Sunday 15 April 2007

The cult of personality

In 1994, Christopher Booker and I wrote a book called "The Mad Officials", sadly out of print now – although copies are still available. In it, we did a virtual tour of Great Britain, telling stories of mad regulations and the even madder officials who enforced them (and sometimes invented them).

One of our themes, to which we have returned many times – not least on this blog - is how this country in many ways is no longer run by the politicians we elected to do the job, but by a growing band of those "mad officials", who were both unaccountable and unresponsive to the normal strictures of a democratic society. They were, so often, a law unto themselves.

Very much later, I had cause to meet a Minister to complain, on behalf of the trade group I represented, about a regulatory "reign of terror" which was effectively destroying an industry. She was flanked by civil servants and, as I spelled out the tale of woe, giving more and more examples of the damage that was being caused by "her" officials, my narrative was punctuated by her exclamations as she turned to civil servants, demanding: "Why wasn't I told that?"

I saw then a sense of shock, outrage even, from a person who – shorn of ministerial rank and trappings – was a genuine, caring individual, deeply concerned about what she had been told. Nothing happened of course and, for me, the meeting simply reaffirmed that which I knew already - so well portrayed in Yes Minister - the essential powerlessness of ministers in the administration of their departments.

Elsewhere on this blog, I recall telling the tale of my meeting another minister, this one a senior cabinet minister who, standing in his grand office, overlooking Horse Guards, likened his position with that of a signalman in an old-fashioned signal box, lined with all the gleaming brass levers. "I have all these levers," he lamented, "the levers of power". Turning to me he then said, rather sadly, "the trouble is that they are not connected to anything."

It is that background, the baggage I carry, which brought me the position we find ourselves today. To the frustration and anger of many of our readers and at odds with almost all the media and other commentators, we are refusing to dump all the blame for the Iran hostages debacle – not even the "cash for stories" issue – on the secretary of state for defence, especially on the basis of media speculation and largely anonymous sources.

Having learned the hard way the limits of power, I am not inclined to take the easy way out, especially in the context of the Ministry of Defence, where the military hierarchy and their bureaucrats have an extraordinary degree of autonomy. In many areas, they are beyond the reach of the secretary of state - any secretary of state.

As before, we have pointed this out and people nod wisely, as if they understood. But, at the first opportunity, they join in the hue and cry for the sacking of a minister, heedless of the possibility that, perhaps, he had little power to control events for which he is being held responsible. This is the cult of personality gone mad.

Thus we see the momentum build, with selective leaks to the media from an organisation which would make a colander look positively seaworthy, to be grabbed uncritically by all and sundry.

Such is the naïvety that people, who tell us gravely that they never believe anything they are told in the newspapers, lap up the often unsubstantiated detail, treating it as gospel. Anything offered which runs contrary to the narrative, of course, is dismissed as "spin" – as if it was only politicians who indulged in the practice.

However, sacking the secretary of state is the easy option. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the one preferred by the guilty officials, many of them in uniform, who could then rest easy as blood lust will have been sated.

Rather, we want to see an inquiry (or inquiries) starting at the bottom of the food chain and working steadily upwards, covering all the issues which, by now, have been almost completely marginalised by the soap opera. Rarely has such a torrent of extraneous detail obscured such a vital issue as the operational efficiency of the Royal Navy, the actual reasons why the Cornwall's boarding team were left so vulnerable barely mentioned in passing.

We do not want the "closure" that a high profile resignation would bring. We want a process which will identify all those responsible for the operational failures, who would otherwise hide behind the smokescreen of a ministerial resignation.

It is about the original smokescreen that my colleague Christopher Booker writes in his column today (copied above – click to enlarge to readable size) where he sets out the details as best we have been able to establish of the extraordinary smokescreen put up by the Royal Navy in an attempt to conceal the incompetence of some of its officers.

For us, this is something of a defining moment. We could go with some of our readers, and join in the baying for blood, or we could stand by our principles, holding out for a process that will bring the guilty men to book – and thereby risk losing some of our readers.

Frankly, our principles are more important. We are not going to bow to people who cannot get to grips with the realities of power – and its limitations – and cannot cope with the fact that ministers are not the all-seeing, all powerful entities of myth. And we are certainly not going to fall in with an agenda set by the MSM and opportunist politicians who are more interested in adding a ministerial "scalp" to their belts than finding out (or even reporting) the truth. If nothing else, the events of the last few days demonstrate that they are not in the least bit interested in discovering why the Iranians (remember them?) were able to abduct our sailors and marines so easily.

Ours then is the battle with the "mad officials" – in and out of uniform – who let that happen. For once, there is an opportunity to bring some of them to account and repair some of the damage they have caused. The hunt for the ministerial "scalp" is a distraction, mere bread and circuses compared with the vital issue of improving the fighting efficiency of the Royal Navy. For the rest, let the responsibility lie where it falls, when we have sorted out that vastly more important detail.