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Books in brief

Called to Account

by Margaret Hodge (Little, Brown, £18.99)

I wonder what impact a Margaret Hodge equivalent would make in the US, where the President-Elect believes that not paying tax is a smart thing to do? The Labour MP has come to prominence in recent years as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, taking to task tax evaders and shoddy public procurement projects.

Hodge was my minister in what was then called the Department for Trade and Industry in the mid-2000s, in charge of the business portfolio. I found that, unlike some of her fellow politicians, she listened to facts.

In general, though, she distrusts the civil service, believing it often acts to frustrate politicians’ attempts at radical reform. She is astonished by the fact they get promoted and receive honours even if they do a consistently bad job, and when they leave take top roles in businesses related to their work. She may be right.

But I would say the same for politicians. As is demonstrated in her own critique of Iain Duncan Smith’s push for a universal credit system despite numerous warnings, perhaps civil servants’ objections are often justified. Where she is on firmer ground though is her relentless attack on HMRC’s inability to collect tax from large corporates and individuals, on departmental waste and large public sector pay-offs.

It is true there are few specialist procurement officers in the civil service; that attempts to move to shared services seem to always flounder; and that more care needs to be taken with “other people’s money”—in other words, ours. Hodge has done a great service by exposing these failings. But the needed cultural and behavioural change will be tough to bring about.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January issue: Adam Tooze and Francis Fukuyama examine the “American Century.” Tooze says that the 1917 opened the door to the future because the US seized the chance to lead, rather than for the Russian Revolution. Fukuyama says that the US has fallen from its perch, a change embodied by the election of Donald Trump. Anna Blundy puts Samuel Pepys on the couch and uses his diaries to psychoanalyse the Restoration’s chronicler. Also in this issue: Chris Bickerton examines the rise of populist parties across Europe, Peter Tatchell and Malcolm Rifkind debate whether the Uk should stop pretending Trump’s US can be its best friend, Philip Collins reviews a collection of Brexit books and DJ Taylor examines Alan Bennett’s diaries.