By Quentin Letts
Sunday Telegraph – 4 November 2018
One day in 333BC, possibly after lunch, young Alexander of Macedon allegedly found himself in Gordium, capital of Phrygia. Its people were proud of a wagon that stood in the city's square. Years earlier, it had been tied to a yoke with a bafflingly intricate knot. Legend stated that whoever undid its tangle would become ruler of Asia. Alexander promptly whipped out his sword and sliced the rope in two. He had undone the nexus. The Gordians were terribly cross.
Historic evidence for the tale is patchy. Anyway, would Alexander really have been permitted to behave in such a way? Would some soft-sandalled aide not have sidled up to Alexander and murmured:
"This knot could throw up some problems, sir. Shall I ask our people to put it out for wider consultation? By the time we finally report, everyone will have lost interest."
Tracey Crouch is not quite Alexandra the Great, but she certainly told procrastinators to get stuffed when she quit as sports minister on Thursday. She resigned because the Treasury was meddling with her promise to take on fixed-odds betting terminals. She thought she had Government approval to act against these ruinous machines by April. In Monday's Budget the policy was delayed.
The most depressing thing was that, in the hours leading to her departure, few believed she would carry out her threat. Quit on principle? Nah. Received wisdom at Westminster said
“no minister resigns over a six--month delay”.
It seems not to have occurred to the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, that pocketing yet more ill-gotten tax gains from these addictive machines would provoke a ministerial resignation. To Mr Hammond, such principle must seem a quaint, almost oriental concept.
Jack Lynch, Irish prime minister in the Seventies, once said the thing to do with the condoms controversy was to “put it on the long finger”. He did not mean to be funny, unlike TV's Yes, Minister, which made us laugh at political vacillation. Clever civil servants outmanoeuvred ministers to ensure nothing ever changed. What a gas!
Or not. Take Downing Street's procrastination over Army veterans who served in Northern Ireland decades ago and are now being harried by legal threats. Whitehall is using this issue as a sop to Irish republicans. Tory backbenchers intend to keep complaining about it, noisily. Mark Francois embarrassed Mrs May with it at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. Julian Lewis urged not-so-bookish Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to
“cut the Gordian knot that is preventing us from ensuring our Armed Forces veterans are not persecuted”.
I wonder if Ms Bradley knew what the Gordian knot was. Something they teach in the Scouts, perhaps? The general sympathy for Ms Crouch is heartening. Maybe the realisation is growing that politics is best done crisply. Compromise is not always clever. One reason for Donald Trump's unexpected popularity is that he takes swift, sharp action.
On the Army veterans issue, even the most stubborn officials may soon have to cede to the near-unanimous public view that a bad injustice is being committed. But they'll spin it out as long as they can, because delay buys favours and curdles change. The longer change takes, the less idealistic voters will become. Mandarins cannot abide idealism. It cannot be managed.
Officialdom's response to the 2016 referendum has been a blizzard of procrastination, from the delayed Article 50 letter to the promotion of a transition period, a backstop and now a possible extended transition. Frantic long-finger activity.
The law is little better. Ian Hislop's new play, Trial by Laughter, describes how 19th-century satirist William Hone was subjected to three trials on three successive days. That's how they did things: charged one evening, up before the beak next day, acquitted or banged up by teatime. These days an England cricketer can have a fracas outside a Bristol nightclub and wait 11 months for his case to come to court. Verdict: not guilty, but a life made miserable for almost a year.
By the time Brexit happens it may be more than five years after the referendum. Officials will feel they have won because they will have dimmed disobedient voters' euphoria. Oh, for an Alexander to slice through our Gordian political class.