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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