Friday, May 21, 2010

Gotterdammerung of the Gentleman from Whitehall? 

So are we seeing a decisive shift towards a more bottom-up, evolutionary way of working out what we want to do in Britain?

It is instructive to look back on how our over-centralised state put down its roots in the late 1940’s and a great account of this is in David Kynaston’s remarkable book about ‘Austerity Britain’.

There is a notorious quotation – not an urban legend but a real quote - that ‘The Gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people do themselves’. This rather sums up an attitude Liberals instinctively reject. It comes from a book published in 1937 by Douglas Jay, a prominent Labour politician. Who added that economic freedom is ‘a secondary freedom often approaching a luxury’.(1)

But Liberals cannot be too smug on this history. The over-centralisation of the NHS right from its early days (ensuring that ‘a bedpan dropped in Tredegar Hospital would resound through the corridors of Whitehall’) was an unintended consequence of the plans drawn up by the Liberal Beveridge

Kynaston says:

There was also once again the whole question of the local and the national. The historian David Vincent has convincingly argued that
“Beveridge’s greatest achievement may have been not to convert the Tories to the welfare state, but Labour to state welfare",
given that historically Labour had tended to look to local authorities rather than the state for the relief of poverty’.

The practical consequences of the wholesale shift in attitudes to the state as a result of the war was ‘an extensive indifference to the dangers of a system in which every official … was controlled from Whitehall… a huge new bureaucracy answerable to its clients only through ministerial responsibility’.

Kynaston concludes that passage by saying

‘ A somewhat Kafkaesque trial – endured mainly by those least able to complain – was only just beginning.’ (2)

And he also notes an attitude that people could be manipulated without serious resistance:
Mass Observation (an early polling operation) produced a report finding that the overwhelming majority of ‘working people’ wanted houses or bungalows with some kind of small garden. The planners thought otherwise. Kynaston notes:

…as the People’ Homes report … wryly concluded about working-class people and such apparently firm preferences, ‘happily for the planners, they will make the best of a bad lot, or a good little’

Will the coalition enable the evolution of processes leading to something better than ‘a good little? One of our challenges perhaps.

I really recommend all Kynaston’s books on modern Britain published so far. He will take his series up to 1979 and the start of the Thatcher upheaval.

David Kynaston (2007) Austerity Britain 1945-51 Bloomsbury(1) Kynaston p136 (2) Kynaston pp 149-150 citing Vincent (1991) “Poor Citizens” (3) Kynaston p53 citing the Mass Observation report “Peoples’ Homes”

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