Too much power and cash lies with firms whose names emerge only when they fail

Before this week, Carillion, the company that has gone into liquidation, was a relative unknown to many Brits.

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Hands up all those who, before the past week, had heard of Carillion, the company that has just gone into liquidation and, it turns out, was supplying 32,000 school meals daily, providing 11,500 hospital beds and playing a major role in constructing HS2 and Crossrail, to give just a few examples. Even well-informed people often can’t identify the private firms that are central to public services. When the late Anthony Sampson wrote his groundbreaking Anatomy of Britain in 1962, he tried to reveal “who runs Britain”. The individuals were often unknown to the public, as were the networks through which they exercised power. But most of us at least had a mental map of which organisations did what. Now much power – and billions of taxpayers’ pounds – resides with agencies and outsourcing companies whose names emerge only when they fail spectacularly. We are as ignorant about them as Victorians were about the interior of Africa.

One thing, though, hasn’t changed. “Brooding over” everything, Sampson wrote, was “the ubiquitous figure of Muddle, for whose power and influence I have developed a growing respect”. Muddle emerges from almost everything that Theresa May’s government does, and Carillion, at which ministers threw new contracts even as the business crumbled, provides a telling example.

Turnout truths

Never trust conventional wisdom, particularly when it is based on statistics. We all know – do we not? – that political apathy has risen since the Second World War. The figures prove it. Turnout in general elections fell from nearly 84 per cent in 1950 to less than 60 per cent in 2001, recovering only slightly to 70 per cent last year.

However, in a little-noticed recent paper, academics from Manchester and Oxford universities argue that the turnout figures are simply wrong. They divide the number of votes cast by the number of registrations and take no account of people who are registered in more than one area. Turnout may be as much as 9 per cent higher than we think.

The academics draw no further conclusions, but I will. Sixty to 70 years ago, dual registration would have been far less common and turnout figures more accurate. Fewer people had second homes and, if students were eligible to vote (most weren’t until 1969), they usually registered only at their parents’ address.

In other words, turnout has fallen only slightly, if at all. Political apathy is a myth. Earnest folk have expended vast reserves of money, time and energy trying to find solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history