The puppet tsars

What is the collective noun for tsars? The reason I ask is that
we seem to have so many of them now: tsars for drugs, homelessness,
older people, antisocial behaviour and now, it seems, social

But surely the whole point of being tsar is that there should be
no one else like you in the world, or at least in Holy Mother
Russia, which covers a large part of it.

The tsar of all the Russias wielded unlimited and unquestioned
power. His smile spelled success, his frown death. So why have we
started to use the term to describe a particularly useless
political crustacean attaching itself to the wreck of
representative government which is currently in dry dock at

What is the point of tsars, exactly? The argument in their
favour is that, by focusing on one issue only, they will be able to
cut through the crap, setting out what needs to be done and getting
the various branches of government to follow their lead.

In terms of our modern political culture, this is about as
relevant as Thomas More’s Utopia or William
Morris’s News From Nowhere. Modern government is
gross. It is bloated, dropsical and lethargic, like George IV when
he became too large to move around, and had to be carried about in
a carriage scattered with cushions. If we were to personify modern
government it would be like Alice in Wonderland, bursting out of a
house too small for her.

Government has, of course, long since outgrown the House of
Commons. Despite the explosion of ministries and ministers, with
whole teams carrying out roles that used to be performed by one
person, the extent to which MPs

are in charge is slight. Ministers have limited control over
their senior officials, and risk being removed if they go against
their advice. And that is before we take into account the special
advisers, the publicists and the consultants, who wield far more
influence than most of our elected members.

Some MPs can hardly be bothered to turn up to parliament to
vote, never mind join in the debates, and we repay the compliment
by not bothering to turn out at election time.

The sad truth is that, as government has taken on more and more
roles, it has become less and less effective. Politicians are
perceived as being unable to get a grip on even the most vital and
undisputed responsibilities of government, such as maintaining law
and order.

Health and education, those twin pillars of the modern political
world, are scarcely considered as being seriously improvable now.
We just accept that many people are going to get a rubbish service,
and that the chancellor will inject another few billion into them
at some stage just to show he cares. As for those wilder fantasies
of politicians – that they can make us nicer people by promoting
equality, tolerance, diversity and social inclusion – it is
probably kinder to draw a veil over them.

Despite this, politicians feel that they have to be seen to be
doing something. In the old days – and you don’t have to go
back to the days of periwigs for this – the cabinet would formulate
a policy to address an issue, which the responsible minister would
put into effect. The minister would be accountable in the House of
Commons, members of parliament were accountable to their
constituents, and the government was held accountable at the ballot
box. But who can be bothered with all that now? It is so boringly

How much more exciting to go on Richard and Judy, or
some similar outlet of iconic status, and announce a sweeping new
government initiative to be headed by – guess who – a tsar! My
goodness, we voters are meant to think, this means the government
really is getting serious about drugs/homelessness/(fill in the
blank here).

The fact that nothing happens because the poor tsar is the
merest puppet of political expediency is beside the point. Before
we even notice that the tsar has been deposed, another one has been
appointed somewhere else. It is all part of the rich tapestry of
political life. Lots of spin, targets, initiatives and crackdowns,
but nothing changes, except our tax bill. And we wonder why young
people cannot be persuaded to vote.

Robert Whelan is the deputy director of

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