The Sham of British Local Democracy

Many years ago I used to work in a combined Politics and Public Administration Department at a University. There was a bit of friendly rivalry between political philosophers, of which I was one, and Public Admin academics who we rather disparagingly described as ‘plumbers’. Public Administrators weren’t interested in big issues of policy or ethics, they just wanted to make sure public bodies were effectively administered. In the years since I’ve come to realise describing them as ‘plumbers’ was grossly unfair: to plumbers, who are at least accountable to their customers. Doctrines developed by public admin academics have pretty much made sure local government bureaucrats are accountable to no one, and that is why British Local Democracy has become a sham.

The problem arises from a doctrine in public admin called the policy/operations split. In theory this means that the elected representatives are responsible for policy and the public officials are responsible for operations. For example, in the day to day running of the NHS, this would mean that if there was a scandal of poor care in the NHS, such as Stafford Hospital, the Secretary of State for Health would be able to hold up his hands and say, “nothing to do with me Mr and Mrs Voter, running the hospital is an operational matter, I can’t be held responsible. It’s the fault of Mr Stafford NHS Manager.” The trouble is Mr Stafford NHS Manager can’t be voted out by the electorate and he is protected by the full weight of employment law which makes it almost impossible for him to be sacked. With respect to national government most people realise it’s garbage and rightly do heap odium on national politicians if there’s a major operational screw up.

Yet this is not what happens in local government. Consider the case of Joyce Thacker, she was head of Rotherham Social Services during the Rotherham abuse scandal and rode out 3 critical reports, and years of press scrutiny. She only eventually resigned (note resigned, not sacked) three weeks after the Jay report revealed at least 1400 girls had been systematically abused over several years. Even then she received a £40,000 pay off. This happens because in local government the policy operations split is far more strictly observed than in national government. It’s not just Rotherham, Sharon Shoesmith, the head of Haringey’s children’s services during the Baby P scandal, was awarded £679,000 after she claimed for unfair dismissal.

Local government officials are pretty much accountable to no one for their mistakes in operational matters. They also fiercely guard their fiefdoms, so unless you’ve got awkward councillors who are prepared to push boundaries and risk falling out with local government officers, the officers could almost literally get away with murder if it was defined as an operational not a policy matter. And if they are caught out, as Sharon Shoesmith was, then a gift from the taxpayer of £679000 is hardly punishment. Most local government officials, therefore, cannot not be held to account for their everyday actions. They are virtually unsackable, the split between policy and operations is never as clear cut as it is made out to be in academic papers so there is always wriggle room. As a result a culture of arrogance and immunity is rife amongst local government officers. They do not see themselves for what they are, servants of the public, but masters of the public, they guard their privileges without resort to common sense or sense of proportion. Councillors, who we elect, are rigorously barred from intervening in ‘operational matters’ so even those who have been elected with a genuine mission to undertake public service opt out of challenging their officers, and spend their time going round in ever decreasing circles chasing up the gripes of their electors which they, mostly, have no power to remedy.

What is the answer to this conundrum? I’m a life long Tory, but from now on I’m voting for whoever promises to be obnoxious to local government officials. I want to vote for Councillors with the guts to take on the tin pot little Hitlers who put obedience to petty regulations before the well-being of the communities that they should serve. In future I’m going to vote for whoever promises to lance this boil on the backside of the body politic. I would urge everyone else to do the same. Whoever you vote for, don’t vote for the 3 main parties. Vote independent, vote for the awkward squad. Let’s try and win back a semblance of democracy and vote for anyone who promises to make local authorities work for us, not against us.

Why we’d never invent the wheel, or anything else today.

Once upon a time in Mesopotamia, about 4000 years before my grandad helped liberate it from the Turks, there lived 2 families of farmers, the Sumerians and the Cuniforms. Mr Sumerian and Mr Cuniform were very good farmers and they were expecting a bumper crop of wheat, but they were worried. The Mesopotamian edition of the Daily Express, written on new-fangled clay tablets had begun to arrive in their village. Its weather forecast predicted 40 days and 40 nights of rain followed by severe plagues of locusts. Mr Sumerian and Mr Cuniform believed they would not be able to harvest their crop before the rain and locusts destroyed all their hard work.

They were sitting outside their round house when little Johnny Sumerian started to play with a disc of wood. The farmers noticed how well it rolled over the soft ground.
“Pity we can’t make our wheat ride on that” said Mr Cuniform grumpily.
Mr Sumerian was very concerned, he wasn’t as rich as Mr Cuniform and he coveted his other neighbour’s ass. He was hoping money from his surplus crop that year would help him buy it. He kept watching his son and he had a brainwave.

“Suppose we have two wooden discs the same size. We can fix them either side of a rod, then we can put some planks in between them, attached to the rod loosely so it can turn. We can put wheat on the planks and see if we can carry more wheat more quickly that way.”

Mr Cuniform was sceptical, but he was worried that a bad harvest would cause him to lose his savings so he decided it was worth trying. That night he, Mr Sumerian and little Johnny set to work and by morning they had a strange looking device that Mr Cuniform decided to call a “cart”.
“But you got the idea from my wooden discs” protested little Johnny.
“All right” said Mr Cuniform, “you come up with a new name for the wooden discs.”
“We’ll call them ‘wheels'” he said.

Much to the amusement of the rest of the village, that morning Mr. Sumerian, Mr Cuniform and little Johnny dragged their contraption down to the field and started loading it up with wheat. When it was fully loaded they could barely move it. They were beginning to think that this was a very bad idea when Mr Chaldes rode past on the ass Mr Sumerian coveted.

“Tell you what” he said, “We’ll tie my ass to the cart and see if he can pull it.” He was a very strong little ass, so he was soon pulling the cart up to the village granaries. That night, everyone in the village built carts and the next day they fastened all the village animals to them, oxen, mules and other asses. The harvest looked set to be completed in record time, the villagers were happy Mr Sumerian, Mr Cuniform and little Johnny were heroes and Mr Chaldes was so pleased he agreed to sell his ass to Mr Sumerian at a discount. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon, in the next village there was a family called Elfnsafety, they were horrified when they saw what the villagers had done. They wanted to know if they’d worked out what would happen if the ass ran away with the cart, or if a wheel ran over little Johnny. They also thought that the villagers should apply to the Chancellery at the great city of Ur to ask for permission to use their new invention. At the very least they should do a risk assessment on this dangerous new device, the wheel. What the Elfnsafetys weren’t interested in was the possibility of the villagers starving if they failed to harvest their crops, and they rotted in the fields because of the rain, or if their crops were eaten by a plague of locusts.

The villagers were a kindly lot so they just ignored the Elfnsafetys and got on with their harvest. But eventually the Elfnsafety’s whining started to annoy them, so the villagers beat the Elfnsafetys to a bloody pulp and sent their bodies to the Chancellery at Ur with an explanation, written on new-fangled clay tablets, for why they had done it. The ruler was a wise man, he could see that the villagers had produced a remarkable harvest which meant greater tax revenues for him, so he sent them a clay tablet of congratulations.

And that story explains how the wheel was invented and how the Sumerian civilisation grew and flourished. It also offers a hint of how civilisations decline, but that’s a story for another night.

Once upon a time there was a dog, a dead sheep and a double glazing surveyor…

I started blogging roughly 3 years ago in response to a bout of regular insomnia. Well it’s back with a vengeance for reasons I can’t explain, so, blogging may be about to make a come back. The question is, as with any writing, what do I blog on. I can’t blog about what I’d like to blog about because that would give some close friends heart failure and I would probably end up in a libel court.

I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time tweeting about the EU and I’ve just helped launch a Facebook page to campaign for Brexit so that’s out too. I did fancy a blast from my past with an Essay on Rousseau’s General Will, but if I’m honest I never really understood that tendentious load of crap when I was reading and writing about it for a living, never mind now when I haven’t looked at it for 15 years. What then can I inflict on the internet in my deathless prose? It’s the season of Remembrance, but that is far too serious a subject for the small hours and it seems disrespectful to the sacrifice of people who served their country just to write about it because I can’t sleep.

But as I’ve been typing this my old dog Rex has come to me, shoved his head under my arm and demanded attention. He’s always been a handsome boy, and even at 13 years old he still is. His joints are creaking after three operations, he’s going deaf and he has the beginnings of a cataract in one eye. But, he wasn’t always like that, and when he looks at me with his head on one side his eyes light up with mischief, and the years roll back to when he was a very young dog and his exploits kept us in stitches.

The one I remember best happened shortly after we moved to our current home nearly 12 years ago. We were lucky to find a house 1000 feet up in the Forest of Bowland in the middle of a moor. It had one serious defect, the double glazing was hopeless, rattled whenever the wind blew, and was as much use at keeping out draughts as a curtain made of wind charms. Needless to say our first job of home improvement was to have proper double glazing fitted. We found a competitive firm, arranged a surveyor’s visit for one evening and were promised that the double glazing would be fitted in 6 weeks, in just enough time to stop us dying of exposure in the January storms.

The surveyor arrived on a wild and windy night. Nothing unusual there, most nights are wild and windy where we live, but for some reason Rex was very restless. He wouldn’t settle and eventually I took him outside. I’d just chased him up our paddock, which I thought was secure, when I received a call from my husband about a detail that needed my attention. I must have been in the house, oh maybe 5 minutes, but when I went back out Rex was gone. I called for George, our neighbours came out to see what the commotion was and immediately offered to help, as did the double glazing surveyor. We yelled for Rex, waved his favourite treats in a bottle that rattled to try and attract his attention but there was no sign. My husband and neighbours were putting on boots and waterproofs to go out on to the moor in the dark to look for him when he returned, very, very wet. This was a little surprising, it was raining but not that heavily. However, when he came close to us we realised he wasn’t wet with water, or even mud, he totally and completely stank.

Rex had gone out on to the moor and found a very dead, very liquid, sheep and had exuberantly rolled in it. Not only had he rolled in the liquid parts he had elegantly draped bits of decomposing intestine all over himself. Now, I was brought up on a small holding, I’m told I fell in my first cow pat when I was 2 years old, so although it was unpleasant it didn’t worry me too much. George, with his sheltered London upbringing, was looking decidedly queasy and the double glazing surveyor seemed to be on the verge of throwing up. We took Rex into the house, put him into his dog cage and very soon the scent of eau de dead sheep started to infuse our dining and sitting rooms. The double glazing surveyor went to work with a will and the survey was finished in record time. George and I have always thought that it was miracle that the windows fitted at all.

Once the surveyor had left, quickly, after declining our offer of tea and biscuits, we knew we had to bath Rex. The snag was at that time we didn’t have a shower room downstairs, just the main bathroom upstairs, so that was where we took him. Rex is a Finnish Lapphund, bred to herd reindeer in temperatures of -15 degrees. If a dog falls into water in Finland, even in the melt in spring it will very quickly die of hypothermia. Most lappies hate, and I mean hate water and Rex is no exception. We took him upstairs put him in the empty bath, transferring liquid dead sheep and rotting intestines on to ourselves while we did it and started filling the bath. Rex started to squirm the minute the water hit his paws, then he started to yelp, then he started to howl as if he was being murdered, which, to be fair he very nearly was. I was hanging on to him for grim death while George shampooed him with the strongest scented shampoo we could find, an absolutely revolting concoction that one of my least favourite relations had bought me for Christmas years before. But the inevitable happened, eventually Rex squirmed out of my grip for long enough to have a really good shake, spraying a dilute solution of eau de dead sheep, horrible scented shampoo and bits of decomposing intestine all over our bathroom and all over us. We pressed on and eventually managed to remove all the dead sheep and much to his annoyance, Rex was stinking of the horrible shampoo. We dried him with my hair dryer, cleaned out his dog cage, chucked his bed outside and shoved all our clothes in the washer and then went back upstairs to scrub the bathroom. Eventually once it was clean, we collapsed in front of the fire with a couple of very large whiskies.

I’m not sure there’s a moral in this story, except remembering it and sharing it has made me feel better, but if there is, it is the next time you see a tired, gentle, old dog, inside him is a bundle of mischief just dying to get out.