Sunday, 31 July 2016

What economists will never understand about Brexit

On my reading list this week is "Accountable to no-one" by Simon Jenkins. He argues that despite conservative propaganda the 1980s and early 1990s saw a great increase in the centralization of power. Despite privatisation, deregulation and devolution, the government asserted its control over schools, universities, the courts, local government, and the NHS. The book describes the situation, and asks what this means for democracy. I suspect it will be one of those books I skim read because this is exactly what's at the heart of Brexit.

I'm only just old enough to have a memory of how it all started but we have seen a gradual shifting of the state into private hands. We are told this is "free markets" when what it actually is is outsourcing. Now it must be said that I am no socialist. I don't really care who owns what too much so long as we get what we pay for. But we don't. Outsourcing is supposed to save money so we get more efficient public services so that we can either be taxed less or enjoy a greater variety of public services, spending the money some other way.

Except this is not happening. We are paying more in council tax for fewer and seemingly worse services over which we have no control. Take for example the picture above. Most people have ordinary wheelie bins outside their homes. A dear friend of mine, though has that contraption bolted to the ground outside her house. It stinks, it has become a dumping ground and it doesn't solve the problem it was designed to address. It just makes the street's problem her problem. It was put their without her consent, councillors cannot remove it and nobody is accountable for it routinely looking like a slum.

There was a time when the name of the district sanitation official was written on the side of the bin lorry. Not so now where you may ring the council to speak to some educationally subnormal drone who might enter your complaint onto a database somewhere only for it to be passed around and ignored if it even sees the light of day. And I can't think of any example which so perfectly encapsulates why Brits are so pissed off. 

So what's this got to do with Brexit? Simples. Everything. During the Blair era we so the continuance of this drift toward the corporatisation of government and we saw the quangofication of social enterprises and charities. What isn't regulated by the EU is then funded by the EU. It makes services dance to the EU agenda and if they want the grants to keep flowing, they must answer to the EU, not the public. 

If I wind the clock back to about 1998, I remember working as a database developer in a disability charity. In a short time I saw it close its high street charity shop (formerly a major source of funding). I saw it close its doors to community activity to become primarily a fundraising and grant chasing organisation. Any actual community work directly for disabled people went on the back burner. And by taking over some of the statistics gathering functions of social services it become a quasi-corporate enterprise with full time staff, most of whom performed administrative functions. I have watched the same happen to dozens of charities ever since.

And just recently I took a drive out with dad to our favourite walking spot. We have been going there since I was very young. Spurn Point at the mouth of the Humber. The land is owned by an EU funded quango. It has executives on handsome salaries but as yet there is no funding to repair the road washed away by a tidal surge. Incidentally, it's the road that connects the one full time RNLI station to the mainland. 

And then there's things like childcare. It used to happen on a community basis. Playgroups and cubs groups were commonplace. But then everybody suddenly become a criminal or suspected paedophile and everybody had to go on a database at their own expense. We saw the professionalisation of childminding which then meant registration, certification and real world adult wages. Soon after childcare become an industry and it ruled young mums out of taking part time work. If you work, you need expensive childcare. The response to this was another bureaucratic voucher system consuming vastly more money. 

This gradual appropriation and regulation of just about every facet of life has destroyed the voluntary ethos and in so doing has destroyed communities and made people entirely dependent on mechanisms of the state. Our welfare policy is an extension of this. The nationalisation of poor people. 

There are visible cosmetic consequences to this too. The park where I grew up now has expensive reinforced fences around the disused tennis courts, the park furniture is dilapidated, the pond is now a green swamp,  and the local primary school has a fourteen foot high fence around it with razor wire round the gutters. Meanwhile, should you attempt to clean up litter form the park you get a fly tipping fine. 

This really says something. It says that money is spent for the purposes of disposing of money (after all  budgets have to be spend), there is no consultation as to what people want it spending on, and those things people value are neglected in favour of those political agendas imposed from elsewhere. The fences also tell you something. Government mistrusts the people. The permanence and robustness of the security fences also tell us that the state is more interested in fencing things off than maintaining when sporadic acts of vandalism occur. That may mean savings for the council but it makes for a less hospitable park. It looks like Guantanamo Bay. 

They tell us this is for our protection. We can no longer have open spaces because things are supposedly more dangerous for children than they were when I grew up and people are less trustworthy. To a point, this is true when you are importing perverts and men who view women as property from the back hills of Pakistan. But hey, that's all cultural enrichment. Now look at our police force. They are rude, indifferent and dressed like paramilitaries. They are just footsoldiers of a massive occupation force serving vast areas and have no connection to the locality. 

Meanwhile we have council executives taking away salaries that far outstrip most salaries you see outside of the private sector. Golden hellos and revolving doors have been a permanent feature of local politics for as long as I can remember. I have observed this phenomenon for many years. Insult after insult while nothing is done about it. The backdrop to this in Northern towns is long disused mills rotting into the ground. They're not repurposed for industry nor are they converted to residential use. What matters to us rots. 

The problem is, on paper, on the spreadsheets of accountants and economists everywhere is that this all makes sense. The highly paid HR wonks insists councils need CEOs and the headcounts conform to this or that model - and the balance sheets show that KPIs are met and SLAs upheld. 

This was tolerated for the time just before the financial crash. We had just enough cheap chinese imports and access to cheap money not to mind the government pissing money away. Now though, the party is over. The mentality hasn't changed, the habits have not changed. Government is rearranged not to better serve the public but to make it more convenient for those who work within it. It is remote, soulless, impersonal and inept at handling anything out of the ordinary. 

A good system is measured not by how it handles the baseload of its work. A good system is measure by how well it copes with crisis and discrepancy. What we find when there are complaints is that the system closes ranks and puts you into the "fuck off loop" where your problem stays your problem at your expense. We have a total absence of functioning democracy. We have voting rituals but that does not affect anything in any meaningful way. 

Over the last three decades we have engineered a bureaucratised cage for ourselves where government no longer serves us. We feel it on the local level but it is part of a mindset exemplified by the EU. It is a system that believes government works better with less public intervention. It is part of a ruling paradigm in governance. 

Whether or not Brexit fixes this I really can't say. But as a gesture and a line in the sand, it is a big one and it does turn a corner. This technocracy is all very well in the creation of a sanitised single market where we can rely on the system to bring us ever cheaper high quality goods that we can buy with confidence, but there comes a point where everything is done of our protection whether we want protection or not. From the food we eat to the health choices we make. Contrast our supermarkets with those in the USA or mainland Europe. Everything is in cellophane under fluorescent lighting and everything has a barcode.

At this point you might well be thinking this is a litany of complaints from a Mr Angry, but all of these issues are in some way connected to a prevailing mindset in governance. The notion that people are there to be managed and coerced rather than governed. It is the idea that people are superfluous to governance and it goes to great lengths to exclude particpation. We no longer own it, we are not in control of it yet we are forced to obey it and forced to pay for it even when it does things we hate.

And when you look at things like the Waste Framework Directive or the Water Framework Directive or any number of binding constraints on government we see our hands tied in ways we can innovate in policy. Attempting to change local policy is futile because it is EU policy. It is completely unresponsive. Where the delineation between local government obstinacy and EU incompetence is I can't say, but all too often the EU is their excuse. They won't challenge the system because they don't want to. 

Meanwhile objections to this are written off and scorned as a rejection of modernity by stupid people who don't know what is good for them. And it's telling that is a very London attitude. London is a wealthy city and in terms of public services and facilities, for the most part, what London wants, London gets. London is constantly reinvented as it grows. All the while, Liverpool becomes our own Detroit and regeneration is just when the developers come to town to make cosmetic changes for a hefty reward. 

So when the great and the good tell us not to slaughter their favourite milk cow, the machine that underpins the status quo you can see why folks would vote to leave. An election isn't going to change anything but if anything can then it's Brexit. There is no undoing globalisation and there is no bringing the mines and shipyards back but nowhere does it say we have to tolerate being treated like cattle and be told what to do by London and Brussels. 

For a long time power has been draining away from the people. More so in Scotland where we have recently seen the amalgamation of Scottish police forces and the Named Person scheme. Down here in England we may be alarmed by Scottish illiberalism but we are not that far behind. We have already amalgamated our police forces to cover similarly vast regions and we fine parents for taking their children on holiday. We can now break a dozen laws just by leaving the house. 

Everything is touched by it. Every waterfront in the country is now plagued by identikit yuppie flats, turning industrial waterways into "urban marinas", every high street is the same, and everything that makes anywhere distinct is given over to corporatism. Brexit is not a rejection of modernity. It's as rejection of homogenisation. Brits are saying enough is enough. We want our country back from the mechanised system of government and the parasitic corporates who thrive off it and we want to be treated with respect. We want the right to say no to our government. 

Culturally, there is something deeply sick in Britain. Brexit is a matter of the soul. It doesn't register on any balance sheet and all the statistics show that everything is better but there's a massive gulf between what the metrics show and how we feel about the world around us. There is a feeling that nothing is sacred and we are not in control. If it takes an act of political vandalism to put things back on track then that is how it must be. All the cheap goods in the world cannot compensate for the intolerable lack of democracy.  

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