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Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson

Posted: March 9, 2011 10:09 AM

The Curse of the Cult of the Amateur


David Cameron is extremely keen on rolling up his sleeves. In the run-up to the election last year, he was constantly baring his biceps, as if one little glimpse of manly muscles, encased in milky white skin as soft and smooth as the baby he christened on Friday, would have us marching to the ballot box in pursuit of a more purposeful world.

At his party's spring conference this week, he kept his jacket on. But the sleeves, he said, would see some action soon. He would be rolling them up to take on a new enemy. The enemy, it turned out, was not Gaddafi, who, until a few weeks ago, was a friend, or the forces opposing Gaddafi, who are meant to be friends, but who our special forces unfortunately greeted a little bit aggressively. The enemy was the enemy -- well, enemies, actually, because apparently there are lots of them -- of "enterprise".

It was the "enemies of enterprise" who were keeping the country in the economic doldrums, an army struggling to strangle the green shoots that would otherwise become 1,000 flowers that bloom. He didn't, to be fair, actually say that the roofers, builders and small businessmen who would, if this bitter war was won, lead England to a better, richer future, were flowers. I don't think people who authorize helicopter missions to talk to people they could safely amble up to, are very keen on words like "flowers". He said they were "go-getters", which is the kind of word people use when they also use the word "pro-active". And the thing that was stopping them from "go-getting" was "red tape".

It wasn't, I'm afraid, absolutely clear what the "red tape" was. I think, for example, that David Cameron probably wasn't talking about the Equality Act, which his government passed in October, and which means that employers have to do what they can to make sure that mothers can breastfeed their babies, and can be taken to court if someone they employ says something -- about gender, race or religion -- that anyone who happens to be passing by finds offensive. I'm not sure how many builders or roofers would have said that this law would help them in their work.

I think he probably also wasn't talking about the 2,771 pages of legislation that his government has passed since it came into power, which, according to a former (Tory) Chancellor of the Exchequer, is more than any government for quite a while. I think he would have to say that it was only laws that other people pass that you could call "red tape".

But if you're going to roll up your sleeves and look as if you want to get on with things, and look as if you want to get rid of the people and things that get in your way, then you need to say that you don't like "red tape", and also that you don't like "bureaucracy", which is "go-getting" when it's done by you, but petty and trivial when it's done by someone else. And you need to say that you don't like "quangos", because you're not really sure what they do. You need, perhaps, to say that you'll have a big "bonfire of the quangos", because it will make you look efficient, and also quite fierce.

It's a shame if you then find out that some of the quangos you thought did nothing -- like the Forestry Commission, for example -- actually did something that taxpayers quite liked, and it's a shame if a select committee, chaired by a Tory MP, says that your bonfire will cost more than it will save. But the principle remains. If you can't see what people are doing, then their jobs probably don't matter.

They might, for example, work in a "back room", which is what you call an office when it isn't your office, doing things like answering calls from the public, and doing things on computers, and organizing the things that the people who aren't in the office -- who you call "frontline staff", which makes them sound much more important than the people in the "back room" -- do. So when you tell people like local councils that they have to make big cuts, you also tell them that the best thing to do would be to get rid of the people in the "back room", because if you can't see what they're doing, it can't be very good.

And when it comes to, say, cuts in the police force, you tell them to get rid of the people who are taking the 999 calls from the public, because you'd prefer to see the money spent on a man walking up and down a street. And when it comes to the NHS, you decide to get rid of the people who manage the budgets, and buy the drugs, and get the doctors to manage the budgets, and buy the drugs, instead. You don't say that you want the doctors to see their patients less, because that would mean moving doctors from the "frontline" to the "back room", where no one would be able to see them rolling up their sleeves, so you must think that managing the budgets, or buying the drugs, is something you can do in your lunch hour, or your coffee break.

You must think, in fact, that managing any kind of a budget, or computer system, or phone system, is something that anyone can do in their lunch hour or coffee break. You probably don't think that anyone can cut out a brain tumor, but you do seem to think that anyone can run a hospital, or a library, or a school. You seem to think that people who have been in the army will be better at maintaining control in a classroom than the people who have been trained to maintain control in the classroom. You seem to think that policemen who have been elected police commissioners by people who don't know very much about how a police force works will be better at doing their jobs than the ones who are appointed by people who do know how a police force works.

Britain is, of course, the land of the amateur. It's the land of "gentlemen" and "players", the land where to be paid for your sporting pursuits, or even for your work, was, until relatively recently, not quite the done thing. It's the land which was largely owned by "gentleman farmers", and where a deputy prime minister could be sneered at for having "to buy his own furniture". It's the land that gave us "muscular Christianity" -- and now "muscular liberalism" -- and men who marched off the cricket field and into what became the British Empire, bearing only a stiff upper lip, a Bible and a rifle.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that we should get a government whose key players (and gentlemen) were bred and hot-housed in this tradition at the very time when our culture, and particularly our TV culture, tells us that anyone can have a go at anything. If you're famous, then you can, with the help of a TV chef, teach the world how to teach. (Even when, like David Starkey, you patently can't.) If you're not famous, then you can have a go at becoming famous by having a go at cooking, singing or dancing. It can't be long now before Jamie's Dream Parliament, or Jamie's Dream NHS.

We don't really need to be reminded that the spirit of British amateurism is alive and well. We can see it in a foreign policy that appears to be modeled on Carry on Up the Khyber, and in an economic policy that appears to be modeled on Calendar Girls. But it would be nice if our hospitals, and our schools, and our police forces, and our local services, and maybe even our politics, could be run by people who had just a vague idea what they were doing.

 

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