Issue 293: 2021 09 16: Is Our Cat a Tory?

16 September 2021

Is Our Cat a Tory?

Her message to Boris.

By John Watson

Saffron, our family cat, is something of an old lady and her eyesight simply isn’t what it was.  Where a year or so ago she would have jumped onto a chair, now she will climb up more carefully, feeling her way as she goes.  It is the same when she crosses the room.  She relies far more on echoes and her whiskers than she did, testing, watching and listening as she picks her way.  And we, as we get older, do the same.  Gone is the certainty of youth and if we have to cross the bedroom floor in the dark we do so more cautiously, putting out a hand to check where the furniture is, taking shorter steps to improve balance, keeping a little shy of that commitment which will lead to disaster if we get it wrong.

Why?  It isn’t so much because we have become weaker but rather because, like Saffron, we have become less adept at picking up information.  If your senses are not sharp enough to tell you where things are you need to move slowly and carefully, identify obstacles through a gentle approach of trial and error.  Lack of information bespeaks caution, or at least it should, and that rule exists at almost all levels.  It is all very well to talk about decisiveness in foreign affairs but many an intervention would have been more successful if conducted on more of a “let’s feel our way and see how it goes” approach.  It isn’t quite a universal rule that “the more sure of themselves, the actors, the bigger the cock up” but one can certainly think of occasions where it has applied.

The trouble with plans is their rigidity.  Moltke the elder famously expressed this in the military context – “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force” – but it applies more generally, and particularly when action is needed in an uncertain context.  Whatever the judgement may be on their execution skills, the Government were right to take the Saffron approach to the pandemic.  The question is whether they should adopt it in developing their approach to social care.

One criticism of government proposals is that there is not enough detail.  Huge sums of money are being raised without a fully worked up plan of how to spend it.  Is that wise or should detailed proposals have been spelt out?  It’s quite a difficult question.  Previous health reform, and the Lansley reforms in particular, did enormous damage because they proceeded from principles without sufficient appreciation of practical considerations.  But that must always be the result of having too much of a plan.  Inevitably it will drift off course and in the context of modern politics it is hard to carry through the U-turns and changes of direction necessary to get things back to the right place.  Flexibility is needed.

But then too much flexibility risks sloppiness, too little discipline and a lack of structure.  The result of that could be that the money raised will be frittered for no useful results.  That doesn’t sound too good either.  The truth is that the “let’s shuffle forward” approach depends hugely on the administrative ability of those in charge.  As an instinctive tennis player will know how to react to a good serve without worrying about theory, so a top administrator, be he or she a politician or civil servant, needs to develop a feel for tackling problems as they arise and to have the courage to change course in reaction to developments.

So what, then, should we draw from this?  The first conclusion is one of timing.  We should not get too exercised by the delay in producing detailed proposals or too frustrated that those proposals evolve as the reforms are rolled out.  Sure, that is bad news for the commentators who like a plan by reference to which they can frame their criticism.  But in terms of the result?  Better move slowly than go for big principles and get them wrong through not adapting where that is needed.

The second?  If the ministers and civil servants in charge are to adapt their strategy in response to developments, it is important that they appreciate the messages coming back to them and have the courage to make changes when they’re needed.  There is nothing wrong with the Saffron style of government if the team is good enough.

The list of problems which the government faces is a long one.  Alongside social care and the pandemic lie immigration policy, environmental reform and the increasing gap between rich and poor.  In each case there will need to be fresh policies and, the government being Conservative, use will be made of the “trial and error” approach.  That is fine provided the Ministers are good enough but too many of them appear to owe their place to loyalty rather than administrative ability.  It is important that Mr Johnson uses his reshuffle to get his top team in place.  And, should the general approach need explaining to them, I know of a cat who tells me that, provided the pilchards are right, an online demonstration could be arranged.


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