Governance of Britain

First Goldsmith Memorial Lecture 

University College, London

7 pm, 22 May2007

Prof Stephen Bush

The Government of Britain: Spinning out of control

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is an honour to follow Lord Tebbit in speaking to the memory of another very distinguished man, the late Sir James Goldsmith.

My theme tonight is our country’s government “spinning out of control” – words which have dominated the media reporting on politics for the last 5 years in particular.  I want to probe why we have come to the parlous state we have and what can be done practically to start to remedy matters in the short term and to indicate the fundamental changes needed to see we don’t ever get here again.

All nations have problems, but in my view Britain is now among the worst governed of the major industrial powers.  The figures speak for themselves: the largest ever peacetime trading deficit, uncontrolled immigration, record levels of emigration by the native population, historically low marriage rates, social breakdown in parts of London and other large cities.

Now there is a presumption in political circles that British democracy is basically sound, like the Health Service “the envy of the world”, but needs only a tweak here and there – another committee, another report – to correct the faults we see the effects of.

My view as I shall put it to you is that the failures of government we see are fundamental not marginal, not only because of the inevitable short-coming of individuals (though there are plenty of those) but because the basic forms of government are suited to an age which really passed away in that brief Edwardian summer before the First World War when the nearest most people came to engaging with the State was when they stuck a stamp on a letter.

We have struggled through the 20th Century “playing at parliaments” managing to overcome (just) their shortcomings – until now when we must as a people confront the political class with the need not just for reform, but a veritable “reformation”.

And just as the invention of the mechanical printing press enabled the 16th Century Protestant reformers to succeed by allowing people to read what they were involved in – so the electronic printing press will allow us in the 21st Century to achieve a second, profound reformation in the way we “govern ourselves”.

Notice: I am talking not about changing “how we are governed”, but “how we govern ourselves” just as the English protestant reformers said in relation to their break from the assumptions and top-down organisation of the Church of Rome.

Governing ourselves” is in fact the most profound social instinct of the Anglo-Saxon peoples spread across the globe, but with their wellspring here in this island.  We are not quite alone in our self-governing instinct however.

Switzerland from its foundation in 1291 to the present day has nourished this instinct more than we have in the 20th Century and as a direct result I believe it is the best run country in the world, not only in terms of efficiency in health, transport, building and landscape conservation, but also incidentally in the absence of poverty.  There is actually no poor underclass in Switzerland and this is reflected in one of the lowest Gini coefficients (which measures income inequalities) alongside the highest per capita income among Western countries.

Moving from the general to the particular, let us consider three basic causes of our discontent and see how these basic causes affect the most acute area of public concern – immigration and national identity, which impinge on education, our relations with the European Union and our democracy.

The three basic causes I wish to highlight are:

first – the 50 year on-going battle between egalitarianism and practicality;

second – the related inability of the British political class to generate adequate administrative systems; and

third – the continued confusion of largely unstated aims and motives in our relations with other countries and peoples.

All three of these causes owe their destructive power in British political life to a chronic inability to distinguish between what is essential and what is merely desirable.

“To govern is to choose” is the well-known aphorism of the Duc de Lévis in 1812 – and on this basis the government of Britain since 1950 with the exception of the Thatcher administration has been largely one of havering and hesitation.

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