Week 2. Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government #POLU9UK

I want you to think about the simple presentation of complex thought.

  • How do we turn a world which seems infinitely complex into an explanation which describes that world in a few minutes or seconds?
  • How do we choose the information on which to focus, at the expense of all other information, and generate support for that choice?
  • How do we persuade other people to act on that information?

To that end, this week we focus on two stories of politics, and next month you can use these questions to underpin your coursework.

Imagine the study of British politics as the telling of policymaking stories.

We can’t understand or explain everything about politics. Instead, we turn a complex world into a set of simple stories in which we identify, for example, the key actors, events and outcomes. Maybe we’ll stick to dry description, or maybe we’ll identify excitement, heroes, villains, and a moral. Then, we can compare these tales, to see if they add up to a comprehensive account of politics, or if they give us contradictory stories and force us to choose between them.

As scholars, we tell these stories to help explain what is happening, and do research to help us decide which story seems most convincing. However, we also study policymakers who use such stories to justify their action, or the commentators using them to criticise the ineffectiveness of those policymakers. So, one intriguing and potentially confusing prospect is that we can tell stories about policymakers (or their critics) who tell misleading stories!

Remember King Canute (Cnut)

King Canute


If you’re still with me, have a quick look at Hay’s King Canute article (or my summary of it). Yes, that’s right: he got a whole article out of King Canute. I couldn’t believe it either. I was gobsmacked when I realised how good it was too. For our purposes, it highlights three things:

  1. We’ll use the same shorthand terms – ‘Westminster model’, ‘complex government’ – but let’s check if we tell the same stories in the same way.
  2. Let’s check if we pick the same moral. For example, if ministers don’t get what they want, is it because of bad policymaking or factors outside of their control? Further, are we making empirical evaluations and/or moral judgements?
  3. Let’s identify how policymakers tell that story, and what impact the telling has on the outcome. For example, does it help get them re-elected? Does the need or desire to present policymaking help or hinder actual policymaking? Is ‘heresthetic’ a real word?

The two stories

This week, we’ll initially compare two stories about British politics: the Westminster Model and Complex Government. I present them largely as contrasting accounts of politics and policymaking, but only to keep things simple at first.

One is about central control in the hands of a small number of ministers. It contains some or all of these elements, depending on who is doing the telling:

  1. Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government.
  2. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Another is about the profound limits to the WM:

  1. No-one seems to be in control. The huge size and reach of government, the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making, the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy, the multi-level nature of policymaking, and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other, all contribute to this perception.
  2. If elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get top-down government.

What is the moral of these stories?

For us, a moral relates to (a) how the world works or should work, (b) what happens when it doesn’t work in the way we expect, (c) who is to blame for that, and/ or (d) what we should do about it.

For example, what if we start with the WM as a good thing: you get strong, decisive, and responsible government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. If it doesn’t quite work out like that, we might jump straight to pragmatism: if elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get strong and decisive government, it makes little sense to blame elected policymakers for things outside of their control, and so we need more realistic forms of accountability (including institutional, local, and service-user).

Who would buy that story though? We need someone to blame!

Yet, things get complicated when you try to identify a moral built on who to blame for it:

There is a ‘universal’ part of the story, and it is difficult to hold a grudge against the universe. In other words, think of the aspects of policymaking that seem to relate to limitations such as ‘bounded rationality’. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy. Consequently, there is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence, often summed up by the term governance rather than government. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government. Or, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them.

There is UKspecific part of the story, but it’s difficult to blame policymakers that are no longer in government. UK Governments have exacerbated the ‘governance problem’, or the gap between an appearance of central control and what central governments can actually do. A collection of administrative reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. Examples include privatisation, civil service reforms, and the use of quangos and non-governmental organisations to deliver policies. Further, a collection of constitutional reforms has shifted power up to the EU and down to devolved and regional or local authorities.

How do policymakers (and their critics) tell these stories, how should they tell them, and what is the effect in each case?

Let’s see how many different stories we can come up with, perhaps with reference to specific examples. Their basic characteristics might include:

  • Referring primarily to the WM, to blame elected governments for not fulfilling their promises or for being ineffectual. If they are in charge, and they don’t follow through, it’s their fault linked to poor judgement.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, but still blaming ministers. Yes, there are limits to central control but it’s up to ministers to overcome them.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, and blaming other people. Ministers gave you this task, so why didn’t you deliver?
  • Referring to CG, and blaming more people. Yes, there are many actors, but why the hell can’t they get together to fix this?
  • Referring to CG and wondering if it makes sense to blame anyone in particular. It’s the whole damn system! Government is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

In broader terms, let’s discuss what happens when our two initial stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support.

For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?

The answer, I think, is that they try out lots of solutions at the same time:

  • They try to deliver as many manifesto promises as possible, and the manifesto remains a key reference point for ministers and civil servants.
  • They often deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by making quick emotional and moral choices about ‘target populations’ before thinking through the consequences
  • In cases of ‘low politics’ they might rely on policy communities and/ or seek to delegate responsibility to other public bodies
  • In cases of ‘high politics’, they need to present an image of governing competence based on central control, so they intervene regularly
  • Sometimes low politics becomes high politics, and vice versa, so they intervene on an ad hoc basis before ignoring important issues for long periods.
  • They try to delegate and centralise simultaneously, for example via performance management based on metrics and targets.

We might also talk, yet again, about Brexit. If Brexit is in part a response to these problems of diminished control, what stories can we identify about how ministers plan to take it back? What, for example, are the Three Musketeers saying these days? And how much control can they take back, given that the EU is one small part of our discussion?

Illustrative example: (1) troubled families

I can tell you a quick story about ‘troubled families’ policy, because I think it sums up neatly the UK Government’s attempt to look in control of a process over which it has limited influence:

  • It provides a simple story with a moral about who was to blame for the riots in England in 2011: bad parents and their unruly children (and perhaps the public sector professionals being too soft on them).
  • It sets out an immediate response from the centre: identify the families, pump in the money, turn their lives around.
  • But, if you look below the surface, you see the lack of control: it’s not that easy to identify ‘troubled families’, the government relies on many local public bodies to get anywhere, and few lives are actually being ‘turned around’.
  • We can see a double whammy of ‘wicked problems’: the policy problem often seems impervious to government action, and there is a lack of central control of that action.
  • So, governments focus on how they present their action, to look in control even when they recognise their limits.

Illustrative example: (2) prevention and early intervention

If you are still interested by this stage, look at this issue in its broader context, of the desire of governments to intervene early in the lives of (say) families to prevent bad things happening. With Emily St Denny, I ask why governments seem to make a sincere commitment to this task but fall far shorter than they expected. The key passage is here:

“Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems (Rittell and Webber, 1973) which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution”.

Group exercise.

Here is what I’ll ask you to do this week:

  • Describe the WM and CG stories in some depth in your groups, then we’ll compare your accounts.
  • Think of historical and contemporary examples of decision-making which seem to reinforce one story or the other, to help us decide which story seems most convincing in each case.
  • Try to describe the heroes/ villains in these stories, or their moral. For example, if the WM doesn’t explain the examples you describe, what should policymakers do about it? Will we only respect them if they refuse to give up, like Forest Gump or the ‘never give up, never surrender’ guy in Galaxy Quest? Or, if we would like to see pragmatic politicians, how would we sell their behaviour as equally heroic?


Filed under POLU9UK, public policy, UK politics and policy

2 responses to “Week 2. Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government #POLU9UK

  1. Pingback: Some rubbish cultural references for lecturers | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Writing a policy paper and blog post #POLU9UK | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s