The complications of forming a Coalition government meant that those plans were dropped; but — again — there’s now an opportunity to revive them.

The layout of GOGGS provides an ideal hub for the heart of government. The best rooms are in the middle the building, arranged in ring-like storeys around a circular courtyard. Key ministers would have their own offices, but on the same gracefully curving corridor. As in any other human context, communication is best facilitated by physical proximity.

Is there enough room, though? Not at the moment, but GOGGS currently houses various other agencies and departments — like HMRC and the DCMS — that don’t need to be there. Turf them out and there’d be plenty of space for the core functions of the Treasury, plus the Prime Minister’s Department, plus offices for the Cabinet and key support staff.

I’ll admit there’s one big drawback to this scheme. By bringing Cabinet ministers closer to one another, we’d be increasing the distance between them and their own departments. Who, then, would keep an eye on the civil service in the rest of Whitehall? One solution would be to be to appoint a Deputy Secretary of State for each department — someone with experience of managing complex organisations. I doubt we’d find enough talent in the Commons, but suitable candidates could be obtained through the Lords instead.

Finally, what would happen to the largely vacated Downing Street? Would it become a museum? Absolutely not. The downstairs rooms could still be used for Cabinet meetings and other ceremonial events. As for the upper floors, those could be devoted to the building’s true purpose — which is to provide an official residence for the Prime Minister (not to mention the Chancellor). Bearing in mind the relative youth of today’s politicians, both flats should be big enough to provide a growing family with space and privacy.

Or to put it another way, let’s make Downing fit for actual children.