Over at the Demos blog, Duncan O’Leary notices that several politicians have been invoking the metaphor of a house in order to convey whatever political point they wish to make that day. David Cameron’s renewal of the Tories is being built “brick by brick“, while Gordon Brown wants to raise educational standards by “raising the floor and removing the ceiling.”
I am reminded of how often it is that buildings are used as a by-word for institutions. We do not talk of the office of the Prime Minister: We say Number Ten. When we hear of interference from those next door, we hear of The Treasury. Either might incur the displeasure of The House of Commons. If a member of the Royal Family does something noteworthy, Buckingham Palace or Clarence House issues a statement. It is The Bank of England that rises interest rates. The United States’ Foreign Policy is conceived and implemented by, variously, The White House, Congress and The Pentagon.
These are all familiar, innocent, journalistic short-cuts, but they can be unhelpful. By embodying the institution in the building, they give the impression that these institutions are inpenetratable. It is as if to influence them, we would literally have to penetrate the six-foot thick walls. When we hear (as we so often do), of a feud between “Number Ten” and “The Treasury”, this conjures the idea of two megaliths colliding in a kinetic, titanic battle – Mere flesh and blood mortals do not stand a chance against them. In reality, the ‘clash’ is between less than half a dozen civil servants, men and women shorter and older than you or I, sending curt e-mails via Outlook Express. The Great Failures of the New Labour (read: Alastair Campell’s) spin machine, were precisely those instances where the facade of the institution crumbled, and the profoundly human cogs that drive the system were exposed. Jo Moore’s memo to “bury bad news” and the David Kelly affair are the most memorable examples of this.
A few years ago I spent a short time working for a think-tank in Westminster. One valuable lesson I learnt is that politics and governance are not a high-brow interactions between great institutions of State. It just a load of people wandering around corridors and pavements in the SW1A vicinity of Central London. Most people who spend time working in the ‘Westminster Village’ are already aware of this, but for a provincial suburbanite such as myself, it was a welcome revelation.
Often, ‘taking on the government’ need not mean a well-financed campaign planned with military precision. It just means getting the e-mail address of the civil servant who is best placed to help you: no battering ram required.