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Challenging entrenched bureaucracies is what politicians should do

My Times column on reform as a political theme:

If there is political paralysis on Friday, as seems likely, and given how many of their powers national politicians have anyway passed to bodies like the Bank of England and the European Commission, perhaps we can look forward to a spell of legislative calm. That might be no bad thing. But there is one thing even a weak minority government can and should do: reform.

The great political battles that shaped the history of parliament, especially in the 19th century, were all about reform. Prison reform, social reform, moral reform, civil service reform, reform of the corn laws, above all parliamentary reform. The very purpose of the old Liberal party, meeting in the Reform Club, was reform.

With one or two exceptions, such as the protectionist “tariff-reform” movement of Joseph Chamberlain, I hope that I would always have been on the side of reform. With hindsight, I find it hard to sympathise with the reactionaries of any era. That applies right up to the 1960s, when Roy Jenkins and David Steel reformed the laws on capital punishment, homosexuality and abortion, and the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson reformed the trade unions, taxation and the nationalised industries.

In short, I think “reform” is not a bad yardstick by which we should judge governments. Do they just set out to tax, spend, legislate and administer — or do they set out to reform whatever entrenched bureaucracies most need challenging? We know from Parkinson’s law, or what the Americans call “public choice theory”, that a body granted a regular income by the state — be it a Plantagenet king, a monastic order, a parliamentary oligarchy, a nationalised industry, or the BBC — tends over time towards budget maximisation and to looking after the interests of its members rather than its customers. A prime job of an elected government is to challenge this tendency by embarking on reform.

Reform is the one job that politicians must do because nobody else can. All the rest of the things governments do can easily be left to civil servants or hired consultants. Reform is bound to stir up hornet’s nests of reaction, so it needs careful assembling of support. The things we remember good governments for decades later are spotting where a bureaucracy has got out of control, a law has got out of date, or a system has got complacent — and having the courage to fix them.

By this criterion, the coalition government led by David Cameron has a lot to be proud of. Not even its worst enemies can deny that it set out to reform the welfare state in order to encourage work and the education system to encourage learning. If that saved money, fine, but surely only Arthur Scargill, Dave Spart and perhaps Nicola Sturgeon really subscribe to the belief that Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove were trying to hurt rather than help the disadvantaged.

The government’s reforms of the National Health Service and the justice system may not have proved popular but they were clearly well-intentioned. Theresa May has bravely brought much needed reform to the police. Owen Paterson was bringing overdue reform to the power of the unaccountable Green Blob before he was inexplicably dropped to appease said blob.

The contrast between this record and that of the 13 years of Blair-Brown are striking. On what is sometimes called the Nixon-to-China principle (that only a hardline red-baiter could get away with rapprochement towards a communist regime), Labour would have been trusted far more to reform the NHS, schools and the welfare state, but its achievements in this respect were half-hearted at best.

Instead Labour largely put its faith in spending more money on problems. The keen reformers such as Frank Field, Alan Milburn or Andrew Adonis were largely stymied by the implacably reactionary force that was Gordon Brown. Even the reform of the House of Lords, which should have been a doddle for Tony Blair with his huge Commons majority, ground to a halt, only half done (to my benefit).

I, as a peer — alongside lunatics and criminals — am prohibited from voting on Thursday, but if I could it would be for the party most likely to reform. And that’s the Tories, by a mile. Ed “Moses” Miliband wants to do a lot of things like put platitude-laden megaliths in his garden, fix prices (in energy and housing), clamp down (on non-doms and Islamaphobia), tax (mansions and pensions) and spend (on the NHS and wind farms). But hardly any of what he wants to do counts as reforming, let alone challenging the perverse incentives of entrenched bureaucracies. Indeed, it looks set to undo, or stall, recent reforms to education and welfare.

We badly need lots more reform in many areas of life: reform of the ludicrously complex tax system and the ludicrously sluggish planning system, for a start. Pensions need reform. Quangos need reform. The City of London needs further reform — not more regulation, which just raises barriers to entry and so hinders reform.

We need somebody to challenge the idea that the only way to provide public-service broadcasting in the era of the internet is via a poll-tax-funded monopoly with a captive internal regulator: to reform the funding and supervision of the BBC. As for the NHS, most people now realise that the notion that the Tory party wants to privatise or destroy it is a daft leftist conspiracy theory. But for those with an interest in keeping the NHS inefficient and unresponsive to its users, repeating that calumny helps to maintain the unhealthy status quo.

And then there is Europe. If ever there was an institution that resembles the papacy before the Reformation in its reactionary, self-indulgent and arrogant inertia, it is surely the Brussels behemoth. I am pessimistic about David Cameron’s ability to get sufficiently radical reform by negotiation before a 2017 referendum, and I am worried that breaking the stranglehold of Brussels will prove as hard as breaking Rome’s grip proved in the 16th century. But I am also acutely aware that the Conservatives want reform of the EU far more than Labour, and have a strategy of sorts for getting it.

Instead of squabbling over cuts and targets and bribes, a minority government should set out to assemble multi-party support for reform.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times