John Major has salvaged his reputation through the clever public-relations ruse of sitting around, mainly in The Oval, while history notices his good work. The high politics of his premiership has aged gracefully.
He kept Britain out of the euro. He established the fundaments of the Northern Ireland peace accord. He fought a war in the Gulf that did not become a protracted vision of hell.
Britain’s resurgence as an Olympic nation, its near-primacy in Rio traceable to funds from a lottery he set up in 1994, polishes off his arc from national punchline to quiet respectability to the last retired prime minister who can walk into a pub without provoking a wince of pity or a citizen’s arrest.
Twenty years ago, Britain consoled itself with gallows humour as it pipped Belarus to 36th place in the medal table of the Atlanta Games. By 2012, it was third, the natural ceiling for a country without the preponderance of China or America. It is now impudently defying that limit in second place. As of Monday morning, a merged mega-state of France and Germany would still trail Britain.
As a case study of total and intended success, of a top-down project going to plan, there is little to match this in the annals of British technocracy. Among the wider lessons for government is that money matters. Athletes were victims of a national make-do-and-mend culture that was presumably meant to be charming.
They now have expensive coaches, specialised infrastructure and enough direct income to give up other work. There was never a costless route to their present eminence, which the left can cite as a kind of social democracy in action.
Before the implications for public services seem too plain, conservatives should speak up. Investment galvanised British athletics but so did a pitiless elitism. UK Sport, the distributor of lottery funds that was set up in the last months of Major's government, sifted winners from the rest. Money went to plausible finalists and medallists. Even then it was conditional on performance metrics. Lots of dedicated but limited competitors were left to fall out of the system.
The read-across to public administration is performance-related pay, not a rise for every teacher, and hospital league tables, not an article of credulous faith that all providers do an equally fabulous job.
The state cannot allow for pure meritocracy and outright failure as sport can. It has a duty of universal provision. But public expenditure tied to strict invigilation of standards – a meeting of New Labour largesse and Major's Citizen's Charter – is a bipartisan settlement that is always almost happening.
Even the politicians newly taken with industrial policy have something to crib from our Olympic model. Although Max Whitlock took Britain's historic total of gymnastic golds from zero to two in the time it takes to watch a film, UK Sport generally builds on areas of strength instead of planting greatness where it has never flowered.
The British specialisms are cycling, rowing and bits of track and field. The economic equivalents are financial services, higher education and sophisticated manufactures. It would be nice to win at beach volleyball but then it would be nice to make steel at competitive prices. Neither warrants throwing good and scarce money after bad.
If investment under a discriminating eye is the technical lesson of Britain’s Olympic story, there is a moral too. Anything worth doing takes time to show up in tangible results. In that lag, the authors of the change may be supplanted by do-nothings who reap all the glory. Voters were relaxed about ditching Conservative for Labour rule in 1997 precisely because of the economic tranquility that was hard earned by the outgoing government’s structural reforms.
The Tories were helped to victory at the most recent election by an NHS that, improved by years of Labour money, experienced no winter crisis of capacity. Even the London Games, won by a Labour government in 2005, fostered enough national bonhomie to see the Conservatives through the economic stagnation and botched Budgets of 2012.
Serious governments are self-abnegating. They know that difficult decisions bring immediate infamy and deferred, if any, acclaim. The trick is to trust history to reach the right verdict in the end. Behind Whitlock, Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins and the embarrassment of riches slung around their necks are some less famous deeds by some less storied people, including the prime minister of an extravagantly hated government more than 20 years ago.
If only to incentivise all politicians to take the long view, we should say so.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited