Sunday, January 29, 2006

A rush to the centre

A corollary of Godwin's Law is that whoever makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis promptly loses the argument. But in some ways, the functioning of a dictatorship (all power concentrated on a single ruler and his advisors) is a useful primer on over-centralised government. It's for this reason that reading Who runs this place? shortly after Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives has proved to be quite interesting.

In the first part of Anthony Sampson's book, he argued that:
  • The monarchy has lost its ability to awe
  • Most peers do not take the scrutiny function of the House of Lords seriously (out of 688 peers in 2000-2001, only 182 came on 60+ of the 76 opportunities available for attending debates)
  • Political parties only have a small percentage membership of the UK population and lack local roots
  • The civil service has become politicised and interlocked with the interests of business and
  • The cabinet lacks talent (who go into The city, etc. rather than politics).
The vacuum, Sampson claims has been filled with the Prime Minister, his unelected advisors and the media in conjunction with the Secret Service (think M16 and investigations into the 'sexed-up dossier'). As an example, he writes about the 1997 election campaign:

"For the election campaign [1997]... a 'war room' [was established] with a 'unitary command structure leading directly to the party leader'... they depended heavily on polls and focus groups... they could sidestep the traditional intermediaries between themselves and the public... they could also circumvent parliament and elected representatives... the New Labour campaigners worked through their sympathisers in newspapers and media centres"

You'd initially think that centralising power should make things more efficient but it doesn't. Anthony Sampson makes several arguments why it is a bad thing:
  • Increasing separation from the electorate - which leads to public disengagement from politics, a drop in turnout, a decline in the quality of people putting themselves forward to a career in politics and a lack of understanding of the 'real world' which makes for poor governance (think of the repeated references to the 'Westminster Bubble'). In the long-term it's bad for the political party itself both in terms of generating disunity (the murmurs and working against Thatcher and Blair) and losing touch with the interests of the electorate
  • Loss of specialist knowledge - Anthony Sampson argues that the disengagement of the trade unions from Labour have separated them from the voices of trade union members. Trade union membership has fallen but still remains higher than that of political parties and trade union leaders are more trusted by the electorate (33% agree with the proposition that they are telling the truth) than politicians (18% trusted on the MORI 'Veracity Index'). Failure to talk to backbenchers about issues in their constituencies again separates the cadre from the electorate - Tam Dalyell said that ordinary MPs "have a perspective to offer that is usually more profound than focus groups". Politicians with different skillsets (Sampson compares George Brown, the fur salesman and economics minister in Wilson's government with the preponderance of Oxford economists in government at the time) are of benefit to a government. Anthony Sampson blames the lack of reliance on expertise in the Foreign Office as a cause of problems getting a second resolution for war in Iraq, which Blair subsequently blamed on the French.
  • Inscrutability and a loss in accountability - unscrupulous people can fiddle the system. This destroys the confidence of the electorate in government.
  • Inefficiency - the mistakes and obsessions of individuals have a disproportionate effect on the mistakes and obsessions of the government. Further, by centralising power the administration becomes inefficient as all sections compete for the attention of the small cadre in charge.

Before I draw parallels with the Hitler and Stalin book, I'd like to point out that Tony Blair and Hitler/Stalin are not directly comparable (this should be obvious, but...). Hitler/Stalin are an extreme example of over-personalised government and act as a primer on the problems of personalised styles of government. Anthony Sampson draws a parallel between Blair's drive for 'joined-up government' and Hitler/Stalin when he talks about the inefficiency of Nazi government as a result of Hitler's personalised rule and the resulting competition between departments for his favour. But there are other parallels. Part of Hitler's failure in Russia resulted from his racial obsessions which prevented him exploiting the discontent of the Russian peasantry. In fact the failure of the Germans to win WWII can be in part attributed to inefficiency in weapons production due to the personalised structure of the Reich government, a difficulty in receiving and responding to 'real world' information about the progress of the war and available weaponry, a tendency to ignore expert advice and the priorities of government being set by a very small number of people. Stalin had similar problems - his flat-footedness at the beginning of the German invasion of Russia was caused by him murdering/imprisoning his expert advice and because Stalin personally didn't want to deal with the implications of Hitler's troop movements.

Anthony Sampson writes that Blair "hardly talked about Labour history, which he associated with failure, and showed little interest in history altogether" upon New Labour's victory in 1997. I'm not too bothered about the deficiencies in New Labour's style of working but for their own sake, maybe Blair should read a history book.


  • At 3:17 pm , Blogger Tristan said...

    This is similar to many of Hayek's arguments against the centralised control of the economy and of government.

    He started off as a socialist but started looking at the economics and then saw what happened in pre-war Germany first hand and was lead to the conclusion that liberalism was the only way to secure human freedom. (he goes as far as putting a lot of the blame for the rise of Hitler on the socialist/social democratic centralisation and planning of the Weimar republic in creating an atmosphere where people would accept the authoritarian rule of an individual...

    And the example of hierarchical centralised control harming German sience during the war is well known, German scientists and engineers could not pursue things freely whereas in Britain this was much more possible (although not easy). I think this is mentioned in a maths book I have :) (Tom K├Ârner's 'The Pleasure of Counting' IIRC)
    This is something the Labour party should remember with its utilitarian approach to education and its attempts to meddle in what univeristies teach...

  • At 3:25 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    he goes as far as putting a lot of the blame for the rise of Hitler on the socialist/social democratic centralisation and planning of the Weimar republic in creating an atmosphere where people would accept the authoritarian rule of an individual

    Bullock says that the right-wing, imperialist politicians were already encouraging a presidential and cadre-style of government (by-passing parliament). In a way, they set the groundwork and made it easier for him. You can argue that Lenin set the groundwork to some extent for Stalin too by encouraging the use of terror.


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