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  1. Politics
7 February 2000

Proud to be ignorant

The Dome, like the poll tax, shows that our rulers are suspicious of experts. They should shed their

By James Le Fanu

It had, as for so many others, been a truly dreadful day. Retiring to bed, the same thought kept recurring: “How could they have got it so wrong?”

I could understand that they might not have wished to dwell on the past, on the achievements of the intrepid explorers who had circumnavigated the globe, or the great scientists and philosophers – Newton, Darwin, Hume and Locke – or even that supreme contribution to western civilisation – the welfare state. But there was scarcely an allusion to the contemporary British achievement. Who, walking around the Dome, would have realised that for 30 years the popular music from these islands has been universally recognised as being more creative and ingenious than that of anywhere else? And then, compounding the awe-inspiring banality was the equally impressive incompetence, exemplified by those snake-like queues leading to nothing important.

The following morning, enlightenment of a sort began to dawn. Reading the Letters page of the Telegraph, I learnt that offers of help from public-spirited citizens with expertise in putting on major public events had all been spurned. “In discussion with Jennie Page, chief executive of the New Millennium Experience Company, I was astonished to find that not only had she no experience of what was involved,” wrote Mr R A Cunningham from Sussex, “but seemed to think she knew the answers without assistance.” And this was even though the Dome, it was hoped (wrongly as it turned out), would attract more visitors than the combined annual attendance of Alton Towers, Madame Tussaud’s, the Tower of London and the Natural History Museum.

All this would suggest that the culture of ignorance, nourished during the Thatcher years, flourishes still. Its adherents mistrust those with specific skills or expertise, suspecting that they are interested only in feathering their own nests.

My first personal encounter with this culture of ignorance was the launch of Ken Clarke’s blueprint for reforming the health service, “Working for Patients”. The venue, appropriately enough, was a television studio somewhere in east London, to which bus loads of the new managerial class, charged with implementing “the most radical changes for 40 years”, had been invited. It was a razzmatazz occasion, with strobe lights and piped music, but the vital document itself turned out to be so vacuous, it could almost have been a hoax. There was not the slightest attempt to identify the flaws of our estimable health service or to suggest ways of putting them right. Indeed, no rationale for the reforms was offered at all – simply the broad brushstrokes of a radical and untested notion – the “internal market” in health.

The sole representatives of the medical profession to have been consulted were a small cabal of right-wing doctors, including – it subsequently transpired – a heroin addict and a bankrupt private practitioner. Not surprisingly, the consequences of failing to seek the opinions of those who knew something about the health service were precisely the opposite of those anticipated – “less” rather than “more” patient choice; “more” (far more) rather than “less” bureaucracy; costs that were not contained but that had escalated, and with no reasonable explanation as to what had happened to the extra funds.

This new political phenomenon of policies grounded in ignorance was to be a recurring characteristic of the Tories’ radical agenda. The poll tax that destroyed Margaret Thatcher was a case in point. Back in the early eighties, the notion of a poll tax was floated on several occasions, only to be shot down by senior civil servants at the Department of Environment on logistical grounds – as one expressed it: “Try collecting that tax in Brixton.”

This view was shared by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting, whose members are daily confronted with the practical, if unenviable task, of administering local taxation. They produced a damning analysis of the impact of the poll tax, showing that one in seven households would end up paying up to 80 per cent more than under the old rating system.

But Thatcher’s poodles, including Michael Portillo, knew better. “The community charge is courageous, fair and sensible. Far from being a vote loser . . . it will be a vote winner,” he told a sceptical Conservative Party conference in 1990.

And what happened? Within a year of its implementation, the Institute of Public Finance reported that one in five households had not paid up, and arrears were projected to be £1.7 billion out of a total of £12 billion. The rest, as they say, is history.

It might seem unreasonable to draw an analogy between the farcical demise of the poll tax, and the fate that certainly awaits the Dome. But is it? Consider the events on New Year’s Eve. It may not have been an easy task to orchestrate 10,000 people, a monarch and a multitude of VIPs into the Dome, but the practicalities fade into insignificance when compared to those involved in herding hundreds of thousands of people – including kings, queens and umpteen heads of state – into Hyde Park for the VE Day 50th anniversary celebrations a few years ago. And yet the man responsible for this extraordinary piece of social engineering, so successful that no one had any idea of the scale of the challenge that had to be met – Major Mike Parker – was yet another of those whose proffered services were turned down by Miss Page.

The common thread that links Thatcherite and new Labour ignorance is a disdain for the solid, middle-class professional virtues of competence based on practical experience. It may sound old-fashioned, but it is what kept the Germans out of Portsmouth. “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job,” Churchill told Roosevelt. Not now we wouldn’t.