Miscellaneous / Politics

Calling all cliches: Gonna make you a czar

It was reported this week that Sir Eric Pickles has harsh words to say about electoral fraud in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Which is not exactly a shock, either in the claim or the person making it. But there’s still something eye-catching about Pickles being described as ‘the corruption czar’.

Really? Pickles is a czar? It’s not the most obvious role for him, surely. And anyway, are czars really the best people to teach us about fighting corruption? How have we come to this state of affairs?

The title derives not from pre-revolutionary Russia, but from the USA, imported by Tony Blair, even before he became prime minister:

Tony Blair chose a schoolroom in Aberdeen yesterday to launch a proposal for an American-style anti-drugs supremo who would co-ordinate Labour’s policy on drugs and report directly to a Cabinet minister. At Dyce Academy, Mr Blair told an audience of 13 and 14-year-olds that he would appoint a ‘drugs czar’ to help to educate young people not to take drugs. [1]

Once Blair was securely installed in Downing Street, the man chosen for the role was Keith Hellawell ‘who became the New Labour government’s “drugs czar” in 1998’. [2] The title having thus been established, it began to spread:

The economist Richard Layard, a vigorous CBT* evangelist, became Tony Blair’s ‘happiness czar’. [3]

And it was applied retrospectively by some in the media:

[In 1988] Sir Richard Branson was made a de facto litter czar, but discarded wrappers were never going to hold his attention for long. [4]

Then came the government of David Cameron, and the number of czars spiralled out of control, some of them inherited from the previous administration, some of them newly appointed:

She [Martha Lane Fox] has of late become an internet czar. Actually, she’s been one for a while, but has managed stealthily to expand her remit since 2009 when, under Labour, she was appointed the government’s Digital Inclusion Champion (the acronym, she felt, was unfortunate). [5]

After Labour’s defeat in the 2010 election, he [Frank Field] was given the role of ‘poverty czar’ in David Cameron’s coalition government. [6]

Alan Milburn, a former Labour minister, accepted the oxymoronic title of mobility ‘czar’. [7]

Having been persuaded by David Cameron that being the government’s trade czar is ‘really important’ [Ian] Livingston is fully focused on the job, even though he has no political background. [8]

For millions of schoolchildren and their parents the most important appointment made by the new government may prove to be that of [Tom Bennett] the teacher and former nightclub manager who now also serves as classroom behaviour ‘czar’. [9]

There were also, inter alia:

  • Baron Young of Graffham, ‘the government’s “enterprise czar”’ [10]
  • ‘the NHS’s information czar Tim Kelsey’ [11]
  • Ros Altmann, ‘the older people’s czar’ [;12]
  • Lord [Nat] Wei, ‘the Big Society czar’ [13]
  • Professor Roger Boyle, the ‘heart czar’ [14]
  • Sir Philip Hampton, ‘the nation’s boardroom equality czar’ [15]
  • Michelle Mone, the ‘business start-up czar’ [16]
  • and Mary Portas, ‘the shopping czar’. [17]

So ubiquitous were these latter-day incarnations of the Russian imperial court that Danny Alexander was even described as the ‘austerity Czar,’ [18] though his official title of Chief Secretary to the Treasury seemed perfectly sufficient.


We had by now drifted a little from the original concept. None of these seemed to exercise the absolutist power with which the czars were traditionally associated. Nor, one suspects, would either Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible have seen the provision of lavatories as their primary concern – yet we’ve now got used to reading things like:

One of the UK’s foremost architects [Sadie Morgan] has been appointed as the design czar for HS2 in an overarching role that will cover every aspect of the project, from ‘ticketing to toilets’. [19]

The queen of the czars (for some reason, the title of czarina has never been adopted) is Louise Casey, variously described as Tony Blair’s ‘anti-social behaviour czar’, ‘respect czar’ and ‘homelessness czar’, [20] who went on to become David Cameron’s ‘integration czar’. [21]

Not wishing to be left out, the Scottish government has taken up the cause with some enthusiasm, appointing, for example, Dr Andrew Murray as a ‘fitness czar’ [22] and Naomi Eisenstadt as its ‘poverty czar’. [23] But clearly this isn’t enough:

Campaign Secretary Fiona Jordan said: ‘We told Nicola Sturgeon we need a czar for Govanhill – one person to take the reins and drive home the changes.’ [24]

The demand for new czars is also heard south of the border:

The West Country’s neglected seaside towns need a champion to help pull them out of the mire of long-term unemployment and poor educational attainment caused by the collapse of traditional industries like fishing. According to the British Hospitality Association (BHA), a seaside czar should be appointed to help some communities fight back from decades of decay. [25]

Alan Hutchinson [independent candidate for the Liverpool mayoralty]: ‘I’d change the multi-level management of the Liverpool Homelessness Strategy from the City cabinet, councillors and managers and put it into the hands of experts, such as a Liverpool Homelessness Czar.’ [26]

The government has been urged [by the Campaign for Real Ale] to appoint a pubs czar. [27]

That last call was actually answered, though it didn’t mean an end to the criticism:

Britain’s first pub czar has been blasted for earning nearly as much as the Prime Minister ‘to do nothing’. Paul Newby makes £130,000 a year and has a budget of £1.6million. [28]

All of which makes one rather regret the decision of the Soviet Union to demolish the Ipatiev House in 1977. Mind you, Uganda has a ‘condom czar’ [29]. Happily, we have, thus far, been spared that indignity.

PS On 7 September 2019, it was reported that Labour MP John Mann had been appointed antisemitism czar. Russian history isn’t our field, but we have heard the word ‘pogrom’ being bandied about. Surely a better term could now be found.

Times 07-09-2019

* CBT = cognitive behavioural therapy. We issue this clarification for our friends in the sado-masochistic community, who may otherwise be confused.

[1] Times 26 March 1997

[2] Yorkshire Evening Post 3 September 2015

[3] Guardian 7 January 2016

[4] Times 25 May 2015

[5] Times 14 May 2011

[6] Liverpool Echo 6 April 2015

[7] Herald 22 October 2014

[8] Daily Mail 18 December 2014

[9] Times 22 June 2015

[10] Nottingham Post 25 October 2014

[11] Guardian 28 November 2014

[12] Times 14 October 2014

[13] Times 12 October 2011

[14] People 26 June 2016

[15] Daily Mail 2 April 2016

[16] Scotland on Sunday 23 February 2016

[17] Times 9 December 2013

[18] Daily Mirror 14 March 2014

[19] Birmingham Post 26 March 2015

[20] Sun 27 January 2016; Times 13 March 2012; Yorkshire Post 9 February 2015

[21] Sun 27 January 2016

[22] Herald 13 February 2015

[23] Herald 19 October 2015

[24] Evening Times 6 June 2015

[25] Western Morning News 13 July 2016

[26] Liverpool Echo 21 April 2016

[27] Western Daily Press 4 March 2014

[28] Sunday Mirror 29 May 2016

[29] Independent 1 December 2013


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