John Humphrys - How Smart Is Government?

February 12, 2021, 5:08 PM UTC

It’s not often that a cabinet minister admits that government is stupid. But it’s just happened. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, told the transport select committee that ‘smart motorways’, a policy he inherited, were ‘anything but’ smart. Their safety record – or, rather their lack-of-safety record – meant he could hardly have said anything else. The point, though, is that plenty of people told the smart guys who came up with the idea that it was daft in the first place. Indeed anyone could have told them because all it took was a little common sense to realise it. Yet the policy went ahead anyway. It’s far from the only policy in recent decades that’s been allowed to blight our lives because of the absence of a dose of common sense at the outset. So how ‘smart’ is government? And how could we make it smarter by bringing common sense into play?

Smart motorways go back fifteen years. The government of the time faced the problem that motorways were clogging up with traffic. But how to make traffic flow more freely without the huge expense of adding extra lanes? Answer: ‘let’s use the hard shoulder’. Hard shoulders had been obligatory on motorways ever since they started being built in the late 1950s: they were a vital safety measure so that when cars broke down they could easily pull off the road and get out of the way of the traffic speeding up behind them. But there they lay, a ready-built fourth lane, usually completely empty, just waiting to be used to free up congestion. ‘Smart motorways’ were born. The idea was that ‘emergency refuge areas’ would be created every mile or so at the side of the motorway for broken down vehicles to stumble towards, out of danger, and fancy radar technology would spot trouble when it happened and use illuminated gantry signs to steer upcoming traffic away from the breakdown. All very ‘smart’.

Except it wasn’t. So much could go wrong. And those with a bit of nous could see it all coming. Back in 2013, when the smart motorways project really got going, David Crompton, then the chief constable of South Yorkshire, wrote to ministers warning them that smart motorways ‘increase the risk both to the public and contribute towards death and serious injury’. And sure enough this is what has happened. At the end of last year Sheffield’s coroner, David Urpeth, ruled that smart motorways had contributed to the death of two men on the M1 in June 2019, adding ‘I believe smart motorways, as things stand, present an ongoing risk of deaths’. These two deaths were far from the only casualties of the policy.   Just this week Highways England was referred to prosecutors by another coroner and may face a corporate manslaughter charge after yet another death. 

Mr Shapps told the transport committee last week: ‘Why these things were ever called smart motorways when they seemed anything but, I think was a misnomer.’

Well, we can probably help the Transport Secretary in his puzzlement. They were called ‘smart’ as a PR exercise to dazzle the public with the idea that technology had come to our rescue and that our motorways were now super-modern, cutting edge and all that stuff. For the political cognoscenti they were ‘smart’ because they provided a cut-price way of dealing with a growing problem. Mr Shapps’ solution, by the way, is to build some more refuge areas: he said nothing about ditching the smart motorway idea altogether.

Smart motorways are far from the only example of government policies over the years which have been anything but smart. Yet I’m not suggesting that government is incapable of being smart. Far from it. You’ve only got to look at the success of the vaccination policy, and of how ‘smart’ so much of the planning of it was, to realise that’s not the case. My point is that when government fails to be smart it’s very often because one particular commodioty is lacking. It’s called common sense.

Take a couple of examples from this week. The government solemnly announced on Tuesday that anyone arriving in Britain who tried to conceal the fact that they had come from countries with a high Covid risk (so requiring them to quarantine in a hotel at their own expense) would face a prison term of up to ten years. All very tough-sounding, but immediately denounced as barking because it simply isn’t credible. As Dominic Grieve, a former Tory attorney-general, more politely put it, it was a ‘mistake’, because Parliament would never legislate so draconian a sentence, no judge would ever impose it, and, he might have additionally have asked, whatever is the public interest in spending a fortune locking someone away for ten years for such a crime? In short, if the point of announcing the ten-year sentence was to provide a stark warning deterring anyone from thinking of lying about where they’d come from, it was self-defeating because the deterrent isn’t credible. A little common sense would have killed that one on the drawing board.

Or take the government’s announcement on Thursday that it’s going to reorganise the NHS (again). To cut to the chase, it’s basically planning to reverse the reforms it brought in in 2012. It wants, among other things, to ‘cut bureaucracy’. But back in 2012 anyone could have told the health secretary of the time that his plans would increase bureaucracy, demoralise frontline staff, destroy institutional wisdom and cause any number of foreseeable problems that the current health secretary claims he is going to put right with his new reforms. And of course plenty did, especially health practitioners whose protests were born out of experience and common sense. But their voices weren’t listened to. Instead it was smart management consultants who ruled the roost and their ‘expertise’ came from theory not experience. A doctor friend of mine, making polite conversation with one such management consultant who was upending all the apple carts in his hospital, gently enquired which previous hospitals he’d worked in. “Oh, this is the first,” he replied. “I was in a biscuit factory last month.”

Or take another recent piece of smart government: the introduction of low traffic zones in London and other parts of the country. The idea is noble: traffic contributes to global warming and causes air pollution that kills, so let’s reduce traffic volumes. The policy seeks to close large areas of mostly residential roads to through traffic as a way to do so. Fine, except that common sense would point out that closing rat runs just shifts traffic on to the main roads rather than reduce the overall volume. Those main roads become more clogged up meaning traffic is slower, greenhouse gas emissions increase as cars and vans idle in queues, and air pollution becomes even more concentrated where the vehicles (and the drivers) fume. Common sense would also spot that the policy makes life more pleasant for the middle class, who live on the closed residential roads, but at the expense of poorer people, more of whom tend to live on the increasingly congested main roads. And common sense would point out that if you introduce such a policy during a lockdown, when shops are closed and the number of delivery vans on our streets is rocketing, all these problems will be compounded. common sense would also predict it could all turn nasty, even violent (as it has done).

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah had a young daughter, Ella, who suffered from asthma and died in 2013.  She had tenaciously  fought a long and ultimately successful battle for a fresh inquest which then certified, for the first time in Britain, that air pollution was the cause of death. She has herself condemned the introduction of low traffic zones near her home on London’s busy South Circular road, as ‘insane’. She says it amounts to ‘environmental racism’ because of the disproportional effect on black people in her area.

I could go on. Take Covid. Was it smart to tell people to ‘Protect the NHS’? Wouldn’t common sense tell you that this will lead people to avoid using it (visit any GP or outpatients and you’ll see this is the case) so storing up huge health problems? Was ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ that smart since anyone could see it was bound to increase the spread of the virus, no matter how careful pubs and restaurants might try to be in keeping people distanced?

Or go back further? Was it smart to make schools compete with each other, using league tables as the measure of performance? Wouldn’t this just mean teachers being pressured to focus on tests, leaving them vocationally demoralised, pupils bored and creativity and spontaneity in education pushed to the margins? Anyone could have seen that coming. Or the railways? Was it smart at privatisation to separate control of the tracks from control of the services? That most sensible of prime ministers, John Major, certainly thought it wasn’t but was talked into it, against his judgement, by the smart guys. Or the poll tax – smart to make everyone pay the same when ‘fairness’ is about the only thing the British people agree matters. Or nuclear power: smart to keep going with it when we’ve not sorted out, after all these years, how to deal with the nuclear waste that’s been building up waiting for a secure home for the next 100,000 years?

This is a game the whole family can play. Add your own examples to the list.

It was all a lot easier when government was less complicated and we were ruled by kings. They had a means of ensuring that common sense got its voice against the smart guys. Kings had their fools and jesters, employed to entertain but also to whisper sense into the king’s ears. Look at the Fool in King Lear: he’s anything but stupid. Indeed you could call him a Smart Fool because he talks sense.

The issue, then, is how to replicate the role of the common sense Fool in modern government. Until quite recently you could say, without necessarily offending them, that the role was taken by unambitious backbenchers in the House of Commons. On the Tory side they were the knights of the shires, not always the cleverest of men but savvy, with an ear to the ground back home for what people thought, what would and wouldn’t ‘run’. On Labour’s side, they were elderly trade unionists, the famous ‘horny-handed sons of toil’ rewarded for a lifetime’s dedication to the Labour movement by representing a safe seat for a few years and equally attentive to what their own grassroots were thinking. What linked both groups (who often became friends with each other, despite the party divide) was that they weren’t in it for any promotion, and they both brought experience and nous to the affairs of state. But both breeds are now largely extinct, supplanted by the ‘fitter’ breed of career politician. For them being ‘smart’ isn’t the same as being the voice of common sense: it’s not necessarily the smart way to get on.

Some have suggested that the way to inject more common sense into government is to tap the very repository of common sense, the great public itself. The idea of ‘People’s Assemblies’ rears its head from time to time. It’s even been tried. President Macron sought the guidance of a hundred and fifty French citizens, selected at random, about policies to tackle climate change. But they turned out to be far more radical than was politically thinkable for him. They wanted to close hypermarkets to stop people driving in order to shop; they wanted to shelve the roll out of 5G mobile technology because it used too much electricity; and they wanted to ban the sale of cars with emissions higher than they thought allowable (which turned out to mean most cars). Since one of Mr Macron’s biggest headaches in recent years has been the gilets jaunes movement, born out of opposition to his policy of raising the tax on petrol, you can see that democratic government cannot be made more smart simply be handing decisions over to the common sense of ordinary people.

So it’s a tough one. As government gets bigger and bigger, there is more and more danger that it will come up with ‘smart’ policies which, as the man said, are ‘anything  but’ smart. How, though, should we try to prevent this? Any ideas?

How  ‘smart’ do you think government is? Could it do with a bigger dose of common sense or not? And how would you suggest we provide it?

Let us know your views.