Making a fortune by collecting ballot boxes

Keith Hudson

Most politicians are probably honest people in their everyday lives.  Put them in charge of the government, however, and you’re a very silly person if you believe a word of what they say, particularly if they are trying to look frank and honest.

Why is this?  Why are they are always telling porkies?  It’s quite simple.  They’re frightened of losing power.  Never mind elections — which worry them plenty enough — what they’re really worried about is if large numbers of us were to walk down the street — Whitehall in the case of this country — and . . . well, quietly take over, thank you very much.  For example, as the citizens of Tbilisi did in 2003 and took over the government of Georgia — known as the Roses Revolution.  This doesn’t happen often.  More usually such walk-ins are a more restricted variety — such as the coup d’etat by the present Egyptian army generals, now producing an infinitely better government than the ‘democratic’ government of Morsi, previously in power.

That’s the basic fear.  That’s why governments are always afraid of large demonstrations in the streets.  Tony Blair’s government pathetically tried every excuse they could think of — including Health and Safety Regulations! — to ban the anti-Iraq War demo in Hyde Park in 2003.  (Indeed, that’s why we have a basic voting system at all — developed in the 19th century — because riots and revolutions were sweeping all over Europe and the UK establishment were afraid of it happening here.  That we have democratic elections today is nothing to do with the development of  ‘basic human rights’ or any other abstract nonsense!)

The problem is that we have got ourselves into a silly system.  At election times politicians make all sorts of promises.  Afterwards, the electorate expect them to keep to them.  But that’s not what government should be.  It should have nothing to do with promises.  Governments should be in power simply because they’re comprised of the best possible people to do the job.  Governments shouldn’t be oblliged to do anything at all, if that’s what they want to do.

With their meritocratic bureaucratic system, the Chinee have almost got such a government.  We, too, in this country, almost arrived at it when, in the 1870s, the civil service examination system was devised for the high flyers. so long as someone who’s come quite high in the exam keeps his nose clean and is more than averagely affable then he is bound to be running a department of state sooner or later. In our case, however, unlike the Politburo, the civil service don’t quite rule the country — but it’s close enough. They do so by manipulating the politicians.  Occasionally, when they have a perverse and really intelligent politician in charge, the civil service chiefs have to keep their heads down and do as they’re told for a while.

The Treasury had to do this when George Brown (now not an MP, thankfully) was Chancellor of the Exchequer and surrounded himself with his own ring of advisors such as Ed Miliband (now, not the leader of the Labour Party who might just possibly have sunk the Party forever) and Ed Balls (now not an MP, thankfully also for the Labour Party) .  (Of course, this doesn’t mean to say that the Treasury is always right.  They, too, can get carried away with fashionable economic ideas as they come along.  In fact, they are still believers in Keynes’ ideas even though the man himself regretted them deeply towards the end of his life.)

The Chinese system is infiinely better than the British system.  While they both require graduates to enter the high-flyer system, the Chinese now require doctorate level before any entrants start — and almost always in the sciences domain.  In contrast, our civil service exams still make sure that graduates with engineering, scientific or business qualifications have little chance of passing.  The exams are still of the same sort that they were framed in the 1880s when Oxford and Cambridge Universities were at least non-scientific, and in some favoured colleges, actually anti-scientific. The result is that there’s not a single engineer, scientist or businessman among any of the leaders of our 15 departments of state.

But much more significant than that, those chosen in China have to proceed up the ladder by starting with, say, being the mayor of a city or the CEO of a state-owned enterprise (SOE) — that is, with a real job.  And then they are selected every ten years or so to a higher level — say to running a larger SOE or a larger city — and finally, between the ages of about 50 and 60, of a major province or a very large SOE before, at the age of 60+ perhaps, being finally selected fo the Politburo itself. Above all, and at every stage, only those who have had substantial problems to overcome during their way up are chosen.  Anybody who has had an apparently effortless time during bis current term remains where he is.

The problem in both cases, however, is that both bureaucracies are not responsive quickly enough to change — and in these days, when the rate of innovation is very high, change is very rapid indeed.  The personal computer plus the internet has revolutionised almost every single aspect of our economic life (apart from the actual standard kit of consumer goods — house, furnishings, clothes, car, ornaments, leisure pursuits, holidays — that people buy in order to establish their particular social status — which has remain the same as 50 years ago) — except the civil service.  Perhaps this explains why the civil service in this country is particularly inept in instituting computer methods of running their systems?

So, how to reform bureaucracies so that they remain meritocratic but are also in tune with what is going on in real economic life?  So they know what ordinary people are doing and thinking?  The Chinese have gone a little way in that direction in the early 2000s when President Jiang Zemin persuaded his fellows that those Chinese individuals who’d become very rich by being good at business (and thus knowing what people want) should be recruited into the highest levels of the Communist Party (and thus close to the Politburo) even if they weren’t Marxist in any way!

But even this reform is open to corruption in due course — if it is not already occurring in China.  Any ideas?  For this country or for any of the half-dozen or so advanced countries?  (Because if we don’t find the answer, the Chinese may well do so before us — and then they’ll be privately laughing at us twice as much as they must be doing already.)  And, of course, once we have a better meritocratic system then we can forget about our increasingly unsatisfactory method of electing MPs — who are, in effect, little more than high-status salesmen.  If any local government official who has been in charge of polling stations were to collect a few specimen ballot boxes (in America, computerised efforts) then his heirs will make a fortune one day.

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