There’s general agreement that the UK government has handled the pandemic badly in many (though not all) respects. Why? It’s tempting to claim that ten years of Tory austerity has reduced the effectiveness of government and diminished NHS capacity: the UK has fewer doctors, hospital beds and ICU spaces than comparable countries. Such a claim, however, runs into a problem. By some measures, the UK was actually reasonably well-prepared for the pandemic. In October 2019 the Global Heath Security Index ranked (pdf) the UK second in the world in its preparedness for the pandemic (just behind the US!). And the World Bank’s measure of government effectiveness placed the UK alongside the US and Taiwan - one of whom has handled the pandemic well and the other badly – and far above Vietnam,
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It’s tempting to claim that ten years of Tory austerity has reduced the effectiveness of government and diminished NHS capacity: the UK has fewer doctors, hospital beds and ICU spaces than comparable countries.
Such a claim, however, runs into a problem. By some measures, the UK was actually reasonably well-prepared for the pandemic. In October 2019 the Global Heath Security Index ranked (pdf) the UK second in the world in its preparedness for the pandemic (just behind the US!). And the World Bank’s measure of government effectiveness placed the UK alongside the US and Taiwan - one of whom has handled the pandemic well and the other badly – and far above Vietnam, which has also controlled the virus.
This might tell us that such cross-country indices are flawed. Or it might tell us that the UK’s problem wasn’t with the state but with the government – a combination of Johnson’s own flaws and his having to kowtow to the lunatic fringe of the Tory party.
This too is plausible. But it too runs into a problem – that bad government long pre-dates Johnson. In 2013 Ivor Crewe and Anthony King published The Blunders of our Governments which analysed a litany of policy failures such as Individual Learning Accounts, public-private partnerships and various government IT projects: we might add the Iraq war to this. And even then, their complaint was not new. In 1995 Patrick Dunleavy wrote (pdf):
Britain now stands out amongst comparable European countries, and perhaps amongst liberal democracies as a whole, as a state unusually prone to make large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes.
Think of the monetarist experiment of 1979-81 which decimated industry, entering the ERM or the poll tax.
Not that policy errors began with Thatcher. Aris Roussinos likens the government’s errors in tackling Covid to the serial errors made in the early years of WWII.
From this perspective, Johnson is merely following a long tradition of incompetence.
But what causes this tradition? Paradoxically, Johnson’s errors have been the exact opposite of many of those identified by Dunleavy. He blamed “overly speedy legislation” and “political hyperactivism”. But Johnson has been systematically guilty of the opposite – of acting too slowly.
There are, though, other structural faults.
Crewe and King cite a “divorce between policy making and implementation”, arguing that Whitehall has traditionally valorized theoretical policy formulation over the dull grunt-work of management.
Crewe and King and Dunleavy also cite a lack of adequate checks and balances, perhaps exacerbated by our overly-centralized state – a problem magnified by George Osborne’s gutting of local government. It used to be said that one factor here, which distinguished us from mainland Europe, was our traditional lack of coalition government – although the 2010-15 experience has weakened this claim.
Another factor, they add, is a tendency to groupthink. This, I suspect, is worsened by the overconfidence of individual Prime Ministers. It might be no accident that our worst PMs disproportionately attended private school, as this inculcates (among other misperceptions) a tendency for one’s confidence to exceed one’s abilities.
There might be more – a fundamental problem with our political culture. It doesn’t even recognise what politics should be about. In principle, it should be about solving problems of collective action – of what happens when individuals pursuing their self-interest produce outcomes that are bad for us all. Too many people however – not least the media – don’t see this*. They think instead that a branch of marketing, or a game of jockeying for individual self-advancement. The upshot is that nobody takes proper politics seriously. Yes, Johnson is a clown – but he is a democratically elected clown, and thus a symptom of a problem.
For these reasons, conventional partisan politics misses an important fact – that it is not enough to get the right people elected; better government requires structural and cultural change.
But, but, but. If something persists for a long time, it’s because it suits some powerful interests. And a political system with the risk of big policy errors actually does this. Few people of influence care about competent government as long as taxes don’t rise or rents fall. And so dysfunctional government persists.
* Among those not seeing it is Whitehall itself. Our most powerful government department, the Treasury, has traditionally regarded the public finances as if they were a household’s finances. This is why governments have occasionally tried to circumvent the Treasury’s power by appointing ministers for economic affairs – without success.