If there’s one lesson from King and Crewe’s in-depth analysis of the great mistakes of post war British politics The Blunders of Our Governments it’s that administrations of all political colours make messes.
Indeed, sometimes it is the fixed ideologies of both left and right that lead to blunders like ID Cards and the Poll Tax.
But to be fair to our politicians, it’s not just dogma that results in almighty cock-ups. The reasons for political car-crashes are complex and systemic, often rooted in the way we organise our governing system, group think and the ‘gap’ between ourselves and our political class.
And it’s important to say that no-one has hit on the ‘perfect system’, some get it more right than others but even the Nordic countries – held up as an ideal of brilliant policy and implementation – make their fair share of mess-ups.
Our system may have its faults, but for every Child Support Agency and Individual Learning Account there are policy successes like the banning of smoking in public places or the minimum wage.
However, what should worry us most about the disasters outlined by King and Crewe is the lack of scrutiny and accountability.
I had no idea that some of the mess-ups documented in this book had even happened.
For example, take Metronet, the New Labour Government’s attempt to introduce a new PFI-style contract to upgrade the London Underground.
Insanely complex, over budget and flawed from the start Metronet collapsed in a pile of debt and confusion in 2o07. King and Crewe estimate it cost us all a minimum of £2.5bn, but possibly in the region of £20-30bn. To put that in context the upper end of that figure is actually more that the UK’s ENTIRE transport budget for 2015/16.
But the worrying thing is that I’d never heard of Metronet. I suspect you may not have either.
It was a massive blunder that cost billions and and none of the ministers involved face censure or sacking. Indeed, one went on to the highest political office in the land.
“None of those listed suffered politically or in any other way for initiating what proved to be…an incredibly costly shambles. Apart from transport experts and a handful of political columnists, few seemed to notice that Brown and Prescott had, between them, cost taxpayers billions, and Brown went on to become prime minister…”
There may be some relatively simple things we can do to avoid blunders – for example reforming our process of pre-legislative scrutiny, talking to those who will be directly affected and involving more ‘outsiders’ in Government.
But the key reasons for some of our most heinous mistakes – dubbed ‘Horror Stories’ by King and Crewe – lie in blind ideology, both political and within Whitehall itself.
Reforming this and therefore reducing the numbers of political blunders, could decades to achieve.