Scrambled on the egg heads

The Fixers
March 21, 1997

In politics, domestic and international, fixers are fixtures. But what is a political fix? Are we in one and trying to get out, or do we need one and are trying to hang in? Do fixers fix fixes? If so, how? Is a quick fix as good as a slow one? Who fixes what? Or, this being politics, who fixes whom? Are we fixed up? Is there a photofit fixer?

Suitably turned out in academic dress, these are important and ethical questions, as Trevor Smith and Alison Young properly insist. In British politics, fixers are very much a la mode. We have a fixer for public morals (an interesting notion), a fixer for lethal exports, a fixer - closer to home - for higher education. The Fixers, therefore, is a timely book, as the penny-dreadful publishers brazenly claim; but it is also a scrambled one, intellectually and stylistically. So timely is it that Nolan and Scott are touted but hardly discussed, and Dearing in his latest incarnation is perforce excluded. This last is no doubt a minor matter, but the relegation of the first two is a serious handicap, for both are central to the authors' concerns. Could it be that the research assessment exercise fixed The Fixers?

Dearing, however, does not escape Scott-free. Like most fixers, he has a record. He is invoked here along with the elders of the tribe as a paradigmatic case. "Individual fixers like Franks, Goodman or Sir Ron Dearing are a necessary adjunct to government and perform a crucial service in settling crises of an episodic sort. Their work is impaired to the extent that they are perceived, by routine fixers in the form of elected politicians, as being akin to double agents. The fact that fixers are called in at all is itself a standing rebuff to politicians, because it means they have failed to prevent an issue becoming a crisis or else have been incapable of dealing with it once it had erupted. Fixers are only ever grudgingly brought in as a last resort. They know this as well as anyone, and this awareness often constrains their approach: they seek to do deals, to compromise, or temper their proposals, not just because of the nature of the crisis subject matter they deal with, but also and not unnaturally because they want their proposals to succeed and be accepted by those immediately concerned, which is helped by attracting wider support.'' In addition to Oliver Franks and Arnold Goodman, the authors finger Bridget and Edwin Plowden - as they remark, the most celebrated Plowden report, Children and their Primary Schools, is hers, not his - Michael Young, Derek Rayner, and Roy Griffiths. The book is loosely presented as a group biography of these august personages, which means in practice a series of individual sketches of the cradle and the grave, strung together with some more or less adventitious textual cross-referencing (first in law, or perhaps philosophy; fondness for biblical quotation; aversion to House of Lords; studied party-political neutralityI). The intriguing idea of partner fixers or fixer partners is not pursued beyond the Plowdens, and not much there, except for the otiose observation that Goodman had more time for fixing because (apparently) he did not have a partner.

It may be thought that the groupness of this group is a little strained. They are adduced as representatives of further sub-species: "official fixers" (Franks, Plowden & Plowden, Goodman), "unofficial fixers" (Young, in solitary splendour), and "new style fixers" (Rayner and Griffiths). To these lone wolves are added those who run in packs: "corporate fixers", that is to say management consultants and lobbyists, several of whom are given microbiographies of their own. The authors try then to corral this caravan of people into a plausible thesis. They make some play of a new nomenklatura - at one point, rather desperately, a postmodern nomenklatura - without identifying the attributes of the original, or exploring its most relevant feature, social control. They introduce the promising dichotomy of Andre Maurois, "Fattypuffs" and "Thinifers", reclassify accordingly all the principals except He-Plowden (who evidently does not fit), but fail to explain what the terms signify, and never refer to them again. In the end it is a lost cause. To embrace everyone from Goodman to Ian Greer - wise man to wise ass - is to shoot the moon.

The style is as uncertain as the typology - an unhappy blend of slipped syntax and killer cliche. Goodman comes off worst. "Born a Jew and a lawyer by training, he occupied his middle and later years in the Oxbridge groves of academe and in the rooms off the corridors of power - they being so much more important than the corridors themselves. ...Unlike Lords Franks, Plowden and Young his span of influence was shorter, more compressed and therefore seemingly more dramatic; this possibly stems from the fact that he was a relatively late starter - not bursting into the public arena until he was over 50.'' The description "stoutly politically non-partisan", of a man whose girth impelled University College, Oxford, to install a bigger bath in the master's lodgings, is without question the best joke in the book.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Fixers: Crisis Management in British Politics

Author - Trevor Smith and Alison Young
ISBN - 1 85521 726 0
Publisher - Dartmouth
Price - £37.50
Pages - 201

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