● Whitehall should focus on the big strategic things, not the management of local human services
● We face multiple opportunities and challenges, including existential threats; these are the proper business of government
● We should build our resilience in the essentials of food and energy, and develop ‘tech sovereignty’
In the previous post (Proposition 2) I argued that government should defend and promote the customs of the country. This is in order to build trust among citizens, so enabling liberty and supporting the associations of civil society that stimulate virtue.
For the most part this promotion will be done through culture policy, and by devolving power and responsibility to local places (Proposition 9). Yet there is a role for the state that goes beyond supporting social customs and civil society. It has work to do itself.
Until the mid 20th century the British government really was ‘Whitehall’, the short street that runs from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. The Treasury, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office all still occupy their imposing mansions there. But in recent decades what we call ‘Whitehall’ has spread all over Westminster. Vast modern buildings house the Home Office and the departments of Education, Health, Business, Welfare, Justice and Housing.
This great expansion cannot be said to have made the British state more efficient, or the country more resilient. The pandemic has cruelly exposed the failings of our public systems adequately to prepare for or manage a large-scale domestic crisis. We are naturally concerned with the rightness and wrongness of ministers’ decisions and with the heroism of front-line staff in the public sector. Yet in between headquarters and the trenches, and of more practical significance than either, is the apparat. This is where our triumphs and disasters in the last twelve months can be traced to. The triumphs include the smooth and uncontentious (and so hardly reported) enrolling of millions of new welfare claimants, and the successful delivery of the vaccination programme. But we have also seen multiple mishaps in the procurement of PPE, and the shameful treatment of the old and the young in care homes and schools.
The state is good at big, simple, strategic things. It is particularly good at working with individual citizens, whether that means issuing universal benefit entitlements or organising the distribution of a vaccine. It struggles with human complexity and with human sociability. Yet this is what a great deal of government work – particularly the responsibilities of ‘outer Whitehall’ in the modern buildings – is now concerned with.
Growing up, learning, staying or getting healthy, getting or keeping a job, getting or keeping a home, looking after a family and coping with adversity (including the extreme adversities of homelessness, serious mental illness, addiction, or crime and punishment) – these are the tasks of human life. They are usually bound up with other people, often the people closest to you. Government has a role to play in each of them, particularly through funding and regulating professional services in each field. Where government struggles is on the demand side, when the demand side is not just a faceless benefit claimant, or an anonymous arm held out for a jab. Humans require more than the provision of services, delivered to them as equal individual units. They need other human beings to help, exhort, or educate them. They need kindness and flexibility and, where necessary, tough love. Most of all, humans need the virtues.
Kindness, flexibility, love and virtue are not best organised from Whitehall. I describe below (Proposition 8) a different model for public services. If this were followed government could do without ‘outer Whitehall’. The taxpayer would realise billions in asset sales and savings on staff. More importantly, government would be free to do what only government can.
In addition to its cultural role supporting the customs of the country, the state’s job is to prepare the nation for the long-term threats and opportunities it faces. The opportunities are manifold: longer, healthier, more fulfilled lives; a fairer society; a cleaner environment. The threats are extreme, however.
We would do well, without panicking about them, to recognise the existential dangers that face our country and the world, from lethal pandemics that attack the healthy and mutate faster than our vaccines; to war in some hideous modern form; to catastrophic technological collapse; to the effects of a tipping point in climate change, such as the melting of the permafrost over the Arctic tundra leading to vast releases of methane. None of these events is especially likely, and some could perhaps be contained if they did occur. But the apocalypse has a whole troop of horsemen now, and it is the responsibility of governments to anticipate and prepare for them.
I address policy on climate change and foreign policy in the next post (Proposition 4). Domestically, government should reform Whitehall to better foresee and respond to sudden threats, with vastly improved capabilities at the centre of ‘inner Whitehall’.
In addition to planning and executing crisis responses, the state needs greater strategic capacity, to take the long-term investment decisions that will make our country safer and more prosperous in the generations to come.
One appropriate strategy, both for our long-term prosperity and our response to crises, is to increase our security in the essentials: food, energy, and technology. Long world-wide supply chains for food are precarious in an age of global disruption, harm the environment and discourage farmers from growing high-quality produce for the local market. Reliance on imported electricity made from fossil fuels by repressive regimes puts us at risk of blackout in the event of global conflict, dirties the planet and props up despots. And the hegemony of the US, and increasingly China, and of vast American and Chinese corporations in the new industries of data, digital, microprocessing and data storage threatens a terrible new dependence. If we are not careful we will wake to find ourselves citizens of some bleak new empire of tech, headquartered in California, in Shenzhen or in cyberspace.
Our departure from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and Customs Union mean that we are now free to strengthen our domestic food production, local food processing and local retail. The UK already leads the world in some alternative energy technologies and we have the natural assets – not least a lot of wind and water – to free us from dependence on foreign oil and gas. We need a similar determination to assert ‘tech sovereignty’: resilience against hostile penetration of our critical national infrastructure, and the development of a genuinely UK-based tech sector (rather than just performing an R&D function for other countries and mega-corps).
Tech sovereignty need not empower the state at the expense of citizens. As I argued earlier (Proposition 2), nationalism must support not suppress liberty. We should explore options for community data ownership, and develop a form of digital habeas corpus that protects the rights of individuals to their own data.
Nor is this call for ‘sovereignty’ a call for autarky. The sea around these islands ‘serves in the office of a wall’, as Shakespeare said, but it is also the highway to the world’s markets. In food, energy and tech we will continue to trade with other counties, and our new freedom from the EU enables more and better global trade than ever before.
Sovereignty cannot, must not mean isolation, or indeed independence in any but the most formal sense. A nation no less than an individual has its being as a member of a wider community of similar units, similarly independent in form and entwined in fact. This is relationship. The structures of the relationship of nations are of course mutable, and specific to different functions. We need different collaborations on trade, defence, space, the regulation of the internet or the response to climate change. In all these areas it is possible for nations to pool their resources and agree to collective action without diminishing their sovereignty.