Another bold initiative? No change there, then

matthew parris

Freud was not the first to observe that, faced with some kind of an impasse, human beings tend to cast about for small jobs in which to busy themselves furiously. Nor was C. Northcote Parkinson the first to observe that human beings behave likewise when faced with a substantial lack of anything useful to do. Since long before Lady Macbeth washed her hands endlessly in the night, or a Prince of Wales threw himself into the intricacies of constructing a Royal Pavilion in Brighton, we have known that when there is nothing to be done, the urge to "do something" can produce strange results. But upon few is the imperative to act more regularly combined with an absence of any easily available plan for action than politicians. As I wrote last week in an article about the fad for pointless gestures of "decentralisation", politicians did not invent the avoidance mechanisms we recognise in their slippery answers or empty initiatives: we use them too. But they provide some of the worst and commonest examples of the trait.

Techniques of avoidance are not limited to words alone. Those in search of more artful forms of inactivity know that doing nothing is often best achieved not only by saying much, but by doing something, and doing it very energetically indeed. In recent years, and especially since the end of Margaret Thatcher's decade of real change, I have noticed the widespread use in business and in politics of a technique for sidestepping crunchpoints which is so persuasive that its practitioners can fool even themselves into thinking they have (as they would put it) "addressed" the problem. Far from being an excuse for inaction, the tactic takes the name of action. It sounds (as its practitioners would put it) "pro-active". It can even sound bold.

I call it the Mirage of Process. I mean fussing over the vehicle instead of choosing the destination. I mean the temptation -- when we suspect there is nothing to be done, or cannot think what should be done, or dare not say what should be done, or dare not do it -- to shift the action away from the decision itself, to the means by which a decision might be reached.

The Mirage of Process is the retreat into reorganisation, delegation, consultation or inquiry.

Beyond the rejigging of personnel, the reordering of lines of command and authority, rebranding, relaunching and the renaming of everything in sight, we now also have blue-skies thinkers, vision statements, mission statements, big-picture artists, charters, "aims and objects", targets, pledges, aspirations, goals, task forces, inquiries, "tsars", thinkers of the unthinkable and joiners-up of government. In one corner, and in the name of joined-up government, bureaucrats toil at stitching together the activities of differing arms of the executive; in another corner, and in the name of devolution, another band of bureaucrats are unstitching just as fast. Collectively they add up to a kind of perpetual fidget. The Freudian term is displacement activity.

In its simplest form, this retreat is familiar to anybody who, asked what is to be done, has replied that he must think very hard about it. A more sophisticated variant is to appoint someone else to think very hard about it. Even bolder in appearance is to sack the person currently thinking about it and bring in someone else.

But most cunning of all is to declare that we must be truly revolutionary: we must all rethink our whole approach to thinking -- and adopt new structures of decision-making, motivation and inquiry to facilitate this. We decide, in other words, to decide in a completely different way. This is advertised as decisive. Unbelievers who keep trying to drag the conversation back to what, when we have finished transforming our methods of decision-making, we shall actually decide, are regarded as having tediously missed the point.

That the decisions reached by new methods of deciding may in themselves be no less stale, or timid, or procrastinatory than the decisions reached by the old methods -- that, in other words, the product may be unchanged -- is overlooked in our wonder at the vigour and resolution with which the process has been changed. In the flurry of action and reaction, the energy of salesmanship and the often immense and time-consuming task of dismantling decision-making structures and institutions and rebuilding them along the new lines proposed, an impression is given -- not least by the politician to himself -- of dynamism.

Here, truly, we tell ourselves, is a reforming statesman. "When Dr Johnson said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel," an American senator once remarked, "he overlooked the immense possibilities of the word reform'".

As the Prime Minister suns himself in Vernet this summer he may honestly reflect that new Labour can make some claim to being, in that senator's sense, a reforming government. Challenged to rebut the charge that Tony Blair has been a timid and indecisive Prime Minister, his supporters can protest with genuine indignation that this is a pretty unfair criticism of a man who, in his first term alone, removed the hereditary principle from British politics, swept away one of our two Houses of Parliament and replaced it with something radically different, devolved to Scotland a huge measure of self-government, set up a new parliament there, pushed through devolution for Wales, set up a mayoralty for London, started work on mayoralties for a number of other cities, began work on regional governments for England and reformed procedures for conferring honours and creating life peerages.

All this he has done. It has raised much dust, generated a great deal of noise, and taken tremendous drive to accomplish. Only a still, small voice whispers that at the end of it all London still has a rotting transport system and no Crossrail, health outcomes from increasingly expensive health provision in Scotland remain a disgrace, Wales, under its new, turbocharged governance is barely distinguishable from Wales under the previous dispensation, the same kind of people still seem to be getting honours and reaching the House of Lords, and the new regional boards in England appear to have made little impact on anything we notice. Meanwhile, tsars, task forces and special cross-departmental teams come and go and the air is loud with the hammer and saw of new assemblies, parliaments and mayoral headquarters under construction.

Other noises, too, fill the air. There is the scratching of bureaucrats' pens as heavy rings are drawn around scores of Whitehall functions, and arrows redirecting them to Edinburgh or Cardiff inked in. There is the incessant sound of scissors as government departments are cut up into their constituent pieces, and the soft dab of the paste brush as bits of them are redistributed and stuck on to others.

From the remnants of the old Environment Department, John Prescott's new Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions arose, then disintegrated. Transport found its own exclusive envelope as a department in its own right -- which is where we came in under the Tories. Environment was glued on to Farming, the new name for Agriculture, as the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was shredded. I cannot remember where Fisheries and Food went, hopefully not into the bin.

Stuck with Environment alongside Farming was Rural Affairs, which had been spirited out of nowhere. Jobs departed from Employment, and reconstituted themselves in Work, alongside Pensions, which had been nicked from Social Security. Other bits of Employment attached themselves to Trade and Industry, on to which Energy (I think) had been stuck. Heritage disappeared. Lord Falconer of Thoroton kept popping up all over the place wearing new hats as the attempt to capture his role in words continued to elude us. Perhaps "the Lord Falconer's Department" would be best.

John Prescott was given a new department whose exact title and functions escapes me, and may escape him, as all the others have. There is a powerful case for simply creating a Department of John Prescott, giving him a big office and a uniform with gold braid, and leaving it at that.

This Government, in short, has been a management consultant's dream. Everything about British Widgets plc has been dissected, reorganised, revamped, reconsidered, restructured and relocated -- except for the humble widget itself: the product.

Nobody talks about the product any more. Tiptoe into a drinks reception in which consultants, politicians and marketing people are networking each other, and shout "The product! BOO!" -- and watch them throw themselves under tables, dive for the doors and leap from the windows.

Through all the ups and downs of the past 30 years in British politics I cannot remember a time before this one when less was changing, or greater change was being proclaimed.