It says: “Expert advisory committees proved too slow and ponderous, with not enough dissenting voices; crisis-response cells could not cope and had to be bypassed; the Cabinet Office buckled under the strain; the NHS had no adequate way of sharing data; authorities could not meet the sudden need for mass testing; the Foreign Office could not get people home fast enough; the Department of Health could not design a contact-tracing app that worked; the government overall could not sufficiently procure key pandemic equipment.”
All true. Yet every item on that list is, if you think about it, an indictment of our standing bureaucracies. Before the coronavirus arrived, the desire to overhaul the government machine struck most people as slightly wonkish. Now we can see that it is an urgent national priority.
Naturally, those who share the prejudices of our quangocracy – fondness for high public spending, Europhilia, an obsession with identity politics, even to the exclusion of whatever is supposed to be their primary task – don’t see the problem. But almost every minister who has struggled through the past six months now grasps what has gone wrong. An imperium in imperio has grown up, self-appointed and self-sustaining, that pursues its own priorities even when they flatly contradict the Cabinet’s stated objectives, but that then proves useless when called on to discharge its notional functions.
The solution is to ensure that people on the government payroll work for the rest of us rather than for themselves. In some cases, this will mean scrapping a quango altogether, as with PHE and (one hopes) the deeply partisan Electoral Commission, without which we managed perfectly well in the pre-Blair era. In areas where MPs need to delegate authority, it should be done narrowly and contingently. Public bodies should be required to plead before the relevant parliamentary committee every year for their budgets and, indeed, their continuing existence.
Where possible, the functions of quangos should pass, not to MPs, but to local authorities. Town halls are not nearly so prone as Whitehall to waste gargantuan sums on consultants and software cockups. Let county and metropolitan authorities raise the bulk of their own revenue. Let them reassume primary responsibility for the relief of poverty. Let them – or perhaps the elected police commissioners – set local sentencing guidelines. Give residents a direct say through local referendums.
These changes are too extensive to be made piecemeal. There is an overwhelming case, as we leave the EU, for recalibrating our constitutional arrangements. As powers come back from Brussels, we need to decide which of them to pass directly to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – and, indeed, to local councils. We should negotiate a high degree of fiscal autonomy for the devolved assemblies – and for English counties and cities. Taken together, these reforms are enough to warrant, if not a full-scale constitutional convention, at least a Royal Commission.
Those who are happy with the soft-Left setting of the administrative state will doubtless protest that all this is a massive distraction from the epidemic and the consequent recession. But the past six months have made the opposite point. The coronavirus squall showed that our ship of state was in a lamentable condition, leaky and dilapidated. Now an altogether rougher tempest looms: our debt has risen to above two trillion pounds and we are in the sharpest economic contraction in our history. We cannot hope to navigate the coming storm unless we first caulk our hull and clear our rigging. The seawater is already flooding in. We have no more time to waste.