The best crime writers foresaw the disaster of Whitehall targets by creating heroes unlike any other fictional detectives. It is not the determination of Morse, Tennison, Frost and Rebus that marks them out – Holmes was as purposeful. Nor is the loneliness their obsessive devotion to work brings unusual. Inspector Morse never finds a woman who will stay with him and Inspector Frost only has curries for company at night, but they are not so different from Philip Marlowe. Modern British detectives stand out because they have to deal with managers like no other.
Morse’s Chief Superintendent Strange and Frost’s Superintendent Mullett are not corrupt like so many police chiefs in American and Continental thrillers. They are good men by their own lights who would never take a bribe. Nor are they always plodders who rely on the brilliance of a Holmes or Poirot. When they need to curry favour, they reveal themselves as skilled office politicians.
But in pleasing their superiors they infuriate subordinates. In Winter Frost, RD Wingfield describes Mullett as a man who ‘makes a great show of pushing the pile of papers to one side’ when speaking to a colleague. He puts on his ‘tired, overworked, but my staff come first expression’ and parrots the latest management-speak to Liz, a new recruit.
‘”Teamwork, Inspector. That’s the key word. No cowboys, no Indians, no generals, no privates – all one big team.” These were the words the chief constable had used at yesterday’s meeting at which Mullett had nodded his fawning agreement. He was surprised that Liz didn’t seem to be doing the same.’
Frost and Liz must always watch their backs. From the chief superintendent to the chief constable, they can’t trust their managers to support them or help the victims of crime.
Inspector Frosts are all over the public sector and not only in the police. Paul Gregg, an economist at Bristol University, and his colleagues looked at who in the workforce was prepared to forgo their own self-interest by working unpaid overtime. They found the ‘public service ethos’ was not just propaganda from union leaders when the annual pay negotiations began. Among the teachers, doctors and nurses they studied, altruism and devotion to duty were far stronger in the public than the private sector.
They weren’t all saints. Many happily fiddled the incentive schemes Labour invented in the naive belief that they could micro-manage local services. But so many were prepared to work for nothing that Bristol University estimated the Treasury would need to pay for another 60,000 staff to cover for them if they decided to leave at the end of their shifts.
Despite the increases in taxation and national debt, Britain has not benefited from their selflessness. Labour sabotaged their altruism by overwhelming the public sector with legions of Mulletts.
Last week, Harriet Sergeant of Civitas described a police service which was close to incapable of doing its job. In a think-tank pamphlet, she delivered a devastating condemnation of an enclosed and self-referential bureaucracy which operated without regard to the wishes of the people who paid for it.
We now spend proportionately more than any other developed country on policing, she pointed out. The Home Office used targets to run it and delivered funding and bonuses to chief constables who filled its ‘sanction detention’ arrest quotas.
The first perverse consequence was that although the public expected the police to keep the peace, an officer who successfully stopped trouble was not rewarded because no trouble meant no arrests. More seriously, the police played the Home Office game by going for trivial offenders rather than serious criminals. Solving the case of a child who steals a Mars bar earned as many points as solving a murder. It made more sense to arrest rowdy children for ‘harassing a tree’ than to begin the hard work of tackling a potentially homicidal teenage gang.
Chris Dillow, author of New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism, describes Brown’s Mullettry as a marriage between Old Labour’s Fabian belief in the centralised state and Thatcherites’ worship of management consultants. Between them, they have spawned a bureaucracy which despises democratic accountability and, worse, does not and cannot work.
Fabianism, with its loathing for the masses – ‘We must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit in,’ declared George Bernard Shaw at the turn of the 20th century – is not the only Labour tradition. The Co-op and guild socialist movements were at ease with democracy as was radical liberalism. Last week, Phil Collins, an occasional speechwriter for James Purnell, suggested to the Brownites that Labour could find a way out of its crisis by listening to the Fabians’ liberal opponents. He cited a warning of Leonard Hobhouse, the early 20th-century liberal intellectual, that the ‘mechanical socialism’ of the Fabians ‘applauded the running of the machine merely because it is a machine and is being run’. Hobhouse might have delivered it yesterday.
Brown invited Collins to Downing Street to talk over his ideas. Maybe he is grasping the near-universal public dissatisfaction with what Labour has done in its name and with its money. If so, it’s too late.
‘Right,’ cries Frost to his officers as Mullett approaches. ‘Super’s going to say a few words. Try and look as if you’re paying attention.’
Within days of the Civitas pamphlet, the chief constables of Surrey, Staffordshire, Leicestershire and West Midlands showed they no longer even had to pretend to pay attention to Labour. They announced they were breaking with the Home Office and everything it stood for.
‘Quite simply, local people’s safety, confidence in police and their satisfaction when they call us for help are more important than misleading targets,’ explained the acting chief constable of Surrey. He would never have said that when Labour ministers were in the ascendancy. But he’s not frightened now because he knows that it’s over and the electorate’s target is to throw them out.