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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Is Britain really run by four people? Of course not.

Political insiders love to speculate about which other insiders are really pulling the strings. Power is seen as an endless series of Russian dolls each packed inside the other, and at the core there's supposed to be a special group that is the true governing cabal. In The Spectator last week James Forsyth identified a new 'gang of four' called 'The Quad', who "decide all major matters of policy". Tim summarised the article here.

I'm sceptical. This isn't really how the world is made. A little before the 1997 general election I was having a drink with Michael Portillo, and feeling a bit philosophical I asked him, "As the Secretary of State for Defence, do you ever feel like a complete fake?" He stiffened, and asked warily, "What do you mean exactly?" I explained that when I became a headmaster, and stood in front of the school delivering stern or encouraging words, I always felt like I was just pretending my part, that I was still a schoolboy myself, and would soon be exposed. It must be even worse, I suggested, when you're supposed to be responsible for the nation's defence.

Portillo smiled: "Every time I walk into the Cabinet room," he said, "I look around for a door to another room where the real Cabinet meets. I can never believe this is really it, that this meeting I'm in is where we actually make decisions for the country."

We find it comforting to imagine that somewhere there's a secret place where clever people, genuine grown-ups, do the things that clever, genuinely grown-up people are supposed to do. Forsyth quotes a 'Downing Street insider' portraying 'The Quad' as the one place where 'adults' come together "to sort out the things that the children couldn't."

No-one who has run any reasonably large organisation for any sustained period could subscribe to this pleasant fantasy. Still less anyone who knows government. It's all horribly complicated and real power is so widely distributed that achieving anything at all is extremely hard - at every turn you are outnumbered by multiple incongruent forces. Not only must you contend with all the other insiders, sitting in all the other departments, each with a slighty different constellation of interests and agendas, but there are also your fellow MPs, and your party, and the massed ranks of civil servants, and the legions of organised workers and professional groups, and the pesky media, and of course the silent insistent pressure of fifty million citizens. The idea that four of you sitting around a table can in any meaningful way "decide all major matters of policy" is only credible within a very narrow definition of policy as purely tactical politics. Even then it
quickly comes undone.

I once accompanied Baroness Thatcher around a comprehensive school. She spoke to a pupil about her studies, and discovered that the girl was no longer studying history. "How old are you?" she asked. "Fourteen," the girl replied. Thatcher was appalled: "Fourteen, and you are allowed to opt out of history? That's dreadful!" I had to explain to her quietly that being allowed to drop history at fourteen was an innovation of her own government, part of her new-coined National Curriculum. When she had set about reforming education, she had intended to deliver a focused programme of core skills and knowledge, attributes of traditional learning, but Kenneth Baker presiding over countless committees of educationalists turned her desire for simplicity into a new bureaucracy that squeezed out many of the things she valued most.

A few years later meeting with Karl Rove in the White House I saw a hand-written memo pinned on the wall: "Our six priorities: fix social security, strengthen the economy, fix social security, fix social security, fix social security, fix social security." Such is the frustration of people who sit where the power is supposed to be.

My theme, as ever, is that control of our future is extemely widely shared, has a complexity that admits near-random dynamics, and that therefore even our top politicians are highly constrained in what they can achieve when they behave merely as insiders. If the country's four greatest grown-ups sat together around a kitchen table for a month, they still couldn't "sort things out". One of David Cameron's greatest strengths is that he clearly understands that. His pragmatism extends to being comfortable with a broader conception of democracy than most of his colleagues. Before he became Prime Minister, he was on GMTV (if I remember correctly) telling the interviewer that he personally believed that MPs having additional jobs outside Parliament often enhanced their understanding and made them more useful; however, he knew that it wasn't popular and so he would forbid any of his ministers from having outside interests. In other words he was at ease with following majority opinion rather than his own, a surprisingly un-Burkean sentiment. I think he genuinely believes that he doesn't own the government, in marked contrast to how (for example) Gordon Brown felt about it.

It makes him ready to embrace greater transparency and openness of government - towards which there has been genuine, unsexy progress over the past two years. Cameron appears to disdain internal party pressures, but responds comfortably to more public pressures. Indeed, James Forsyth acknowledges a little of this as he ends his piece. Though he started by describing this 'gang' as "a new system of rule in Britain", he ends by saying it is "negotiating via the media" - not secretive at all, "The Quad process plays out in public".


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