Opinion: time to take on the Thing

The avalanche of cuts that are due to be announced later this month could decide the fate of the government, perhaps even of the country. Most Liberal Democrats I know are extremely nervous about, and they are right to be.

But beyond the arguments about the deficit and the national debt, there are other reasons why some cuts – the right cuts – might be a welcome opportunity. I believe this, I suppose, because of William Cobbett.

Cobbett was the great radical campaigner, as much of an influence on the future Liberal Party as Cobden or Bright, and he used to direct his rage at what he called ‘The Thing’, that great mountain of placemen and aristocratic pensioners paid for by the struggling farmers and labourers of the nation.

He believed that Britain was run not so much by a government, but by a financial system which had “drawn the real property of the nation into fewer hands … made land and agriculture objects of speculation … in every part of the kingdom, moulded many farms into one … almost entirely extinguished the race of small farmers … we are daily advancing to the state in which there are but two classes of men, masters and abject dependents.”

Cobbett’s analysis is dated, of course, but it is not entirely out of date, because – let’s face it – the Thing still exists.

We remain the abject dependents of a huge upper middle class machinery for self-aggrandizement. It covers the pension managers who cream outrageous sums from our pensions, through to the quangocrats and directors of those vast instruments of New Labour control. Not to mention those high-paid pinnacles of the arts establishment pedalling a miserably out-of-date post-modern arts bubble.

They are not the landed aristocrats that Cobbett condemned, but they might as well be. We pay for them all, plus the £800,000 salary to the BBC director-general, the handouts to Tesco and their kind for ‘regeneration’, the huge subsidised industry of tick-box business training or public sector standards. I could go on.

I mention Cobbett, who died before the Liberal Party was formed, because he explains why I find part of me is cheering on Danny Alexander as he wields an unprecedented scalpel into the public finances.

That is my first cheer for the cuts. Emotion rather than logic, I admit.

My second cheer is because of the other deadweight which New Labour has hung around our necks – it is the weight of the bureaucracy and control systems around public services and delivery systems of all kinds.

Anyone who reads John Seddon’s book System Thinking in the Public Sector will be staggered at inefficiency of housing benefit processing, thanks to the weight of DWP rules, the Audit Commission and the rest of the targets, standards and specifications which will turn out to be the most disastrous aspect of the New Labour legacy.

It all derives from the mistaken idea that public services can be standardised and reduced as if they were industrial assembly lines. It is a disaster brought about by discredited economic doctrines about economies of scale, combined with the efforts of the IT consultancies to sell yet more inappropriate systems for standardisation and central control, and yet more expensive and bureaucratic divisions between front and back office systems.

You might call it the Administrative-Industrial Complex (there were five representatives from PA Consulting on the Gershon Committee). These are another aspect of the Thing, of course, and cost about £70 billion in fees to taxpayers over the past decade.

The result is not just facelessness and inflexibility, it is vast efficiencies – which are hidden from view – and a situation where, by the end of New Labour rule, somewhere between one in five and one in three public sector workers were employed to control the others.

So my second cheer for the cuts is that only a serious crisis can dislodge this kind of complacent deadweight that is weighing down our public services, and making them much less effect deterrents to the rebirth of Beveridge’s Five Giants.

Two cheers for the cuts. But there is no third cheer, because I’m not naive. The chances are that the Thing will survive at the expense of the foot-soldiers it purports to benefit. It is the Thing that will be putting the cuts into effect, after all.

Worse, we may get an even more ferocious and counter-productive systematisation of services – another shift away from human contact, another cull of local courts, local police stations, local schools.

Will the Treasury, or those in Glasgow or Maidstone understand the kind of radical change that might both improve services and lead to major cost reductions – mainly because, for the first time, the services are effective?

Will they understand that real, Liberal efficiency stems from effectiveness – putting things right once and for all, reaching out upstream of problems to prevent them.

The answer, if I’m honest, is probably not. The chances are that most places will cut the wrong things. There is no evidence in the Treasury outlines so far that they have a strategy along these lines.

We may face the destruction of the very institutions local institutions that can provide the cost effective local services that are flexible and human enough to have a long term effect.

Those of us who describe themselves as radicals, like Cobbett, may have to re-group around a vision of public services that is genuinely liberal, flexible local, flexible and human.

What I will not accept, in the meantime, is the idea that somehow any attempt to cut the cost of services is bound to hurt the poor. As if every penny culled from New Labour’s Administrative-Industrial Complex is somehow a crime against the users – when the real crime, and the source of the waste and ineffectiveness, can be laid squarely at the door of Blair and Brown.

If we can articulate that, in such a way that it is more widely understood, then maybe we can keep our nerve another day and take on The Thing.

David Boyle is a member of the federal policy committee of the party. He is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and co-author of Eminent Corporations, published this month by Constable

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Hurrah for David: always thoughtful and thought-provoking…

  • This is awesome! It’s about time we confronted the truth about the public sector, that it’s too fat to serve its purpose, and needs to slim down in order to actually work. Bravo Mr Boyle.

  • Tom Papworth 10th Oct '10 - 11:06am

    An excellent article and I quite agree.

    “efficiency stems from effectiveness” does sound like a tautology, though. Surely the point is that efficiency comes from devolving decision-making so that it is as close to the service-user as possible (preferably, resting with the service user him/herself).

    The biggest threat, I agree, is that the officials implementing the cuts will ensure that the cuts hurt as much as possible -removing those delivering rather than those administering services – so that the civil servants keep their jobs and the public outcry leads to a restoration of their budgets.

  • Andrew Duffield 10th Oct '10 - 11:26am

    The ‘Thing’ is alive and well today in the form of monopoly privilege – whether the monopoly privilege, gifted by the state, for banks to create interest bearing debt-money from nothing; or the wealth monopolised by all those fortunate enough to own a slice of real estate and who gain from unearned rises in land values; or a thousand and one other monopolies for which no compensation is paid to society, which impoverishes us all and which many politicians strive to protect in the vested interests of the powerful and the privileged – including themselves.

    Cobden’s ‘Thing’ has merely morphed into its own parasitic progeny – nurtured through systemic state support – all the more to bleed us dry.

    And how frustrating that, after 100 years, this Party still possesses and still sits on the silver bullet that would kill the ‘Thing’ for good.

  • Foregone Conclusion 10th Oct '10 - 12:54pm

    Interestingly, THE THING in Cobbett’s terms wasn’t really synonomous with the State – so up to a point you can be in favour of an activist state, but be against THE THING.

  • So what are we going to do to help cut the Thing down to size (eliminating it completely is a fantasy)?

  • Every so often we need to reconsider and rework public services. Almost every healthy business does this. The public sector is not as good at change and improvement and can certainly improve both effectiveness and productivity.

    However this article goes further. Frankly, it could have been written by someone on the right of the Conservative Party. It overstates the problem and fails to sketch the varying alternatives. Essentially it is another attempt to justify Tory policies being promoted by elements of our own party.

  • david thorpe 10th Oct '10 - 4:24pm

    That is by some margin the best article I have ever read on this site

  • You guys are really off to La La Land now. You’ve lost your job ? losing your home ? Read your Cobbett Sir ! It’s all about The Thing!!!

  • Supurbly put Steve decades of impotent irrevlance have obviousley left your average LD a permanant outsider seeing real issues concerning real people as intelectual puzzles.Dont worry once real people get the chance you will be back in your impotent irrevlance cumfort zone.

  • Bill le Breton 10th Oct '10 - 8:48pm

    “… we can keep our nerve another day and take on The Thing.” And the Great Wen !

  • Ed Maxfield 10th Oct '10 - 9:02pm

    David Boyle for Prime Minister!

  • Astonishingly rose tinted view of the cuts.

    Luckily, there are still plenty of Liberal Democrats who live in the real world.
    They won’t be left scratching their head and stunned by the coming reaction from the public but are preparing to fight to salvage the most needed and valued services in their communities.

  • FOR GODS SAKE half a million civil servants are human biengs with mortgages and famalies hopes and (very real) fears yes overstaffed departments should be trimmed but working people need alternatives to the scrapheap.
    And enough with the tabloid reviling of whole groups of people its as useful as your bamging on about the thing.

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