SAM “Soapy Sam” Ballard QC has been on my mind recently. He, you may remember, was a mucker of John Mortimer’s brilliant creation Horace Rumpole, the “Old Bailey hack” who never grew up and never grew old.
In one of the stories, Rumpole (who never took silk – indeed may well never have been offered it) is acting as Ballard’s junior in defending a senior police officer. The three confer on strategy and Soapy Sam immediately throws in the towel and suggests an informal approach to the Crown to see what kind of deal can be cut.
Clearly, thinks Rumpole, it had never occurred to Ballard actually to mount any kind of defence in this case. Or, he implies, in very many others. For Ballard, “defending” a client simply involved finding out what the other side was prepared to settle for.
For many years, I laboured under the impression that I was uniquely prone to Ballardry at the hands of people who seemed have interpreted their jobs in the most negative way imaginable: publishers determined only to publish books that resembled other (successful) books; assistant news editors whose reaction to being told a story was exclusive was to “hold” it until it appeared elsewhere; estate agents whose idea of “negotiation” with potential buyers was to cut the price straight away (this was during the boom years of the early 2000s); a jeweller who preferred not to mend either of my watches because…I think he just couldn’t be bothered.
But it’s nonsense, of course. Millions of people encounter those who make up the Ballardised section of our national workforce. I am just one victim among many.
You may have noticed that this is not my usual line of complaint. Far from criticising lassitude and corner cutting, I am normally banging on about the vast army of petty officials that has come into being during recent years and the zeal with which it goes about its pointless and/or intrusively annoying tasks.
Quite true. But the difference is that the Ballards hold important jobs that they discharge poorly while the petty officials hold (mainly) non-jobs that they perform enthusiastically.
A labour-market Yeats may have noted that the essential lack all motivation while the supernumerary are full of passionate intensity.
Sometimes, this division runs not just between employees and groups of employees but within them. Thus the police can seem indifferent to real crime and passionate about “hate speech”. The same doctors’ receptionist who can’t possibly get you an appointment is keen that you fill in the surgery’s smoking questionnaire. Children barely able to read are regaled with state ideology about any number of contentious topics.
Back in November 2001, the Adam Smith Institute produced a paper on precisely this problem, The Wrong Package. A terrible title – it sounds like the name of a second-rate Agatha Christie yarn (“Hastings, mon ami, do you not see? It was the wrong package.” “Dash it Poirot – you’re right!”). But the underlying premise was sound enough:
“The findings of the report highlight the differences between the consumer agenda and the producer agenda. The new survey looks at three services: police, schools and local government and the conclusion from all three is that what they deliver is not what the public want.”
Fifteen years later, I’d go one step further. To justify their often-bizarre priorities, public services have, in effect, created a “second public”, made up of campaign groups, “charities”, fellow public officials and, above all, professional politicians, whose preferences they share and to whom they can declare themselves “accountable”.
It is a variation on Brecht’s suggestion that a government may find it easier to dissolve the people and elect another, rather than vice versa. He, of course, lived in East Germany.
- Their highnesses
A fine piece on the Lion & Unicorn site on the use and abuse of the word “czar” to refer to those appointed by Ministers to a variety of tasks, from drug policy to helping small businesses, sent me back to the book in which I first encountered this usage, The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon, by Jerry Voorhis (Popular Library; 1972).
The author is describing an attempt by Nixon to recast the government more to his liking:
Mr Nixon's original proposal (the one Congress turned down) was to group most of the functions of the executive branch of government into four gigantic agencies: one each for human resources, national resources, community development and economic development.
When Congress failed to approve his proposals, Mr Nixon simply proceeded to carry it out anyway...[appointing] Casper Weinberger as human resoures czar, a man from Cleveland named John Lynn as community development czar, and Earl Butz...as controller of the fate of the nation's natural resources...To complete the reorganisaiton - and Nixonisation - of the government, Secretary of the Treasury Shultz was given a post in domestic affairs comparable to that of Henry Kissinger in foreign relations. Shultz was to be economic czar.
There was a special advantage to this arrangement. All four of the "czars" were also heads of cabinet departments. In their special, and far more powerful, positions as overlords over vast areas of the nation's life they were part of the White House staff and hence shielded from Congressional inquiry. They were also directly under Mr Nixon's control. Just where their status as legitimate cabinet members ended and their positions within the secret government began was conveniently unclear. In view of Mr Nixon's insistence on "executive privilege" for everyone associated with the White House, the four titans were in a position to answer such Congressional questions as they desired in their capacity as cabinet members, but then to invoke executive privilege as White House aides whenever members of Congress became too inquisitive about what was going on in the real power structure of the secret government.
Sorry, it’s a long quote but interesting, I think.
Voorhis was Nixon’s first “victim” in that he was beaten by the future president in 1946 when Voorhis attempted to defend his California seat in the House of Representatives (this was before Nixon defeated the better-known Helen Gahagan Douglas in a 1950 race for the Senate).
In 1972, of course, Britain didn’t have “czars”. But we did have the scarcely less irritating “supremo”.
SPEAKING of the Lion & Unicorn site, I have just posted an article suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn’s thinking seems in part to echo that of maverick American economist Thorstein Veblen, best-know these days for his insights into the “conspicuous consumption” of social elites. On my site Aspect 2, I use declassified State Department papers to visit an intriguing telephone call between James Callaghan and Jimmy Carter in the Spring of 1978.
- All about me
MANY years ago, the excellent David McKie, deputy editor of The Guardian, proposed a new City livery guild for newspaper columnists: the Self-Worshipful Company of Solipsists. This came to mind when spotting a reference on the cover of the New Statesman to an article within: “Why millennials like me choose open relationships”. Room there surely for a companion piece: “Why millennials like me think anyone gives a flying fig about our domestic arrangements”.
Thanks again for reading and enjoy the weekend.
Europe Isn't Working by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson is published by Yale University Press