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Thinking things through: the lost art of politics

Friday 15 December 2006

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard is enraged by Government plans to close 2,500 mainly rural sub-post offices - but believes it was inevitable under an administration which never thinks of the future consequences of ill-advised decisions

LIKE hundreds of thousands of country folk, I was enraged by the Government's decision to close 2,500 mainly rural sub-post offices (i.e., offices in Conservative or Liberal Democrat parliamentary seats). But I wasn't in the least surprised.

Alistair darling
Trade Minister Alistair Darling
betrays countryfolk in rush
to close rural Post Offices

For I have long realised that this administration, most of whom previously had never run anything more important than a university debating society, have never come to grasp the Law of Unforeseen Circumstances, the LUFC (with apologies to Leeds United Football Club).

Because, in the past ten years, New Labour has systematically and deliberately undermined the expertise of senior civil servants and replaced them with special political advisers, so they have never had a Sir Humphrey figure to think long-term about the unintended consequences of policy decisions which seemed alright at the time.

Sir Humphrey, the senior adviser to Jim Hacker in the brilliant parliamentary farce Yes, Prime Minister, may have stymied lots of the vacuous politician's hare-brained schemes. But he did manage to steer his hapless boss away from the pitfalls which otherwise would have driven some very sharp stakes into his unprotected nether regions.

Sometimes the LUFC can have hilarious results. It was Tony Blair himself who introduced new legislation to tighten up the laws on political corruption. Now, he could be the very first person to be charged with it in the loans-for-honours scandal.

Sometimes it is more serious. New Labour also introduced new laws to prevent British companies handing out bribes to win overseas contracts. The result is that the Serious Fraud Office, which has won only one serious case in its history, is investigating allegations that British Aerospace (as it then was) set up a slush fund for the Saudi Royal Family some 20 years ago, allegations the company rigorously denies.

Result: we could now lose export orders for billions of pounds and thousands of highly-skilled jobs to the French, thanks to President Chirac, who is himself under investigation for bribery (from the receiving end, of course).

Sometimes, however, the LUFC can be fatally wrong. By spending billions to buy Eurofighter aircraft to dog-fight with Russian fighters from a Warsaw Pact alliance that no longer exists, the Treasury cut back on infantry battalions (including the Yorkshire Dales' very own Duke of Wellington's Regiment) just when boots on the ground have become the most important weapon in the war against terrorism.

They even bought cheap bullets which jammed our lad's guns in Afghanistan. So brave men are actually dying because politicians were too thick to listen to the advice of professional soldiers, considered by many to be the best in the world.

Blair's Government has relentlessly stripped from the post office the transactions which made sub-post offices viable

What has this got to do with rural post offices? Well LUFC applies here in spades, despite Tony Blair having the effrontery this week to blame their decline on country folk who no longer used them.

There may be some truth in that - but whose fault was it? The fact of the matter is that Blair's Government has relentlessly stripped from the post office the transactions which made sub-post offices viable - just. In the past few years, I went out of my way to take my business to no fewer than three such offices - and they all closed one by one.

Reason: they provided little I needed. I could buy my stamps from my local newspaper shop; I could no longer tax my car there or even buy a fishing licence. Huge pressure was put on pensioners and welfare benefit recipients to have them paid straight into the bank and the Post Office Card scheme - which is to be retained after the public outcry - was so complicated that thousands of legitimate claimants gave up trying to apply.

I suspect that , last night, the many bars and tea rooms in the Houses of Parliament were full of New Labour politicians twiddling their thumbs and muttering, "Dearie, dearie me - how ever did the Post Office get into such a mess." At least, that's what the thickies will be saying.

But, in my deep cynicism grown over decades of dealing with politicians, I wouldn't be surprised if there were others chortling up their sleeves. After all, most of the 2,500 doomed PO branches are in rural constituencies. As are the maternity hospitals and A&E units threatened with the axe; and the dozens of rural road improvements which have been cancelled.

Let's not forget, too, the tens of thousands of English farmers still waiting for their 2005 EU grants. These people do not tend to vote Labour en masse - so who cares how they are treated?

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