Inertia creeps

I was in Chicago last weekend, at an event sponsored by the Council for the United States and Italy. The conference was about the challenges of city growth – housing, transport, environmental sustainability, government – and involved people from public and private sectors, academia, the military, and non-governmental organisations.

One theme that emerged was scepticism about the ability of elected city leaders to commit to long-term change, given the short-term imperative of electoral cycles. Some of us from public sector backgrounds suggested that this may not be as much of a problem as it seemed: given the much-criticised inertia of bureaucracies, 180-degree reverses in policy were much rarer than electoral rhetoric would suggest.

Which brings me to Boris Johnson\’s retreat from his plans to cancel the western extension of London\’s congestion charging zone. Despite commissioning a fresh consultation exercise, the capital costs of redrawing the zone, and the loss of revenue that would follow, clearly seemed too onerous. You can\’t imagine that any mayor other than Ken Livingstone would have introduced congestion charging in 2000, but now it is in place, it looks like it\’s here to stay.

Similarly, Labour did little to undo the Conservative settlement of the 1980s and 1990s, with the exception of some trade union legislation, and indeed built on many of the elements that they had most strenuously opposed in opposition. And you can only wonder whether an incoming Conservative administration would undo much of the current government\’s programme, from ID cards to Bank of England independence, against which they have so heartily inveighed.

Inertia is a mixed blessing. I railed against it when I was younger and today my views remain largely partisan (bureaucrats can be either valiant voices for common sense or obstructive dullards, depending on context). Famously frustrating to politicians like Tony Blair, inertia does perhaps serve to dissuade incoming governments from spending too much time unstitching their predecessors\’ policies.

Rather than an erratic see-saw of reversals, politics becomes a relatively smooth progression of cumulative change, for good or ill, moving on slowly. Perhaps, when Tony Blair complained of \”scars on his back\”, it was a back-handed tribute to the ability of the civil service (where nobody ever gets sacked for doing nothing) to temper change with continuity, to save us from relentless alternation.

This is conservative, to be sure, but \’conservative\’ as eloquently defined by Michael Oakeshott, not as cooked up in crazy-eyed think tanks: \”To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.\”

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