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Governing Britain

Power, Politics and the Prime Minister


Patrick Diamond


London: I.B. Tauris, 2014

Paperback. xiii+372 p. ISBN 978-1780765822. £14.99


Reviewed by Richard Toye

University of Exeter


Patrick Diamond is currently a lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London and vice-chair of the Blairite think-tank Policy Network. During the period of the last Labour government he was a policy adviser at 10 Downing Street. It may be that he has in mind a return to high-level politics should Ed Miliband win the next election, because he has eschewed the potentially lucrative tell-all approach in favour of an academic analysis of British governance, albeit one augmented by insider knowledge. This is a careful, thorough work, which gains much of its interest from interviews conducted with politicians and officials.

In his Introduction, Diamond references The Thick of It, the brilliant recent comedy series about Westminster. In that programme, the hapless politicians are at the mercy of the super-manipulative spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker. Tucker’s trademark is the epic rant, filled with ingenious forms of swearing and abuse. (One of the show’s coinages, ‘omni-shambles’, actually ended up making the transfer into real life political debate.) Tucker makes a notable contrast with another classic comic character, the urbane Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary whose elegant circumlocutions helped him run rings around his well-meaning but vain minister, Jim Hacker. Although both Tucker and Appleby are unelected, the former is an essentially political figure who exists to do the Prime Minister’s bidding. Thus, as Diamond puts it:


Whereas […] Yes, Minister emphasised that civil servants were able to cynically dupe their political masters, by the late 1990s commentators were complaining that the power of the Whitehall mandarins had been eroded to the point where officials’ advice was no longer valued, and traditional lines of accountability were increasingly redundant. [5]

Diamond sees that picture as somewhat exaggerated. Moreover, he identifies a fundamental tension within British governance, as it has been experienced in recent years. On the one hand, politicians tend to come into office eager to ‘return power to the people’. Labour’s 1997 manifesto was shot through with the language of localism, devolution, and decentralisation; similarly, the current Coalition government passed a Localism Act in 2011 which was designed to ‘put an end to the hoarding of power within central government and top-down control of communities, allowing local people the freedom to run their lives and neighbourhoods in their own way.’

In practice, however, these worthy aspirations often come into conflict with the centralising tendencies of Whitehall, which are reinforced by the political pressures created by the modern media. Localism, when implemented, may create perceptions of inequity – the ‘postcode lottery’ problem – which in the end become impossible for ministers to tolerate. When something goes wrong, when a school or hospital fails, for example, there will be a cry that ‘something must be done’, potentially leading to action from the centre that breaches the principles of localism. Diamond – whose particular focus is on New Labour – argues:


Labour emerged from a dissenting tradition that was critical of orthodox notions of state legitimacy and authority. Once in government, however, the party eagerly embraced established constitutional principles of political representation and parliamentary sovereignty enshrined in the Westminster model. During the New Labour years, as if reaffirming this legacy, governing capacity and the strong state were reinforced, driving through policy implementation and reform from the centre. While Labour’s constitutional agenda had the potential to redefine the Westminster model, the Whitehall paradigm was actually further entrenched. [286]

Diamond has produced a thoughtful addition to the literature, which is thoroughly grounded in the existing scholarship. In truth, though, it is also often rather dry. Perhaps someday he will produce that salacious memoir. In the meantime, readers may be tempted to get some light relief by turning back to Yes, Minister, or The Thick of It.


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