Friday, 2 December 2016
Brexit: austerity is a lazy excuse
Much though I have a special loathing for the Guardian I have a tolerance for John Harris. He has done something most of his colleagues have not done in a very long time. He has stepped outside the M25 and talked to working class voters. His short film is stylistically patronising, as though he were on an expedition into the hinterlands to meet the natives. There is something quite condescending about the man.
What we can instantly see, which should come as no shock to anyone who doesn't work for the Guardian, that leave voters are not a bunch of slobbering fascists. Harris though has typically sought to seek out evidence of the generational divide and the subtext is that the reasons people voted to leave were not connected to the EU. He paints Brexit as an inchoate gripe against modernity.
Owen Jones is probably giddy with self-satisfaction at the thought that neoliberalism and austerity is responsible for Brexit. It isn't though. If you go strolling through a backwater housing estate in the shires you may get a snapshot of working class disaffection but it's never going to give you a complete picture.
The one revolution which is as much a curse as it is a miracle is the internet. Small town retail has zero chance of competing and thanks to the internet, though we decry the loss of libraries, the footfall tells another story. And we cannot say that this is austerity at work either. There is still plenty of money sloshing around in local authorities, it's just a matter of who is spending it and who gets to decide what it is spent on.
All too often spending priorities are dictated by central government along with the methods and processes. This is why we have generously salaried council CEOs running the show and not councillors. Further to this, largely as a result of Blairism, most social activity has been brought under the mantle of government, bureacratised and then destroyed. What isn't vanishing into public sector pensions is spent on maintaining corporate style administration in the name of efficiency.
But when councils make efficiencies what they mean is they are making civic administration more convenient for them, removing humans from the process. This isn't austerity or neoliberalism. This is just what happens when we attempt to legislate our way to prosperity - so that everything becomes and entitlement and everything must be monitored and registered and everything. Heaven forbid people might be allowed to spend their own money and organise for themselves.
The consequence of this is that councils spend more on IT consultancy than they do on maintaining the street furniture and all the details that make a place not look like it is long abandoned. The lazy narrative of austerity just doesn't cut it. Notwithstanding the financial crisis councils are still massively richer than they have been at any point prior to the crash, and if they were capable of organising themselves (and at liberty to do so) then we would see a lot of priorities change overnight.
Half the problem is that the money is taken out of the neighbourhoods it is supposed to serve. We have police and officials who don't even live in their own patch and consequently miss the basics and things are left to rot. The local knowledge is missing along with the institutional memory.
And of course thanks to stranger danger and the constant fear that everyone is a criminal or paedophile the idea of communities organising for themselves and maintaining their own facilities fills officialdom with dread. Consequently nothing ever gets done and nobody is ever to blame. "Tory austerity" is the convenient scapegoat.
Leftists watching John Harris's film will conclude that the thick plebs have voted for more austerity and that their gripes have nothing to do with the EU. But of course behind all this bureacratisation is regulation and directive, all of which is way out of reach should community groups want to change them. We have a system of government that was designed to edit the people out of decision making. Managerialism.
The problem with managerialism is that it is remote and it is money hungry. Nobody especially noticed when councils had more cash than they knew what to do with circa 2003-2008 but systems like that are vulnerable to even the smallest of cuts and you can but your left arm that bureaucrats will cut playground repairs before they slash their own worthless nonjobs.
As far as John Harris's film goes, you might conclude that voters didn't really know what they were voting for. I don't think that's true since Harris has carefully selected his cast. My experience is different. But let's take him on his own evidence. What these people do know is that they want change and voting in elections hasn't made a difference.
As yet we do not know what changes Brexit will bring. What we do know though is that it will require a root and branch reappraisal of how we do things at every level and local and national governments will have to make some hard choices. That may mean more cuts, but that might be what it takes for people to start fighting back. When that happens our politicians will no longer have the lazy excuse that they are not allowed to change the rules. The power will be in their hands.
Broadly speaking, on the evidence presented, the direct links to the EU are subtle and well hidden, but the EU is a symptom of a mentality in government and the EU is a very visible piece of a large system of governance - and the supreme authority at the centre of it. Brexit is a big step toward shortening the chain of accountability.
For years now we have seen newly restored local facilities plastered with EU flag plaques telling us how the munificent EU takes care of us. These are largely facilities that should have been maintained as a matter of course and would not have been allowed to slip into disrepair had the power not been revoked from the people in the first place.
Above all, if we take the film as an honest piece of journalism, people miss the days where there was a sense of community pride and valued facilities were not allowed to slide into disrepair. There was a shared sense of responsibility for common property and local official were accountable by name. Now that we have turned local government into regional development quangos there is no longer that sense of ownership and working for the council is just a job like any other office job. Being a council official is no different to working in a Green Flag call centre.
In this you can argue that leaving the EU is not a remedy to this, and indeed you will get no argument from me. Brexit is the catalyst for a much longer process of reform and renewal. It is only the first step to taking the power back. Power must be taken back form Brussels and London and indeed the council offices of Sleaford.
The link between the EU and the gradual hollowing out of public life and the centralisation of power is not incidental. The tentacles of the EU have crept into every area of governance and it puts a straitjacket on our local authorities. From waste disposal to house building, we are not at liberty to innovate. That has caused a gradual ossification of government eating at the morale of councils and subsequently the people. Councillors are increasingly placemen resigned to the status quo and have become apologists for a dysfunctional system over which they have no authority.
Perhaps the gentle folk of the hinterland don't know what they have voted for and perhaps things will get harder for them, but they have voted against this rotten, lonely and sterile prison we have built for ourselves. The economists may say we are wealthier on paper but wealth is no measure of community and contentment. When you reduce people to the status of hapless animals to be monitored and farmed you can for a time create an environment where they are materially better off, but the dead hand of bureaucracy can never replace community. If you can understand that much you will understand the Brexit generational divide.
Community is something that is spontaneous and needs no planning form a central authority. It doesn't need health monitoring and diversity officers. Civilisation can run along perfectly well without it. We do not need our betters to rubber stamp every last thread of human activity. We do not need to nationalise compassion and kindness. If people are left to manage their own affairs they will manage. People do not want to live isolated lives fumbling for meaning in a world where everything is done for them.
For three decades public administration has been formalised, centralised and taken out of reach. It has reached critical mass and robbed people of their purpose and crushed their spirit. Not only does it not work, it also makes us poorer in the long run. Government is spending 45p in every pound without ever seeking our consent. That is the mindset in governance we must push back against. It starts with leaving the EU - and now we must go the rest of the way.
The assumption that Brexit is a result of "austerity" is the typical leftist mentality at work. It is the lazy assumption that we would not have voted to leave if only government would continue to firehose money at the public sector. That is the purpose behind John Harris's film. In order for the left to regain relevance they need to repackage their same old snake oil. We should call it out for what it is. Bullshit.