Richard North, 29/06/2020  

I'm told that it is possible to be interested in the latest Whitehall soap opera, the episode where Sir Mark Sedwill is replaced and somebody else takes over. Frankly, though, the insider gossip leaves me cold and the only thing we can guarantee is that the whole story has yet to be told, and probably never will.

One thing is for very sure, and that's that Master Cummings's fingerprints are all over it, and there seems very little restraint on his abuse of power. But if the people at the very top can't seem to control him (or don't want to), there seems very little ordinary mortals can achieve.

But then, it seems a long time since government had anything to do with ordinary people. It is not something in which we are involved – in which our opinions are wanted. It is more like something we suffer, with increasing disdain, and sagging spirits as we get to grips with how useless our politicians are.

That many of our senior civil servants are hardly any better will come as no great surprise, and the rumours buzzing around about Sir Mark's departure suggests that he would have had difficulty surviving in any administration. The word "weak" is one I've seen applied to him, and some have suggested that the only reason he has survived so long is because he is pliable.

But then, I cannot see any strong, competent civil servant lasting long in a Johnson administration where the third-rate has become the norm, and rejects always fail upwards, to walk away from their train-wrecks with honours and highly-paid sinecures.

Who we will end up with as a replacement for Sedwill as Cabinet Secretary is anyone's guess. The post has to go to open competition and it's possible that not even Cummings can rig the result. The same doesn't seem to apply to Sedwill's replacement as national security advisor, the post being taken over by David Frost, Johnson's head honcho on the Brexit front.

That the post doesn't become vacant until September, when Sedwill actually leaves, suggests that Frost has a little work left to do, but might have cleared the decks in time to take up his alternative employment – unless he intends to run both jobs together. Either way, that augurs ill for TransEnd, reinforcing suspicions that we're headed for a no-deal termination.

We now have two days left before we reach the last day possible for an extension request, and nothing in the current mood music suggests that we're going to see a last-minute turn-around. Thus, in two days, we'll be out of our misery – at least as far as the uncertainty goes, unless the EU comes up with a miracle fix the like of which no one ever imagined.

That things are not going to get any better, though, is amply signalled by Michael Gove, who recently delivered a much-touted speech. He illustrates with absolute clarity why it is that this government really doesn't have a clue.

Gove thinks that the "metropolitan" outlook of decision-makers has contributed to the government becoming "estranged" from the people. Thus, his idea of reducing the gap between people and government is, quite literally, to reduce the distance between government and people by relocating government decision-making centres to different parts of our United Kingdom.

In so doing, he says, "we should be striving to reflect the full diversity of our United Kingdom". He asks:
Why shouldn’t some of the policymakers intimately involved in reshaping our approach to energy and the decarbonisation of our economy be in Teesside, Humberside and Aberdeen? Shouldn’t those thinking about this sector be part of the communities whose jobs depend on getting these decisions right? And why are so many of those charged with developing our tax and welfare policies still based in London?
This is a man who clearly doesn't have the first understanding of what it takes to decentralise government. It really doesn't matter where government agencies are located if the decisions are still made by government, where the power resides.

This is the problem we have with so-called local government. For sure, the town halls may be local (relatively speaking), but the control resides with central government, where the crucial financial decisions are made, and the rules are formulated. Local government is local in name only, by which measure why does this silly man believe that relocating government offices is going to make any difference?

Gove, however, then goes on to talk about groupthink, but the essence of this modern plague is the very fact that we have groups which have the power to make decisions for us.

Failing to understand this, Gove wants to increase the diversity of his groups, making them less southern, less middle class, less reliant on those with social science qualifications and more welcoming to those with physical science and mathematical qualifications.

What he doesn't suggest though is that decision-making should, where possible, be taken away from public servants, acknowledging that the best people to make decisions about communities are the people in those communities. This calls for referendums on such things as local budgets and taxation, and on things like local development plans.

Speaking of planning, when local planners can have their decisions overridden by government appointed planning inspectors, it doesn't really matter where the government office is based, or from which areas the inspectors are recruited. They still erode local democracy and accountability.

For Gove, though, it is public servants, including those who work for private sector organisations delivering public goods, such as those in the care sector, waste and refuse disposal, and the people who keep our hospitals hygienic and safe, who should be at the centre of our policy-making. They are, he says, the people who have given so much in the recent crisis and represent the best in every community.

The answer to that is no, no and thrice no. The very essence of producer-led organisations deciding their own policy goes against the very basic principles of public service. The people should decide, and the public servant provide. We are not passive serfs to have favours bestowed upon us by a beneficent government, no matter what the quality of its servants.

In this, Gove is inhabiting the mindset of the European Commission – the very organisation he is so keen to detach us from. They work with the idea of Platonic guardians, gifted men and women, above the fray and beyond the reach of messy democracy, who will make decisions for us, because they know best.

And when we get down to the level of Priti Patel, things get no better. She wants us to believe that the Johnson administration is "the people's government, delivering on the people's priorities". Yet it is about as close to the people as any People's Democratic Republic might be.

Where we have problems is in the presumption that so much decision-making should be the province of government at all. Any public servants making decisions about how we run our local affairs are the wrong people, no matter who they are, where they are located, or how gifted they might be, if those decisions should be made by the people themselves.

And in that respect, we can afford to be indifferent to the fate of people such as Mark Sedwill. They are not our people; they are not our servants; they are not responsive to us or responsible to us. They are the government's servants, and it is the government which is the problem, not its servants.

Basically, we have too much government imposed upon us, at all levels, and not enough power vested locally or with the people. We need not cry for our servants – we should save the tears for ourselves.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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