Bernard Gray was our guest at a Power Lunch in Westminster yesterday. He now runs TSL education, but he spent two years in the Ministry of Defence, where he directed the Strategic Defence Review of 1998, and he has maintained an interest and expertise in defence. Now that another Strategic Defence Review is underway, his expertise is of course in great demand, and there were many other experts around the table eager to hear him.
One of the points that was raised around the table is that no private company would run itself the way we run defence. A private company looks at its market and its own production systems all the time. Managers will be tweaking things each day according to the circumstances of the moment, and the board will be meeting every month and will be slowly changing the company's priorities to fit the trends they see emerging. But with defence, we have one huge correction every ten years or so. No wonder that we end up trying to fight in Afghanistan with equipment designed to fight the Cold War in Eastern Europe.
Another interesting difference from private companies is that the directors of private companies are personally accountable for the actions they take. If they act beyond the law, they get prosecuted. Even local councillors get surcharged if they spend local people's money in ways that are outside their legal powers. Whitehall doesn't work that way, of course. Civil-service mandarins can order new ships or planes knowing there is no money to pay for them, or tear up equipment orders despite contracts being signed, and know that the only comeback will be a couple of hours' hard time in front of a Commons committee. Isn't it time we made our civil servants – in all departments – legally responsible for their actions?