Royal commissions transformed Britain in the 1960s – we desperately need them now

<span>Photograph: Chronicle/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Chronicle/Alamy

Britain’s once-famed welfare state seems unable to deliver. Public services are riven with conflict and starved of funds. Nothing works. Yet there the argument ends. The government defends the status quo, the opposition claims it is all about money. The Treasury rules. Reform ossifies. Progress is zero.

Scratch the surface of this week’s strikes and it is clear that each of the services has suffered from a longstanding absence of constructive reform. The triaging of health treatment is plagued by bottlenecks. Home care of elderly people is withering. School teaching is oppressed by obsessive examinations. Housing policy is led by builders’ lobbies, not by housing need. Energy policy has become obscene, even to the most ardent advocate of privatisation.

So what should change? The answer is desperately opaque. Everyone agrees that the NHS is fine in principle but no longer fit for purpose at the frontline. Britain’s drug laws have not changed in half a century, and are now so unenforcible that drugs dominate urban crime and imprisonment. While Germany, Portugal, California, New York and Vancouver can tackle drugs reform, Britain is in a state of frozen impotence. As for the constitutional future of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is near unbelievable that federal systems can allay separatist sentiment across all of Europe yet be anathema to Westminster politicians.

The most remarkable period of domestic reform in modern times took place in the late 1960s, under Harold Wilson. The home secretary, Roy Jenkins, managed in just two years to stop hangings, decriminalise homosexuality in England and Wales, permit abortion (although it was not decriminalised in Northern Ireland until 2019) and drastically ease divorce. He went on to abolish theatre censorship and initiated the banning of sex and race discrimination. It was an astonishing period.

Crucial to each of Jenkins’s reforms was not support from public opinion – many were fiercely opposed – but a consensus of informed liberal debate. This was led by a series of royal commissions that had preceded him, notably into homosexuality, divorce and crime. Britain was transformed from one of the most archaic nations in Europe into that of the swinging 60s. Jenkins said in his memoirs merely that he felt “civilised reform to be the duty of a Labour government”.

There is no shortage of ideas for reforming public services, but there lacks a conveyor belt to turn them into policy. An explosion of partisan thinktanks has, if anything, led to a decline in consensus building. Just as parties rely more on “their” thinktanks – which all boast their influence to their backers – so their opponents do likewise. There is little likelihood of the Centre for Policy Studies (Tory) joining hands with the Resolution Foundation (Labour) in agreeing a grand reform of housing, health or crime.

The media duly exaggerates this partisanship into full-blown polarisation. Every opposition editorial, every BBC interview, ends in “more money surely”. Last month a number of senior politicians – including the Tories’ Sajid Javid and Labour’s Wes Streeting – did bravely moot NHS reform. Some suggested eroding “free at the point of delivery” with means-tested payments, others collaboration with the private sector or a change in GPs’ contracts. The result was a torrent of abuse and counter-abuse from their respective backwoods. The result is nothing. Independent health thinktanks such as the Nuffield Trust and the King’s Fund are left crying in the wilderness.

Likewise, any move towards the legalisation and regulation of drugs falls foul of Tony Blair’s terror of what the tabloids would say. Housing policy is dominated not by a concern for homeless people – who cannot afford their own thinktank – but by a construction lobby obsessed with nimbys and housing ladders. As for any hope that Keir Starmer might imitate Wilson in the 1960s, all his advice apparently screams no. Mimic Blair. Don’t frighten the horses. Just insult Rishi Sunak and anything he might say. Maintain heat, not light.

Faced with this policy desert, a recent paper from the library of parliament boldly suggested a return to the tradition of the royal commission. No fewer than 400 commissions guided the great age of British reform from the 1830s to the 1900s, as such inquiries did Jenkins’s 1960s programme. Commissions are not thinktanks but adjudicators of thinktanks, digesters of evidence. Their conclusions may be only as good as their members, but they are supposedly above the partisan fray. They are above all concerned simply with the question in hand.

Royal commissions have declined since the 1980s because Margaret Thatcher hated them for taking too long – some as much as two years – and thus impeding action. She had no problem with speed of reform. In addition, many recent ones had been on aspects of the constitution, such as local government (1969), devolution (1973) and press freedom (1977), where agreement was hard to achieve, even when the reports were well informed. But all of them promoted open-minded debate. They elevated rather than depressed politics.

At present, we know only that reform of the public sector is not working. Debate is corrupted by party politics and duly gets nowhere. Something needs to change. So bring back the commissions and put them to work – fast.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist