One of us, or one of them: what's going wrong in Britain's Coalition government?

Introducing radical new policies requires remorseless, grinding attention to detail, bloody-mindedness and experience. It is not something that can be done by committees or by good will.

Wise words from the Great Lady
Tim Knox
On 4 June 2011 09:25

“Is he one of us?” Mrs Thatcher would ask when considering the appointment of a senior civil servant or bishop. Everyone knew what she meant.

Today, if Mr Cameron were to ask the same question, it would be rather more difficult to know what he meant. Leading a Coalition inevitably means a certain degree of “constructive ambiguity” (or fudge). A government that at least nominally is supported by both Norman Tebbit and Shirley Williams is a very broad church indeed.

Even so, it is a question that Mr Cameron should be asking more frequently. For there are worrying signs in a number of departments that the Coalition’s more radical proposals are being diluted or obstructed by a civil service that is hostile to some of the government’s proposals.

Think about the forestry climb-down, or the NHS reverses. Look closely and you see a consistent pattern: a radical proposal is made, it is endorsed by the Cabinet, it is then handed over to civil servants to work on implementation and then things start to go wrong.

The Department for Education (DfE) is notorious as the most hostile to the Conservatives. The battle lines were drawn up shortly before the last Election when Michael Gove – now the Secretary of State for Education – said at a lecture he gave at the Centre for Policy Studies “We want to see a radical shift in power – away from the educational establishment – from Whitehall and the bureaucratic organisations it sponsors – and down towards, schools and parents.”

Well, the bureaucrats are fighting back. Remember the confusion over which school rebuilding projects were to be axed shortly after the Coalition came into office or the U-turns on School Sports Partnerships, or on proposals to cut funding for the Booktrust? And now Gove’s great plans to encourage primary schools to adopt the synthetic phonics approach to teaching children to read are also about to be skewed.

An external organisation – the Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation (ESPO) – has been awarded a contract to invite tenders from publishers of synthetic phonics programmes.  The process by which they accept tenders is so opaque, and the tender document they have issued is so badly conceived that it changes from day to day as obvious flaws are pointed out by frustrated publishers.  To date, they have had to publish over 100 amendments and clarifications. The situation is further confused by the continuing existence of a DfE list of ‘approved’ synthetic phonics programmes. 

Once again, no evidence of programme effectiveness is required to be included. Publishers ‘evaluate’ their own materials against a long checklist of criteria published by the department. All this can only serve to discredit synthetic phonics. Unless this is changed quickly, the department will have won.

Maybe we should not be surprised.  The Coalition has stuck to a Conservative Party pledge to limit the number of special advisers (or SPADs). So now we have ministerial teams supported by just one or two special advisers trying to persuade thousands of civil servants to relinquish the work of the last thirteen years. The special advisers I have met are all very nice, very clever people who are all working very hard with all the enthusiasm of youth. But can they really take on all the vested interests?

The absurdity of the mismatch between ambition and having the tools to realise that ambition is best illustrated by the Big Society, now of course on its fourth relaunch. Yes, all the great rhetorical themes are there: reducing the role of the state, giving power and responsibility to individuals and the small platoons.

But how is this to be done? Well Lord Wei was in charge (unpaid) and he has now left. That leaves a couple of Big Society Ambassadors who both have full time jobs elsewhere, Shaun Bailey (who is unpaid) and Charlotte Leslie MP (who is also unpaid). Plus a few committees, implementation units and cross-departmental working parties. Lots of talk.

It should be no surprise if we see the big contractors – Serco, G4S and so on –rubbing their hands together as the Big Society becomes a fig-leaf for further subcontracting of public goods to quasi-monopolistic private sector providers.

Introducing radical new policies requires remorseless, grinding attention to detail, bloody-mindedness and experience. It is not something that can be done by committees or by good will.

“We are all in this together”, proclaimed the Chancellor last autumn. Maybe that is true about the economic difficulties the country faces. But it is not true about the rest of government. “Is he, or she, one of us?” should still be a question that the Prime Minster and the Secretaries of State ask.


Tim Knox is Acting Director of the Centre for Policy Studies

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