24 November 2006

Mediocracy in action: the Olympics project

Words from an old hand

These comments in the Telegraph from Bill Deedes, who has been around long enough to know what's what, make sad reading.

What I find depressing about soaring costs for the Olympics 2012 is how they contrast with the reputation we once held for handling such projects competently. Perhaps the Dome fiasco was a warning that we are losing our touch for efficient organisation of big events.

Some will retort that muddles happen when the dead hand of government takes part, but that is not altogether true. Labour did a good job on the New Towns, created after the last war. So did Harold Macmillan and Ernest Marples for the Conservatives by building 300,000 houses in a year. Could we do that now? We depend too much, perhaps, on operators from overseas; we are not producing the engineers we once had, who left their mark all over the world with railways, bridges, viaducts and daring structures. Today, engineering, like science, seems to play a small part in youthful ambitions.
(He goes on to say how wonderful were the days of laying down the railway network in the nineteenth century, facilitated by compulsory government purchase of private land, and there I part company with him.)

A mediocracy (= pseudo-egalitarian society) is characterised by shoddiness, which is particularly noticeable when it comes to large projects. Standards are avoided because they conflict with the egalitarian ethos. It doesn't matter whether decisions are good ones, so long as they are made 'fairly' - i.e. by committees. No individual really takes responsibility for making sure things are done properly - if they tried to, they would be denounced as 'arrogant'. Everything requires a quick fix, a knee-jerk response. (A phenomenon usually blamed on consumerism, but more likely linked to a rejection of bourgeois values such as forethought.)

Shoddiness can be found everywhere, including among the great and the good. Norman Foster, for example, gave us the wobbly Millennium Bridge, and also Oxford's new Economics Department, which started to fall to pieces as soon as it was finished.

Of course, a mediocracy must try to suppress the evidence of its deficiencies, unless they can be blamed on capitalism. People who point them out must be belittled or slandered. So Jack Lemley, who resigned over the fiasco which the Olympics project seems to be turning into, was subtly rubbished by Ken Livingstone, by referring to his supposedly dubious health.

Mr Lemley should be grateful to escape with his life. Other whistleblowers, e.g. David Kelly, were not so lucky.