Flexible Government

03/08/2017 11:44

The need to bring the other parties on board.

Remember Napoleon as he stood with his victorious officers before the tomb of Frederick the Great at Potsdam:

"Hats off, gentlemen. If he were still alive we would not be here".

No soldier has ever received a better accolade than that, but the Prussians have produced brilliant military commentators too. Carl von Clausewitz is a name to conjure with, and in Helmuth von Moltke the Elder you will find a man who combined the successful exercise of command (he led the Prussian armies in the Franco-Prussian war) with an observation which is as applicable to 21st century politics as it is to military matters: "no plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force."

It sounds obvious to the general or the chess player. You can plan an initial move or two, but once the other side begins to react, things will go off script and any preconceived plans will have to give way to those cobbled together at the time. That fits in with day-to-day experience. How often do we plan a conversation in advance, a dialogue in which we have all the best lines and the other side crumples before them, only to find that once the talking starts it all goes off course and we are pushed onto the back foot? The only answer at that stage is to bin the original plan and deal with the points as they are made. Flexibility is everything.

That is what makes it so difficult for politicians. They need to mould their policies to events as they occur but they have less flexibility than the military commander or the conversationalist. Typically the voter insists on red lines and pledges, reasonable enough when given but a considerable practical impediment when it comes to adapting to change. How then can government give itself the flexibility which it needs to deal with a fast-changing world?

One answer is to make broad promises on the basis that it believes that they should be achievable even though it doesn't know how. The UK's pledge to make all new cars electric by 2040 falls into this category. It was immediately met by criticism from all sides. Green campaigners said that the date should be earlier, bringing us into line with the Bundesrat in Germany which would like to set the date there at 2030. Others say that 2040 is unachievable because the technology is not there and the power needed will put too much strain on the electricity system, something denied by Cambridge Econometrics which has actually looked into the figures. Details are what they all want and details are precisely what they cannot have because the achievement of the pledge depends on the speed of technological advance over the next 20 years or so and that simply cannot be predicted. If the technology did not move at all the pledge would be unattainable. If it moves fast, the public perception of electric cars as the vehicles of the future will probably mean that by 2030 hardly anything else is sold anyway. The pledge is really a target intended to drive change, those who frame it as a promise no doubt consoling themselves with the fact that both it and they will have been forgotten by 2040.

Pledges on Brexit are more difficult because the timescale is shorter. For example, a consensus seems to be growing among the UK political parties that there will need to be a transitional period after 2019 in which nothing much will change. Fine, as far as it goes, but it takes no account of the other party. Who knows whether the EU will agree to that or what price they may try to exact for doing so? Even if you could make a guess from their present attitudes, who knows whether those attitudes will last? M Macron's popularity is currently declining. The Poles and Hungarians play their games of brinkman down the EU's eastern border. Any of this could lead to fundamental change. And that is all before one takes into account change outside Europe. Will Mr Trump be impeached? Will there be war between the US and North Korea, possibly pulling in it China? Will the US go isolationist? These are possibilities which could upset all calculations.

It was against this background of uncertainty that Mrs May sought a fresh mandate. Had things gone according to plan she might have been in a strong enough position to allow her to make any change that circumstances demanded. That is now in the dustbin of history, so flexibility has to be achieved in another way - by a higher level of cooperation between the parties. It is here that it is good to see the patient technocrat Philip Hammond coming centre stage. He is quiet and logical and stands as good a chance of carrying the British political class with him as anybody else, but make no mistake there are going to be plenty of twists and turns as the world moves on. Plans made at this stage will almost certainly be upset and the trick will be for the government to carry Parliament along as these plans are replaced. That means involving all parties in the decisions so that they can help to explain their inevitability to their supporters.

Last week there was an article by the distinguished Times columnist Matthew Parris, in which he said how shameful it was that the |Conservatives did not seem to have a Brexit plan. On the surface that may look right but in practical terms it probably makes little difference. The plans will emerge as the deadline approaches and it will do so in response to events. It was ever thus.

Having made use of a quote by a distinguished Prussian general, perhaps I should finish with one from Wellington.

"Napoleon built his campaigns of iron, and when one piece broke the whole structure collapsed. I made my campaigns using rope, and if a piece broke I tied a knot."

It is the same point really. Expect to see the government re-tying the knot very frequently over the next few months.

First published in the Shaw sheet