Opinion

Paul McNamee: Deadlines, coups and justice for all

We’re facing a dark cul-de-sac where the greater good is being barked out of the park by a battle for identity politics

Rory Stewart Foreign and Commonwealth Office Flickr

Increasingly it’s clear that politicians are not the best people to be left in charge of anything.

The evidence is mounting. Pick a government department and survey the broken stones. I don’t blame the politicians – not entirely. Within the majority of the departments you find senior elected representatives placed as figureheads and expected to understand the terrain and complex briefs, frequently at the drop of a hat. And then they’re asked to make informed decisions for the good of the nation based on the briefest of bits of knowledge. When you strip it down, this is a crazy way to do business.

Some are smart and will work to find a way. But rushing against them are waves of party politics and the necessity to toe the line if they value their career. So good judgement is always either clouded or diluted.

Then there’s the Chris Grayling-style politician. This style is exemplified by Chris Grayling, a man for whom no major office of state is too big to mess up. He had a wrecking ball approach to the Ministry of Justice – remember the banning of books, cuts to legal aid, employment tribunal fees? So far, nine Grayling justice policies have been ditched or, in the case of the tribunal fees, found unlawful in the Supreme Court. Now Grayling is bringing the same ‘if it needs fixed, break it’ approach to his brief at the Department of Transport. He’s not, as he said himself, “a specialist in rail matters”.

Incidentally, just insert your own political bete noir in place of Grayling and list their failings. It’s a fun parlour game.

We shouldn’t tar all politicians. There are, of course, many good women and men, many of whom are working at a local level to represent. There are those who do not let personal advancement plans obscure the job in hand – to serve those who elected them.

As an extra rider, we’re facing a dark cul-de-sac where the greater good is being barked out of the park by a battle for identity politics. It’s a zero-sum game – politics played out by certain politicians who don’t seem to want to get anything done, rather to show their narrow, but intense, allegiances. It also leads to a great number of people becoming increasingly fearful of saying what they believe in case the social media mob labels them unacceptable. We’re at a standstill.

Is the answer to boot politicians out of politics? Use independent experts in their place? While tempting, coups d’etat are not known for ending well.

Instead, how about a fixed term for senior ministers that insists on a deep dive into their brief, and a desire to do the right thing rather than be beholden to the party.

Is the answer to boot politicians out of politics? Use independent experts in their place?

Prisons Minister for England and Wales Rory Stewart has imposed a deadline on himself. An interesting and well-respected character, Stewart is an old Etonian ex-Black Watch officer who once walked 6,000 miles through Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. When given the brief in January he threw himself into it, visiting prisons and trying to crack the hardest of nuts – how to bring order to overcrowding, and where does punishment stop and rehabilitation start. Last week he said he’d resign in a year if his policy to reduce drugs and violence in prisons isn’t successful. Leaving aside the legitimacy of the plan, it’s a bold promise.

Imagine if the Chancellor said: “I’ve given myself two years to bring lasting economic growth.” Or the Education Minister said: “Give me a year and I’ll make teachers happy.” Or Chris Grayling, well… maybe some are beyond deadlines.

If deadlines don’t work we could employ another Stewart approach. Have senior politicians head out and not come back until they’ve walked 6,000 miles.

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