Changing our bureaucracy

Sometimes we forget that we are no longer an island. John Donne might be pleased by that. I am not.

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When we check the foreign press, we find stories emerging there that should make us very anxious indeed about what is going on here, because what we are told here is not, it seems, what is actually happening. We need to worry too, and perhaps more importantly about the way these mis-truths are affecting our international reputation.

We are getting into trouble. The bullying and lying that has crept into our bureaucracy  in Britain does not work in an international crisis and is going to leave us with egg on our faces.

Already, it is evident that what the Government proposes is rarely implemented in full by our bureaucrats- banks are unable to process loans, insurance companies are refusing to pay up and so on. This is going on while, at the same time, a wave of goodwill is sweeping the country. Odd how one particular group is unable to change.

This morning, evidence is appearing in Turkey that what is being peddled by the government is not quite correct. It is true we dispatched a military plane to collect goods from Turkey and it is true that the said A400M in now on the tarmac in Istanbul and has been there since monday afternoon. It is also true that there is an export ban on PPE goods leaving Turkey. Robert Jenrick (the Housing minister) said a shipment of PPE was due on Sunday. Gavin Williamson (the education minister) said that the shipment from Turkey would come, he hoped, on Monday. What was not said, however, was that the shipment was not formally ordered and paperwork submitted until Sunday. This is madness.

The RAF transport planes have been on standby at Brize Norton for days waiting for the go-ahead to pick up 84 tonnes of urgently needed medical clothing and equipment, including the 400,000 gowns made by Turkish suppliers.

With a series of deadlines set by UK ministers missed, the British government has blamed its Turkish counterpart for causing the delays.

But after one cabinet minister said the government had hoped the three planes would be able to take off on Monday afternoon, British sources admitted that the Turkish authorities had not confirmed the supplies were ready to be picked up.

It would be just about acceptable if that was as far as it went. But the potential for international offence goes further – It is shameless that we accepted a free gift of PPE from Turkey only a week ago on 12th April (with next to no news coverage of the shipment in the British media) and that now we are pouring blame on Turkey for what are, in fact, our own failings. The news yesterday was dominated by stories that suggested there was a fault “on the Turkish side”. Quite true, but it was of our own making. Indeed, the Guardian ran a story saying quite clearly that the RAF plane that is now on the tarmac in Istanbul was sent to put “pressure on Ankara”.

This is how the Guardian reported what another minister said:

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, told the BBC on Monday morning that the delays were down to “challenges at the Turkish end” but appeared to suggest the issue was about to be resolved. He said: “I don’t want to start making more and more promises, but I understand that flight will take off this afternoon and those [gowns] will be delivered.”

We have got into a habit of using tenses in a woolly way. “I have done something” often means “I will do it (eventually or maybe)”. This has become the standard of bureaucratic action. It has worked well enough for mobile phones and for banking. Indeed, when the customer complains, the whole thing can be turned round and the customer can be made to feel that it was their failing. This is, of course, what we have tried to do here. It is shameful.

It can only cause more delay and international resentment.

We have got into the habit of apportioning blame rather than taking action. Look, for instance at this paragraph from the Guardian:

Unite’s assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail… said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, may have to consider his position if he was not able to secure the necessary PPE. She said the situation could not continue, and that health professionals would be quite right to decline to put themselves in danger.

It seems to be in response to pressure on the Health secretary that the government announced the shipment from Turkey. Unite is right to be concerned about risk to its workers and right to raise the issue with the Heath secretary. But the answer is not to spin the story. The answer is to sort it out. We are locked into a spin cycle and we seem unable to get out of this.

We need to re-programme the way our country works.

And as for this PPE issue: we cannot pass the buck here- Our fault. Our failing and our bureaucrats.

The Immanent Gove

Michael Gove today penned a piece in the Times suggesting that he had access to Mrs May’s latest thoughts, indeed the very words she might utter in only a matter of days.Quite apart from the irritation of finding senior politicians jumping on the bandwagon of false news, his piece simply repeats arguments that were surely sorted out at about 8am on 24th June.

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I think much of what he thinks the PM will say will remain wishful thinking, but it is still deeply mistaken and misleading.

I think Mr Gove’s greatest mistake lies in a misunderstanding of what it means to lead the country, something he aspired to do and that Mrs May is now doing. Mr Gove thinks that what matters is “the truth”, but truth is a relative and constantly changing concept. What matters instead is “responsibility”, or “trust”. I think this is a single concept though expressed in two words. For it is not possible to have one without the other. It is something Mr Gove failed to earn and, moreover, a concept that is much bigger than the referendum and certainly bigger than Brexit. It is about doing the right thing at the right time and with confidence. Today, when Brexit is presented, a number of politicians, and certainly Mr Gove, seem to abandon not only reality and rational thought but also a belief in the primacy of Parliament for naive demagogy as if they are still not sure they won, and have to rehash the same arguments over and over again.

Put bluntly, has Mr Corbyn not been a sufficient warning to you?

Mr Gove sets the tune of his piece by referring to Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher. Reagan’s plan for the cold war- “Simple — we win; they lose.” But that is not quite how it panned out, was it! Let’s look back a little further:

While France and America embraced revolution, Britain quietly changed from one leader to another. The “glorious revolution” may not be quite all it was cracked up to be, but it demonstrates a way of behaving that Mr Gove absolutely forgets. Revolutions, if pursued relentlessly, are out for blood and that has not been the British way. We want to forge a quiet rethinking of the status quo, and if possible, seemlessly merge from one form of rule to another, maybe, if absolutely necessary with a mild embellishment to the union flag.

Mrs May is quite right in repeating her mantra that “Brexit means Brexit” just as she is quite right in being tight-lipped about exactly how that will play out. Even if she triggers the process in a month, we still must wait two years for that act to play out, and during that time, much of the Europe we know today will have changed beyond recognition. Catalonia lingers, Le Pen lies in the penumbra of perceptual power and Germany smoulders with discontent to say nothing of Greece, badgered and badgered until it is made to feel like a poodle puddled in the Aegean. The only thing that we can be certain about is the Responsibility Mrs May has been given as our leader and the trust we place in her.

What I find most disturbing is the claim that we know what “the electors wanted” when they voted for Brexit. The fact is, we can never know just as we can never know what they wanted when they voted for Mr Corbyn. All we have is the result which in and of itself says nothing about immigration, control of borders, the single market, hard or soft Brexit. It is simply a mandate for leaving the current arrangement, a recognition that the EU as it stands is failing. A referendum is not a result in itself – it needs interpreting and circumstances will change. That is inevitable.

Also, though I hesitate to point this out, the Brexit vote was far from uniform throughout the country and a clever Brexit will allow for, and placate the 48% who voted to retain our place in Europe.

But I hope we are fast approaching the day when we will stop hearing what Politicians think the electors voted for. No one really knows. Equally the obsession with anticipating the way we leave Europe needs to stop. We need to leave the negotiating team to do its job.

The obsession, drummed up in part by people like Mr Gove and Mr Farage, about how we leave in fact allows Brussels to avoid the full force of the blow of that Referendum decision. Indeed, this obsession gives a platform to Mr Junker, who rather than falling on his sword as one of the architects of modern Brussels, can join Gove and Farage and pontificate about HOW we should be going. What folly for Junker to be mocking Milord, when his own house is burning down.

Mr Gove gave a tv interview a few weeks ago and demonstrated what a thoughtful, centred man he really is. I do not understand, therefore, why he needs to play to the gallery like this when what we really need is his keen intellect and analytic support at the centre of Government. What Mrs May does not yet say is that any form of Brexit means a re-ordering of Europe because she knows the European project is bigger than the EU. Because the future of Europe and the role it will play beside us is as much our concern as the manner in which Britain will be defined two years’ hence.

John Donne writes,

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No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.