Monday, 29 October 2018

Time to let the mutineers take charge


Regular readers of this blog know I don't have much positive to say about pretty much anybody. That is my major malfunction. There are, however, some people in this universe worth listening to and Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, is one one of them. Today he writes in Prospect Magazine on London's profoundly negative influence on the rest of the country.

Collier speaks of an ideas deficit in modern policymaking. He outlines how UK policy is devised by what this blog general describes a spreadsheet sociopaths. "At the same time as the ordinary individual is reduced to an insatiably greedy ego, policy is entrusted to another species: selflessly disinterested Platonic guardians, the class of officials and economists trusted to steer society towards the best of all possible worlds".

This is a fundamental feature of the Brexit debate which rails against the dead hand of Brussels technocracy where, as Collier observes "Fundamental ethical concepts such as belonging, obligation and purpose are swept under the carpet. They count for a great deal with any rounded human being, but not one jot to rational economic man". If there is an essential divide it is between those who believe the UK is a home we are temporary custodians of and those who believe all concerns are subordinate to the economic and that Britain should essentially be run as a business park.

Such philosophical objections to the way public policy has been framed, says Collier, may seem a long way from the difficulties that have faced Stoke, Nottingham and Doncaster in finding a vibrant post-industrial future. But there is a connection.
The apotheosis of technocratic public policy came under New Labour, and it is easily summed up: let the City rip, and use the taxes to finance Benefits Street. That agenda never spoke to the anxieties of people living in failing towns, where bright young people are leaving, and a narrative of despair had set in. The approach was centred on means-tested hand-outs, which offered left-behind communities no hope of achieving independent prosperity. There was no dignity in the good times—and no security once the party was over. When the City blew itself up and the tax cheques fell away, those who had grown used to the hand-outs were subjected to painful retrenchment.
The shortcomings of substantive policy have only been filled by hollow popular politics. On the centre-right, we hear much talk about “strivers” but none about what, exactly, someone stuck in a post-industrial desert is supposed to strive for. Meanwhile, the centre-left seems to have given up—lapsing into nostalgic socialism and magic money. The latest Labour Party political broadcast spoke to the sense of despair in many towns, and promised to bring back “decent jobs.” But it was not accompanied by any analysis of how this might be done. For as long as that party’s MPs can win conference cheers by proposing general strikes about nothing in particular, it’s easier to imagine it wrecking those parts of the economy that still function than rescuing those that don’t.
This certainly touches on many of the themes of this blog in respect to the death of politics and modern managerialism - where Collier and I are of a single mind. I urge you to read the whole piece.

There is, though, that larger question of what is to be done. I am not sure I agree with Collier's proposals not least because calls for investment in the regions generally leads to quagocracy, state funded boondoggles and measures which are ultimately a patronising handout. Not far off what we are already doing and pretty much what remainers propose we do instead of Brexit - even though it did not prevent Brexit. You can seed a business park here and there but you can never return the reason for being to the former mill towns and the Valleys.

I could be fairer to Collier's ideas were I to give them closer attention - and I will leave it to you to ponder them, but what is interesting is that Collier describes Brexit as the Great Distraction. It could cost the country dear, says Collier, "but there is no point bemoaning it without understanding why it happened".
Brexit is a mutiny of the sans cool: it is not about the arcane details of relationships with the EU. Across Europe, leaders are facing equivalent mutinies. Regardless of the outcome, the underlying issues will rise to the surface. They will not be fixed in some all-night meeting room in Brussels. They can be fixed only by mapping out a new future for capitalism and the communities that it has forgotten.
The question to ask here is whether we would even be having the conversation were it not for Brexit. Had there been a remain vote it would be swept under the carpet very rapidly and by now we'd be back to business as usual as though there never were a referendum.

But Collier is indeed right; there is no point bemoaning it without understanding why it happened. I can very easily argue that the spreadsheet sociopath mentality, the decades long managerialism he describes is very much a consequence of our entanglement in the EU and very possibly severing those tentacles is a step toward repairing the culture of governance. Government by KPI and membership of the EU is far from coincidental. I take the view that if spreadsheet sociopathy got us into this mess then it stands little chance of getting us out of it.

I actually think it is going to take something considerably more profound and seismic because even if Westminster were capable of the kind of thinking described by Collier, London is still going to cast a long shadow and will inevitably always get what it wants and will continue to be distracted by its own myopic fixations. Here Collier's thoughts converge with my own once more. .
The agendas of today’s more egalitarian economists and the leftist lawyers are different, but they have two characteristics in common: they are set by highly-educated metropolitans, and neither resonates with the practical concerns of less-educated provincials. While they continue to fuss over their agenda of umbrage and outrage—the latest furores have been about transgender rights and reusable coffee cups—the great regional divide scarring society only deepens, unaddressed.
This is essentially the driver of the culture war that characterises Brexit. Our metropolitan luvvies are telling us northers that we're thick and racist while they're turning a blind eye to mass child rape and putting men in drag in women's prisons. There can be no resolution of the economic until we have sorted out the political and found a way to bridge the gulf.

Being that the values of the metropolitan "elites" are perverse and alien to the regions, it's actually better if the regions get to set their own taxation and spending priorities and are able to define their own politics. Meanwhile, Brexit pruning the City torpedoes the legacy Blairite policy of using it to fund "Benefit Street". Since the spreadsheet sociopaths don't have the answers, how about we give the power back to the very people who might? If Brexit is a mutiny then let the people take charge!

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