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The Blunders of our Governments promises much but delivers short.

Aside from a brief opening to say that broadly the Governments of the UK have achieved good things, the book launches into a list of "blunders", defined carefully to distinguish them from judgement calls that turned out to be incorrect. Blunders, essentially, are mistakes that should have been avoidable. Each blunder is set out in some detail, with an overall feel of political dispassion. The focus os on what happened, rather than who did what. It promises that the blunders will be examined in later chapters to discover why things went wrong, but goes to great pains to avoid personal blame. And because the blunders are set out in rough sequential order, they start with Tory blunders under Thatcher and Major, and then segue into Labour mistakes under Blair and Brown. The book makes the point that all governments, regardless of political complexion, are liable to commit blunders.

Some of the blunders are well known: the Poll Tax; The ERM; the Child Support Agency; ID Cards. Others are less well known: esoteric computer systems, single payments for farmers; the PPP for London Underground. It is telling that whilst it is funny to hear the well known blunders laid out for analysis, the less well known ones are hard to grasp; it is never quite clear exactly what is happening or why it is such a bad thing. We take it at face value that bad things are being described, and this is supported by quotes from various audit reports, but they are not being described terribly well.

Then, half way through, the authors stop setting out blunders and claim to identify the underpinning causes of the blunders. Some of this is hard to dispute: cultural disconnect; groupthink; lack of accountability; lack of IT procurement expertise. But each new factor brings a fresh roll call of the blunders. It quickly becomes repetitive.

The analysis itself feels superficial and the authors' recommendations are not properly supported. For a start, although the blunders are described in terms of the amount of money wasted, there is no sense of how this sits within overall government expenditure. Is Government blowing 50% of its money; 5% or 0.5%. Or even less? If it is at the top end of the scale, then clearly something needs to be done. If it is at the bottom end, then is it just the price worth paying for otherwise efficient government? I have no view one way or the other, but the authors should have set it in context.

The recommendations themselves - for increased use of legislative scrutiny committees; cross party working; longer tenure for ministers; bringing ministers in from outside Parliament may have some merit (who can say - the arguments deployed are flimsy and incomplete), but they are culturally impossible. It's all very well to say that the UK Parliament should be more like Scandinavia, but it isn't and never will be. Sure, you can construct new Parliaments (e.g. the Scottish Parliament) from a clean slate according to a different model, but you can't overturn centuries of tradition just to avoid another Poll Tax.

And on the subject of the Poll Tax, the authors would have the reader believe that the Thatcher government could and would have opted for a banded property tax if only they had thought of it. The suggestion that the whole government was asleep as a couple of junior ministers got the proposal through is nonsense. There was an ideology at play and the Poll Tax embodied that ideology. The Tories knew what they were doing and just assumed they had the numbers to get it through (which they did) and that the public would comply (and there was little reason to think they wouldn't). The narrative behind this blunder just doesn't ring true.

Similarly, the narrative behind ID cards misses the ideological points. Yes, it accurately reports that the decision was taken to introduce ID cards before anyone had thought of a purpose, but it doesn't get to the heart of the circumstances (knee-jerk reaction to the World Trade Center attacks); David Blunkett's wish to give people something tangible (c.f. his previous attempt to introduce ID cards for teachers); and Labour ministers' fear of appearing soft on civil liberties (hence, once the idea was proposed, none felt empowered to argue against).

The failings of both these sections make me wonder just how much has been glossed over in other sections.

The Blunder of our Governments is a light (if long) read and will bring back memories of past blunders and scandals. It is interesting to hear once-familiar names (Norman Fowler, Norman Tebbit, Lord Young, Nigel Lawson) being set in an ostensibly objective, historical context. It is interesting to think that things could have been different, even if one doubts that really to have been the case. But as serious academic study, this does not work because of the lack of context and scale.


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