Archives for September 2014

“Give them rope” is no basis for government

I have never felt so uncomfortable about my country.

Apart from relief, I can not share in the general enthusiasm for the outcome of the Scottish referendum. I am delighted Scotland voted to stay with us. I am relieved so many voted, making the result undeniable. But I am horrified at the fractures it has opened up.

Scotland is divided. England has been provoked into defining her interests against – and not with – the other nations. Wales is abandoned. A house divided cannot prosper. And our house, the Union, is divided. Anyone who thinks we would be better without it is a fantasist. But those who would sustain it are consumed in securing their own interest.

English MPs are suddenly discovering devolution. Their enthusiasm might have something to do with the fact that they have never experienced it. “English votes for English laws” has a chilling ring for those outside. Similarly, Alex Salmond’s was a charlatan’s prospectus for an independent Scotland.

The Welsh Government now clings to Scottish coattails and calls for more power and more money. It shows rather less interest in taking responsibility for what it already has.

We are left with the consequences of a misguided devolution process which, to my shame, I supported at the time. Devolving power without responsibility, as Labour did to its client fiefdoms in Wales and Scotland, is a recipe for disaster. We now know where it leads: to separatism, division and nationalism.

Where do we go from here? Scotland will get more powers. That much we know. Reform of English local government is now inescapable. And Wales?

Wales wants more powers. Tax raising powers are on their way. They are likely to be joined by powers over energy and water. And Cardiff politicians long for control of the police and criminal justice.

The last concerns me most. It would do nothing to make Welsh communities safer. A large part of our population crosses the border every day. Splitting the criminal justice system between Cardiff and Bristol, or Wrexham and Chester adds needless cost and complication.

Policing is already devolved, in fact to a lower level than any currently Cardiff-controlled public service. Getting power out of Whitehall is fine. But centralising it in Cardiff gets us nowhere.

Because the actual experience of the Welsh Assembly has been, well, depressing. It has sucked power from below while swallowing money from above. And it has delivered very little for that.

Wales’ education was once famous in the UK; now it is more infamous. Terrifying failures in the Welsh NHS are met with a sheepish, sideways nod in private and North Korean style proclamations of success in public.

We ought to be able to talk about the failures of this Welsh Labour Government rather than the Assembly. But perhaps the greatest concern about devolution in Wales is that it has failed to deliver a single change of government.

Wales is, to all intents and purposes, a single party state. With that comes cronyism, incompetence, and a suffocating fog of consensus amongst the small circles that dominate Welsh administration.

These will not stay Welsh problems for long. Their implications, whether in the the NHS, education or elsewhere, will spill over into England.

For Labour, the Welsh Government is an embarrassment. For the Liberal Democrats, the situation is Wales is a rebuke to their blind faith in complicated voting systems.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party faces an almost irresistible temptation to give them power and let them hang. It will probably work but at what price?

Until we have seen any kind of change in government, an acceptance of financial responsibility, or some ability to deliver administrative reform, we cannot responsibly give Cardiff more.

Weak oversight has damaged the police enormously over the last 30 years. Until the Welsh administration demonstrates some ability to grapple with failing areas we cannot begin to contemplate Cardiff control of the police, still less the criminal justice system.

Local government is ripe for reform across the UK, including in Wales. The consequences of the Scottish referendum make change unavoidable. That is a good thing, if we handle it carefully.

Our aim must be to strengthen the Union. It is not broken, just neglected. Like all living things, it needs sustaining. We should strengthen political ties and pass power to people, not encourage new institutions to seek spurious grounds for ‘difference’ as the last round of devolution did.

When reform of local government in England begins in earnest – I hope with more mayors for our cities, directly elected council leaders, greater taxation powers and an end to ridiculous capping arrangements – perhaps Welsh local authorities should benefit from the same?

Scotland has proved, once again, how fundamental she is to the United Kingdom, and how capable of shaping its future. Wales is no less vital, and in many ways more deeply woven into the fabric of our national life.

We cannot progress by defining only our own interests – England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. What I learnt from this referendum is that I never want to be asked which are mine. They all are.

It may be tempting to for Conservative colleagues to hand powers to the Welsh Government and watch Labour flounder, as it certainly will. They should resist.

‘Give them rope’ might work but it is no basis for stable constitutional change.


For Whom the Polls Toll

Can there be anything more heart-rending than watching your country dismember itself? Not long ago I was risking my life alongside soldiers from across these islands. I served a government I did not like, in an army that frequently blundered. I did it to protect the institutions that had protected me. I still do. We served and we saw the chaos of human affairs and thanked God for the stability we enjoyed.

Now I sit with my heart in my mouth and a deep well of despair in my stomach, unable to do a thing about the wrenching apart of those notions that have bound us and for which many – Scots, Welsh, Irish, English, Nepalese, South African, Fijian, Australian – have been prepared to die. For what?

Nothing good can come of this. Civil strife is the most destructive of all conflicts. Even when expressed through the ballot box rather than the barrel of a gun, it means division and anguish. Its legacy will linger. It means people who used to share a pint no longer speaking. It means families divided, friendships fractured, a question to be avoided, a topic that can’t be discussed. Like a stone in the shoe it will nag away until we throw off the shoe in a fit of anger.

Nationalism is poison. It makes no difference whether it is the ethno-trendiness of Welsh and Scottish nationalism, the violence of Irish nationalism or the swaggering brutishness of English nationalism. It divides us. When it takes root in a state it means the silent and subtle ejection of people who don’t fit in. Nothing aggressive needs to happen. People simply feel uncomfortable. They leave government posts, schools, civic posts, public conversation. An orthodoxy emerges. Now it is in the bloodstream of our nations it will be with us for a long time.

Worthy platitudes from journalists about how ‘engaged’ the debate is, how exciting ‘grass-roots’ politics are betray the mind boggling idiocy of a class so comfortably cocooned in their international metropolis. That naivety has led us to this. The debate is ‘engaged’ and ‘grass-roots’ because it matters a lot to a lot of people. And because it matters it will leave deep scars. This is not some interesting conundrum for a political science lecture. It is about real people and the essence of who we are.

We have made a terrible mistake in confusing British patriotism with nationalism, and making such a deliberate effort to reject it. Britain could never be nationalist because it consisted of many nations. Each kept the other sane. Patriotism was pride in the country we built together and the institutions we share. Nationalism is something very different, as those worthy progressives so seduced by its rebelliousness are about to find out.

With each passing day, each poll, we become a little more parochial, our horizons narrow, our world shrinks. Stuff them, we say, we’ll look after ourselves.

No man is an island, entire of itself. Nor is a country. We are all a part of something; we should fight for it. We are all diminished when it splits. Ask not for whom the polls toll: they toll for thee.


More Forces. Fewer Ranks.

Irene Curtis of the Superintendents’ Association is wrong to claim we need bigger police forces. Inevitably the argument is built upon the pressure of cuts. Cuts mean less money. Less money means we need bigger forces, with fewer chief constables.

It’s superficially appealing but it’s wrong. It also ignores the important constitutional reasons for why we have local, independent forces. We have them so that no one force can get too powerful. Local forces are an important check on the most intrusive power of the state. They give the individual at least some hope of challenging official authority. The bigger they are the harder that becomes.

In a string of police scandals – Rotherham, undercover operations, fiddled crime figures – we have heard senior officers claim that they ‘did not know’ what is going on in their forces. That is a product of weak governance, not small forces.

The former Chief Constable of South Yorkshire pleaded ignorance on the Today programme recently, in response to the Rotherham scandal. He claimed that he did not know how his force had been investigating – or not – the rapes, kidnapping and trafficking of girls in his area. He hadn’t seen letters addressed to him.

Other senior officers claimed to the Home Affairs Select Committee that they did not know crime figures were being fiddled by the organisations they lead.

Well, then, they failed. Full stop. It is the job of senior leadership in any organisation to know what is going on. That is what they are paid for. And if things go wrong on their watch, they are paid to take responsibility.

Either they failed because they aren’t very good at their jobs, or they failed because the organisations they lead prevent them from doing their jobs. I suspect it is more the latter.

Forces are too big with too many ranks. As a result senior officers are too remote from the front line. It is never easy to keep abreast of a large organisation but it becomes a lot harder the bigger the organisation.

The police are highly deferential to rank – more so, in my experience than the military. And there are a lot of ranks. Police officers are, rightly, ‘can do’ and eager to please. The result is a lot of people looking upwards, eager to present the best take on things. A conspiracy of optimism pervades the police hierarchy, getting more intense the higher it goes. Sub cultures develop that are never challenged. The bigger the organisation, the bigger the problem.

And the money? Better management and tighter governance will do more for savings than bigger bureaucracies. Cutting the number of ranks – there’s no need for three ranks of chief constable, for a start – would save more with far less disruption than force mergers. Other ranks could go too. Perhaps, even, among superintendents?

We need more, not fewer, police forces. Their leadership – PCCs included – should be paid less and their ranks reduced.

Bringing decisions closer to the front line would deliver bigger savings than reorganisations. More importantly it will protect the liberties the police are there to uphold.




The Empire Strikes Back

As in physics, so in politics. Every force in one direction meets opposing forces in the other. Reform produces counter reform. Progress depends simply on which is the more powerful.

This government has been extraordinarily reforming. It has taken on major vested interests across the public sector, whilst handling a coalition and the worst economic inheritance since WWII. Prime among those vested interests have been the police and the web of vocal lobbyists that surround them, from the Federation and ACPO to retired old sweats and local government insiders.

Their reaction, simmering for years, has finally found its form. Interestingly, that form has not come from the police. They, perhaps to their surprise, may have found something in the clarity that Police and Crime Commissioners bring. They may even be feeling a breath of wind beneath their wings, freed from the suffocating bureaucracy of committee-based decision making. They have wisely stayed out of this debate.

Instead, the reaction takes the form of resurgent local government interests. They have long resented inconvenient strangers, like directly elected PCCs (or mayors, for that matter), amidst their comfortable fiefdoms.

The Liberal Democrats – the party of local government interests, if a party at all – wants to replace PCCs with Police Boards. Labour, no less comfortable with direct accountability, has intimated the same.

How ironic that the scandal which finally outed this reaction – the outrageous failures in Rotherham – should prompt calls for a return to precisely the kind of oversight which produced those failures.

It was the leaderless and incompetent committees and ‘safeguarding’ boards of Rotherham Council which failed to challenge officials who were not doing their job. No one took responsibility in the miasma of ‘task and finish sub-groups’ and multi-agency gobbledegook that passed for accountability. How, precisely, would a police committee improve things?

For all its problems – and undoubtedly there are improvements to be made to PCCs – it is the unambiguous accountability of direct election which has left Shaun Wright with nowhere to hide. It has guaranteed a reckoning for someone with responsibility in that terrible scandal, albeit 18 months later than many would like. But an end there is; he will not stand again, and if he did his voters can pass their judgement.

What are the chances of such clarity in a council committee? How many councillors lose their jobs when things go wrong? Without direct accountability we have a system where people who fail get recycled on the merry-go-round of council preferment.

Questions about accountability between elections are not unique to PCCs. They apply to all democratic posts – MPs, councillors, AMs and MSPs alike. They are the problems of democracy. I do not accept that PCCs are different because they are powerful. That is the point of PCCs.

They are powerful because the system is powerful. They are powerful in order to be accountable. And they have to be accountable in order to be powerful. Diffusing that accountability into a committee takes us back to where we started. The system wins. The public lose.

By all means strengthen the public voice, but give people someone to sack when it goes wrong. And give that person the power to stop things going wrong. But steer clear of the cosy committees.

Anything else is reaction. The system is fighting back. The forces for reform must be bolstered once more.