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The British elite’s cult of the amateur and the damage done by ministerial churn

Boris Johnson caused one of his regular commotions last week when, through the medium of “friends”, he offered his cabinet colleagues some unsolicited advice on how much extra money ought to be funnelled to the struggling National Health Service.

When asked about the intervention, the magisterial rebuke from the Chancellor Philip Hammond was simply to point out: “Mr Johnson is the Foreign Secretary.”A good point. What on earth has health spending got to do with him?

Yet, on reflection, perhaps it’s not such a powerful point. For, speaking statistically, Johnson might easily have actually been installed as Health Secretary or even Chancellor in the recent reshuffle, given the regularity with which government ministers are reassigned and recycled for reasons entirely unrelated to their experience or competence.

Or Home Secretary. Or Education Secretary. Or indeed any other of the cabinet jobs. Perhaps it’s not so outrageous for Johnson to interject himself onto another minister’s turf in such an environment of predictable flux.

The Institute for Government report sets out the depressing picture of ministerial churn in its latest annual report on Whitehall. Since 2010 we have had six different justice secretaries and six culture secretaries. Over that time the minister in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions has changed five times.

At junior level the churn is even more extreme. After the most recent reshuffle almost 40 per cent of junior ministers were new to their position. Since the June 2017 general election that proportion rises to 70 per cent. Every single minister at the Cabinet Office was changed in January. At the Ministry of Justice three out of four were fresh. This is a farcical rate of churn.

It’s hardly original to argue that this chopping and changing of ministers, usually for purely political reasons, is a ridiculous approach to government. It may not even be getting any worse – John Reid occupied eight different cabinet jobs in eight years under Tony Blair – but the inordinate strain put on the Whitehall system by Brexit preparations re-emphasises what folly it is.

“Ministers barely get up to speed on their responsibilities before moving on,” Sir Richard Mottram, a former permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, told the Financial Times.

Imagine trying to become familiar, in a hurry,with universal credit, or prisons, or outsourcing, to cite just three of the complex crises currently facing the Government. How well is that job likely to be done? How good are the decisions taken likely to be?

And it’s more than just a matter of competence: it undermines accountability too. “They cannot be held responsible for their actions because they have long since moved on before the consequences become clear,” says Sir Richard.

What we have here is the British elite’s cult of the amateur, a reflection of the entirely unfounded conviction that no relevant experience or substantive training are necessary for someone to do a senior job, just a “first-class brain” and a capacity for bluffing.

Educationalists, industrialists and economists bemoan the chronic neglect of vocational education and skills training in Britain, certainly relative to our European peers. Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be particularly surprised by it. If top politicians don’t believe they personally need any form of training, why should they believe anyone else needs it? Why should the unskilled be interested in skills?

This is as a systemic problem and the media is, alas, a major part of the problem. The press, particularly the broadcast media, cover government reshuffles essentially as entertainment; breathless “who’s up, who’s down” soap operas.

It never seems to occur to newspaper editors and TV producers to invite academic experts on governance to give their opinion on whether reshuffles in themselves are a good idea or not. Readers and viewers are left with the impression that this is simply how government works. The dysfunction is normalised.

Former special advisers such as Dominic Cummings and Nick Timothy gripe about the Whitehall civil service and its supposed institutional resistance to the beneficent reforms of their ministers. Those reforms may, or may not, be beneficent. Civil servants may, or may not, be unduly resistant to reforms. 

Yet such critics might care to reflect on the fact that it is the civil service that keeps the wheels of government and administration turning through the turmoil of ministerial personnel churn. Fix that problem and complaints about the public servants who actually keep the show on the road might deserve a hearing.


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