What if…Defra was headed by a ….
Thought experiments sometimes illuminate reality. Imagine if DEFRA were headed, for sake of example, by a climate change denier sceptic or possibly a vegan? Would that make any substantial difference to the policies enacted or changes on the ground?
Let us put to one side that more colourful aspects that the press would focus on; whether they liked soup for lunch and the other mainstays of the ‘quality’ newspapers. This is about whether individuals, even government ministers actually make policy or if it is much more complicated than that. For many years the image of policy making was that of a pyramid at the top of which sat the Minister and she make the ultimate decisions. In recent years this has been replaced by the model of a policy network, a complex interaction of various groups and people, of which the Minister and her staff are but one, although an important one. Ministers in this model might empower certain parts of the network, whilst others are less advantaged. Also the network might also enable the minister; without co-operation and collaboration making policy let alone getting people to follow it would be very hard. This model also recognises that the creation of policy or policy-like regulations are not done by politicians alone.
This is not to suggest that being a government minister is not important but it is not a simple read-off between appointment to the office and power. We might also reflect on what might make a Prime Minister, who has patronage over such appointments, place someone with such declared views into the role. Would they for example place a pacifist in the Ministry of Defence, or a homeopath into Health? In short probably not, but by expressing views such as climate change scepticism or veganism the appointees have shown an interest in the topic and that is probably more than most of their peers. Despite the rhetoric the environment and rural affairs is not a key ministerial post or policy priority, and anyone who doesn’t think that the Treasury is the most important office is either foolish or naive – or both.
Perhaps what most interesting about such a thought experiment is the reaction that it might provoke in the networks around the ministry. The howls of outrage from (delete as appropriate) environmental pressure groups/The NFU/animal welfare groups/the meat industry might illuminate what they think the ministry is about. Hopefully such a minister, or even a shadow minister, would start to consult widely with the networks around the ministry to create a future facing, evidence based and practical programme. Even powerful groups would recognise that discussion and collaboration would be more beneficial than confrontation.
Of course this is an academic exercise as no one would possibly appoint a climate change denier sceptic or vegan to the post.