COVID-19 brought to light an unacknowledged but widely recognised truth – the Western model of government is incompetent and unwilling to look beyond a limited ideological window. “The dreadful fact which has burst, uninvited, into the salons of right-minded discourse, shattering the Overton window. It’s the fact that failure in the face of COVID-19 was bipartisan. It was universal. It was unanimous. The so-called ‘Trump administration’ failed. The media-industrial complex failed. The conservative media apparatus, its purported counterweight, has likewise failed. The FDA: failed. The experts, failed. The circus of American politics? Failed. And the apparatus behind it, which does the alleged work of governance, has also failed. That ‘the whole machine has failed’ is irrefutable reality”.
It brought to the foreground what government and politics has become in the 21st century – a series of committees and epistemic communities with workarounds in the form of backroom dealing and pork-barrel politicking. PPE and test-and-trace contracts done on the fly. A complete disconnect between central and regional governments, whether in Britain’s three tier COVID restrictions or America’s lack of central direction under either the Trump or Biden administrations. The only time central governments were able to form “coherent” policy was in the implementation of vaccine passports, which proved to be extremely unpopular and functionally unworkable unless you made a huge segment of the working population unemployed.
COVID only foregrounded this though. It already existed, deeply entrenched in the fabric of government. The Johnson government’s PPE contracting was done with firms like Serco, G4S and KPMG (a who’s who of security contractors and management consultants) who “have become an external arm of the Government – running public services it can’t or won’t”. These companies and others like them already run prison services, healthcare management, telephone services for government departments and transport services (like speed camera maintenance and railways).
It also exposed the commitological nature of modern government, its reliance on confected expertise and a narrow Overton Window. The SAGE committee was central to the government’s institution of lockdown and maintained a bullish view of the efficacy of policies around restrictions. This led to the production of absurd modelling and subsequent recommendations on how to tackle the Omicron variant.
But this is the norm rather than the exception. The prevailing governing model of Western countries, particularly the US and UK, has been technocratic economic governance – the depoliticisation of decision-making in favour of expert groups, conciliatory committees and the now-fashionable hubs (whose “specific role is not to command, but to enable its varying stakeholders to carry on with their work”). However, depoliticisation can only do so much when the status quo is under such incredible strain.
Politicians cannot delegate responsibility when delegation achieves nothing more than staying the course. When there is widespread anger over immigration levels into the UK or when red and blue political tribes have fundamentally irreconcilable views on how their country should be governed, a committee or external body can neither gauge nor deal with that anger. It is the job of a politician to route that anger into meaningful action yet they are unable due both to inability and to the disparate form of governance we have, with any interest group or bloc able to curtail action.
Woodward’s description of the Trump administration was that a confected populist narrative produced by Trump and his election campaigners being side-lined and diminished by White House officials and advisors in what was described as an administrative coup d’état. Such hyperbole misunderstands what it actually was, the mask falling off of modern government. Government now is a coalition of interest groups, from the leader and their acolytes to their opponents in the assemblies or the bureaucracy. Arguments over trade and immigration were microcosms of a larger debate between socio-economic liberalism and nationalism/mercantilism. Trump, Navarro and Bannon on one side. Cohn and Porter on the other. Such palace intrigue though is the norm.
Suella Braverman’s tepid plans to limit immigration cannot pass through government, as each interest group picks it apart until there is nothing left. The whole-of-government approach being advocated is another way of saying “we won’t do anything”. Every bill that now passes through congress, whether its on national security, economic recovery packages or the wider budget, becomes an omnibus bill as every congressperson and lobbyist carves out their piece.
This is the future, paralytic governments unable to do anything other than delegate responsibility to a commission or a stakeholder so that pressing matters like immigration, industrial policy or state capacity are kicked into the long grass. States, when they do act, will only maintain the barebones of our welfare-warfare state, always finding money for pension entitlements, ballooning healthcare and “defence spending” (more arms to Ukraine or another Middle Eastern excursion). Government doesn’t really exist. Instead we have disparate interests brought together to reach a compromise. The primary aim is conciliation and preventing action that goes beyond the bounds of the Overton window ever happening. Think of a term like the “centre-ground”. It is an abstraction that politicians can pontificate on when they make the case that reducing immigration or re-industrialising the economy would unsettle the centre. This is government, a corpse that is only resurrected when nothing needs to be done.
 Bob Woodward, Fear