Grandeur of desperation: A bit of a historical, and present, red flag | Frederick


Last December, I bought – and read over the Christmas period – a copy of Parkinson’s Law, or the Pursuit of Progress, a collection of essays published in 1958 by English historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson. He wrote many books on a variety of topics but this one is his most renowned and best-selling.

The preface of the book drew me in, and likely many others, with a refreshing disclaimer:

‘To the very young, to school-teachers, as also to those who compile textbooks about constitutional history, politics, and current affairs, the world is a more or less rational place. They visualise the election of representatives, freely chosen from among those the people trust. They picture the process by which the wisest and best of these become ministers of state. They imagine how captains of industry, freely elected by shareholders, choose for managerial responsibility those who have proved their ability in a humbler role … To those, on the other hand, with any experience of affairs, these assumptions are merely ludicrous. Solemn conclaves of the wise and good are mere figments of the teacher’s mind. It is salutary, therefore, if an occasional warning is uttered on this subject.’

We are not making any unsettling presuppositions of the absolute rationality of man. Thus far, we most commonly criticise the presuppositions of absolute rationality of man in the realm of private economics. ‘Homo economicus.’ We are yet to realise how we neglect to criticise such presuppositions in the study of mechanisms of the public sector, particularly in administration. Parkinson is here to offer some wisdom that is helpful and applicable to the analysis of human activity in both public and private realms.

People will already be more commonly familiar with Parkinson through Parkinson’s Law which is stated as follows:

‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. General recognition of this fact is shown in the proverbial phrase ‘It is the busiest man who has time to spare.’

This will resonate most prominently with people in their own personal habits of their working lives, and their relief to find that there is some fundamental explanation for their embarrassing tendencies for procrastination (and this is certainly no exception for me). Reading the essay on Parkinson’s Law in full, he expands on the law to considerations that go past individual people’s mere tendencies for procrastination:

‘The thing to be done swells in importance and complexity in a direct ratio with the time to be spent. This fact is widely recognised, but less attention has been paid to its wider implications, more especially in the field of public administration. Politicians and taxpayers have assumed (with occasional phases of doubt) that a rising total in the number of civil servants must reflect a growing volume of work to be done.’

He cites two insightful examples to demonstrate this tendency of bureaucratic expansion.

Firstly is the change in various British Admiralty employment statistics between 1914 and 1928. As one would expect for the interwar years, the number of ships in commission decreased 68% from 62 to 20, and the number of Royal Navy officers and men decreased 32% from 146,000 to 100,000. The number of overall Admiralty administrative roles went up 78% from 2,000 to 3,569. In the dockyards, the number of manual workers went up 10% from 57,000 to 62,439, but the number of administrative roles went up 40% from 3,249 to 4,558. Not only is the disparity between the changes in manual blue-collar roles and white collar administrative roles significant, but also the fact that the administrative roles in Whitehall expanded at a much greater rate than those in the dockyards, which one would have thought might have expanded faster instead as a reflection of the rapid technological advancements happening in the years in question.

The second example is related to the administrative expansion of the British Colonial Office between 1935 and 1954, in which the number of roles in colonial administration increased steadily and consistently from 372 to 1,661. The reason why this is worthy of note is because this period in question was also defined by a decline in overall British imperial influence as well the backseat that colonial affairs would have naturally taken during the Second World War (which itself bankrupted the British government). The Empire’s territorial peak was in 1921 and was henceforth in decline, starting most prominently with Ireland, Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq. The Statute of Westminster, concerning the terms of independent self-government of the Dominions of the British Empire, had occurred in 1931. The years between 1935 and 1954 saw independence granted to Transjordan, India, Pakistan, Israel, Burma, Ceylon, Libya and Oman.

Whether the phenomenon relating to the ironic expansion of the Colonial Office is pertaining to some general natural dynamics of any and all public sector bureaucracies or more specifically a conscious or unconscious desperate reaction to the sad prospect of the loss and decline of the Empire is up for debate. However, there is evidence in other realms – as discussed in another one of Parkinson’s essays – that would help to provide some further insight.

In the essay Plans and Plants, or the Administration Block, Parkinson speaks of further contradictions of simultaneous expansion and decline, referring more generally than just mere administrative employee numbers and using some significant case studies from in and outside Britain.

‘Every student of human institutions is familiar with the standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed. The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers – these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimetres, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world. It is less widely known that the same sort of measurement is applicable, but in reverse, to the institution itself.’

What is being argued is that the genuine objective degree of prosperity, productivity and/or flourishing of a given institution or body of human endeavour is most commonly inversely proportional to its level of superficial grandeur in its outward physical appearance, its expansive corridors and offices and facilities. He states some preliminary examples:

‘Take, for example, a publishing organisation. Publishers have a strong tendency, as we know, to live in a state of chaotic squalor. The visitor who applies at the obvious entrance is lead outside and around the block, down an alley and up three flights of stairs. A research establishment is similarly housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading thence to a corrugated-iron hut in what was once the garden … lively and productive as they may be – [these institutions] flourish in such shabby and makeshift surroundings that we might turn with relief to an institution clothed from the outset with convenience and dignity.’

Parkinson then argues the claim of other end of the equation, regarding a lacking prosperity in seemingly grander environments, with more controversial wording:

‘It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research … the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.’

Whilst I personally doubt the absolute consistency of the claim for all of recorded human history whenever any grand structures have been built, he presents his case studies to back up his claim as follows:

  • The grandeur of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome may appeal greatly to the average tourist, who might infer great historical legacy emanating from it, but the more powerful Popes reigned before it was built, and the Papacy was losing its authority at the time of the Basilica’s construction
  • The League of Nations was devised in 1920 and its peak of relevance was in the mid 1930s. However, it was in 1937, after this peak that the Palace of the League of Nations was fully opened and functional, with all its glamorously designed and constructed council chambers and committee rooms etc. The League dissolved in 1946.
  • The grandeur of the Palace of Versailles might easily reflect the triumphant legacy of Louis XIV’s reign to the average layman observer. However, he did not move in there until 1682; past halfway through his reign. The construction was also not fully completed by that date either. Historians also consider the Louis’ most triumphant moments as occurring before this date and his apex being in the 1680s. Some even consider that coming to Versailles was ‘already sealing the doom of his line and race’ and that Versailles ‘was completed just when the decline of Louis’ power had begun.’
  • Despite the great legacy of royal heritage that might be often associated with Buckingham Palace, it was Queen Victoria who was the first to take up residence there in 1837; it was not her favoured royal residence, and it was certainly not Prince Albert’s. In reality, the characteristic era of Buckingham Palace represents a legacy of strictly constitutional monarchy, when parliament was more prominently reigning supreme.
  • The Palace of Westminster was rebuilt after a fire in 1834 and completed in 1868. The new palace had had a conscious effort put into it to surpass the grandeur and amenities of the last one. But this could also be theorised as signalling a tipping point for parliamentary rule, as it happened to coincide with passing of the Reform Act of 1867 and with greater legislative powers vested in cabinet over parliament. The golden age of parliamentary verbal sparring was drawing to a close. “The prestige attached to the letters ‘M.P.’ began sharply to decline.”

When it comes to recent projects of grandeur in the UK that would likely attract the suspicion of Parkinson, were he here to see them, nothing would certainly attract more suspicion than those put in place by Tony Blair. The devolutionary parliaments of Wales and Scotland, the godforsaken Millennium Dome and the controversy surrounding its funding and maintenance (before its takeover by O₂), the ludicrous Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, the office of the Mayor of London, the senseless expansions of administrative government departments; they didn’t call Blair “presidential” for nothing. 

For me, reading Parkinson’s essays over the Christmas period of 2020, in light of the new Johnson Ministry (or should I called it an Administration), it’s not hard for something to resonate over prospects such as the newly proposed High Speed Rail 2, the proposed Irish Sea Bridge (or is it going to be a tunnel?) and, most recently, the proposed government takeover of the railways under our mighty and glorious Great British Railways. It seems that the present Conservative Party are in need of a reminder over the ludicrousness of the 1970s consensus over infrastructure and production as well as present Labour. Sticking ‘Great’ before and changing ‘Rail’ to ‘Railways’ of the original post-war public conglomeration of British Rail is not the truly innovative endeavour for the country that is needed. The mindset of shallow grandeur is a dark shadow hanging over current consensus and it needs to be driven out with new light.

Fortunately, Parkinson offers some more refined advice for us. How should we build and flourish without danger of immediate redundancy? How can we consciously avoid the grandeur of desperation?

‘It is by no means certain that an influential reader of this chapter could prolong the life of a dying institution merely by depriving it of its streamlined headquarters. What he can do, however, with more confidence, is to prevent any organisation strangling itself at birth. Examples abound of new institutions coming into existence with a full establishment of deputy directors, consultants, and executive, all these coming together in one building specially designed for their purpose. And experience proves that such an institution will die. It is chocked by its own perfection. It cannot take root for lack of soil. It cannot grow naturally for it is already grown. Fruitless by its very nature, it cannot even flower.’

What is this to say? Our priority must be to enrich the soil of Britain. Build people up. Let us bask in the glory of the chaotic, shabby and makeshift surroundings of the humble publishing offices, the research institutions, the small enterprise, the parish halls. Let us stop crippling them with bureaucratic finger wagging over being too this, too that, not enough X, not enough Y; insufficiently ‘conforming to standards’ which are set by people who themselves have never even met a person who actually has to work inside the guidelines set by them, and with no scope for the improvement of practicality of such rules (if any even truly existed in the first place) by any efficient means, and certainly no democratic means.

The world over is currently in the process of building institutions without roots or fertile soil. However, in Parkinsonian terms, the theorised specific ‘decline of the West’ might be explained how they merely started doing it several decades before everyone else, in continental Europe especially. The grandeur projects that the European Union have pushed up like daisies all over the continent – more likely as a subtle bribery for the European Project’s existence than any genuine care to provide amenities to its people – are a great testament to its institutional rootlessness. We might also look to China for examples of structure without both metaphorical and literal secure rooting. Whilst China might not be showing signs of reaching its tipping point in its more abstract theorised world domination, its jungles of empty concrete structures and planned cities are themselves quite literally collapsing as we speak.

Let us reject the fake grandeur of narcissist exhibitionism of unaccountable statesmen who have no ultimate prudence or respect for the grievances of the taxpayer and instead embrace the true grandeur of humble prosperity that justifies itself by its objectively observable practical utility and hard work of a consciously disciplined British people. Let us be a new example for the world who are not heeding the warnings of Parkinson as to how truly robust institutions of society and nation are created.


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