In Alan Bennett’s play Forty Years On, he imagines running into the Berlin brothers in the 1920s – Irving and Isaiah. Perhaps someone in a future play about the early years of this century might imagine running into the Blair brothers, Tony and Ian – brothers, at least, in their inability to realise they have to take responsibility for disaster by resigning.
They may have done their best. Their motives may have been pure. That isn’t the point. When you lead an organisation found guilty of endangering life, and when one innocent man was shot dead five times at point blank range – through a failure of management – the man at the top has to resign.
In the same way, when the policy you have personally forced through as prime minister turns out to be one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in British history, massively undermining our security in the process, and you don’t resign – then what circumstances could ever force anyone to resign?
Both disasters, rather indirectly, are also failures of Whitehall’s obsession with centralised power. Britain could never have invaded Iraq if the prime minister hadn’t over-ridden every check and balance the constitution allows. Reading the details of the misjudgement at Stockwell tube station in 2005, it also becomes horribly clear that what led to the shooting was a failure of communication.
The control room did not fully understand, or trust, the judgement of officers on the ground who were tailing the suspect. If they had been on the spot, the shooting would never have happened.
You thought this was a blog about resignation – or Irving Berlin? Actually, it’s about centralisation and just how ineffective it is – and about the Lib Dem leadership race. Because, in small ways, throughout public services, the same failures are taking place every day. Frontline professionals have knowledge of individuals before them, but they are countermanded and controlled by distant managers without access to the same information.
One reason I’m backing Nick Clegg is my sense that he understands what is missing from the current Lib Dem platform. Centralisation is the narrative of our time, but we have yet to unpack it properly, research its real costs and implications, find a language for a genuinely local politics that shifts responsibility. That’s what we need to fulfil the role it seems to me that history has assigned to the party – to localise Britain.
Yet every day, there is a new example of failures in public life that need to be re-interpreted through this new Lib Dem lens. If I ever manage to summon up the energy to continue with this blog, I hope that is going to be its central theme.
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