Sunday, 19 December 2010

Working towards the Führer

Tory MP Nicholas Boles recently criticised central planning and called for local government planning to be replaced by ‘chaos’. Bole’s revelations draw alarming parallels with the power structures of Nazi Germany.

There are obvious conceptual obstacles to comparing Nazi Germany to our contemporary democracy – namely the Holocaust – but it does provide a useful analytical framework for understanding modern bureaucracy. Structuralist historians such as Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen view Nazi Germany as a polycratic shambles of rival bureaucracies in perpetual power struggles. This doesn’t seem far removed from what Boles is suggesting – albeit the polycratic structures will encompass voluntary and private sector bodies too. Either way, it leads to convoluted and divided government.

Structuralists argue that Nazi bureaucracy was sophisticated and complex but, rather than emanating from detailed central authority, Hitler governed through suggestion rather than directive. Ian Kershaw developed the theory of “working toward the Führer”. This theory maintains that subordinates were charged with anticipating and interpreting Hitler’s wishes rather than formulating policy from detailed protocols. The role of the bureaucracy was to interpret perceived wishes, or to create policy from Hitler’s often loose and indistinctly phrased wishes.

A key parallel here is Cameron’s ‘big society’ which defined his General Election campaign and continues to underwrite government policy. Yet most Tories – not to mention the public – seem confused as to what the ‘big society’ actually means. Cameron has created an indistinct phrase which he now expects ministers to formulate into coherent policy.

In the case of Nazi Germany, the result of constant competition between different power structures saw the radicalisation of the regime. This is seen most obviously in the evolution of anti-Semitism. Now, it would be dangerous to equate modern democratic structures with those of Nazi Germany, but there are similarities with the interaction of power. David Cameron has created a vague but powerful idea that the whole of government needs to save money and reduce the size of the state. As a result, departments compete to find bigger savings and reduce more services.

Structuralist historians hold that the competition between departments fostered egotism. This is also echoed in the current situation and has been amplified by the presence of the Lib Dems within government. Over recent months, Lib Dem ministers have been given far more airtime than their government numbers warrant. Usually the government minister defending cuts or tuition fees has been a Lib Dem – either Danny Alexander or Vince Cable – and high profile Tories – such as Cameron and Osborne – have been relatively quiet. The reason Lib Dems have such a high profile is multi-layered. Firstly, they are competing for profile. They have to justify undermining party policy by being perceived to be driving government policy. Secondly, as the focal point for announcements they become the focal point for dissent. Responsibility is displaced from the Tories to the Lib Dems. Indeed, the whole ‘big society’ can be seen as an attempt to devolve responsibility from the state to the individual. Cameron still sets the tone of debate and change, but he won’t be blamed if anything goes wrong.

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