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Powerless

Posted by Richard Saturday, December 22, 2007 , ,

An interesting leader in The Daily Telegraph is made more interesting by the apparent inability of the sub-editors to decide upon a title. In the online edition, they opt for, "Gordon Brown is in control of very little" yet the print edition offers, "Our masters are in control of very little".

In fact, both are true, but it is the online headline that my fellow Umbrella blogger Huntsman picks on, suggesting that the government should keep a white flag handy. "Feckless Socialist politicians make promises they are unable to keep," he writes, adding:

Their problem is that, being incompetent, they do not realize that most of them are incapable of being met. Above all they do not realize that they cannot be met because they have surrendered the power to fulfil them to the European Union.
The EU dimension is indeed an issue which the Telegraph leader identifies, but it also notes other ways in which power has drained from politicians, not least the rise and rise of the quangos.

It might have added that the proliferation of cabinet government in local authorities has also done much to attenuate democracy at a local level but it does refer to the fact that state bureaucracy is "simply too big and ramshackle to function properly".

The danger is that, taking a tribal view, and attributing all ills to "feckless Socialist politicians", fails to acknowledge that the rot started long before Blair and his pals won the election in 1997. More accurately, this is part of a long progression, the start of which is lost in the mists of time.

However, with the growing aggregation of EU treaties, and initiatives like Thatcher's "next step agencies" – which turned many civil service departments into unaccountable quangos (and many into Self-financing regulatory agencies, or Sefras as Booker and I were to dub them) – also added to the loss of political control.

It was at then at the fag end of the Major government, in late 1996, that I met Roger Freeman, then Chancellor of the Dutchy of Lancaster, who complained to me that, while he had "all the levers of power", they were "not connected to anything".

That is not to say that a Conservative opposition and its right-wing media cheerleaders should not exploit the government's disarray, but this should be balanced by an appreciation that, given the current situation, a Conservative government would have exactly the same problems.

Some of the brighter Tory MPs (there are a few) are already beginning to realise this and predict that, if the Tories do power, things will not be very different. They will try to make changes but will quickly get bogged down as they realise the limits of power, whence disillusionment will set in very quickly.

This, therefore, is the main issue that should be confronting political thinkers - not what the Tories will do when they get into power, but how they as a government will recover the power that has drained away, in order to implement a Tory manifesto.

Here, the offering of The Telegraph is not helpful, verging on the facile. Addressing itself to MPs, it tells them:

Put yourselves back in control. Seize power from the gentlemen in Whitehall and Brussels. Scrap the quangos. Abrogate the human rights codes. Make yourselves once again a sovereign Parliament.
Would that it was so easy – although that would be a start. Restoring any semblance of effective and democratic government (although the two are not necessarily the same thing) will be a Herculean task. But the task is made even harder by the fact, as I see it, that far too little attention is being given to the problem.

If every journey starts with a single step, the first step in this journey needs to be an open acknowledgement that the politicians have lost so much power. And in that sense, at least the Telegraph leader is helpful.

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