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The new anatomy of Britain

Sep 23,2023 - Last updated at Sep 23,2023

LONDON — Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain, published in 1962, was a profound and scholarly work that appeared at a time when the perception that the United Kingdom was in decline was undermining confidence in British institutions. Though the former Conservative minister Rory Stewart’s new memoir, Politics On the Edge, is far more personal and narrower in scope, it similarly provides an opportunity to reflect on the state of the UK.

In Stewart’s telling, British politicians have “failed to respond adequately to every major challenge of the past 15 years”. While some sectors of the UK economy work well, “public-service Britain”, encompassing the National Health Service (NHS), schools, public transport, utilities, the police and prisons, is deteriorating. The problem, Stewart argues, lies largely with a dysfunctional political class that views politics as an endgame rather than as a means to effective policy.

Stewart’s position in British politics afforded him a unique vantage point from which to make such observations. For the nine years chronicled in this memoir (2010-2019), he stood largely on the edge of the British political scene. Given that he entered politics as an acclaimed travel writer and former provincial governor in post-Saddam Iraq, his outsider status was hardly a surprise.

As the Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border, and in his several ministerial roles under Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May, Stewart gained something of an insider’s perspective. Nonetheless, the career politicians and bureaucrats running the country always regarded him as an enigmatic intruder. He has rewarded them with a scathing critique of their approaches and performance.

Stewart refrains from offering a grand theory of politics. Instead, he adopts an empirical approach, urging readers to look for themselves through the lens of his experiences. In this manner, he shows that many of the problems plaguing the British government lie at the operational level, not in the “what”, but in the “how”. The deterioration of the NHS is a case in point: as an older constituent remarks, you don’t need to go to Switzerland for euthanasia, just to the local Cumberland Infirmary.

Stewart’s main conclusion is that career politicians, by their nature, are incapable of effective policymaking. Within his first month in Parliament, he witnessed more “impotence, suspicion, envy, resentment, claustrophobia and Schadenfreude than I had seen in any other profession”. Even former academics “brushed aside any of my attempts to debate government policy and shifted the conversation on to personalities, promotions, and power”.

Analysing the deterioration of the UK’s public services, Stewart highlights two possible culprits: a ruling class preoccupied with politicking and a civil service overly focused on bureaucracy. The two, he argues, exacerbate each other’s weaknesses. To address this, Stewart champions a Burkean approach, contending that every policy should be simple enough to be understood and implemented at a local level.

In blaming public-service deterioration on political and administrative incompetence, Stewart overlooks the devastating impact of the budget cuts implemented by former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne between 2010 and 2016. By letting Osborne and the UK’s other economic policymakers off the hook, Stewart cuts his acute analysis off from the strand of social democracy with which he otherwise has much in common.

Stewart is on firmer ground when discussing the decline of British public discourse. He frequently emphasises the proliferation of departmental acronyms, with their suggestion of vast but vague responsibilities, and the “imprecise and evasive liturgy” of corporate mission statements.

To illustrate this point, he quotes Michael Spurr, then-permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, who told him, “The department is working together to embed our organisational values and ensure that they underpin our strategic decisions through collaborative working and through rock-solid commitments to make progress against goals.”

As a member of the National Security Council, Stewart was struck by “the lack of knowledge of my political colleagues, the complexity of the subject, and the opaque committee structures”, which made adequate civilian oversight of Britain’s intelligence services impossible.

Stewart’s book, though insightful, leaves key questions unanswered. For example, was the degradation of Britain’s public services the result of a shortage of qualified personnel, or were the challenges it faced simply greater than anything its existing systems were equipped to handle?

To be sure, concerns regarding the narrow scope of the UK’s civil-service recruitment and expertise can be traced back to the 1968 Fulton Report, which warned that many civil servants lacked the necessary skills for their roles. What seems to have deteriorated since then is the character of the British political class. In the 1960s, professional politicians as we understand them today, people who, from a young age, viewed politics as their only career choice, were rare. Instead, politics was still seen largely as an extension of other occupations.

The relationship between MPs and their constituencies underpins Stewart’s one-nation conservatism and the localism he believes should drive effective public policy.

But today, most MPs have no ties to their constituencies before being chosen to represent them. Their views have thus been shaped not by the lived experience of their constituents, but by the insulated environment of the parliamentary hothouse. So, while the British political class may be becoming more “inclusive”, it is less reflective of the general population. Working-class Tories are now a distant memory, and working-class representation within Labour is also declining.

Remarkably, Stewart’s critique of British society overlooks the increasingly limited scope for political action. In the 1960s, the UK could still credibly claim to be a great power. The ongoing challenge, which the British political establishment has repeatedly evaded, is to identify a governance framework suited to Britain’s diminished global stature.

Stewart himself is not immune to the allure of imperial nostalgia. His narrative, wavering between despair and idealism, reveals the inner turmoil of someone who recognises that some of our most profound cultural problems may be incurable, but whose proactive nature refuses to dismiss the potential for thoughtful action.

Rory Stewart, “Politics On the Edge: A Memoir from Within”, Jonathan Cape, 2023


Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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