Opinion: 'It's up to the politicians to cut a swathe through all that red tape'
Who really runs Britain – politicians or civil servants? Ex-Minister Patrick Nicholls believes if bureaucracy really is getting in the way of the policies, ministers have themselves to blame.
Most people believe that "any idiot can do politics," perhaps on the basis that many idiots do.
Listen to any radio phone-in or stand in any bus queue, and a consensus will soon emerge that if only ministers were forced to live on an ordinary working wage, or hadn't been to Oxbridge, or only had an IQ of 96, or thereabouts, the quality of government would substantially improve. But would ordinary people come up with the extraordinary solutions that modern politics require?
After all, if you cannot raise yourself from the mire, how can you help others to do so? Government isn't easy. Democracy is an exercise in expectation management. Promise too much like Tony Blair and Barrack Obama and you are bound to fail; promise too little and no one will vote for you in the first place.
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In practice, the most you can hope for is moderate, limited success, with abject failure as the all-too-likely alternative. With that in mind, it is obvious enough that however much potential you have as a future Prime Minister, you are more likely to achieve it if your first ministerial position is not, in fact, as Prime Minister.
Steve Hilton does not, as far as I know, aspire to be Prime Minister; he sees himself more in the role of King-maker, than King. Sure, Mr Hilton has a degree in Politics Philosophy and Economics, but that of itself did not convince most Conservative MPs that it justified his appointment in 2010 as Mr Cameron's Guru of Choice to drive through the modernisation of the Conservative Party.
Thus, when Mr Hilton left the UK last year to take up a visiting lectureship at Stanford University in the USA, most Conservative MPs were heartily pleased to see the back of him. Hosting a reception at No 10, in stockinged feet, or wandering through meetings in Whitehall, unshaven and wearing a T-shirt and jeans, might add to the gaiety of nations, but it does not do much to enhance the quality of government.
But now Mr Hilton is back and in cracking form. He's solved the riddle of good government. It's all about red tape, or, as Hilton is reported in The Sunday Times to have said in a recent lecture: "The bureaucracy masters the politicians. I don't mean that in a hostile way – it's just a fact."
"In other words, only 30% of what the Government is doing is actually delivering what we're supposed to be doing. It just shows you the scale of what you're up against... when I found that out, that was pretty horrific," he is reported to have said.
Hilton added that the paperwork associated with everyday decisions was "impossible" for ministers to wade through, so many are "nodded through."
"When you start thinking about how things get decided, it's pretty incredible... it's a brilliant system for paper-shuffling people to be in control."
This view of government matches the Yes Prime Minister view of politics; that it is the civil servants who run things and the politicians who merely dance to their tune. The problem is that it simply is not true, or rather, it doesn't have to be true.
There is no doubt that Civil Servants will fill a vacuum. If ministers conclude, because it's boring, or because there's a really fun reception to go to instead, that what they are presented with in their Red Boxes is "impossible to wade through," then Civil Servants will make the decisions themselves.
I once spent three months drafting a White Paper on industrial reform. I sent it over to No 10 at 6pm. By 8am the following morning, Margaret Thatcher had commented in immaculate handwriting on virtually every paragraph; She Didn't Like It! The answer was not to throw my hands up, but to start again.
Of course, sometimes ministers will be bombarded with papers because their own Private Secretary is too lazy to weed them out. Fine! Deal with it. Ask your Private Secretary to stay behind in the evening to help you go through it. Suddenly the Box becomes manageable. Job done!
It isn't bald heads and bare feet that make for good government; rather, it's the relentless attention to detail. If he had served any sort of apprenticeship in government, it's what Mr Hilton might hopefully have learnt. It would be difficult to imagine a steeper learning curve than that which the Prime Minister had had to undergo, when a speech to his Party Conference, as brilliant, in its way, as Churchill's address to the nation in 1940, catapulted him to the leadership of his party and subsequently to the leadership of the country.
If Cameron felt then that Steve Hilton had discovered The Holy Grail of Politics, then fair enough. But Mr Cameron is four years older and in politics that is an eternity. Now is the time to put away childish things. Mr Hilton is reportedly happy in Stanford. I simply hope that he stays there.