Sunday, March 16, 2008

 

Top Blair Aide defends Sofa Government

Fascinating article in Guardian's Saturday magazine by Ian Katz on Jonathan Powell's relationship with Tony Blair. I once interviewed Jonathan's 14 years older brother, Charles, Thatcher's panjandrum of an aide who had special responsibility for foreign affairs. Charles was a superb interviewee and pleasingly indiscreet but when I pressed him on his brother and similar things, he replied 'Jonathan won't say anything about his work; he's like a Trappist monk'. So finding this extended article by Katz was a rare delight. One possible reason for his vow of silence might be his tendency, by his own admission, to say rather stupid things:

"Sometimes I say things which are extremely plonkerish at just the wrong moment... which is one of the reasons they kept me away from the press. It would've been a complete disaster if I'd have talked to the papers."

It's a long piece which I recommend but the section which caught my eye particularly, was his defence of sofa government. This tendency of Blair- and Thatcher before him- to gather key aides and officials to discuss specific problems has been much criticised by the mandarins, especially Lord (Robin) Butler who even saw fit to take a swipe at it in his 2004 report on Intelligence on WMD(p160). Powell is quite unapologetic:

I'm completely unrepentant about sofa government... having a formal meeting of cabinet does not make a decision or a discussion any better than having an informal decision and discussion in a group. The key is to have the right people in the discussion and make sure their views are aired and then the right decision is reached... Criticising us just because we did it in the one office rather than the other office, doing it informally rather than formally, strikes me as not fair."

With respect Jonathan, I think you rather(deliberately?) miss the point. Firstly, such meetings were often not minuted and so did not provide a paper trail of the kind all government organisations need to function efficiently. Secondly, as Butler points out, such groupings are selective and reduce the 'scope for informed collective political judgement'. The Cabinet is there to apply its collective judgement to the major problems of the day; shunting it into a siding and adopting informal procedures is no way to govern the country.

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