It’s a strange thing to watch the gradual erosion of respect for institutions in England, where I’ve lived most of my adult life.
Published: 9 January 2024
I am no revolutionary, but it’s happened to me too.
I had no training whatsoever when in the late 1960s I took up my first proper job as a teacher in a Cambridge further education college, charged with teaching English and Liberal Studies.
I thought my purpose would be to impart knowledge, but quickly found that I was supposed to be miraculously persuading teenage males to think like left-inclined humanities graduates.
The people who taught them about plumbing and bricklaying used to beg me to teach the kids to spell and punctuate. I agreed, but that conflicted with the views of the head, who seemed to have adopted wholesale the let-it-all-hang out beliefs of a late-1960s liberal. Discipline was so yesterday.
I escaped after a year, convinced that educational standards were on the slide, and resolved never to try school teaching again.
Academia seemed more attractive, so I became a postgraduate, but having started out with a reverential view of Cambridge, I was disappointed to find many of the fellows more preoccupied with silly point-scoring in college politics than scholarship.
And then almost all colleges were reserved for men.
I decided I would expire from claustrophobia if I stayed there, so I abandoned my PhD and sought a career in business, about which I knew absolutely nothing. It rapidly became clear that there was little appetite in private industry to recruit women, particularly if we were — were in the rather odd excuse they used — ‘over-qualified’.
So I joined the Post Office. It was that or Inland Revenue.
The problem there was that I was in HQ, which was full of people with long commutes who hated their jobs, and everyone seemed consumed with resentment about the promotion system. And that was where I came across what is horrifying people today: the private prosecution system that operated on a rule of secrecy and fear.
I remember the instructions not to speak to anyone under investigation. They just disappeared.
Today, I came across a quotation from the novelist Victor Hugo that summed up what happens to institutions that police themselves. “When God desires to destroy a thing, he entrusts its destruction to the thing itself. Every bad institution of this world ends by suicide.”
That’s been a problem with the police too.
I was rescued by an open competition for the lowest rung of the senior civil service, and revelled in the sheer quality of many people I met there, and the commitment of so many of them to integrity and public service.
Though even there, it worried me that there was so little understanding of the real world. And that people used to mention the Home Office as a catastrophe that no one sane should ever think of entering.
But what made me take the leap into the uncertain life of freelance writing was that I found composing speeches for politicians demoralising and depressing and met too many people who hated the policies they had to defend.
And now we’ve seen institutions taken over by the woke nonsense focused on narcissistic identity politics and worshipped like a religion.
That all sounds deeply pessimistic, but I’m not. We have many decent institutions which, like our monarchy, deserve to be preserved — but not in aspic. Their workers have to break free of ideologues and remember their simple purpose is to do their jobs well and serve society.
That also involves challenging madness. And abandoning the constant demand for perfect leaders of exceptional vision and ability.
Here’s another good quote, this time from Peter Drucker, one of the sanest ever business writers. “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”
It’s true of politics too.