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Saturday, April 20, 2024
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March of the red tape brigade

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The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws – Tacitus

I’M always fascinated by how small, non-profit, social enterprises begin – and how they inexorably end up. Take an amateur theatre. A group of enthusiastic thespians get together to put on plays in the village hall or scout hut. Everybody mucks in choosing a play, casting each other, allocating one as a benign, overseeing director, building and painting a kind of set, sewing some costumes together, sourcing the props and furniture. It expands, with new people joining, and before you know it there is specialisation of labour – someone becomes Treasurer, another Secretary, there’s Box Office, Wardrobe, etc. Very soon, those positions acquire their own importance, certainly in the eyes of the occupiers. Politics and territory raise their heads. People fall out and storm out. Administration and attendant bureaucracy have appeared from nowhere and acquired their own reality, even casting into the shadows the original aspiration, which was simply to enjoy putting on plays. Something ‘much more important’ has manifested. Something totally unproductive.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the life of Florence Nightingale. Credited with inventing the nursing profession, she soon fell out with it as the monster of bureaucracy appeared. To her dying day, she maintained that character was the most important qualification for a good nurse, not education, registration or certification. Today, a nurse has to have a degree to be called a nurse. Bottoms and bandages come second (or not at all). In this paradigm shift, the most important element in recovery and healing can all too easily be neglected – the raising of the spirit. Today’s hospital is a factory. The patient is the temporary and rather inconvenient occupant of a much-needed bed. In her Notes on Nursing, Nightingale stresses the power of fresh flowers in the healing process. Significantly but unsurprisingly, they’re banned from today’s wards. Who banned them? You won’t identify the culprit. It would have been decided by a committee, that favourite tool of bureaucracy, where joint decisions mean no individual is responsible for anything, or even traceable.

The malaise of bureaucracy was always staring us in the face, but it was easier to avert our eyes. I remember soon after we joined the Common Market in the 1970s, a friend planted a potato crop in his own private field for his own private consumption. Unfortunately, the size of the field brought it under Common Market rules and he was instructed to plough his potatoes back into the soil. To this day, I believe, despite our having ‘left the EU’, fishing in our own waters beyond quota involves throwing dead fish, a valuable food source, back into the sea.

When did a label on every apple become the norm? When did a jar of thyroxine tablets get replaced by blister strips accompanied by a mandatory printed and folded leaflet in a cardboard box? My mum used to send me to the greengrocers with a grubby, old canvas carrier, into which were loaded loose potatoes, onions and a cabbage. Tomatoes were weighed and loose-wrapped in a brown paper bag (the brown paper was sometimes kept for treatment of bruises with vinegar added, still the best-known cure).

Administration starts as the servant of creativity, decision and productivity, but if unchecked can soon become the master. There is no more poignant example of this than the Civil Service, there to carry out the policy-setting of Parliament, but instead telling politicians what they can’t do. Or spotty junior administrators setting productivity targets for university academics, often based on student ‘feedback’. (You can hardly blame students, by the way, for going along with this strident attitude of ‘value for money’, when they’re clobbered by tuition fees instead of receiving free education subject only to stringent examination and entrance criteria.)

The ghastliness of the Holocaust owes almost as much to Nazi bureaucracy as to the malice of Hitler. The Jews and gypsies were cast as subhuman fodder, and their killing reduced to an administrative process. Such is the banality of evil, the end point of unfettered bureaucracy. It is what we’re seeing manifesting once more in today’s world. The faceless, lifeless, empathy-lacking march of the law-making administrators, trampling roughshod on our freedoms and effectively locking us up.

If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, we have to see administration for what it is – a potential cancer that will grow exponentially until it consumes the host. So eternal vigilance means keeping it as a servant, on minimum rations, stamping on its growth, identifying it as unproductive, and therefore constantly testing its necessity. I speak metaphorically and impersonally – a good, efficient, minimal administration may be necessary, but never, ever in charge. Of anything.  

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John Drewry
John Drewry
John Drewry has a background in marketing, owning and chairing an advertising agency for many years. He also holds an Equity card as a stage director and actor, and is Patron & Presenter for the Nursing Memorial Appeal.

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