I do not often run ad hominem attacks on public servants. It is often hard to distinguish between their personal failings and those of the system which they work in and, for the most part, it would be like criticising the dog because his treadmill malfunctions, or beating one of those bovine creatures who push a pole round a well because the water dries up. We employ whole offices of people like that – whole departments of state in the case of DEFRA or the Home Office – and can’t really complain because dull unthinking drudges perform dull unthinking tasks in dull unthinking ways.
Politicians are different, of course. They solicit our votes by their claims to competence, honesty and personal charm, and if Ed Balls fails on all three counts, it is proper to say so. Caroline Flint cares about us all so much, but we don’t care for her and I hope she knows it (although she, of course, has more in common, intellectually speaking, with the pole than with the ox which pushes it, and may not notice the general air of mockery and contempt which attends her every pronouncement).
Generally, however, we are not really concerned with the individuals who crawl around the bottom of the public service pond. In any event the whole thing is constructed to ensure that no-one is ever responsible for anything, so it is hard to identify, still less attack, the particular drone who is to blame.
Every so often, however, some public servant invites personal opprobrium. The context is usually either an attempt to extend the scope of whatever law or regulation they seek to impose, or is a copybook example of a generalised attitude which so perfectly illustrates the generality that it has to be quoted.
One which fits both categories is my post called Dim Scum fights Fat Buddha in Durham about Tracey Ingle of Durham City Council, of whom I said that she appears to embody in one person a sizable chunk of the rot which pervades this country – political correctness, unthinking officialdom, prejudice founded on ignorance, the contempt of public servants towards business, and the barely-literate use of weasel words which fail to give a logical backing to her whining. She had no power to compel the owner of the Fat Buddha Restaurant to change his restaurant’s name, but tried to bully him into doing so for reasons which had neither legal nor intellectual force.
Every day some jumped-up little drone has a go at extending their powers like this. That has been my most-read post on this blog. Another popular one is The spirit of the smoking ban about Gillian Taylor of Windsor and Maidenhead Council who tried to force a pub to close its windows because smoke from smokers outside the pub might (note that “might”) drift in through them. This, Taylor said, was to ensure compliance with the spirit of the smoking ban. My observation was that there was “quite enough actual law without jumped-up nobodies adding ‘the spirit of the legislation’”.
My third example is a new one on my Oxford Inciter blog (Oxfordshire transport head on High horse ) where Steve Howell, the Head of Transport at Oxfordshire County Council lost the anonymity which I usually afford to the useless little men of Oxfordshire Highways. My general complaint that this is a wasteful and incompetent bunch of people, with no idea of traffic management and less about highways strategy, states no more than the general view, but my main anger is directed at the way they ruin the appearance of the city with their signs, poles and railings.
I said of one of their efforts (Signs obscuring the sights of Oxford) that this is not just ugly stupidity, it is the act of someone who lacks any sensitivity, any sense of place or any appreciation of beautiful things. The uncultured oaf who did this, the dim, dull-witted plodder who stuck up all these notices, has no idea what he is ruining.
What has lost Howell his anonymity is a letter he wrote to the Oxford Times last week which proves my point exactly. Responding to criticisms of his department’s treatment of the High Street, he said that he resents the undertones that that we are cold and unfeeling towards the heritage of the High Street and its status as an Oxford gem.
“Undertones” does not begin to describe the hatred which their treatment of the city inspires, and “cold and unfeeling” seriously under-rates the depth of the criticism. Howell’s inability to understand this, or why people should feel this way about him, is worse than the dull, plodding stupidity of Tracey Ingle at Durham and Gillian Taylor in Maidenhead. In both those cases, the targets of their whining were able to tell the over-bearing cows to sod off. We cannot do that with Howell and his bunch of ignorant vandals, who will continue to wreck the appearance of the city. Howell’s letter proves my contention that these people are not merely indifferent to what they are destroying but are too thick, too stupid and too uncultured to see what they are doing.
For the most part, public service comprises herds of low-calibre people doing their dull unnecessary jobs from GCSE to well-pensioned early retirement, and nothing is generally to be gained by mentioning them by name. It is important to remember, however, that all these decisions – harassing a business because its name is offensive to ignorant ears, or in defence of the “spirit of the legislation”, or cluttering a magnificent streetscape with metal poles, are decisions made by flesh-and-blood people.
Tracey Ingle’s letter to the Fat Buddha’s owner may have been barely-literate nonsense uninformed by any knowledge of the subject or any intelligent thought, but it was a deliberate exercise of her powers (although not, as it turned out, within her authority). Steve Howell and his dim cohorts look on a beautiful street, unchanged in essentials for centuries, and deliberately decide that it is appropriate to dump tons of metal and plastic in the middle of the vista. We can’t stop him, but we can certainly pillory him by name for his actions.