Patrick Diamond’s excellent book is a fascinating account of New Labour’s approach to government written by one of those at the heart of Tony Blair’s governing ‘project’. Diamond’s account is both perceptive and informed, interweaving his own experience as a departmental special adviser and in Downing Street with the fruits of extensive confidential interviews with former ministers, special advisers and civil servants. His effective prose style, and deployment of example and anecdote, largely cuts through the surfeit of jargon in which books on this subject so frequently drown.
At the heart of the book is a compelling case for both the inherent flaws of Whitehall departments as agents of effective change for a Labour government (quoting a former civil servant, ‘everything you did had to be cleared through seven levels, there was a hierarchy around who went to meetings with ministers, who could comment on what’), and the limited scope for changing that through what he terms the instinct for ‘centralising fiat’: ‘Bringing in Jeremy Beecham [former chair of the Local Government Association] for a half hour cup of tea is considered to be consulting local government.’
Diamond shows that there was no single approach to policymaking through the Blair-Brown governments, but instead a succession of approaches recalibrating the relationship between departmental initiative and autonomy on the one hand and intervention and strategic drive from Downing Street on the other, as each previous approach was seen to be inadequate. Common to all approaches was a ‘model of change which … distorts a lot of policymaking’ by assuming ‘that pulling a lever at the top through a law or a programme actually has a series of effects. Most of the time it doesn’t’.
Part of the drive to centralising power came from a growing recognition in Downing Street of the need to overcome the ‘distinctive cultures, interests and relationships, leading to entrenched policy preferences’ within Whitehall departments that made many of them institutionally averse to radical thinking on many issues worthy of reform. But Diamond shows that the centralisation of power in the centre of government, despite the aptitude of the many talented staffers of the Strategy Unit, Delivery Unit, Policy Unit, and other central units, could never be more than a sticking plaster for the fundamental flaws in the Whitehall model. If departmental officials struggled to understand the full complexity of the real-world delivery scenarios with which their policy proposals sought to interact, the Cabinet Office or Treasury officials second guessing them at one further remove were too often in even less of a position to ensure policy could be implemented.
For Diamond, ‘a democratic vision of a reformed British state more transparent, democratically representative and institutionally responsive anchored in a coherent conception of the public interest has so far been absent in British politics. It remains essential, however, as the precondition for a wide-ranging programme of civil service and Whitehall reform’, which, in turn, any reader of this book should conclude, is a precondition for the success of the next Labour government.
Greg Rosen is co-author of Whitehall Reform: The View from the Inside
Governing Britain: Power, Politics and the Prime Minister
IB Tauris | 288pp | £14.99
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