Umm-onomics: The golden age of dithering

18 October 2016 -


As Big Ben goes silent, Professional Manager takes a look at how years of neglect and uncertainty has taken its toll on more than just the iconic London landmark

Simon Caulkin

One of the most recognisable sounds in the world, the bongs of Big Ben, have been an instant aural evocation of London for 150 years.

But, next year, wear and tear will accomplish something that has only happened a handful of times before, and that the Luftwaffe couldn’t manage in six years of war.

Next spring, the bongs will be off air for ‘several months’ as part of an urgent, three-year £29m repair programme to the clock hands, mechanism and pendulum, along with maintenance work on the tower.

There are other ways of saying ‘wear and tear’, of course, such as ‘complacency and expediency’ or ‘putting off the inevitable and being surprised at the results’.

The last time the clock was properly serviced was 1976, but the iconic tower is just a microcosm of the Palace of Westminster, which, as a whole, requires £7bn of repairs to prevent it subsiding gently into the Thames.

And don’t imagine this afflicts only the British body politic.

It has been evident for years that the UK’s steel industry, underinvested and overmanned, was a basket case in waiting. It’s true: energy costs are high – but that can hardly be blamed on someone else.

Only the UK, an island floating on oil, buffeted by wind and waves along 12,500km of coastline, 365 days a year, could have ended up commissioning back-up power plants using carbon-spewing diesel generators, and buying unimaginably expensive nuclear expertise from nationalised energy industries in France and China.

As for transport infrastructure, the prevailing British policy, as historian Correlli Barnett has mercilessly dissected, is dither.

Spain’s 3,000km of high-speed rail lines and France’s 2,000km compare with a UK total of just 109km, with more not due until the 2020s.

Paris constructed its Crossrail equivalent 40 years ago.

There is an economic case for building a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick, and an equally good one for doing neither and protecting our most timeless and arguably precious asset, the countryside.

But each year of indecision pushes up the cost and pushes down the value of the eventual compromise. But, as with the NHS, the UK doesn’t willingly do prevention, preferring reactive (and even more expensive) cure.

There’s a curious role reversal here. Since Margaret Thatcher abandoned traditional ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ pragmatism in the 1970s, Conservatism has stood for radical, ideology-driven change (schools, education and welfare), while Labour, terrified of challenging market thinking, is de facto the party of the status quo.

The parties now compete on which can be the most ‘business friendly’, with the perverse effect of making serious discussion of business reform a taboo (as Ed Miliband found in the 2015 election), and on micro-managing public and private services, which is both intrusive and ineffective.

Indeed, the counterpart to the management neglect of national symbols such as Big Ben is unnecessary meddling with institutions, or even icons, that do work, like the BBC.

Now, no one would claim the Beeb is perfect – far from it. And it does face significant issues, such as juggling global and domestic missions with staying innovative and competitive.

Yet it is a unifying and civilising influence that still reflects much of what we would like Britain to be admired for – including global brand recognition and huge reputational success.

Most people would probably judge that, like the Houses of Parliament, the BBC is worth conserving and enhancing, not cutting down to size.

Should ministers be using their time pondering the future of things such as jobs, housing or security – or that of Strictly Come Dancing ? Go figure.

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