24 DECEMBER 1977, Page 23

Short story

The Browning committee

Piers Paul Read

There are fashions, even in administration, and shortly after the Conservative government established the Central Policy Review Staff, the Department of -setlupits own interdepartmental committee to 'identify issues of long-term public interest'. It was clear from the start that this committee was just a fad, and had been agreed to by the permanent undersecretary with the kind ol mellow resignation of the middle-aged woman who buys a new coat when the fashion changes. His decision was then followed by some unseemly manoeuvring by ambitious young assistants to shunt their immediate superiors into this siding and thereby clear the line for their own ride to the top.

Ian Browning, the under-secretary's choice as chairman, was a model .of the able man who had gone to seed. A former scholar at Winchester and Balliol, he was now heavy and balding with his well cut suits shiny at the seat and mildly dis. coloured around the groin. His laziness and silence, once thought the mark of his 'effortless superiority', were now recognised for What they were and qualified him for the appointment. Browning himself knew why he had been chosen, yet was quite happy to go through the charade of lunch at the Reform with the undersecretary who repeated six or seven times how important it was for someone 'to see the wood from the trees'.

This eminent man did not normally repeat himself — his minutes to the Minister were always concise — but his mind was not on his conversation with Browning and over the potted shrimps it almost dried up altogether; and so to amuse himself the undersecretary started to embroider upon and exaggerate the terms of reference for Browning's committee —, holding forth on the limitations of democracy, the paralysis of government, etc, and suggesting to Browning that he must cut through the Gordian knot of what was conventionally thought to be politically possible. 'Take economic growth, for example. The Cabinet pursue growth. The Treasury pursue growth. But you, Browning, you might decide that the pursuit of growth will lead us to disaster.'

Browning knew quite well that this flattery was false, and that together with the lunch it was intended to make up for the seven or so years of futility that would run UP to his retirement: he accepted it, however, with modest pleasure as if it was an honour like an O.B.E. — a reward for staying-power in the Civil Service. He savoured the subtlety with which the undersecretary coaxed his appointment from something sensible (over the potted shrimps) to the classical and even baroque; and Browning only became irritated when, over his coffee and a Wills panatella, the undersecretary became intoxicated by his own eloquence and ran amok in the rococo. 'I cannot exaggerate the importance of what we want you to do, Browning. The future of England, even of Europe, may depend on it. . .But I must warn you that you are on your own. A commando, a spy, behind the lines of public opinion. The Minister will disown you. Even I shall disown you, Browning, because you must do what we cannot do. That is the duty of your committee.'

The first meeting of the Browning committee took place in the morning, and its chief achievement was to agree that in future it would meet in the afternoon — a disputed issue in which the busy who wished to keep the mornings free for other work triumphed over their chairman who liked a late lunch and an early train back to Benenden. It was his first, but not his last defeat, for so ingrained has his habit become of saying little or nothing that his case mostly went by default.

At the second meeting it was agreed that the committee should form a subcommittee to formulate an agenda for future meetings. It was chosen not by a show of hands but by a show of eyes: the busy and bored looked down at the blotting pads on the long table, while those who had an interest modestly permitted their eyes to be caught by Ian Browning and with mock reluctance agreed to serve. In four or five minutes the sub-committee was formed, being made up of the chairman, his deputy chairman and two younger men — one from the DHSS and the other from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Browning's deputy chairman, Godfrey Green, was a wiry, middle-aged man — a failed don — excitable, imaginative and not at all 'sound'. He had no sense of balance, no tact, no political nose — but went wherever his ideas happened to lead him and never followed them up. He was therefore an excellent candidate for a committee which would sit forever and achieve nothing. 'Put Green with Browning,' someone had said. 'He'll be out of harm's way.'

He might indeed have been out of harm's way if it had not been for one of the younger men, Henry Taylor, who had been seconded from the drainage division in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He was an Etonian — bluff and charming on the outside but clever and crafty within. One could imagine that he had been posted to drainage because some short-sighted superior had seen him as a blimpish landowner who had wandered, into the Civil Service; yet as Browning noticed with some satisfaction, Taylor was qualified with first class honours in politics and economics from his old university.

To balance this, as it were, on the subcommittee, Browning had chosen a grammar-school sociologist from the Department of Health and Social Security who, if he was not a Marxist, looked as if he was. He was lanky, scruffy and had an untrimmed beard. Browning also felt some curiosity to know why this Jon Todd had been put on the main committee in the first place, and it was not until it was too late that he discovered that he had an odour as pervasive and imprecise as his classless accent.

The first meeting of the sub-committee was held in a room whose dinginess showed the unimportance accorded to its work by those who decide that sort of thing. Ten chairs with padded plastic seats and yellow wooden arms surrounded an oblong table whose surface was pitted with cigarette burns, and the imprecise scratch-marks of many generations of bored committee-men, like graffitti on the walls of a prison cell. The view from the window was of a blank wall some twenty or thirty yards away which reflected grey light from a grey sky; they always required the electric light.

The minutes of the second meeting of the full committee were read at this first meeting of the sub-committee by the secretary, Miss Kirk — a spinster of indeterminate' age. She spoke in such a quiet, well-educated voice, that the chairman was lulled into a semi-slumber and only realised that she had finished when Henry Taylor cleared his throat. He was about to sign the minutes when the deputy chairman, Godfrey Green, simultaneously gave a croak and raised his hand with an eccentric, lassooing motion in the air. `Mr Chairman', he said. 'May we ask the secretary to re-read the latter part of the minutes dealing with the issues to be considered.' By all means,' said Browning.

Miss Kirk pressed her lips together and looked down at the type-written pages. 'It was agreed,' she read, 'that the subcommittee should prepare an agenda for the consideration of the main committee — covering fields such as economic growth, energy resources and in particular the population of. .

'That's it,' said 'Green. 'Why in particular population? I don't remember that."Oh, don't you?' asked Browning. `Do you? don't, no. But can Miss Kirk have got it wrong?'

The four men looked at the one woman who stared back at them so blandly that it seemed impossible that her memory had been deficient. Godfrey Green backed down. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I've no real objection. Please sign them —sign away.' He waved his hand again. Then they were silent as Browning's pen scratched his signature on to the paper. As a result of their brief to consider in particular the population the meeting started with Green asking rhetorically: 'How many of us are there? Forty million? Fifty million?"50,616,000', said Henry Taylor. 'More now,' said Todd. 'I mean.. 'Increasing of course,' said Taylor. 'Concentrated in urban centres', said Todd. 'Now is that, I wonder, too many or too few?' asked Browning.

Miss Kirk pressed her lips together as her hand wriggled across her notebook making Pitman's hieroglyphics. 'Well that, of course, is almost a philosophic question,' said Godfrey Green — stretching his neck with the relaxed gesture of a man who feels confident that he has defined a problem in such a way that only he is qualified to solve it. 'What is the optimum size of a population? Or the optimum density? Here we have fifty million on a medium-sized island.

'89,000 square miles,' said Taylor. 'Is that it? Well, on 89,000 square miles, which means an average density of around. . '561 per square mile,' said Taylor. 'Thank you,' said Green. 'Whereas the Japanese. . ."673 per square mile,' said Taylor. 'All right for Asiatics one might say,' said Green, 'yet the Dutch, I believe. . ."921 per square mile,' said Taylor. 'Leaving space enough for a Rubens or a Rembrandt to lift brush to easel. . .No, one can understand a Malthusian alarm, but it is I fear a superstition. No general rules on population can be formulated on a philosophic level.'

There was an almost imperceptible movement of the skin which covered Miss Kirk's forehead.

'The question surely is,' said the bearded sociologist Jon Todd, leaning foward in his chair, 'not how many we are or the density of our population but whether our skills and resources can sustain us in the future.' 'Quite', said Browning. 'That's the sort of thing we should consider'. 'After all,' said Todd. 'Our current level of prosperity may not last for ever.' Indeed one might say', said Green, 'that it is based entirely upon an historical pre-eminence in trade and manufacture which has been decliniag since the war. . ."Since 1906', said Taylor. 'Since 1906', said Green. 'And one might add that this decline itself is the inevitable consequence of our innovative role in industrial development. We were the first; for two hundred years we have enjoyed the consequent advantages, but now that the rest of the world have learnt our tricks we must resign ourselves to an ever shrinking share of world trade.' But with the same population,' said Browning.

'Precisely,' said Green, 'And we must concede, must we not. . .' he inclined his head towards Taylor — 'that our share of world trade has diminished not just because the others have learnt our tricks, but in some cases now seem able to perform them rather better than we do ourselves.' 'Productivity in West Germany is double that in the United Kingdom,' said Taylor. 'And in Japan?' Even greater'. 'There you are.' 'So to sum up,' said Browning, 'we all agree that while there is no optimum population or density of population for the United Kingdom, it might be established that a growing population must mean a lower standard of living and the consequences of this in the far and middledistant future might well be something our committee might decide to consider'. 'I feel,' said Green who lived in Marylebone and so had no train to catch, 'I feel that this sub-committee should, perhaps, look into the question further before reporting back to the main committee.' I agree,' said Taylor. `Me too,' said Todd. 'Very well,' said Browning glancing at his watch. 'We can continue our discussion next week.'

The second meeting of the subcommittee was more relaxed than the first. The junior members had lost some of their awe for Browning and Green: Browning and Green had lost some of their distaste for youth. A good balance seemed to have been struck between the wisdom of the older members and the technical knowledge of the younger ones. Certainly the minutes of their last meeting which Miss Kirk read as before in her even Girton College tone of voice made their discussions seem lucid to the chairman and purposeful to Jon Todd. Once again Godfrey Green noticed a discrepancy between what she had noted and what he remembered of the previous meeting — or rather not so much a discrepancy as a shape to their discussion which had not been apparent at the time; but he raised no objection, concluding to himself that she was almost certainly a graduate in English who fancied her literary abilities.

As a result, however, after Browning had signed the minutes, the sub-committee resumed its discussion not where it had left off but where Miss Kirk hatitleft off — the critical dangers facing the United Kingdom as its population outstripped its skills and resources. Indeed the power of her prose seemed to inspire in them a mood of millenial urgency tinged with worldhistorical despair. Green burbled on about the decline of empires — he considered Venice the nearest analogy to Britain — while Taylor poured forth statistics to underpin their general conclusions that unless the population of Great Britain was drastically reduced in the near future, the long-term prospect was of a destitute nation of an Asiatic sort without even the benefit of sunshine.

'I think,' said Browning, 'that we had better recall the main committee at once. . .'but once again the chairman was over-ruled by a spontaneous coalition of the other three members of the sub-committee. Green, who loved the sound of his own voice and knew how much less he would hear it in full committee, thought it was premature; Jon Todd thought that they needed more information; but it was Taylor • who produced the argument to swing the chairman to their point of view. 'It is possible,' he said, 'that the measures we might recommend would be of a controversial nature. If that were to be the case, then the fewer who know, the less chance of a leak.'

'That's certainly true,' he said — and suddenly he remembered the remarks of the undersecretary. "A commando, a spy behind the lines. The Minister will disown you. I shall disown you. But the future of Britain may depend upon what you decide." And with a tremendous explosion of that fundamental conceit which never deserts even the most defeated man, Browning made up his mind that these rococo remarks which at the time he had thought ironic had in reality been an offthe-record briefing of the most serious sort.

'Of course,' he said. 'Indeed,' he added, as this sudden understanding suffused his whole body like a double Scotch. 'Indeed,' he said again, it might be prudent at this stage for those reasons you give for the sub-committee to constitute itself, as it were, the full committee and continue for the time being in its present form.'

Because Henry Taylor never expressed an opinion, he never seemed to have one. If he opened his mouth it was only to express a statistic as if his head was a small computer covered with his ruddy skin and decorated with his aristocratic features. Thus it was Jon Todd who was led unwittingly along the stepping-stones of Taylor's facts and figures to express a proposition that three years before, on the ultra-modern campus of York University he would have abused as fascist and reactionary — viz, that. it was not the British population as such that would be too large in the future, but certain sections of it which were already redundant. It seemed inescapably apparent that the traditional manufacturing industries would never rise again whereas certain sophisticated services such as banking, insurance and commodity broking could secure our future as another Switzerland. It was a point Jon Todd made humorously at the end of the third meeing, but it was given pride of place in Miss Kirk's minutes read at the fourth and signed by Browning who alreadY seemed to carry his head at a tilt like Rudolf Hess.

'What you're really saying,' said Godfrey Green to Jon Todd, 'is that. there must be fewer bloody workers and more of tbe middle-class.' Tod blanched beneath bis beard. Miss Kirk seemed to smile. 'And yet,' said Taylor, 'it is precisely the lower social groups which show the greatest fertility, excluding that is the figures for New Commonwealth Immigrants.' But not the Irish,' said Godfrey Green. Miss Kirk pursed her lips. 'Yes, well, I mean,' began Todd, 'that's because of overcrowding.' 'One would think,' said Browning, 'that overcrowding would lead to smaller families.' What he means,' said Green, 'is that they all get drunk on a Saturday night and by Monday morning half the women find themselves pregnant.'

Todd blinked. Miss Kirk hesitated; her hand stopped on the paper. She glanced at the chairman. Browning caught her eye. 'Perhaps that remark shouldn't be recorded in the minutes.' Only a joke,' said Green. 'I think, er,' said Todd, 'with all due respect, that this discussion may lead to many unpalatable truths and should be held at a high level of seriousness.' Of course, of course,' said Green staring straight ahead. 'Productivity in Liverpool,' said Taylor, 'which has a large population of Irish extraction is no lower than in Newcastle Which has a small one.—But productivity in Slough, I dare say,' said Green, 'is double that in both Newcastle and Liverpool.' 'Almost certainly,' said Taylor. 'The truth IS,' said Green, 'that those Northerners drink too much. Now if you could slip some spermicide into their Newcastle Brown. .

Miss Kirk looked up again —apparently to seek guidance once again as to whether this remark should be entered in the minutes, Yet she did not seek the chairman's eye but looked vacantly ahead with a misty expression. Her lips slightly parted and the tip of her tongue came out to lick them. They Closed again. She looked down at her notebook. 'That would be a way,' said Taylor. 'My dear fellow.. .' began Green. 'I know,' said Taylor. 'You were joking. But if it Were ever decided that the fertility of, ah, certain sections of the population should be discouraged and that of other sections encouraged, then you could perhaps add something — some chemical of some kind — to the foodstuffs commonly consumed by those sections you wished to discourage: baked beans, perhaps, or frozen television dinners.'

'And put Spanish flies in claret,' said Green. Miss Kirk swallowed. 'Or promote buggery in the Comprehensive Schools.' TEiylor blinked and smiled. Todd blushed. IViiss Kirk kept her eyei on her pad. 'The advantages, said Taylor, 'of finding some way to reduce the hormones in the blood of ttlte male working-class would not be limited a reduction in their fertility. Psychological studies have shown that the Industrial unrest is caused largely by the a.ggressive instincts in the male which relate ntrectly to his sexual role. Strikes among omen are a small fraction of strikes among en.' In other words,' said Godfrey Green, wit. our industrial workers were all eunuchs, e would have no strikes at all.' Precisely,' said Taylor. 'But where would you get the next generation of industrial workers?' asked Jon Todd. 'The younger sons of the middle classes,' said Browning. 'Highly paid. Highly productive. Like the Swedes.' And of course you would only need very few'. Todd started to shake a little. 'But even if the advantages of such a policy were clearly established,' he said, don't see how it could ever be done. I mean that business about chemicals in baked beans and T.V. dinners just isn't on, is it?' Too indiscriminate,' said Taylor. 'What about the water supplies?' asked Green. 'Could we slip something into the reservoirs serving Council estates?' A possibility,' said Taylor. 'Or those beams of light at the turnstiles at Underground stations. We could replace them at Mile End and Dagenham East with a spermicidal ray. .

'Variable heights,' said Taylor. 'What?' asked Browning. 'The length of mens' legs would be different,' said Taylor. 'You could aim it at the national average,' said Green. 'You'd never get away with it,' said Todd. mean to say. . .once it was known. . ."It would never be known,' said Browning. 'But the Minister. . .'said Todd. 'I have special instructions,' said Browning. There was a silence. `Do you mean,' asked Todd, 'that we're not only meant to come up with ideas, but we're meant to implement them as well?'

'Gentlemen,' said Browning drawing himself up in his chair, 'we have been selected by the nation to act decisively, courageously and ruthlessly to secure its survival in the twenty-first century. What we must do can never be authorised; can never be acknowledged; can never be known. Our only reward will be the certain knowledge that what we do, we do for England.' For Britain,' said Green whose mother was a Scot. 'For Britain,' said Browning.

What followed was something of an anticlimax and shows how small events in the lives of individuals can change the destiny of a natiou. That very afternoon, while running to catch an early train, Browning suffered a heart attack. He was in hospital for a month, and was kept at home for four months after that. In his absence Godfrey Green, as deputy chairman, called the subcommittee together but since only Browning knew the nature of his secret instructions, they felt they could not proceed without him.

When he returned he seemed to have reverted to seedy appearance and defeated demeanour of the man he had been before; and by then several other factors had entered the equation. Jon Todd had suffered a nervous breakdown. It was not noticed for some time, and even after it had been diagnosed he was advised by his union to stay at work and so continued to come to the meetings of the sub-committee; but he said nothing and only squinted at his chin and picked at his beard as if searching for split ends among the whiskers. At the same time Miss Kirk, the spinster who had kept the minutes, fell in love with an engineer. It was an incongruous combination which radically altered her prose style. It lost its former didactic power and became suffused instead with a sickly, lifeenhancing quality heavily influenced by D. H. Lawrence.

Most important of all, Henry Taylor had a new set of statistics fed into his brain which indicated that the population of the United Kingdom was declining anyway. There was some discussion on the subcommitte of the extent to which this was due to David Steel's Abortion Act. If it was, then perhaps the reduction would be insufficiently selective with the middle-classes taking advantage of the nation's clinical facilities to terminate their pregnancies; but Godfrey Green was of the opinion that abortion, like bottle-feeding babies, would soon catch on among the working-classes and that large families, like breast feeding, would become a fad of the bourgeoisie.

Soon afterwards Taylor was recalled to the drainage division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. There were a few more desultory meetings of the subcommittee, and even of the main committee, but Green remained the only interested member on either; and so long as he could listen to himself expound his ideas, he did not seem to mind that they were never put into practice.

Some time in the middle 1970s Browning retired and his committee was wound up. The fashion for foresight had passed, and so far as the permanent undersecretary of the day was concerned, the future could look after itself.