Government today costs 40 per cent more in real terms than it did thirty years ago

By Richard Lofthouse

Congratulations to Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon, whose book 'A Government that Worked Better and Cost Less?' (OUP, 2015) has been given this year's Louis Brownlow Book Award.

OxfordThe Brownlow Award is the top book prize in the field of public administration. Hood is an emeritus fellow at All Souls; Dixon an Associate Member of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations. Hopefully to be the object of a more discriminating follow-up at Oxford Today, I can share the most simplified summary. Apparently Britain, far more than any other country anywhere, has embraced what Hood previously called ‘New Public Management.’ That means bringing private sector performance processes (tests, measurements, efficiencies, competition) into the public sector. The authors deploy clever techniques to assess the outcome of this grand experiment over thirty years. The results will amuse you. Government today costs 40% more in real terms than it did thirty years ago, and there are more complaints, over and above the broad increase in the public’s appetite for moaning. Of course there are caveats, many in fact. But the book, which is slender at 228 pages (contrary to what you might assume), has been hailed as brilliant and will surely be mandatory Christmas reading for any currently serving Member of Parliament. The broad point it makes will support critics such as the philosopher John Gray, who have long noted the irony of the ever-increasing state, in order to ‘roll it back.’  

Other books to note in quick succession. Melanie King has written a delightful, diminutive stocking filler account of Tea, Coffee and Chocolate, using Bodleian archives. The story of these three beverages, all of which came to England in the mid-seventeenth century, is worth retelling. When I say ‘stocking filler’ I don’t mean slight or under researched, just lovely. 

Another Bodleian Library Publishing title that will delight gardeners, not least for its illustrations: A Shakespearian Botanical by Margaret Willes. The contents are arranged by flower, so you can plumb entries on Rosemary, on Roses, and so forth. Willes will be pleased to get in ahead of the publishing scrum that will attend the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death next April.


Next, the indefatigable Barry Cunliffe has whacked out another amazing, simply amazing volume By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean a ten millennia sweep of Eurasia and not at all like the history you did at Oxford, despite being by the Emeritus Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford. Maybe things have changed! A typical entry: The Assyrian Empire: Its Rise and Fall, 900-612 BC. At the end of this you’ll know –if you don’t already- why so many people are distraught at ISIL iconoclasm.

Dr JohnsonTwo more. The first by Lynda Mugglestone, who considers the history of lexicography through Samuel Johnson. Mugglestone is professor of the History of English and a fellow at Pembroke; the book Samuel Johnson and the Journey into Words is delightful.

Finally, the hoary old tale of Rover Group, AKA British Leyland, and the factory in Cowley, where today’s BMW MINI is made. Mike Gould, author of The Rover Group Company and Cars 1986-2000 (The Crowood Press, 2015) worked at the company throughout those years and offers an insider’s view. When BMW bought its ‘English patient’ in March 1994, little did it know that six years later it would be left with nothing but MINI (upper caps don’t you know!). The fact that very few former or current Oxonians have ever been out to this now very successful manufacturing site merely heaps salt on the legacy wounds that Gould narrates with such gusto. Two episodes leap off the page. When BMW bought Rover, they were so respectful of its ‘Britishness’ that they initially left it to its devices. This was naïve. The company was already a wreck, and Britishness, by then, was reduced to putting “a few bits of wood” in a Honda (as one journalist put it, referring to platform sharing Rover already had with the Japanese company). This German preoccupation with Britishness still survives today in the endless fiddling with the MINI, the third generation of which has ‘comedy’ rear lights bigger than Oxford’s ring road. The second episode is the day that BMW launched the Rover 75 at the Birmingham Motor Show in 1998. By lunchtime it was hailed as a huge success. By teatime BMW CEO Pischetsrieder had torpedoed everything following a bad chat with the Unions, angrily suggesting to journalists that if those negotiations were to fail, “Then there is no future for Rover.” As Gould recalls, “For a moment there was a stunned silence then the sound of journalists rushing to the four corners of the room to contact their news desks.” From there, it was a hop, skip and jump to bankruptcy in 2005, via the Phoenix consortium who bought it for a tenner in 2000, minus Mini and Land Rover, the latter going to Ford. It’s a nice account if you like a large format book and loads of archival pictures of cars you’re embarrassed you owned twenty years ago, like the Austin Maxi.



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