A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza IV
The supreme fiction of government is the unity of politics and administration. This fiction is told through many conceits and many variations. Sam Finer’s glorious achievement, his multi-volume History of Government from the earliest times, written after his retirement from the university, distinguished decision-makers and decision-implementers. Woodrow Wilson, long before entering politics, as a young doctoral student, looked to the Prussian bureaucratic tradition to imagine a science of administration not dirtied by “the poisonous atmosphere of city government, the crooked secrets of state administration, the confusion, the sinecurism and corruption ever and again discovered in the bureaux at Washington” (“The Study of Administration” 1887, quoted Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (2014). There, in an unworldly puritanism sickened the patronage of politics, public administration was born as a field of study.
Weber composed his conceit differently, with a more tragic foreboding, as rational-legal authority. Duller economists compose mathematical formulae on the principal-agent problem to seek to explain away messy human problems. Both hide away in rules or in contracts the divisions between politics and administration.The Westminster system itself, that common resort of scoundrels among the top echelons of the bureaucracy, vests this fiction in myths of Ministerial responsibility and meritocratic appointments. And then there are the true believers in political will, reform, integrity or leadership, who dream that their vision of the world can be imposed through government as one. The leader, their Cabinet, the top officials, the minor officials, the public sector unions, the stakeholders will all get on board as one, and the great Reform, the last Utopia, will reveal itself to the world..
Two cannot be one. Nor can three, and even less any higher number. We live in unresolvable plurality. Our lives are long acts of distinguishing ourselves from others. It is in finding the differences in our being and living together with them, not confusing our leaders with “unifying intelligence,” that we find authentic identities and life-giving freedom. And it is only by abandoning the supreme fiction of unity that we can see truly the presence of the bureaucrat in governing.
After all, it is not as if bureaucrats have been much loved by the politicians who are the true rulers of governments. A government is, as both the Oxford English Dictionary and Stein Ringen (in his masterpiece, A Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience) define it, is a body of persons who govern a nation. That body of persons are the Ministers who form the ruling party. To distinguish the government from governing or the vast strange web of governance is to see clearly the blackbird flying into view like the holy spirit. As Ringen writes:
we need to unwrap the system that generates governance and explore what goes on inside it. For me, the relationship between the political bosses and their civil servants, for example, is very much a part of the mystery of governance, and I don’t want to hide that mystery away in a definition that says that both bosses and servants are parts of the same thing” (A Nation of Devils).
To see the differences, we need to look past the nice compliments and befuddling stories of cohesion traded by serving and retired witnesses of high politics. Behind closed doors, or when pressed by recurrent failures, the venom and the hatred of difference comes out. What better example than that great advocate of reform and vision, Tony Blair, who Ringen magisterially assays as a master of “activism in all things, and accomplishment in none”(A Nation of Devils). A master of appearing across his brief, Blair’s unifying intelligence could never grasp why the institutions at his command did not unify before his fluffy will. His whipping boy was the civil service. He would describe them as the “sinecure cynics who despise anything modern and are made uneasy by success” (Tom Bower, Broken vows: Tony Blair – the tragedy of power (2016)).
His recurrent sallies at reforming the National Health Service all failed, so that he resembled some latter-day Don Quixote, who had lost touch with reality through reading too many business magazines and crisply titled consultants’ charts. He surrounded himself with advisers who comforted him in his delusions, but he could not ever really see the real people in the institution and how it might be made to work better. The civil service was always wrong, always a problem, always in need of reform and modernisation. Tom Bower’s remarkable account of Blair’s tragic years in power is informed by many interviews with the most senior and many more officials who served around Blair’s sofa court. Through their testimony they make clear that Blair ran a government at odds with itself, and with any decent culture of governing. Politics itself was fragmented, and his intellectual divorce from the “traditional culture of government during his decade in Downing Street” undermined all achievement. His undeclared civil war within government itself led to the tragic failures of Iran and Afghanistan; but more Bowers concludes:
“We now realise that the path to the two wars was not an aberration but all of a piece with the way his government behaved across its entire domestic agenda, especially in the areas of health, education, energy and immigration. In a tragic sense, Blair had been consistent.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p 594
Unusually, Bowers in his biography of Blair leaves the last word to a bureaucrat. There were three top civil servants, Cabinet Secretaries who served Blair – all competently and loyally in Bowers’ judgement. They all Bowers said, after witnessing the strife of politics and administration and Blair’s many questionable acts, later judged that “Blair had not been a laudable guardian of the public’s interest.” The book closes with the reflection of longest-serving under Blair of these Cabinet Secretaries, Richard Wilson:
“There are events during my period as Cabinet secretary that make me shudder at what I remember because we had high hopes and we were so disappointed. He promised so much, but in the end so little was achieved.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p. 594
More disappointment had been harvested from the supreme fiction of government. What might have been if this illusion had been dispelled, and stronger leaders of public institutions had acted with a belief that in unity is death?
Image source: Daily Telegraph